What is Real?

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

What is real? Your tradition is not real. Your practice is not real. Your coven is not real. Really? Not so long ago, I was complimented (?) by someone in the magickal community who uses their pedigree in British Traditional Wicca to question the legitimacy of others as Witches, denouncing their stories as “fake” even though the founders of their own tradition faced (and still face) the same cries of forgery and charlatanism. They complimented me on the fact that I am “real” and that if I made shit up, at least I didn’t try to make a fake story about it. While I appreciated the back-handed kudos for being direct and clear (at least most of the time), the conversation did get me to thinking about what is real.

Today there is a lot hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing around how “real” our traditions are, and a sense of betrayal from those who are deemed “fake.” As an occultist, I find it incredibly strange that finding out where something comes from could rob a personal experience of meaning. That makes absolutely no sense to me. But I guess it’s because my first and foremost desire is in the techniques, the technology of the magick. While there is art and culture to it, I want to look under the hood at how it works, if it works. As a former Catholic raised in dogmatic and patriarchal customs, I guess I had a sense of betrayal. How could a religion of love reject me as a homosexual man unwilling to confirm to their rules? Well, in retrospect, in a theology accepting eternal punishment in hell for disobedience, it was pretty easy to see that was coming, but it still hurt. And because I didn’t have a lot of direct experiences in Catholicism, I had no idea how to look to the underlying principle.

So when I entered Witchcraft, I vowed not to make that mistake. I assumed everyone was lying, or at least telling the story in the way that was most helpful to them and their motives. Thankfully I had a teacher in Laurie Cabot who taught that history is written by the winners and that things are not always what they seem. From her, I learned to take everything with a grain of salt, knowing it comes from a human perspective, and to do my own research on everything. So I did. I came to the conclusion that if I saw something—a repeated symbol, idea, or pattern in several different cultures and times—then perhaps that was a theme of the common human experience that could have value to me now. I started to collate ideas and concepts that ranged far and wide, and I gradually accepted them as “a” truth. I never got hung up on one paradigm or tradition. While I honor my teachers, I never fell into the cult of personality, of having my power stem from their blessing. Some people do, and they soon dress and emulate their teachers, thinking that is the secret. It’s not. My power comes from the inherent work and effort I’ve put into my own magick. And so does yours.

As someone looking for those shared experiences common to the human quest for meaning and understanding, I examine a variety of cultures, religions, and time periods for common themes. Are they the same thing? No. But do they share core characteristics that were shaped by the time, place, environment, language and customs of the people? Yes. It brings us into the difficult arena of appropriation and respect. Some find it disrespectful to make the comparisons, believing such things cannot be equated, and that comparative myth robs us of rich individual cultures. And they may have a point. If I were looking strictly for religion or religious culture, I would not necessarily compare, but I would seek to recreate and reconstruct things I have a direct connection to, a right to access.

But I’m not looking for that. As an occultist, I am breaking systems down to their parts and trying to figure out how the pieces fit (or how they don’t) into my practice today. I look for what is common, for what will now be shaped by my own time, place, environment, language, and customs. This is a process—a system of cultural exchange, study of the past, and personal gnosis common to the collective human experience—that has been going on for as long as humans have experienced magick. I don’t purport to be anything that I am not, nor take and use anything whole for personal gain to the detriment of others. I research, talk, question, experience, compare, and synthesize, as occultists have before me, looking for the wider meta-theory to explain the cosmos, consciousness, and our place and purpose in it.

As I grow in my own culture and community, and we gather together in common cause and build upon older ideas and create and recreate new ones, we move beyond the science and into the artistic cultural expression. As a mystery cult in the best sense of the word, meaning like-minded individuals gathered to experience the ineffable, we share culture. This is the vehicle to hold magickal technique. Ritual is art. Over time groups organically grow their own coherent internal symbol structure, mythos, story, and art, often rife with contradictions, a hallmark of any organic process. If it all works too neatly, too cleanly, there is no mystery. Some questions cannot be answered or explained, only experienced. Through this work I began to understand the difference between literal history and mythic history.

All religions have a mythic history, a meta-history explaining the great world with their own place in it. Some of it is based on literal events. Some of it is mythologized to fit a world view. Some of it is in the ancient past, and some of it is far more recent than many are comfortable with. But mythic history entwined with literal history helps us find and experience the magick. All religions and cults have had it. We can look to the claims of the second temple of Jerusalem and wonder how strong the proof is for the first temple. We can look to the stories of Christ and wonder why there are not more historic non-Christian accounts of this great leader. While Buddhism mythically has always been in Tibet, we know historically it was imported from India. The parting of the Red Sea? The resurrection? Enlightenment under a bodhi tree? There may be kernels of history there, but we cannot accept them as literal fact. Ancient civilizations were more accepting than we are today. Ancient people didn’t have tools like internet searches and social media to research and denounce potential falsehoods, so the mythic history grew to hold the perspective of the cult. More recent examples, such as the adventures of Joseph Smith and the founders of the Church of Latter Day Saints, seem ridiculous to many of us, and are often ridiculed, but talk to any practitioner or former practitioner of Mormanism, and you’ll find deep mystical experiences. As a magician, check out one of their Temples, and you cannot deny that something is going on in there, with their art and icons and geometry.

