Probation of the Seeker

Photo by Valentin Petkov via Unsplash

Photo by Valentin Petkov via Unsplash

by Christopher Penczak, Edited by Tina Whittle

A classic inner world function of the occult tradition is the period of probation. This process of scrutiny and examination happens again and again in deeper octaves, but the first time is often the most misunderstood. I know I misinterpreted it when I experienced it, and it was only with the perspective of years later that I could appreciate it.

Helena P. Blavatsky, a founder of the Theosophical Society (T.S.) wrote this about it: “There is a strange law in Occultism which has been ascertained and proven by thousands of years of experience; nor has it failed to demonstrate itself, almost in every case, during the fifteen years that the T. S. has been in existence. As soon as anyone pledges himself as a “Probationer,” certain occult effects ensue. Of these the first is the throwing outward of everything latent in the nature of the man: his faults, habits, qualities, or subdued desires, whether good, bad, or indifferent.”

When one decides to seriously study with a teacher, something rises up to challenge and that something is usually within us, but the teachers, fellow students, and cauldron of community become a type of mirror to examine it.

In later training, it manifests as ordeals and initiations of both formal ritual and education and the trials of life. The first time often lacks that context but is just as important. Today it might be equated with shadow work or fencing the dweller on the threshold as it was described in Blavatsky’s time, but I truly think in today’s work, those happen both later and repeatedly in the process. They deal more with the Underworld initiation or dark night of the soul. The probation is earlier and deceptively simple.

When you decide for whatever reason to say, “I am ready for serious study. I am ready for serious growth. I want to know. I want to serve.” or any variation of these statements, the powers of the cosmos and the powers within yourself rise up and say, “Are you sure? Is this really want you want? Are you prepared for what that could mean?”

The challenge manifests in many ways. You could have car problems that make attending the events difficult. Changes happen in your work schedule conflicting with your studies. Supportive family is suddenly no longer supportive. You experience friction with your fellow students or the teachers. They might say something that challenges you, makes you uncomfortable, or hurts your feelings, even though that was not their intent. You question if you should really be doing this? Is this all a sign not to do it? If you were “meant” to do it, wouldn’t it be easy? Shouldn’t it always be fun? Not necessarily.

The first challenge is to successfully discern if this a true message from wisdom to guide you away from something that isn’t right for you, or a manifestation of your own subconscious trying to sabotage you because it fears change. The third option is what sometimes get referred to as the Lords of Karma or Masters of Opposition, strengthening you with the tests, to make sure you are ready. Even if you can’t discern which is occurring for you, the act of will, deciding you want it despite the difficulties, is a supreme act of magick and a necessary ingredient for a successful magician, as this is not the last time you’ll be challenged.

A circle of initiates is both a place to gather and a boundary, and to pass the boundary, you have to show that you are ready. This is easier said, and believed, than done.

Even if our initial training doesn’t come with a formal examination or interview of motives before one begins, a period of examination begins. What we tell a prospective teacher might be what we sincerely believe, but we can be deluded. A teacher might recognize that immediately, but still see potential or you might fool the teacher who seeks to see the best potential in others or give the benefit of the doubt.

The period of probation is best described as a trial in all senses of that word. Occult learning can feel like a trial before a judge, sometimes having to explain your actions and motives in the quest of self discovery. Those who don’t know how to examine themselves easily and deeply are prodded to do so. How you respond to critique early on and with little things is a measure of how you will respond to the bigger awareness that is necessary to take personal responsibility of your spiritual evolution. Those who have difficulty will say they feel judged when they are really being evaluated. There is a difference between discernment and being judgmental.

The trial can be seen as a test, something to pass or fail, yet the truth of occult teaching is not so black and white. The majority who do “fail” this stage decide not to pursue it, that it’s not for them. Those who study informally first, with a friend, will remark how easy and fun that is compared to more formal training of a contacted tradition, and yet the depths of the teachings match the level of commitment. My first mentor was, and still is, a lot of fun. So I was shocked that the start of my serious occult education was not, and the mark of every great teacher I’ve had after that, from herbalism to Hinduism, challenged me in some way, pressing my buttons intentionally or more likely unintentionally. Often it happens as a natural process. As Raven Grimassi would say to me, “the ways have ways.”

A trial is also a trial period, a time to test things out like a rehearsal. Magickal and mediative practices are just that, a practice. As an art they take a lot of practice, and we live in a day and age where new students expect to get things right the first try. It’s a trial period for the group and for the applicant. What is often called the “outer court” proceedings are a time for both sides to mutually agree to go forward. The student always has the agency to stop at any time, but sometimes they believe that their acceptance by the group should be automatic and unconditional, simply because they want to learn. However, the group or teachers might not feel you are a match. The agreement to proceed must be mutual.

