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Mentors, Masters, Teachers & Gurus

We can learn about magic in a variety of different ways. For most of us reading books is probably the primary source. Other routes to learning include correspondence courses, workshops, receiving instruction within a group, and entering into a one-to-one relationship with a teacher. When information on magic was relatively scarce, teachers were in much demand as keepers of knowledge that was otherwise hard to come by. Nowadays, of course, this is no longer the case, due to the plethora of occult books, magazines, CD-Roms and the World Wide Web. In fact, some would argue that on this basis, there is no need for individuals to seek out teachers when information on magical techniques and practice is (relatively) widely available. There is also a recurrent discussion over how many self-styled teachers, spiritual masters, and gurus are only concerned with boosting their own egos at the expense of their students, and fucking around with them (often literally!). There is a great deal of suspicion directed at individuals who appear to want others to perceive them as teachers. Having said this, occult contact sheets ring to the pleas of people who are looking for teachers. Why? One factor, which needs to be understood are the general beliefs concerning initiation. Many books which deal with Western forms of magic hint, to varying degrees, that to attain magical proficiency, the student needs to find a proficient teacher: someone who will initiate him into ‘the mysteries.’ In some circles, there are a measure of status ascribed around whether a person is initiated by a recognised teacher, or merely self-initiated, that is to say, self-taught. I recall during my stint in a Wiccan coven, that the elders would occasionally refer to one person or another as self-initiated: the implication being that these self-initiates were something of second-class citizens in comparison to people who had been initiated into a coven. The idea still persists that to be a ‘proper’ magician, witch or shaman, you have to have been initiated by someone else or have studied under a master. Related to this is the popularity of non-western esoteric systems, be they from the Orient, Asia or the Americas. When one looks at the pseudo-ethnic magical systems such as the various brands of shamanic practice, the pan-African traditions or the various Oriental esoteric systems, the link between personal progression and being initiated/finding a guide becomes even more explicit. What should be remembered here is that in the cultures from which these systems are drawn, attitudes to esotericism, teachers, etc., may well be markedly different from western perceptions. Westerners, in their zeal to appropriate non-western (industrial) magical systems, may well forget or overlook the background culture in which these systems are rooted. For example, the term "Guru" in India is associated with a filial relationship between teacher and student that is somewhat alien to modern westerners, where rebellion against the previous generation (i.e., the move towards individualism) is a far stronger cultural imperative than obedience and veneration for one’s elders, and by extension, for a received historical tradition.

The relationship between teacher and tradition is important, as many contemporary occultists are seeking a strong relationship with a sense of tradition, a feeling of continuance between modern practice and what the ancients did. It should also be recognized that teachers can be something more than keepers of knowledge. In our information-rich culture, the role of the teacher shifts from someone who doles out knowledge to someone who may be able to help us steer a path through that information by helping us to sort out what is relevant for us, and how to make it meaningful to our lives. I remember an elder magician that I used to visit for chats about magic. I regarded him as a teacher, but he always said that we were "equals - sharing information". On one occasion, I asked him for advice on using a pentagram made out of curves - something which I’d thought up, but was unsure about. He said something along the lines of "Interesting. Go and try it out and let me know what happens." This gave me the confidence to go and try out my own ideas. Things that weren’t in books, which is largely all I had to go on. On another occasion, I visited him with a tale of how I had been caught up in a collective fantasy on the part of a group I was involved with that my soul was under attack by demons. After recounting what had gone on, and what I’d been told by the leaders of the group, he said "They’re talking complete bollocks, Philip Don’t worry about it and don’t bother with them again". It is this kind of relationship which makes a teacher valuable to the learning magician and is vastly different to the popular view of magical teachers as individuals who, by virtue of their ‘Higher Initiation’ have a license to spout pretentious bullshit in return for adulation and slavish obedience.

