I’ll Know It When I See It 

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

“What exactly are you expecting?” a friend and colleague asked me. We were discussing my discomfort with a student going forward in our Witchcraft training program. Sadly, my response went back to the less-than-helpful-wisdom of “I’ll know it when I see it.”

Magickal training is such a unique process. You can provide similar information and experiences, and no two people will process it the same. And even in the range of honest-to-goodness real examples of doing the personal and interpersonal work of a mystery tradition, there will always be those who are consciously or unconsciously not doing the work, faking it on some level. One of the hardest problems—and one of the biggest reasons not to do this kind of esoteric work via mail correspondence back in the old days or online today—is that distance makes faking it much easier. You have to reply on self-reporting. I struggle with it still. You want to accept people at face value, but when words and actions don’t match, there is a problem.

Some people are self-delusional. They cannot self-assess easily. While difficult, I prefer the self-delusional because more often than not, there is always the hope of the breakthrough. I’ve seen it many times. While we assume self-delusion comes from grandeur, it can just as often result from doubt. I’ve witnessed many a pessimistic student do amazingly well and yet be unable see their own progress when self-assessing.

The flip side is those students who are not doing so great, but who think they are amazing, natural prodigies ahead of everyone else in their class. Perhaps they are, and I’m not spiritually evolved enough to see it, but I don’t think so. The people who are far along the path don’t have to spend a lot of time convincing others how great they are. Their demeanor and presence express that progress, and that is the essence of “I’ll know it when I see it.” People who continually express their greatness usually draw strong and unflattering responses from their peer group, mentors, and community.

Then there are those who are consciously aware they are not doing the work. They either think it’s beneath them, that they have already done it, or they know they can’t do it. And they consciously tell you what you want to hear, but it doesn’t ring true. Eventually you catch onto the deception, usually through their behavior and not their words. The lessons they report doing haven’t integrated. Perhaps they did do them on a surface level, as a way of avoiding the cognitive dissonance of lying. They believe they are being truthful, as they technically “did” the work, but they are not putting the lessons into action in any meaningful way. While learning can take time to integrate, there are always indicators, struggles and conversations that show good faith in the process. When those are absent or seem contrived, there is a problem.

And there are those who are out-and-out lying to get what they want, and they know it. But they think they have you fooled. These are the folks I have a much harder time with, and I have to admit, that while distance makes such deception easier, I’ve been fooled at times in person. Such challenges can be alleviated when the teachers are also deeply introspective and consistently ask self-interrogatory questions: “What am I not seeing?”; “How can I teach this person in a better way?”; and “Is this student triggering my personal stuff? Am I projecting?”

Sometimes undiagnosed mental illness can thicken the mix, making it even harder to understand what is occurring. I’ve mistaken undiagnosed personality disorder for obsessive-compulsive tendencies before, and only when it was pointed out to me by a mental health professional did the arc of the experience make more sense to me. Often, however, deception has no major psychological component and is simply selfishness and greed; there is little help in those situations.

So what am I expecting? I expect, over the course of time, to see an embodiment of the principles of the work. That is the mark of doing the work, not just the words. I expect changes in behavior and communication that indicate an evolution in awareness, a sincerity and heart that shines forward and illuminates their actions.

It’s not always a progressively upward curve. There are behavioral peaks and valleys in the initiatory process. Teachers can recognize the ego zones of students who feel they have grown too good, and either they have a humbling experience with you, a humbling experience without you, or leave for the brighter fields of ego delusion. In a successful process, there is a natural dissolution of hard boundaries between teacher and student for the softer boundaries of peers, and many students in those valleys of difficulty seek to dissolve those far before they reach that point, becoming too familiar too quickly.

When a student is doing the work, these are fairly short lived phases. If they remain stuck in one of these egotistical or destructive phases for too long, there is a problem. It usually indicates one who is not doing the work, who cannot navigate these hard places by integrating the lessons. Sometimes the student will go away, explore something else, and have a family or career shift, all of which can provide a needed sabbatical. And sometimes they return changed and integrated and ready for the next thing. But other times, the time away is only a distraction, conscious or unconscious, and the return is an effort to wipe away the past and return with a seemingly clean slate without having integrated anything at all.

Each lesson can trigger a deeper phase, and no one can do the personal work for you. Teachers can mentor. We can offer technique. We can share lore. But in the end, each student responds differently. Sometimes difficult lessons for you will be easy for peers, and then vice versa. Simply checking off the boxes as “complete” doesn’t do it. Even in an online school, where checking off the boxes provides a measure for completion, it also serves as a means for triggering processes and having conversations. We can then more easily go back to a problem, point to a previous lesson, and say, “Have you tried drawing upon that to help you?” Anyone can forget, as there is a lot of esoteric technique, but the one who has done the work will quickly pick up the tip, while the one who hasn’t will A) be bewildered and unfamiliar with the suggestion; B) give you lip service that they already tried that, but offer no details; or C) try to redirect the conversation away from their problem.

We most often have the rule of “firsthand accounts only” when having a problem in our community—no anonymous hearsay. If there is a complaint, the person with the complaint must bring it forward. And often those not doing the work will be the loudest in community, placing themselves at the center of swirling controversies in order to get attention or feel important. Even with our firsthand-accounts policy, if a number of people normally not involved in any drama bring us secondhand accounts of concern, all about the same person, it’s often time to ask some direct questions if we can, or at the very least, be mindful and observant. Community can be the container to work through issues and problems. I don’t think a problem or conflict is something to be avoided at all costs. Drama, yes, but conflict, no. We learn through conflict, even when it’s unpleasant, as long as we have guidelines for resolution and restoration. Conflict can be a part of the initiation formula, and we together hold the container of community for each other to have a place in which to experience those lessons in a magickal setting. I’m not a big believer in the idea of universal tests to pass, but I think an important aspect of life—and therefore magickal initiation—is struggle and confrontation, and how one handles such things is part of the magick.

Borrowing from a psychological model, I think esoteric magick, training, and initiation work in a fashion similar to modern models of psychological change. When we learn, we have peak experiences that draw us out of the ordinary. As we consistently practice and do the work, we start to move our baseline closer to those peaks and learn the life skills to navigate those new levels of consciousness. We create a plateau. With enough testing, challenge, and practice at the plateau, our consciousness stabilizes into a permanent new change. We are mutated in our consciousness, yet we have simply created a new base line for a new peak. We are never, ever done. Permanent is not permanent, but ever evolving. While I might not always favor the higher-equals-better metaphor, it shows the ease with which one can suddenly and violently fall from a peak or plateau. Our movement must be measured, guided, and reasoned if we seek to avoid a fall. Some small tumbles can be quite educational, with the group, tradition, and training preventing you from falling too far when you do slip, but we have to avoid those people who take down everyone else with them. Like mountaineers tethered together, a group can either save one member from great harm, or that one person can be the weight that takes them all down. It all depends on how you handle yourself and how they anchor themselves.

Everyone expresses this process differently, and beautifully. I do know it when I see it. I know it when I feel it. I know it when we talk together and share. I know it when it shines through in the actions of a student, peer, and friend. And you will too. Living it is the only way to embody it, and when you live it, there is no question, even among those who might disagree with your methods, personal choices, or aesthetics. Initiates of all traditions recognize each other (assuming they honestly assess) as it’s not about the specific ritual. Adepts of all traditions know one another, for in truth, they belong to the same meta-order. Masters of all stripes accept one another, even while on different paths. So look for your fellows. See the wisdom. Know it when you see it.