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Occultism and Mental Illness: Returning Magic to its Healing Roots

By Frater Entelecheia


I’ve seen the connection between spirituality (particularly occultism) and mental illness pointed out many times over the years. It is a commonplace now to suggest individuals supplement the magical path with psychotherapy. I won’t bother naming anyone or quoting anything in connection with these ideas. We’ve all read the books and articles and have listened to the same lectures and podcasts. Nor do I intend to impugn these claims or suggestions whatsoever. But I cannot help but notice the irony. 

Almost as far back as you can go in human history, healers are magicians, and magicians are healers. What does it say about the way we modern individuals approach our spirituality that it is more commonly associated with mental illness than with mental health? 

I don’t mean just occultists (although I will concentrate on magic in this article). Western practitioners of spiritual arts of any kind are some of the most toxic, mentally ill people you will meet in your entire life. Anyone who has spent any significant time in any spiritual scene is all-too-aware of this sad fact. 

The simplest explanation, and the one most flattering to ourselves, is that individuals who are ungrounded or emotionally imbalanced may naturally be attracted to otherworldly things such as spirituality or the occult. This may explain even the majority of cases. However, it is also possible that practicing spirituality on its own is causing mental illness in some individuals, and that rather than being an accidental occurrence, this result stems necessarily from our  misunderstanding the original purpose of magic.

In ancient Greek culture, to be a healer or iatromantis meant equally to be a seer or prophet, particularly a devotee of the god Apollo. People understood that the science and art of healing individuals came from the gods, and that one of the primary uses of magic was to heal people. A glance at the PGM reveals many spells for healing physical and emotional ailments of all kinds. 

Paracelsus, the man widely thought responsible for the “medical revolution” in the Renaissance, was an alchemist. His most famous dictum, “the dose makes the poison,” has roots in ancient Greek magic. The Greeks used the same word—phármakon—to denote a medicine or a poison. A phármakon applied wisely could work miracles, but the same phármakon used unwisely would destroy. And as any iatromantis knew, wisdom came from the gods and in fact was a deity herself.

Of course what I’ve said here about iatrikos could be said with equal force about any divine gift. Although we tend not to think of them this way, reason and science are also gifts of the gods. They were brought to us westerners from another world by ancient seers like Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Empedocles. And like any phármakon, we can perceive the results that occur when we use them unwisely, without consciousness of their original purpose. Mass extinction and global warming are only the most drastic results. We must also include the pernicious effects of leveling and hyper-democratization.

And here we return to where we started. It’s a commonplace nowadays to claim that “MAGICK is for ALL.” There’s no end of books, websites, or courses teaching magic in one form or another. Most of these teachers work from the assumption that anyone can learn how to do magic. It’s just a question of applying the right technique. “Just do the work,” we are told. And maybe that’s sometimes the case. But as with all the gifts of the gods, there’s a catch.

The catch is that our healer-magician ancestors were not mere technicians. They were also seers and prophets. They knew not only the laws governing this world. They knew the laws governing the divine world as well. They practiced their art within the parameters set by the gods, whose voices they could literally hear. The iatromantis understood not only their self and the patient but also the cosmological whole into which both were fitted and derived their meaning and purpose. It was for the benefit of this whole of nature that the iatromantis was a servant. Thus understood, these iatric gifts from the gods benefited not only agent and patient but regenerated the world. 

Nowadays we believe ourselves so much smarter than all this. We’ve progressed to the point where we know—just know—that everyone is equal. Anyone is suited to do magic. The alternative would just be too unfair. Anyone can learn anything, can develop any skill, if they put their mind to it. And these skills can be learned from books and courses you can download off the internet for only $150 for the whole year. 

We haven’t bothered much with the alternative possibility, which is that these techniques—in those rare instances where they even work—are unsuited to the overwhelming majority of people who take an interest in them. These individuals do not have a deep enough appreciation for the structure of human and divine reality to use these gifts wisely. So rather than serving the cosmos with these skills, they instead try to serve themselves. They seek power for themselves. They seek knowledge for themselves. Maybe the best intentioned among them even seek wisdom for themselves. But because the true purpose of these arts is not understood, they cause harm rather than help in many cases. And perhaps the strong association we see between occultism and mental illness is simply the most immediate form this harm takes.

