by Christopher Penczak
Magickal training can do some wonderful, wacky things to us. Experiences with the unseen help open us up, build confidence and self-esteem, and empower and heal. But there are side effects to the process that are not often talked about. In the three-soul model of consciousness, the lower soul is the bridge between the middle conscious personality and the higher soul, and it is often described as a child soul, animal soul, or vegetable soul. The truth those names point to is that the lower soul is primal and instinctive.
In the Temple of Witchcraft we call it the Shaper, for it takes what it is given and plays and shapes it like clay. Often the key to deepening magickal experiences is to get in touch with our inner Child of Promise through play. Children instinctively know the reality of magick, and many magickal exercises ask us to revisit the magick of our childhood—our favorite tree or place in nature, our imaginary friends, our first fears, and family folklore and legends. These things rekindle a magick within us. I often quote the wisdom of the beautiful High Priestess Lady Circe, whom I had never met in life before she passed, but whose work I know through her students. She was famous for saying, “If you would walk the witch’s way, observe with care the child at play.” There is deep magick in that poetic statement.
Practitioners of Witchcraft often create a parent-child relationship with the divine. We look at the primal goddess and god as mother and father; some enter into specific matron and patron relationships with specific deities. The deities of a coven or tradition might have a parental role. I think the essence of our childhood mystery and innocence can be found in the Orphic plate reading, “For I am a child of the Earth and Starry Heaven.” It is a guiding statement to the Greek afterlife, for we, as initiates of the mysteries, then recognize that our “race is of Heaven alone.” It is less about parentage than origin of consciousness, but it speaks to so many of us as children of the Earth Mother and Sky Father. Divine parentage can give us an opportunity to heal issues with our own genetic or adopted parents, to find the ideal that was lacking in all of our lives. No matter how great our parents were, they were not the gods. Yet that healing opportunity can bring about a lot of issues that are unforeseen and unexpected for your teacher of magick. I know I was unprepared for it and didn’t recognize the mechanics until an elder pointed it out to me.
The Teacher-Student Dynamic
All this childhood rekindling brings forth both the wonders and joy of magick and imagination, and the difficult wound and unresolved complexes of childhood, even with the best of childhoods. We often find ourselves unconsciously playing out roles we thought were resolved, but perhaps were not fully resolved. We find ourselves reverting to childish behaviors while living an adult life. In Eastern traditions, they understand this. A statement I heard from a Buddhist practitioner sums it up quite nicely. “The relationship one has with one’s guru is the most complex and difficult relationship in your lifetime.” There is recognition of both the personal and totally impersonal nature with a teacher, a guru. While it is always a struggle, Western practitioners of just about anything generally have a conscious or unconscious story about separation and blame. When we seek out magickal training, we are often looking for healing on a personal level, reassurance from a spiritual mentor or teacher. We lack the perspective of the impersonal nature. Ultimately it’s about the teachings—and the practice any individual puts into them—not the teacher. The teacher, while still being very human with their own feelings and story, is a place holder to transmit these teachings and hold space for these experiences. While personal relationships can and do form, that is a side effect, not the main point, of the process. That feels cold to the Westerner who in their spiritual quest confuses personal love with unconditional love, seeking to dissolve boundaries that are there for a good reason.
Invariably somewhere in the process, the student will enter into a period of projection, projecting ideals or blame upon the teacher, fellow students, and other members of the group. For those in a traditional coven setting, the High Priestess and High Priest can form a surrogate parental unit. In some covens, this is conscious and used as a part of the training. In many, it is not, and the less conscious of the mechanic the HPS and HP are, the more messy it can become. When it is held clearly, the coven is like the family, with people replaying (and hopefully working out) their bad childhood behaviors for the good, becoming elevated into spiritual adulthood with both the HPS and HP and ultimately with the gods themselves. Our adult parental relationships should be different than our childhood ones. Some stay forever in an infantile relationship with the divine, expecting the gods to fix everything instead of advising and working with them. Neither the Goddess nor your High Priestess is here to wipe your ass. You have to stand on your own at some point, just like with your parents and coming into adulthood.
