Saturday, June 24, 2006

Magick: Operant Versus Psychological

One of the primary concepts you will see mentioned here often is the idea of operant magick. While the subject is involved enough that I wrote an entire book about it, understanding how I use the term will help you understand how I design rituals. The word Operant is adapted from behavioral psychology, in which Operant Conditioning is the term used for the reinforcement of a behavior according to some statistical schedule that increases the likelihood of the behavior being repeated. It refers to the use of magical practices to influence the likelihood of certain conditions arising in the world - that is, operant magick is magick that directly influences the physical world without working through the intermediary of the magician's attitude or behavior.

Ritual magicians tend to fall into two camps, which I term operant and psychological. Operants believe that it is possible for fixed thought and intention to influence the physical world directly, while psychologicals believe that all of the effectiveness of ritual magick can be explained by a combination of psychological factors. I'm an operant, in that I believe direct influence is possible and have seen it in action. The operant perspective is the more open of the two, in that it recognizes both psychological and operant components of magical outcomes. The psychological perspective, on the other hand, rules out any operant components and has much in common with materialistic skepticism.

This is not to imply that psychologicals do not believe in the effectiveness of magick. Mastery of magick in the psychological realm is by no means without value. Imagine if you could edit your memories - we are shaped to a significant degree by our experiences, and being able to, say, simply eliminate traumatic memories from the mind is a powerful method for shaping your current life. Biofeedback has shown that mastery of the mind also confers some control over physiological processes - Indian yogis can slow their heart rates and breathing, and Tibetans learn to generate increased internal heat so that they can more easily tolerate their native climate. Motivational psychology has been shown to be highly effective in some situations, and magick is similar but better.
One might think being able to do such things would be enough for me, and indeed it would be. The trouble I have with embracing the psychological perspective is that in my own practice I've seen a lot more.

I mentioned in my article on Hermetic Metaphysics that the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory has found evidence that intention can influence probabilities in the material world. The probability shift is tiny, ranging from .01 to .05 percent depending on the subject, so one might conclude that while the shift may be real it is too small to be useful. Without magical training, I tend to agree, but with training and aptitude I believe that those probability numbers can be increased substantially.

Magick is like a martial art for your mind. It trains you to fix thought, manipulate symbols, and visualize forms. Doing it well requires some amount of inborn aptitude, just like becoming a Karate champion or professional athlete, a lot of training, and constant exercise. One of the big problems with the way some writers talk about Western esotericism is that the system is seen as a sort of ladder and once you reach a certain point you can stop doing basic work such as daily practice.

This is a belief that produces a lot of psychologicals, because operant ability requires constant exercise. With my current practice, I find 3-4 sessions a week are sufficient to maintain my ability to influence probability. Anything less and the ability slowly drops away like an underused muscle. New Agers come at esotericism from a radically egalitarian point of view, something to the effect of the belief that anyone can have realization and once this happens you should just be able to do magick without really working at it, but this idea has never made any sense to me. It would be like me saying that with enough practice I could become a professional football player (which is just plain silly - I'm short, not particularly strong, and have asthma, all of which are part of my genetic makeup) and then simply quit exercising and expect to maintain the same level of conditioning.

A really good way to rate your operant ability is to play Powerball. It sounds silly, but I'm completely serious. First of all, maintain your daily practice. This is the foundation of all your abilities, and I will address good daily practice sets in another posting sometime soon. Once you have that down, put together a ritual with the intention of winning the jackpot. Buy a quick pick ticket, perform your ritual, and see how well you do. Buying tickets and performing the ritual over time will give you an experimental group. You will also want a control group, in which you would buy a ticket but would not perform the ritual. After you have two reasonably large groups, compare them and see if there is a difference.

This is what convinced me that there was more to magick than psychology, incidentally. When I do a ritual I always get at least one number out of six and sometimes two. My personal best is four numbers, which was one of the trials from the experimental group. Since the odds of getting one number out of six with a number range from 1 to 60 is 6 chances out of 60 or about 10%, I shouldn't be doing nearly as well. This pattern has kept up for many years so I have a hard time believing it is just a statistical fluke, especially since in the control group my results are seemingly random and match the odds due to chance. I have gotten the best results with invocations of the Sun and of Jupiter, which seem to be about as effective. One magician online claimed that he got the best results with Mercury, but I found that breaking down the experimental group Mercury did not do quite as well.

I highly doubt I'm ever going to win at Powerball simply because of the probabilities involved - the odds of winning are about 80 million to one against and that's one heck of a probability shift. On the other hand, I've made a profit playing even though half of my entries are in the random control group, and if magick is indeed the ability to shift probabilities then essentially it is the power to summon luck. So you never can tell. If I win, folks here will certainly be among the first to know and I'll even post my ritual.

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