Out of all the religions, I think Buddhists have the best attitude in separating mythic and literal history. Rooted in the techniques, one is not dependent upon the other. For example, the Dali Lama can espouse the Buddhist mythos supporting Tibet’s origins, while also calling for more research into the migration of Buddhism into Tibet and recognition of the indigenous shamanic practices that existed in and were adopted by Buddhists until the country was culturally transformed. To the Buddhist, it matters not if there was ever a historical Buddha, or if his life created Buddhism in the way it is told. The details, while sometimes debated, are not fought over as a literal truth in the same way other religions do. Buddha is a state of consciousness, to be awakened to the true nature of reality. Buddha himself can be a distraction to the student finding their own awakening. As the famous Zen wisdom says, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” There is no Buddha, only Buddha nature expressed by individuals. Imagine telling that to a fundamentalist Christian. Now think about what that might mean to the Witch.

We can talk about the Burning Times as a way to express the sense of persecution that so many of us experience, particularly when we are new to the path and seeking empowerment, while also acknowledging the mythic truths that passed for truth in terms of the numbers and stories are just that, myth and not fact. But don’t let that swing you to a point of view that persecution against those perceived as Witches never actually happened, for amid those cases are several strange folkloric tales pointing to deeper truths. We can reclaim, or perhaps simply claim, words that express who we are, particularly if those words are not claimed by others. Even when there is confusion, to define our words and terms as we use them for clarity, we have the right to self-identify in our own spiritual quest. Words change meaning and use over time, which is why dictionaries often list multiple meanings for the same word in different contexts. We can talk mythically about a great peaceful culture before the patriarchy, as many myths have a time before time when all was at peace and union with the gods. It gives us hope and vision for a future, even if we can’t point to a time and place where it is true. There is still so much of our history on Earth we are ignorant of, and stories and myths fill those gaps. We can speak of sunken cities and consider the variety of flood myths and literal sunken lands that provide kernels of truth to the tales of Atlantis, and still not confuse these tales with verified, scientifically accepted facts. Yet all the time science is proving things that once appeared false, and scientific opinions can flip with new evidence. We can tell our stories for meaning and be soberly open to new facts without invalidating our truth and our experiences. As any good bard will tell you, something doesn’t have to have happened to be true.

A popular saying is that spirituality is having your own experience, while religion is belief in someone else’s experience, their account of it, as scripture. I used to believe that, but I’d like to see the definition of religion go back to its roots as a force linking us consciously with the divine, not unlike yoga yoking us to the divine in union, but as a former Catholic, I certainly understand the sentiment behind the statement. If you have a technique that offers experience, even after arduous practice and training, no one can take the experience from you, even if the teacher or tradition somehow “betrays” you. Teachers have clay feet. It’s natural to project so much upon those who mentor and teach, in life and even more so after death. Likewise such figures become targets of other projections, which can be true but are sometimes untrue, with vehement characterizations of actions and motives by people who were not there. If you weren’t in the room when it happened, you can’t really know what happened, and even in those cases where you were, perspective is a funny thing.

There are many things we will never “know,” and over time in community, you can see trends when famous figures are embraced, then vilified, and then embraced again in a cycle. Some get instant folk sainthood by the zealous. I know one fellow practitioner who died, and the stories told about him don’t resemble the reality I knew when he was alive. But I also know if you call upon him in circle and ask for help now after his death, he’s right there working with you, so there could be merit in his mythologizing. Likewise I know wise and loving practitioners whose contributions have been minimized and almost forgotten despite enjoying quite a bit of popularity and community success in life.

If the system or tradition has a philosophy that you can put into real practice, and you experience the benefit of it, then the teaching is good, even if the teacher is flawed. Look for teachers who emphasize the timelessness of the teaching, and who, whenever possible, try to take themselves out of the story of the teaching. Sure, claim your sources and be truthful about how you got the teaching, but emphasize the teaching. Personality is just a vehicle to transmit the teaching. Charisma is a tool, not the goal. Then it doesn’t matter if you got a “grandmother” story with it, a term referring to the reported fantastical initiation of Alex Sanders by his grandmother. If the teaching brought results, it is sound.

We seek verified psychic experiences to know we are getting results. We do spells to shape our reality to see the results. And we build relationships with spirits and deities, and ultimately with ourselves, because such relationships result in a fundamental shift in worldview, paradigm, and consciousness. With such experiences, it matters not if your tradition or teacher is “real.” Many of the best myths in our Craft involves tricksters, tricking us out of what we were so certain of to see things in a whole other way.