I Wish That I Could Be Like the Cool Kids
In magickal schools—like the mystery schools that can be found in person or online, with long-term non-coven classes—rather than the family dynamic being replayed, it is the grammar-school-to-high-school dynamic that is recreated. We find roles of competition, issues with the popular and unpopular “kids,” fights, gossip, back-stabbing, and attention-seeking from the class, teacher, and community. It can be quite disconcerting to see people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s displaying adolescent behavior, but it happens more often than not. And they are often unconscious about it. It’s up to the teacher and the more-aware initiates to both hold a boundary and point out issues whenever possible.
When this process is done well, with the student recognizing the pattern and engaging consciously, it’s an opportunity to heal school traumas and reprogram awareness. When not, students simply recreate their past issues all over again and reinforce the story of their original wounding. People get stuck and become blame-oriented. Teachers can take it personally too, and I often ask teachers in a mystery tradition a question: does the high school teacher take the freshman’s anger personally? For a moment, sure, but in the big scheme of things, you realize the anger is not about you. During your career, you will have many freshman classes. Some you will have a great personal fondness for, others less so. Many won’t stick in your memory, but you strive to teach them all to the best of your ability and not remain personally attached to their own outcome. That is for them to decide and act upon, not you. It’s hard to do when that person is chronologically your peer or elder, but someone in the process of training is recapitulating childhood stuff. Treat everyone with respect, but keep that in mind. There are points of stabilization in the process, but active students are always going through stuff from the past as they heal.
When something happens that doesn’t cross a line of malice, harm, or deep ethical transgression, I have to choose to be amused by it as I would with a little kid vying for my attention or trying to outdo another student. If you’ve worked with kids at all, you’ll see this play out quite easily. My partner and fellow co-founder of the Temple Adam Sartwell points out the parts I miss, as he has a background in both psychology and working with children. Many child psychology strategies can be employed by a good magickal teacher. Extinguish bad behavior by giving it no energy or attention.
If someone confidentially shares something about another person with me in my role as their teacher or mentor, I ask them what their intention was in sharing that with me. Some want to vent. While I understand, a teacher is not the person you vent to about a peer. I don’t vent to my students; I vent my stuff to my family, friends, and perhaps fellow teachers. If they are asking me to do something about it, I need them to give me permission to discuss it, and for them to stand by what they say. Are they asking for mediation? Are they asking for resolution? Are they looking for me to take a side? Are they looking for magickal techniques to resolve the inner conflict? I need clarity, and my request for greater clarity stops most of these conversations. I encourage their peers who have difficulty with some sharing to do the same thing.
While we like to hold an egalitarian ideal that no one is higher or lower than another, that training is just a point of education, not anything of personal merit, we still have to hold appropriate boundaries. When you pay for a class, you get a class, not instant friendships. Those you have to work out on your own. Though many look down upon charging for education in esoteric study, I especially appreciate receiving my training that way when I observe my peers who did not.
My relationship with my teachers was clearly defined. I had no illusions about joining a family or tribe. The parameters of each experience were distinct and set. There were no blurry lines of unquestioning loyalty, no assumption of the conflicts of my new “family” externally or internally. Not everyone in a magickal order will personally love, personally like, or even get along with everyone else. But everyone active in a mystical order has to be able to put aside differences if we want to work together on a specific area.
Some students strangely believe that taking a class is an instant friendship ticket with the teacher of the class. It can be difficult to establish the boundary and say things like “we are not friends.” Even more complex in this day and age, you can have someone you had a prior relationship with as a student. They find themselves in your class, and you must determine which “hat” you are wearing “when” with them. I often announce it: “As your friend, I would say X, but as your teacher, I have to say Y.” People can have difficulty with the distinction. Many former students who graduate and go onward in community do become peers and eventually friends. It can be hard for a first-year student to see the difference between themselves and a fifth-degree graduate; it’s harder still to get into a situation where you have to point out the difference.
