There is an old Chinese proverb: “When the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.” This saying reveals the missing element in spiritual disciplines that do not bear fruit. You may read all the manuals of shamanism and witchcraft, and so forth, that you like, and you may try practicing one particular discipline consistently, following the steps laid out for you in the manual, and yet achieve only weak, spotty results at best. These disciplines all seem to require a commitment greater than one is willing to make in order to be effective.
We are living in a mechanistic age, a time when all problems are approached as though they are engineering problems and can be solved by the correct application of skill and discipline. We think that by learning a certain technique, and applying it efficiently, we can surmount difficulties in any field, including the realm of spiritual effort.
I once knew a young man who was socially backward and asked me to describe the “right approach” to women, in order to “get some action.” I said that the right approach is to genuinely like them; they really appreciate being liked. He was nonplussed at this advice, recognizing immediately that no technique could make him like women if he instinctively distrusted them, which he did.
The same thing applies to the religious or spiritual realm, and this was recognized in the pre-mechanistic age when the “technique” followed was interaction with spirits. Spirits are persons, not processes. You can switch a computer on and work at it for as long as you like, then save your work, switch it off, and later when you come back it will be ready to resume, whether you had stayed away for an hour or a year. Persons are not like that. If you put in time with a mate and then stay away for a year, you will not find that person very willing to resume where you left off if you come back to him or her. The same is true of spirits.
Another difference already alluded to involves the emotions. Your computer doesn’t care if you like it or not, but a person will care. You must not only like someone, but must show it as well; even in friendship, a certain amount of devotion must be paid. To some extent this follows upon effort, that is, if you make a great personal sacrifice of time and energy for the sake of a person, that person will acquire a measure of importance in your eyes, and vice versa. However, it is never a matter of mere investment on your part. You must dedicate yourself past the point where you forget profit and loss.
In the same way, a religion cannot be a mere hobby, one activity among many. Witchcraft comes to mind in this connection. For many, witchcraft is a hobby, something that can be taken up or laid down at will without consequences. There are no spirits in hobbies; you may lick and paste all the stamps you like into an album, but the album will remain unaware of you, and thus you can relax and simply enjoy yourself.
If that is all witchcraft or some other mystery religion means to you, that is all right, but realize that you will remain in the outer court of the mysteries and never pass through the gates into the inner sanctum. The gates of mysteries are guarded by spirits, and spirits are persons, and if you are to pass within, you must initiate, and keep up, a personal relationship with those guardians. When your efforts begin to bear fruit, instead of thinking “it’s starting to work,” think instead “the spirit is responding to me.” This will follow in the unpredictable nature of results, which come in their own time and way, seemingly incommensurate with the amount of effort put out; and this is another reason for regarding them as the behavior of a spirit, rather than the automatic results of an impersonal technique.
In our tradition, which might be described as Celtic-eclectic (that is, focused on Celtic lore but open to borrowings from related traditions), three initiations are held, preceded by a dedication. When a student is ready, he or she may request a dedication ceremony, at which a promise is made to study the Craft and the coven tradition for a year and a day. This is a promise to the coven, not a vow; as yet, no spirits are involved.
At the end of the dedication period, the dedicated one may request actual initiation into the coven. This ceremony, which naturally must remain secret, includes a vow and personal “introductions” of the initiate to the Watchers, the “great ones” or gods of the four quarters. The Watchers each govern a kingdom of elementals, and one elemental from each kingdom passes into the appropriate elemental tool of the initiate. In our tradition, a sylph passes into the wand, a salamander into the athame, an undine into the chalice, and a gnome into the pentacle. An initiate should have all four tools on hand for an initiation, though sometimes this is deferred until a particular tool is acquired. But in any case, the first degree initiation marks the beginning of a personal relationship for the witch with each of the four spirits known as “Watchers”.
The Watcher of the East is the elemental spirit of Air, and governs knowledge. The Watcher of the South is the elemental spirit of Fire, and governs will. The Watcher of the West is the elemental spirit of Water, and governs daring (that is, devotion or dedication); and the Watcher of the North is the elemental spirit of Earth, and governs inner (and outer) silence.
One’s relationship with the Watchers and their respective spheres must be personal, and this applies also to the elemental tools, for these must not be thought of as tools in the mechanistic sense, but rather as fetishes, each housing a spirit. The association of the tool with the elemental quality should be reinforced by having the wand at hand while learning, the athame while exerting the will in disciplined action, the chalice while going beyond one’s limits in a super-effort, and the pentacle while going within in inner silence. Traditionally the witch will name his or her tools, as it seems; but actually the name is for the indwelling elemental.
The philosopher Nietzsche, in his book Thus Spake Zarathustra, describes the “last man” and contrasts him with the “overman” (by which he meant the self-overcoming man). The last man is the product of mechanization, he (or she is understood) who seeks to cut corners at all costs, he who never gives himself in commitment, he who is unable to despise himself. The world of the last man is one in which one hears “a fool, who still stumbles over stones or human beings!” For in the mechanistic, measured-out world, stones and human beings are alike regarded as mere obstacles to one’s goals.
By contrast, the overman has gone through an overwhelming experience Nietzsche calls “the hour of the great contempt.” “What matters my learning?” asks the overman of himself. “I do not see that I desire knowledge as the lion desires food!” And similarly for the other virtues, the overman sees and rejects his own half-heartedness and disinclination to give himself to his values. This is the atmosphere of the witch dealing with his or her elementals and the Watchers. They are persons, not means to ends.
For pagans in general, the same can be said of one’s relation to one’s patrono or matrona, the personal god or goddess with whom one has a special relationship. Every deity has something to teach, a discipline to impart, and the devotee learns and follows the teaching, the discipline of his or her sponsoring deity. In our witchcraft tradition, the witch will put special effort into his or her relationship with one of the great ones, whether a Watcher of the four quarters, or one of the deities of the height, the center or the deep. In paganism generally, the patrono or matrona can be chosen from any deity in the pantheon of one’s chosen tradition.
Whomever one chooses, the important point is to dedicate oneself, not exclusively to the one spirit, but with the intensity and focus one would have towards a lover or intimate friend. A too exclusive dedication, as in monotheism, leads to spiritual imbalance; nevertheless, one should feel that one’s patrono or matrona is an important person in one’s life, and make continual (though not continuous) efforts in that deity’s discipline.
The benefits accruing from such a relationship will reinforce the efforts of the devotee, but must never eclipse the personal importance of the spirit involved. If this happens, one has fallen back on process and will make only mechanical, half-hearted (at best) efforts; and then the relationship with the spirit will wither and die. The wrong man will have used the right means, and the right means will have worked in the wrong way.