Seeking Mastery

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

“Mastery” is such a tricky word. Does anyone ever truly master anything? Is there not always room for improvement? Is there not always some force beyond your control? While many would define mastery as control over or superiority over another, when we are talking about true mastery, we mean control over the self and superiority to what you once were. Your only rival is the work you did yesterday, as you seek to go further and deeper in your chosen field. Those who have applied this ethos become recognized as skilled.

I often relate the word master to magister, a term popular in today’s revival of “traditional” craft, and at its heart, be it ancient Rome or a medieval university, a magister is a qualified teacher. I also think of the great confusion of the title in our modern metaphysical world of Reiki Master, meaning Reiki Teacher, or one who is qualified to pass the teachings and initiations of a Reiki lineage. Many mistakenly equate Reiki Master with spiritual, enlightened, or even ascended master, and feel they have “arrived” and have no further need to do any personal or professional spiritual work. A true master in any craft knows there is always refinement and exploration. Otherwise, what would be the point?

A master is one who is not only qualified in their field, but also hopefully passionate about passing on their craft, including both the traditions they learned as well as the hard-won knowledge that comes from doing, so the next generation can take the learning further and become even more skillful. For those in a paradigm of superiority and control over others, such sharing and mentoring will never happen, but those confident in their art and practice are not fearful of losing a part of their identity; instead, they want their vocation as a whole to proceed to its fullest expression. It can be difficult to get there and personally feel this all the time, which is why any aspiring master must continue to rigorously practice.

While the Temple of Witchcraft is a religious organization, welcoming and accepting of those who seek to learn or who already identify with the teachings and culture of Witches, Wiccans, Pagans and wise ones from other esoteric traditions, the heart of the tradition is the teachings from our school. The religious organization provides a support structure for those learning to put their skills into practice within community, because community, with all its blessings and failings, then becomes a mirror to see ourselves in our own process, recognize our flaws, and work towards greater skill and mastery. Our desire is to help those students gain the knowledge and experiences to become adept and walk a path towards mastery, as most esoteric schools do. We know we can only take a student so far, and that mastery comes from their own unique experiences and expressions. We hope to provide a framework that balances enough of the discipline and traditions with artistic and creative flexibility, creating a place for personal gnosis and holding it all together in a structure of community where service is a shared value to whole process. This way we can hold it for future generations to use, experience, and contribute to again.

One of the critiques we get in this process is that we move too slowly. We start with lessons that are too basic. There is not a fast track for the talented. And even when there is, it’s not quick or fast enough for some. And that is purposeful, so when I hear the critique, I know we are doing what we set out to do.

While these are difficult, often fast-paced times, there is value in slowing down, truly immersing oneself, experiencing beginner’s mind, and being fully present. We are often not fully present when we are moving quickly. An advantage today is that so much information and philosophy on magick and Witchcraft is available easily to anyone. And people devour it, which is good. But they don’t often digest it. It becomes magickal mind candy, spiritual junk food, even if the teaching is deeply rooted in wisdom. They read and equate reading with expertise. Some will practice it, perhaps very intently, for a very short time, then assume mastery and move onto an often unrelated topic and repeat the process. There is no integration. There is informational education but no progression, as most systems are designed to develop the occult anatomy to handle greater levels of energy and consciousness. It’s akin to working out with no rhyme or reason to exercise and diet and expecting to be a world class athlete, or taking a martial art and expecting black belt status by learning a bunch of unrelated moves from different systems. This is a quite different situation from one that involves really sitting with and experiencing a technique from every angle through regular, consistent doing.