If you have an emotionally mature student who is struggling with their fellow classmates, you can share this metaphor of returning to grammar/high school and the recapitulation of childhood issues. Sometimes it helps them understand why adults are acting insane, but they will often fail to see how they are also participating in such behavior in their own, albeit different, way. I will see nods of agreement followed by an exhibition of sibling jealousy. I always try to throw in my own reflection process, especially the fact that we all can slip into immature behavior at times and must take responsibility for it.
Many will mistake their psychic and intuitive information as fact, and be totally wrong. Yes, Witches and empaths are often quite wrong while reading people they have a personal conflict with or who are in the midst of this unfolding childhood recapitulation with them. The responses are often like the raging of teenage hormones, but on a psychic level. I’ve had many students infer things they have “picked up on” from me that bore no reality to my inner thoughts or outer worlds. People have assumed that I have implied their status, good or bad, in the Temple and it was their hope or fear they were reading, nothing I was expressing.
When someone crosses a boundary, you often have to point it out and reset them. It can be done subtly or bluntly, depending on the person, but something usually needs to be said. Sometimes I err on the side of waiting until the person seeks to cross to the next area, as I’ve found people are not always ready to hear critical feedback in the moment, so I take it on a case-by-case basis. Some teachers assume being totally silent on an issue will help bring about conscious change, that the student will eventually ask, “What has changed? Why are things different?” While it can happen, it’s not super likely. Most students unconsciously working out issues will take silence as the mistaken assumption of approval and agreement. When something involves several people, I will sometimes make a general statement to them all, or to the entire class, to reiterate my point of view. People will still hear what they want to hear, good and bad, but such a statement sets a baseline to go back to if there is further disagreement or conflict.
Four Ways to Act for Teachers and Students
In the end, teachers and students can only strive to be their best. I look to the Four Treasures of the Witch, four points of agreement or contract with the elemental powers, to guide me in my work in community and in my life.
- Fire—Follow Your Passion: Follow your passion as it will lead you to your true purpose. Never work against your nature, as it will lead to your destruction. Be open to change, as change is the nature of fire. If I have to ask myself if a situation is distracting me from following my passion, I should let it drop.
- Air —Be Truthful: Be truthful in your thoughts, words, and deeds, for they are magick. Never give your word lightly, for there is magick in the witch’s word, and it will bind you to it. Breathe with intention, for where the breath goes, the mind goes. Am I expending too much mental energy on this or trying too hard to capture what was said to others? Then I should let it go.
- Water—Always Choose Love: Always choose love, as it will heal you, others, and the world. Never close your heart, for it will harden you to the joys of life as well as the sorrows. Flow with the currents of life whenever possible. And realize that unconditional love does not mean unconditional relationships. The cup is the boundary, and we need to maintain our cups and be discerning in how and when we pour forth for our good and the good of others.
- Earth—Be Responsible for Yourself: Be responsible for yourself, for only you can take charge of your own life. Never blame others for your circumstances, for that gives away your sovereignty. Be secure in yourself first and all other securities will manifest in your life. Am I taking too much or too little responsibility? Is it appropriate responsibility, or not really mine to take on? If so, I need to let it go.
We can only control how we react and respond to a situation and change our own behaviors and hopefully motivations. Community, coven, and school create a cauldron that holds the process to dissolve and reform, and we can hold those boundaries and offer those teachings with the highest consideration and ethics, but in the end, it is up to the individual what is done with those teachings. Much of the process, even of my students, is none of my business. Relationships between students is none of my business. I need to check in on the process, but I don’t need to micromanage or take responsibility for those relationships. Part of coming into spiritual adulthood is learning to manage your own relationships, conflicts, and problem solving without a lot of intervention from an authority figure. We each have our own journey and our lessons. We can continue to walk side by side, and we can continue to be reflections that ask us to stop and check ourselves and our own behaviors in the context of community, but we must put the teachings into action as we find our own way to spiritual adulthood.