by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
Recently I read something whose author was taking a practitioner to task for doing “inner work” when the world so obviously needed “outer work.” The critique was a call against self-development and personal healing in favor of the community and the world. While I understand the sentiment, it also flies in the face of all that I know as an occultist and Witch.
The idea was that being self-focused is a privileged position, as many who are facing dire life-and-death situations cannot have the same focus, and our duty is to help them rather than get immersed in an egocentric sense of personal fulfillment. We should be immersed in activism, resistance, and politics, not meditation, therapy, or creativity. To worry about our own path, or the success of our own careers and relationships, is selfish. We can make our lives better by making other people’s lives better.
Even as a writer of what effectively boils down to “self-help” (though magick) books, I too cringe at some of the positive thinking books and courses out there. But I cringe because they address the symptoms—money, relationships, beauty, health, happiness—rather than the core of self. They are not getting to the inner reality, but instead address the desires and expectations, and if you are only addressing desires and expectations, then yes, I do understand this point. But through the true understanding of the core of self, we find the interconnectedness to all that is not self, to everything. Without it, we don’t have a true understanding on how our thoughts, words, and deeds really affect everyone and everything.
My foundational teachings were Witchcraft based in Hermetics, and the entry point to Hermetic teachings was the seven principles summed up in The Kybalion. I like to tell people that in focusing upon the Law of Attraction, you’ve both lost focus of its true heart and forgotten six more equally important ideas. There is the key concept known as the Principle of Mentalism that states we are all part of One Thing, within the One Mind. Another key concept is that of correspondence: “As above, so below.” The changes in one reflect the changes in the other.
The problem with focusing solely on either side of this equation is that it creates a fundamental misunderstanding of how they are both connected. Many people cannot change the outer world, and feeling failure due to the enormity of it all, withdraw and disengage. The desire to help needs to stem from an internal source. Often those escaping their own thoughts, feelings, relationships, and failures dive right into service, believing it selfless, but under those circumstances, it is actually selfish. Others dive right into their own feelings, thoughts, and problems, seeking to solve them. Some get stuck on the outer forms of success, but many go deep enough to find the authentic self, and the connection to all, allowing them to return inspired. Effective practitioners go through both cycles, eventually coming to the realization that they are the same, that working on the world is working on the self and working on the self is working on the world. I am often reminded of the teachings of a Seneca Nation elder, Grandmother Twylah, which were shared in a documentary directed by Donna Reed entitled Full Circle, part of a trilogy on Earth-based and women’s spirituality that was popular among the Witches of the early nineties: “I get a big kick out of people coming around and they’ll say, ‘What can we do to heal Mother Earth?’ Heal yourself, we tell them.”
The two are not mutually exclusive. We cannot hope to build a better world when we are suffering from our internal wounds. And we cannot hope to heal from those wounds without looking within. Likewise if we only put a window dressing to our internal imbalances, we will not create a balanced world. Both are required for success. Each person will have a different balance. And perhaps now is a time in the pendulum swing for the outer world to be more obvious and apparent. But that doesn’t mean the inner world goes away or gets put on hold.
We don’t yet live in a society that provides the foundational layers of the popular Hierarchy of Needs, proposed by Maslow but rooted in the Blackfoot Nation’s indigenous teachings. When we have a certain level of needs met ,we can then focus on self-actualization, which often leads us to service in the world. Many celebrities and musicians blessed with quick fame and fortune will suddenly have strange epiphanies and seek to help the world; those who don’t often become engrossed in ego and accumulation. Those who seek self-actualization often realize the interconnectedness and then go on to help others, particularly with the lower rungs, the safety net, of the hierarchy of needs.
It is in that spirit we pursue both inner and outer work in the Temple of Witchcraft. Meditation, healing, and personal spellcraft are essential foundations, but opportunities for service to the spirits, the people, and the land are also a fundamental part of the work of the Witch. Our ministerial “church” is divided into twelve ministries, each with three fundamental areas—an outreach, an intercommunity, and an esoteric aspect. We weave a web of support, mentorship, and service to the growing community, providing a place where seeking students can build upon what has come before, thereby learning to serve and minister to those who in turn are also seeking. Through our personal studies and service, we each find our own place, our own balance, between the two.