Nothing is more natural to we progressive modernists than to view everything as a technique, as just another piece of technology. We rarely spend any time seriously considering what the real purpose of any of this technology is, what it ought to be used for. We just buy and sell the newest gadgets and tricks without thinking about the ultimate purposes of any of them. “Do what works” is our maxim. 

As for what purpose spirituality—especially spirituality in the west—was meant to serve, we don’t give it a second thought. In fact we consider it rather quaint nowadays to suggest that there even is such a purpose. Each person has their own, private, individual end, their own true will, their own, personal reason to exist. We’re far, far too enlightened to think otherwise. “Mind your own business,” as they say.

Everywhere else we see this principle of unfettered, atomized individualism applied—politics, the economy, medicine, culture, the environment, relationships—it’s an unmitigated disaster. But surely, we tell ourselves, it’s different here. All laws stop when we get to spirituality. Anywhere else, a person having their own reality, their own private sense of truth, would be a sign of derangement. But in this one case, rather than being a sign of something wrong, rather than causing a person to spin off into delusion and fantasy, it’s actually a sign of a very, very high degree of consciousness, awareness, “wokeness”. 

How likely does any of that seem?

I recognize that what I’m saying is bound to be deeply unpopular, and even though I do not intend it, I know my words are bound to hurt or anger some people. I am also aware that what I’m saying contradicts many of the cherished premises of Thelemites. But at the same time, Crowley was familiar enough with the phenomenon I’m describing to give it a name. He called it “black magic”. When we approach spirits from a purely instrumental perspective, caring only about our own enjoyment abstracted from any higher spiritual aim, we are performing black magic. 

We are also disrespecting the gods and should expect to pay a price.

The alternative is to return to magic’s source and original purpose, and in the process turn it back into a healing art. But this requires us to stop treating magic as just another piece of technology that anyone can purchase with enough money and leisure time. We need to stop opening doors to other worlds—sacred worlds which we do not understand or appreciate—for our own gain and amusement. We need to carefully consider why we do things and what all of this is for.

Enough pragmatism. We’ve had over a century of pragmatism in spirituality, and it has accomplished virtually nothing of worth. We’re as unhappy and listless as we were a hundred years ago, “tantric” sex and badly pronounced Hebrew notwithstanding. We flatter ourselves with our claims to power and wisdom, and meanwhile the Earth just continues to burn and burn and burn some more. 

The best advice I can offer to anyone who is interested in magic is to just stop doing anything at all. Go to a sacred place—a temple or a quiet place in the woods if you can even find one anymore—and just lay down and die. Close your eyes. Don’t move, don’t speak, don’t think. If you have to do anything at all, just listen. Of all our senses, hearing could well be the most divine because of its ability to connect us with things that are far away but beyond sight. 

If you can, listen beyond the noise in the room or immediately around you. Listen beyond the sound of cars or pedestrians outside, beyond even the sounds of birds. Listen for something so far away that you could never possibly hear it. When you are no longer listening with your ears but with your heart, then you are truly listening. Then you are at last attuning to that reality which our ancestors knew so well. Then at last you are learning the humility they once knew. 

When and only when you have learned to listen this way, when you have learned to listen with your heart rather than with your intellect, then perhaps the silence will speak to you. Then perhaps you may be invited to become a servant of the gods. Only once you have heard the silent cry of this burning, bleeding, and broken world, then perhaps you are ready to become a magician and therefore a healer.


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18 thoughts on “Occultism and Mental Illness: Returning Magic to its Healing Roots

  1. While this is a good attempt to shake up the complacency present in many modern occult organizations, it stops short of actually breaking down the relationship between occultism and mental illness.

    The Kabbalistic path of initiation (see G.’.D.’. or A.’.A.’.) does contain within it a process which feels very self-help in a lot of ways (solve et coagula, etc). While it boasts of the benefits of completing this process, the process itself is only applicable to a specific type of mental “illness”, being that which is acquired (rather than being present at birth) via emotional trauma or social conditioning.

    So what of all the other kinds of mental illness? If Kabbalah cannot be used to treat them, then are they disqualifiers for becoming a magician or are they irrelevant? Or is there something we’re missing?

    From personal experience, I can say that there are certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, that make pursuing the path impossible. Others may or may not depending on the severity. So each person must be evaluated individually to determine if their unique set of conditions constitutes a barrier or merely an obstacle in their path.

    This is where the appeal to authority comes in. Very few occultists are formally trained to perform a psychiatric evaluation. So that is left to those with the framed paper on their wall. With a formal diagnosis in hand, the path forward can be determined.