Those of us who have been immersed in magical activity for a number of years sometimes forget, I feel, how weird it feels to be taking one’s first steps into the magical world. It’s fairly understandable that when we find ourselves moving in a direction which is new and relatively unknown, we look for others who can assist us, and magic is no exception to this. Feelings of uncertainty and risk are considerably diminished if we have someone we know we can turn to for encouragement and help, particularly if things get sticky or strange. Handling uncertainty is different for everybody. There is likely to be a marked difference between someone who’s only contact with the occult world has been to read a few books and from them gained the conviction that they need to find a teacher, and an individual who’s opinions on the subject of teachers and magic as a whole has been widened by contact with the occult milieu, through magazines, discussion groups or the internet. So in general, I am in favour of people forming learning relationships, providing of course, that all parties concerned are aware of what the relationship is about and what is going on. In order to clarify these issues, I will explore the role of the Mentor.

The word Mentor originates in Homer's Odyessy. Mentor was the teacher of Telemachus, the son of Odyesseus. The Mentor-figure is a key image in Greek Myth, seen for example in the initiatory relationship between Achilles and the Centaur Chiron, and over the ages, the word Mentor has become synonymous with friend, trusted adviser, guide, counsellor, teacher and initiator. There are also numerous examples of Mentor relationships in history, such as Freud and Jung, Socrates and Plato, and perhaps Aleister Crowley and Alan Bennett. What is special about the Mentor? The original Mentor's task was not just to raise and educate Telemachus, but to prepare and develop him for the responsibilities he would have to face as the heir to a kingdom. A Mentor is then, much more than just a teacher: a Mentor is someone who offers knowledge, insight or perspective that is especially useful to the other person. The essence of Mentoring is difficult to pin down as it is part intuition, part feelings, arises out of the given moment, and is composed of whatever materials are at hand. Mentoring requires the capacity to be flexible. The Mentoring relationship is one which leaps beyond other formal relationships. Helping someone cope with a personal problem is not necessarily Mentoring. But even a casual remark, if it sparks a new understanding or perspective on a problem, revealing previously unknown aspects in a flash, could be considered as Mentoring. Magical history is replete with examples of such flash illuminations, from the legends of Zen, Tantric and Taoist sages, to the meeting between Crowley and Theodore Reuss, during which Crowley intuited the secrets of sexual-magic. One of the tasks then, of a magical Mentor, is to Illuminate the student. For me the major difference between a mentor and a teacher is that whilst the teacher says "do this", the mentor is more likely to say, "what do you want to do?" Teachers dispense rules and take over the process of interpreting metaphors on behalf of the student. Mentors however, act to assist us in the conscious recapitulation of experiences, so that we are no longer blindly following someone else’s rules or squashing the world into limited metaphors long past their sell-by date.

The central focus of Mentoring is the empowerment of the student, through the development of his or her abilities. To do this effectively requires that the Mentor respects the uniqueness of that person. We can see the results of dysfunctional teaching when we meet so-called magicians who appear to be little more than mirror-reflections of their teachers, who lack independent voices and hold the world at bay with their belief-systems which (as Peter J. Carroll once quipped) "act not even as crutches for the feeble, but broken legs for the incapable". The tendency to teach magic to others cookbook style, rather than encouraging individuals to twist techniques and theories so that they are relevant to their immediate life experience, is responsible for much of the blinkered, narrow thinking of many modern occultists. I suspect that this is due to the fact that many teachers have a position to cling to which involves keeping students around them rather than letting them go off and pursue their own interests. Some of the best Mentors in comparison, are those who view the mentoring process as a learning experience for themselves. The idea of ageless wisdom, passed down from Mage to Neophyte is an endearing one, but is inaccurate in a world of constant, accelerating change. Mentoring requires both work and responsibility for both parties in the relationship. It is a partnership between Mentor and student, based on mutual respect. A quote from Robert Anton Wilson is apposite to the discussion: "communication is only possible amongst equals". Both Mentor and Student contribute and gain equally from the relationship.

