Know thyself.– Delphic maxim
There’s a reason the saying “Know thyself” is associated with ancient mysteries. Of course, it was an inscription displayed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. But it’s also advice with profound implications for magic.
It may be a gross simplification, but magic encourages us to plan and execute, whether as spooky action at a distance or in deciding to lift your hand to scratch your itchy nose. At some level both are magical acts.
This is what much of living in the physical world is about. But it can be taken to extremes with quickly diminishing returns. Know thyself is guidance, maybe even a simple algorithm, for doing it the right way.
The False Coin of Our Own Dreams
At times, too much planning can rob us of the ability to live in the moment and cheats us out of being present for what our precious and limited lives offer us. It’s why people enjoy meditation and activities, like gardening, that get us out in the world, while slowing down and clarifying our thoughts. Over planning can be a symptom of not knowing yourself and what you would find truly fulfilling. Instead, we can fall into the pit (abyss?) of throwing our energy into a plan or task we don’t really want.
We may think we want something because it looks appealing, and mistake it for our heart’s desire. The classic example is money – it’s not money we want (unless you’re a coin collector) but what we think it can buy. We can become tied to what Graeber (2001, paraphrasing Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert 1972 ) called “the false coin of our own dreams.”
Not being satisfied, we may then try to get more and more of the substitute, or attempt to re-enact a memory of something that never really was to begin with. Seven of cups. Endlessly trying to scratch an itch that isn’t there and seeking more and more opportunities to do it. Meanwhile, life continues to tick by.
I’m not saying don’t stop and smell the roses, feast at life’s banquet, or try things out to see if they’re for you or even to make someone else happy for a while. Go for it. But beware of the person or spirit that encourages you to break your cup, leaving you endlessly seeking to fulfill a desire that isn’t there. This is the path of the hungry ghost, the anti-life equation of consumer society.
Pursuing “the false coin” seems to be the root of addiction. It doesn’t help that exhausting ourselves through whatever that may be (drugs, gambling, battling some imagined adversary, etc.) can bring temporary relief, while the next day we may feel compelled to do it all over again. And the cycle continues.
A Cautionary Tale
A while ago I knew a person who was afraid someone else would do something they didn’t like. Instead of talking to them about it, they acted on their suspicions and began trying to manipulate that person to make them think they wanted something they didn’t. Initially, their target didn’t know what was up, only that something felt off. They found out much later when it was too late to help.
I don’t want to reveal too many details and hurt anyone involved, but this person collected information, used magic and poor man’s NLP, planned, etc. for several months. They did it to unethical extremes with murder in their heart.
About seven months later when it was clear things were never going to go their way they went ballistic on the person they were trying to influence. It impacted many people and just barely missed having the kind of visibility that would have fucked things up for everyone involved.
They mistook their fear for reality, and became dedicated to changing it or preventing it from happening. It was a miserable failure.
In a way this kind of dedication is impressive. Wow. And in a funny way probably flattering to the person they had a beef with.
On the other hand, wow > wtf. What a waste of time and effort on a problem their actions were never going to solve.
The person who carried out these tortuous twists and turns was quite experienced and initiated in a few kinds of magic, but it didn’t matter. As it turned out, the person they had the problem with was always ready to listen, at least when they stopped lobbing grenades. Some of what they did was potentially life threatening so now that’s not likely to happen. Instead, thousands of needlessly burnt calories later, there have been many repercussions for them, not only in this situation but a number of others.
They lacked clarity about what was going on, didn’t know what they really wanted. In a word, they overcompensated. If there weren’t better examples of what to do, someone might ask why bother trying to do magic at all? It wasn’t going to fix a thing.
What was needed was to “know thyself,” to know they were pursuing an illusion and to redirect their own actions. They could have simply talked things out, dispelled their fears, and had a much better time. What they got instead was a lost friendship, other damaged friendships, and more besides.
And as for the person they were gunning for, well, even though they were in many ways less experienced, what made a difference is they knew themself better (my neutral pronouns are painfully awkward, I know). When the dust settled, they just kept going. When some residual shit was lobbed, they kept going. They just kept going.
Does not matter. Need not be.
Graeber, David R. (2001). Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. New York: Palgrave. ISBN 978-0-312-24044-8.
Mauss, Marcel [with Henri Hubert] (1972 ). A General Theory of Magic. Routledge & Kegan Paul.