    I’ll close this mini-essay by lamenting the lack of any guidance for dealing with acute psychological symptoms (e.g. OCD, anxiety, etc) as they are occuring, either from the perspective of the patient trying to develop a means to overcome their malady or the physician attempting to quiet the patient so that they might be capable of implementing a long-term magickal solution. This all seems to be fertile ground for further development of the art.

  2. “Toxic” and “mentally ill” aren’t always necessarily conflated though. It’s true you’ll meet plenty of both in these realms. I’d warrant with regular self-maintenance and training, we have an aptitude towards this magick thing neurotypicals have to work a little harder toward in the beginning.😃

  3. On who’s authority do you sit back and judge humanity. Maybe if you looked for truth before writing which is a form of sorcery you would see the error of your way. Occult means hidden and I know the one who covers so you are supporting his-story. Magic yes the real stuff we all already do but the few abusing it will sort themselves out. Fire always destroys itself and thousand of years of mystery schools have not worked so wake up fool and pick up a pearl here before you lose that self ego crown of yous and remember magic only works for the pure of heart the one you described takes care of itself and it’s tribe tread carefully and spread love not hate. Even a child is a teacher of men so listen up because we are already here and the change is coming and not a person on earth can stop it. It’s the work and it will continue until well you think you have it digusted out and I have said too much already. Heed this if you read thus far.
    The complex of the answer is revealed in the simplicity of the question.
    Not stop thinking and follow your own advice before publishing as though you are a master let alone know one. The way is for all and each path is personal so help not hinder. Peace peace peace
    R

  4. I think we need to begin with a definition of mental illness. It occurred to me the other day, what if I am only waking up now to realize my personality, my being, has been enslaved in mental illness all these years. Then the beauty of that gnosis is swept away by the horror, that I may be trapped inside an endogenous form of mental illness from which there is no escape. Then I realized Dave Navarro (who I presume is a Thelemite) is putting on a benefit for `mental health` in a couple of weeks in LA. Maybe all I need to do is go to that concert to discover the thread to which to follow for further gnosis in this area. He has certainly experienced enough and surpassed enough to shed some light. But anyway, the author mentions Heraclitus, my Favorite philosopher, so great piece!

  5. That’s a good idea; I’m sure a mental health benefit will have some literature or other musicians who have been through it and you can learn more, determine if your experiences are in fact in the realm of those of us who do live with these conditions and hopefully learn to manage them; or if it’s something else. So long as awareness is brought to light.

    1. But what if it is all a rock-n-roll front for Scientology?:) Who cares I think, because I will get to see Steve Vai perform. He had a great song back in the 80’s called ‘Little Green Men’, after he left playing for Frank Zappa.

      1. OK, so I bought a couple of tickets, and a round trip flight to see this massive lineup of occult musicians rock out to Iggy and Bowie. Al Jourgensen and Jack Black were just announced as well. I mean how can they successfully pull this off without me in the audience as a witness? I may even bring the heroine from my other tale with me, if the stars all line up. Will I be rubbing elbows with Ogre and Trent Reznor as well? Delusions of Grandeur indeed.

  6. All this sounds very dualistic. It seems to treat both spirituality and magick as something set aside from the general experience of life, something that can simply be set aside and left to the experts, rather than a facet of life that must be individually envisioned for each person in a way that will satisfy their needs.

    I have a hard time accepting that, just as I have a hard time accepting that what you suggest for those with an interest in magick is not just one step in a path that is not necessarily linear. Listening with your heart is not a gate that you pass through into doing your will as a healer or magician. In fact, the intent that would lead to a practice of this sort would seem to be a milestone in itself. You reject that anyone can just learn anything. But no one has a right to do other than their will in the first place. When it comes to metaphysics, the alternative to pragmatism is to agree not to talk about it, because there is no final solution. To search for a better way, is pragmatism, even when that might include backing away from an individual approach and re-invest in community based or dogmatic approaches.

    Personally, I believe that this might have it’s benefits in addressing mental illness if everything lines up properly, but it also has the distinct possibility of disenfrachizing the neurodiverse among us who are thereby isolated from the means to proactively pursue their own solutions, which I would personally assume was a prime reason that the mentally ill want to get involved with magic.

