What Now? Putting A Practice Together: Part 1

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

Photo by Christopher Penczak

“Do this five minutes a day, and you will be free from cancer.”

“Perform 108 repetitions daily, and you will never have heart disease.”

“Recite this mantra daily to be in tune with the universal powers.”

“Repeat this stretch twenty-one times daily to keep your spine flexible.”

These were instructions I received from one of my yoga instructors, passing on wisdom from their instructor. Did you know I almost became a yoga teacher just as I was beginning my esoteric professional career? I started in Hatha/Kripalu Yoga and made my way to Kundalini Yoga, and while I found the practice deeply transformative, the community was wrapped in dogma and dominant personalities, resulting in me going my own way and flirting with Vinyasana in my own practice of yoga today, though nothing quite matched the magick of Kundalini.

The teachings were filled with instructions of what you were supposed to do daily to prevent harm or generate benefit. If you added them all up, it was quite a list, and this was on top of the daily kriya, or yoga set, a teacher in training was supposed to do, usually close to forty minutes of yoga followed by fifteen to thirty minutes of chanting. I challenged my local instructor and said unless you lived in the ashram, how could you keep your daily life and all these practices? She replied that you can’t. And that began a discussion on how one must build their own practice together after learning initial trainings. Her words of wisdom guided me not only in yoga, but in Witchcraft and really all of life.

In talking to my Witchcraft mentors and teachers later in life, this was something that was inherent in occult teachings. Rarely is it spoken about unless a student asks a question, but the struggle of figuring it out was considered part of the training.

If you study a robust tradition with many practices, you’ll go through a series of rituals, meditations, alignments, and exercises as a part of your training. Some are peak experiences that you might not repeat until you help facilitate them for another new student. But most of them are meant to be repeated, to become integrated as a part of your practice. But how can you do them all?

You can’t. Everything that I tell my own students is a daily practice during the course of five-plus years of training cannot be done daily all together. Some are meant to work together, and some do not work well together. The graduate, at any level, must determine for themselves how to put it all together, crafting their own practice from the parts they feel most benefit them at the time, and most of us change our practice over time. Some change it daily, others weekly, seasonally, or yearly. Some are spontaneous and free with it, following daily intuition. Others are rigid and disciplined, with planned transitions. And most are somewhere between the two.

There is the danger you’ll pick only things that are easy or flattering, and either become egotistical, thinking you have done it all, or bored, and lose interest in practice at all. There is also the danger you’ll be heroic and pick the most involved and grueling practices, and then become discouraged or grow to hate the Craft. There can be a balance, and that is part of the teaching. The choice — and the responsibility — is up to you.

Magick is an art as well as a metaphysical science and a spiritual, religious practice. The artist must create and cannot grow stagnant, but there is an idea in the deeper arts training — be it writing, music, or magick — that you must learn all the rules perfectly before you break them.  Art can take many years to gain expertise, but that doesn’t mean you can’t practice or innovate until you have that expertise. On the contrary, you must create! That is part of the process.

We train to learn the structures, the foundations, and our history, and from that place, we can go further and develop what is next, grown from our own regular practice and the inspiration that comes from it. Those who teach and write unique things are ideally drawing from their own practice of it, but beware in all such crafts the attitude of “one and done” and really examine your motivations for studying and practicing. Have they changed since you began? For most of us, they do, as our understanding expands.

A very good friend who is trained as a Shakespearean actor, a lawyer, and a black-belt marital artist compared the three in a conversation with me, saying that essentially they are all the same in practice and pattern. If you haven’t been doing something diligently for 50 years, don’t dare to think you’ve mastered it and are done. The layers of subtle knowing and experience open in the sincere and open-hearted practice. As someone who has been doing her primary craft, law, for close to twenty years, she realizes that she understands enough to fully realize how much more she really needs to learn. While law might seem black and white to most of us, she describes the art in the crafting of contracts and the interpretation of law. She says the same goes for acting and for martial arts. And we both would agree the same can be said about magick. A thorough grounding in the technique and context gives rise to the truly inspired art. There is a union of the flash of the numinous from beyond into the matrix of the art, whatever it is.

