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Magick and the Ritual Frame

by Philip H. Farber

What do you think of when you read the term "magick"? Witches performing spells? Medieval ceremonialists in hooded robes? Stage illusionists pulling bunnies out of hats? Special effects from fantasy films? Some force that you believe or don't believe in? Allow me to ask you to set those mythic ideas aside for now. While this discussion may eventually wind its way back to the realm of the remarkable, I'd like to start in a much more familiar place.

The broadest definition of magick was offered in the early 20th Century by the occultist Aleister Crowley who suggested that magick was "the art and science of causing change in conformity with will." (Crowley was also responsible for returning the "K" to the spelling of "magick," to distinguish the mental and spiritual discipline from stage illusion.) For the purposes of our immediate discussion, I'd like to narrow that down a little further and say that magick is the art and science of using ritual technology to cause change. In short, the work of the magician is to do whatever is necessary to create an altered state that results in change and a desired outcome. Sound familiar? From this point of view, the boundary between hypnosis as we know it and magick as we might learn to accept it is somewhat vague. The essential difference that I'll offer here is the concept of a "ritual frame."

We encounter ritual frames every day. Ritualizing seems to be a fundamental human behavior, something we use and experience in many aspects of our lives. For instance, if you choose to have a romantic dinner with someone special, there's a particular ritual that you may use to enhance the situation, create an altered state, and achieve the desired outcome of romance. No "love spell" is necessary to perform this magick - the ritual is simply to ensure that every aspect of the situation is aligned with the goal: the lights are dimmed, the candles lit, the champagne chilled, the food perfect, the music soft and suggestive. If you get that ritual right, then an altered state is produced - a comfortable sharing, perhaps - and your desired outcome - romance - is achieved. This ritual can be repeated with variations to achieve a romantic effect time after time.

Similarly, most of us have rituals that we use to prepare for a day of work. Personally, I shower, meditate for a short while, eat a light breakfast, put on some presentable clothes, and make sure my office is clean and ready. I repeat that ritual each time I want to enter the state of mind necessary to engage in my work as a hypnotherapist. And then there's yet another ritual frame that is created when my client walks through the door - the way I greet him or her, the pre-session talk, any changes in the lighting or music, the invitation to sit in the trance chair, and so on. Formal trance induction and NLP methods also often involve ritual frames that provide a setting for the content of the session. We each develop the ritual frames that work best for us.

Just as the Ericksonian definition of hypnosis suggests that "Trance permits the operator to evoke in a controlled manner the same mental mechanisms that are operative spontaneously in everyday life," we may find that magick is subject to a very similar definition. The mental mechanisms, however, may have a slightly different emphasis, with magick being more concerned with our ability to create ritual frames "in a controlled manner."

The examples I've just given - romance and preparation for work - are common and naturally- occurring uses of ritual. A glance at a medieval grimoire (magical textbook or collection of rituals), however, will offer up rituals that are perhaps not quite so easily understood. Ancient languages form chants and calls that are embellished with symbolic gestures, actions, sounds, and images. One of the explanations for the arcane qualities of these rituals is simply that these ritual actions had more natural meaning in the context of the medieval world. While some of the elements may seem bizarre to those of us living in the 21st Century, they may have been more familiar to the clerics and alchemists of the Dark Ages. There's more, however. Most of the rituals found in old texts like "The Keys of Solomon" or "The Sacred Magick of Abramelin the Mage" had very specific and very intense purposes. The idea was to create altered states of singular depth and utility.

Here's another point of commonality with hypnosis. While some rituals definitely had consciously directed purposes (not unlike the "romance" example above), the forms that were described as "High Magick" were more interested in connecting the conscious mind with that part of the unconscious variously referred to by ritualists of yore as "the high self," "the perfected self," or "the Holy Guardian Angel." Like the "benevolent unconscious" found in some models of hypnosis, the "perfected self" was understood as an intelligence above and beyond the normal ego-consciousness with a much greater understanding of the unique purpose and direction of the individual. Outcomes of ritual work would ultimately be generated from contact with that level of the unconscious. Just as some of the outcomes of hypnotherapy may seem miraculous to the uninitiated, the results of these powerful rituals could definitely seem like... well, magick.

Anyway, the point of all this just now is to introduce some concepts and terms that will come in handy as you further explore this site. In the meantime, think about the use of ritual frames in your own life and work and perhaps you'll find a glimpse of magick.


© copyright 2004 Philip H. Farber. All rights reserved.