  7. This is a Solar-Phallic Templar Order and the goal is to get past the gates. The quest is for knowledge, wisdom and understanding at the top of the pyramid. First you must get past the gates. The price is steep for knowledge and the silence is painful. Strength and wit are required to get past the gates and finally to cross the abyss. The goal is separation and spiritual sovereignty on the left hand path. The right hand path is restorative and reunites one with source. Let’s make this clear: the pursuit of magick and the ability to wield it can definitely fragment ones mind and it is not the way of the weak. Ours is the way of the strong. The weak minded will be consumed in the process. Experimentation with empowering chakras, which is Kabbalah work, has lead to mental illness and death in real world experimentation. This work requires a workstation processor and some are only working with a tablet.

  8. We keep repeating the expression ‘mental illness’, but this is really a vague, pedestrian and non-clinical expression. It’s my opinion we should use the proper Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) definitions, and that is I believe, ‘Mental Disorder’, not ‘Mental Illness’. A female Thelemite once looked around my apartment and remarked, ‘Living in filth is a sign of mental illness.’ Now, the apartment was a mess, but using a word like ‘filth’ is a loaded and subjective term. Yes, living in a ‘dump’ might be a sign of a mental disorder, such as depression, but depression is a mental ‘disorder’ not a mental ‘illness’. It could also be that the person is simply ‘lazy’. Anyway words like illness and filth, are loaded hyperbolic words. People aren’t alkies, addicts or junkies, they are human beings with ‘Substance Use Disorders’. Social scientist Jonathan Haidt has explored the linguistics pretty well. Anyway, using ‘disorder’ is the more proper and correct term. We use ‘ill’ as in ‘terminally ill’, which is not at all what a mental disorder may or may not be. Just my opinion. Rock on!

  9. An example of a mental ‘disorder’, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), may be demonstrated by my repetitively responding to this post. Yes? A better example is that I have now thrown down hundreds of dollars to attend fundraisers for Marianne Williamson and her Presidential campaign. that is how the thread with Dave Navarro got started for me. He hosted a fundraiser for her, which I attended; and then heard about his concert in LA. Marianne is of course a ‘spiritual’ voice and her appreciation for ‘A Course In Miracles’ is similar to Crowley’s reception of ‘The Book of The Law’ – because they are both channeled works. Now when I go to LA next week for Dave Navarro’s ‘Above Ground 2’ fundraiser for ‘Mental Health’ – I am also going to throw down more money, and attend another fundraiser for Marianne hosted by Russell Brand. That kind of behavior could certainly be seen as a disorder (because she is not going to win the nomination), viewed as a sort of fanaticism; alternatively in the ‘Higher Consciousness Community’, the behavior may be seen as a Virtue. I have the money, and I like her message. Is this how people get sucked into cults? Anyway, the point is ‘disorders’ and ‘virtues’ could be interchangeable – when framed in ‘spiritual/magickal/politicall’ contexts. Marco where are you? Please cut me off!

  10. I think understanding one’s true will is a big part of how we avoid the problem. Not wasting one’s time on pursuits which are not natural to ones Will is important. We all have to know our own limitations. That does not mean that one of us is better than the other. We all have a role to play here. A roll no one but the individual can do. so, do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law pretty much shows the way. Or as I like to say, let those do what they do best.

  11. This may be a part of the problem, I don’t know.

    Crowley was a magician.
    Crowley was a Thelemite.
    Therefore, all Thelemites must be magicians.

    This is a misunderstanding of the law is for all. In Crowley’s mind, doing your true will was an act of magick, which is why he painted it with such a wide brush.

    Not everyone can do the kind of magick the author is describing in his post. It may not be natural to them, and not a part of their true nature.

    The obvious solution is to “do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

    Before we can do that we have to determine what our true will is. Physician heal thyself. This is why most thelemic magick seems so selfish. Because you have to work on yourself before you can help others help themselves. Unfortunately, due to various comments made from people that ought to know better, the large majority of Thelemic magicians never seem to be able to leave the idea of being the center of one’s own universe.

    That said, I agree with the spirit of this post. In spite of all of the trouble with Thelema, having these kinds of debates and being able to read the thoughts of others is exactly what we need. Because speaking for myself, I still believe that Thelema is the key to our survival, and the medicine necessary for what ails us today.

    Could one develop a mental illness by not being able to do their will, or being forced into a position in which they are unable to discover an express that inner nature?

    You better believe it.

    Thank you for such a thought-provoking post.

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