People’s motivations are not always clear, even to them. Some learn to find community and belonging, and don’t care much for the art beyond the cool aesthetic. Some join because their peer group joins, and they fear being left behind. Many think it’s glamorous and enjoy imagining how others perceive them. For some it is a contest against others, not of the self. Many attain a level of outer accomplishment, be it black belt or initiation, and then drift away, believing they have accomplished “it.” Some seek the easy “A” rather than the desire to learn it all. I remember being flabbergasted by a student complaint that I was too “hard” and had too many expectations of my students, that other teachers, even in our tradition, were “easier” and expected less. It wasn’t fair, the student decided. I saw his situation as an opportunity to study with the teacher who literally designed the program and had the most experience teaching it, providing graduates with a deep and wide range of experiences because of my own. However, many students — having realized the work required for deep art in the context of a tradition — make such complaints as a way to ferment dissent and manufacture crisis and drama; this provides an escape hatch for themselves, allowing them to feel good about leaving rather than face the fact they don’t want to do something. But not doing something you don’t want to do is perfectly fine. Not all arts, and not all programs, are for everyone. We see it in theater groups, dojos, and yes, even Witchcraft groups and schools.

For many, the highest motivation is service. Like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, we are servants “of the Secret Fire…” with the sentiment shared in the Dion Fortune lineage embodied by the Servants of the Light — “I want to know in order to serve” — and in Gardnerian High Priestess Patricia Crowther’s autobiography High Priestess, where she espouses the mystery: “I wish to learn in order to serve.” Knowledge and training are put towards the service of “light,” of “humanity,” and one learns to becomes the light in order to serve. It’s not about servitude, but transformation, and the realizations that come with such transformation.

Whether you are done with a specific training entirely or are pausing at a completed level, you then have to ask yourself “What now?” Now that I have the knowledge, how do I put it into practice? How do I adapt it for my life? What do I use? What do I put aside? What are my needs? What is the time and energy I have to do this? The only taskmaster now watching your progress is yourself. Can you honestly assess and use what you have to craft something that is right for you? Can you determine when it will need to change and adapt? Probably not at first, and that is okay. It takes time. It takes making mistakes. It takes being overly ambitious and falling on your face, or under ambitious and growing stagnant. It takes recognition of your own health and your commitments to job and family.

Tips for crafting your own practice:

  • Determine how much time you can reasonably commit.
  • Determine how much time you want to commit, making sure you have free time other than your spiritual practice as it’s still a form of work, albeit hopefully enjoyable work and play.
  • When will your practice usually happen?
  • Do you have a clear space prepared for it?
  • Ask yourself why you are keeping a regular practice. What is your motivation? If you know why, you’ll have more motivation when things are tough.
  • What are the core practices of your tradition?
  • What of these core practices are daily (perhaps forms of cleansing, meditation, and devotional work), weekly (deeper journey work), monthly (moon rituals), and yearly (seasonal sabbats)?
  • What is done in community? What is done in small groups? And what is done in solitary?
  • Do you have a main working altar? Multiple shrines? Is there one place where your work is consolidated?
  • Is divination a part of your practice? How often?
  • What do you feel called to do now? Why? Is it a comfort or a challenge? Can you balance the two aspects of practice?
  • Is there a set length of time to such a practice? Perhaps set a schedule of a week or a month and then reevaluate that practice.
  • Is there a progressive pattern to your practice? Working through a pattern, such as provided by the tarot, can give you focus and break monotony. Perhaps an elemental, planetary, or zodiacal pattern will aid your practice.

These questions can help you establish where you are and what you want to do next.

Your craft is your own. Your magick is your own. Contrary to the opinions of some, I don’t care what you do in your personal practice. While I care about people and want everyone who chooses to live a magical life with love and harmony, I don’t know how that looks for you. I don’t have attachment to its form. I can only give you a range of philosophies, techniques, myth, art, culture, and the support in the training to integrate it. What you do with it, and how connected you are to the community where it came from, is up to you.

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