In fact, I find the black belt analogy the best for me, as martial arts progressions are not unlike the levels of spiritual initiation. And like many marital arts students, we get caught up in attainment rather than process. Degrees, ranks, and titles become more important than the experience and integration of the work. Some get their certificate, their cord, and move onto the next challenge, the next system, not really doing anything with what they originally learned because it was not integrated. Soon, they seek to contribute to the flow of information, often regurgitating half-digested truths and sharing their perspective of the present moment instead of the hard-earned wisdom gained with time, work, and reflection. We have instant experts on everything. We then find a field of people assumed to be blackbelts, speaking about what it’s like to be a blackbelt, without the strength, speed, stamina, understanding and wisdom of the blackbelts that have come before them. The previous blackbelts, who recognize their own across traditions, look on a little bewildered. From there we have new leaders and teachers who might be able to speak eloquently about the history of a topic and current opinions, but who can’t magick their way out of a paper bag. Such people have not established the personal foundation, balance, and awareness that might behoove a seeker, let alone a new expert. Those who have reached adepthood, however, will not only experiment personally with new ideas for quite a long time, but also test the technique and ideas with other trusted practitioners, then novices, to make sure the technique is universal and not simply personal before sharing it with the general public.

So like the simple moves that become the foundations for complex series of defenses and attacks, revealing the underlying symbolism of the martial philosophy, we move slowly with simple moves. We ask experienced practitioners to approach with beginner’s mind. We don’t forbid you from studying anything else, but if something else captures your attention and you move on, unable to do both, we bless you on your way. It is easy to get distracted not only by the bright and shiny, but the dark and scary. When they are not deeply applied to inner transformation, both can be useless, despite the very different outer forms. There is a movement that values aesthetics over true art. While beauty and expression are very important, they should stem from a process within, expressing something genuine, rather than simply providing an outer veneer to the latest fads. Occult communities do go through fads, and if you’ve been around for long enough, you see the rise and fall in popularity of particular cultures, goddesses, and techniques over short periods of time. The internet makes the process that much faster.

There is also a movement of constant validation in the very bright and very dark, where one seeks to only confirm what is already believed. If that is your only motivation for learning, you have missed the point entirely. Too often those seeking, myself included when I began the path, come from a place of low self-esteem and disempowerment, and the articles, blogs, books, and teachers that simply affirm how wonderful you are already are very enticing. Of course you arewonderful as you are, but the process to truly understand and integrate that understanding is yours, and it cannot be given easily by another. Validation can be addicting when we have few other sources of approval, and no sense of internal approval, but the true process is catalyzed within and moves out from there.

The structure, discipline, and apparent rules of the lower levels give way to deeper freedom, flexibility, and open-ended, self-chosen challenges once we know the foundations are in place. We enter into the order of sister/brother/otherhood that provides both mutual support and mutual challenge. We often say you need to know the rules to break them, in the same way that avant-garde musicians are often well-versed in the classics. Rather than repeatedly reinventing what has come before, we root ourselves so we can take it further. I remember as a self-taught musician when I “discovered” the 7th chord and was so excited, not realizing it was a fairly basic idea. Studying music with professional educators helped widen my palette of choices when I wrote and deepened my understanding of the line of musicians and musical history that I was participating in now.

Much of what we do can seem like “basic Wicca” because in this day, many savvy practitioners in voice and knowledge lack the fundamental basics of successful spellcasting, psychic ability, and meditation. While our heart is on the mysteries of magick, doing successful operative magick and experiencing verified psychic experience are gateway mysteries. They can ground us from mystical delusion and religious fervor further down the path. Those simply seeking religion, and the validation of a religious community, don’t need to practice the occult arts. And that is fine. But someone with that philosophy should brand themselves as a practitioner without practice. While some are naturally gifted, savants in other arts, they often cannot easily transmit the teaching to others because it comes so naturally to them. To find mastery, most of us have to pick a general path, dig a well, and make the time for progress, even in the times when it feels boring. Any of us who have put the work into our craft have developed lifelong skills, even if we have given up ambitions for that art. Those of us who have had piano lessons and practice our scales and exercises can often still pick up a piece of music and play it without much effort. Older athletes engage a muscle memory, and even out of shape, can have greater success due to the previous hours put into their sport.

Like slow-melting ice, the constant work prevents it from refreezing and leads to a breakthrough. Haphazard work can lead to the illusion of breakthrough. If you look at most occult and esoteric traditions, this is what divides the future adept from the dabbler and leads to greater mastery. We seek to increase those who in their own way, in their own time, and with the support of tradition and community, come into their own mastery and share what they have learned so we can all grow further together.