However, having said this, it must also be recognised that both Students and potential Mentors need to be clear about what expectations they bring to the relationship. For the relationship to be effective, these expectations must be made explicit.

Mentoring is based on a friendly, informal relationship, and any attempts to extract firm promises from either side is likely to end badly. This is not to say, however, that some form of agreement between Student and Mentor is not useful. If both parties have made their expectations from the relationship explicit, then an agreement can act to remind both parties of specific objectives which have arisen from their mutual work, and secondly, it can be drawn on occasionally to clarify the boundaries of the relationship to both parties.

This latter point is particularly useful in Magical Mentoring, where it is easy for the Mentor's influence to extend beyond the boundaries of the immediate magical relationship which it often does, under a variety of guises and justifications. The desire for this can come from Mentor or Student, or may even arise unbidden from the sharing of intense magical experiences. Similar problems are not unknown between therapists and clients, nurses and patients, or teachers and pupils.

Over the years, I have done a good deal of Magical Mentoring. Gradually, I have evolved a Pact for these relationships which is along the lines of: "this is a meeting of my previous magical experience, with your inexperience and insight (which stretches me to attempt things I have never tried before), which will bring something out which is new and valuable for both of us. What I want out of this relationship is that at some point in the future, when you excel in one aspect of magic beyond me, you will come back and teach me about it". Nine times out of ten, I am happy to report that this has been largely what has happened.

This sort of code can be seen as a general agreement, as something which a Mentor can make explicit at the beginning of a relationship, and bring up only when the situation befits. There are also more specific agreements, which relate to objectives and goals set between the Student and Mentor, which can be adjusted, periodically evaluated, and are of course subject to change.

A key theme in understanding the value of the mentoring relationship is that of dealing with change. Change takes place within an ever-shifting personal and social environment. Giving up familiar and comfortable beliefs, behaviour and occasionally relationships tends to be accompanied by a sense of loss. There is also fear of the unknown, or possible failure to contend with. Change is, of course, central to magic. Often, the hardest thing to get to grips with is our resistance to change, or the refusal to admit that we, and our lives, are changing almost on a daily basis.

The key to this process is that of Context Shifting - which can be understood as an adjunct to, or an extension of, Belief Shifting. If you can clearly imagine what you and your world will be like once the desired-for change has been accomplished, you will begin to do things which will move you towards that goal. This contextual adjustment needs to be framed in positive terms. Here, the challenge for the Mentor is to enable the student to shift perspective from today's problems to tomorrow's success. It should be recognised that change is not instantaneous. The way that many people expect magic to work is, of course, sudden, positive change without any stress or unpleasantness. Another important aspect of assisting students to cope with change is in the provision of coping strategies for stress.

It is important to bear in mind that the Mentoring relationship is one of mutual trust and respect which, if well-founded, will maintain itself despite interpersonal differences and disagreements. Success, for a Magical Mentor, is watching a student come into his own power, excelling and mastering areas of magic which may be beyond the Mentor's own immediate interests and ability. This powerful form of bonding should not be under-rated, particularly in a discipline as given to disputes over magical differences and personality clashes as Chaos Magic. Mentoring is not simply concerning with the transfer of skills, theories, or opinions, but is a process whereby one person encourages another to find out what works for him, in the most effective way possible by the application of knowledge and ability into his own unique circumstances.

In many ways, finding an effective mentor is much harder than approaching a teacher. Mentoring relationships tend to arise informally and require (for me anyway) a face-to-face interaction. I can’t do it by letter or e-mail. Like a friendship, it happens slowly and (grin) chaotically. Also, and I think significantly, the mentoring relationship isn’t entirely focused around magic, at least in the sense of discussing the technical aspects of practical magic, but more about how magic reaches into our lives. So don’t fall into the trap of looking for a mentor in the same way that people already advertise for teachers. Seek friendship instead.