When entering into the trial of the probationary period, whether for the first time ever or simply with a new teacher, school, or group, keep these points in mind as you’ll be going through another round of examination no matter how skillful you think you are already.

Manifest Unconscious Patterns: The process will bring up unconscious patterns of behavior that can be detrimental in the path, so better to examine them now before going too far. If you don’t want to face them, now is the time to figure that out. You might have a different opportunity later on, often with a different group.

Resistance is Futile: The more you resist bringing things into consciousness—the more you react, deny, blame, or project—the harder it becomes. Embrace the process. When hit with something uncomfortable, reflect. Journal. Really examine reactions and deep motives. Ask yourself why. Reflect on past patterns when the same issues might have come up. Look at what is unhealed, and while the probation period might not resolve it, knowing where your buttons are before entering deeper training is huge to succeed and heal.

Do You Really Want to Do This? Do you really? Really? Why? If you don’t know, figure it out before you commit. You don’t have to do it. Most people don’t. This will be the first of many challenges, and while the rewards are great, you don’t have to do this, but once you really open the door, it’s incredibly hard to go back to your “old” life. There has to be a sincere desire. If you don’t want to be somewhere, you don’t have to be. I almost joined a cult in my youth. Were they? I still think so, but I might be wrong. In the end I didn’t want to be there, so I left.

It’s Me! While other people are catalysts, the probationary challenges are ultimately from ourselves. What am I seeing of myself in these challenges? People are certainly imperfect and troublesome, but if you think the problem is always with another person and their actions and you are blameless, you will have great difficulty embodying the “as within, so without” correspondence principle necessary for an occultist to evolve.

It’s Intense: While most people have their challenges distributed through the course of their life and still be quite unconscious about them as they move through them, this can be the first time of many when you are going to gather up and concentrate your shadows, karma, and faults to examine them consciously. It sets a pattern of discovery for what is to come throughout your life, intensely. A magician or Witch’s life is not necessarily meek, quiet, and easygoing. Magickal people are most often intense people. The study of Magick will be life changing. If it isn’t, something went wrong.

Beware the Ego: this period is also the time when it is most easy to walk away thinking you are superior, more knowledgeable, more compassionate, or more real than the group/school/teacher. Resistance to the probation period often manifests as ego, pride (because our pride can be wounded in the process) or a recapitulation of childhood patterns. I wonder if when I left the “cult,” was I in place of ego? They certainly thought so, and I can see why looking back on it. But in the course of my spiritual training, that was one school I left out of perhaps six serious teachers and periods of training in my life so far. If I left all before serious study, that would be on me. So perhaps it was a cult or perhaps it was just a bad match, but I know I can face a probationary period, which was spiritually different in each of those six times. The first is always the hardest. My first encounters with Laurie Cabot were humbling, but before the humility, there were some challenges, angers, and tears. And the beautiful part is she has little memory of that because it was simply her offering the teachings and not personal to her. Ultimately it was life changing to me.

With an understanding of the mechanics and these six basic points to guide you, you will be able to face magickal education is a clearer way and pass through the gate of probation.

For those studying in the Temple of Witchcraft, the probation period can be the time before formal study in the Mystery through training in the first and second degrees. They are the preliminary training, foundational basics where you learn to report your experiences and trust is developed. Particularly in distance learning, there is a challenge of rapport.

Once I had an online student say, “I feel you don’t believe me. You think I’m bullshitting you.” She was surprised to find out that I did, but it wasn’t personal to her. I’m looking for the signs of the authentic experience which can be wildly different in different people, but much like pornography, the definition is hard to pin down, but I know it when I see it. I think many students are bullshitting themselves so when they do it to me, it’s with whole-hearted sincerity. That’s why when they are called on it, they are shocked and offended, even with minor things. Those who take classes mainly for validation—which there still can be a lot of—can be upset and have to either adapt their paradigm, struggle, or leave.

Failure to go through this step can leave one unbalanced in the higher teachings. Occultism is not safe, in the sense that the forces we work with have the potential to alter worldviews, energies, and essences. Without context and stability, the changes can be ungrounded, destabilizing the student. We all go through periods of destabilization that lead to change, but we need the map, the formula, the pattern that brings it all back together.

With the foundational training, we can move through this early stage and be prepared for the deeper initiatory work—the shadow work or dweller on the threshold and the peaks of connection and union. If we have established an exchange that won’t be only validation, one with authentic evaluation and then true insight, healing and change can occur. We will have entered a new circle of education and partake in those mysteries.

Temple of Witchcraft