The Western Mystery tradition is spiritual path that blends meditation, ritual, and exploration of heightened stats of consciousness. Though it is built on the mystical wisdom of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Celts, Hebrew Kabbalists, and many others, this tradition is often misunderstood by modern spiritual seekers. Here, Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki—a third-generation occultist and founder/director of the Servants of Light school—discusses the authentic practice of magic.
Sounds True: How does the magic of the Western Mystery Tradition differ from what we see in the movies?
Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki: It differs quite considerably. I really prefer to call it the “sacred science” rather than magic. The practice has been described as “the art of changing levels of consciousness at will.” It is the ability to flow with life's changes—and perhaps even more importantly, the ability to call or create change, where, when, and if it is needed. Now, to do this, one must learn when things need to be changed, and when they must be allowed to change in their own good time. This is what the Western Mystery teaches, along with the concentration, the focus, to create those changes when they need to be created. In Ursula Le Guin's book A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged, the young wizard in training, complains bitterly to his teacher that he's not stopping it when it rains, and he hasn't got anything to cover himself with. And he says “Can't you do it?” The wizard says “Yes, I can.” And so Ged says “Well, why don't you do it?” He says, “I don't need to do it. I don't mind getting wet. And the rain is good for the grass.”
And, you know, change is what magic is all about, this ability to flow with life. But you have to have the knowledge, you have to have training. Because you can have all the information in the world, but it won't become wisdom unless you understand that knowledge on all levels of consciousness. And that is where it differs from what you see in the movies. Because in the movies, they just wave a hand, and the effects department creates the magic. And that's not how it works. There is no Disney magic. There is no magical wand with a star on the end of it that will create whatever you want at the time that you want it.
The magic is learning to be in the world and adapt to what the world is offering you. The wisdom to know when the opportunity comes along. The concentration and the focal ability to be able to blast your will into the world when that opportunity comes. Unfortunately, most people want magic like instant coffee. Now, and with very little effort on their part. But, you know, magic is like any other area of serious study. It takes time, it takes effort, and it takes a good teacher. So it's nothing like what the movies tell you it is. It's hard work.
Sounds True: So when you talk about hard work and commitment, I'm thinking of something like saying to yourself: “Okay, so my practice for the next ten years is going to involve training in these skills.”
Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki: Yes. That's a commitment. If you want to become a doctor, you make a commitment. If you want to become a priest, you make a commitment. If you want to be a magician, then you have to make a commitment. And you have to be prepared to work. Sometimes it can be really boring. There were times, when I was training in the beginning, when I would have loved to have opened the window and thrown my books out. I realized, at last, that the foundation work was the most important part of it. You can't build a house straight off the floor. You've got to have a foundation. And then it will stay up for a hundred years if you're lucky, and if you've built it well. Magic's the same.
And many people don't—not these days anyway—like to work hard. They pick up a book and it says “You too could be a witch in twelve easy lessons,” and you can't! In twelve years, maybe. But you know it takes eight to ten years to make an architect or a doctor. So magic is just as complicated. That is what the Western Mystery teaches. It teaches patience; it teaches focusing ability; it teaches concentration; it gives you knowledge to know when the opportunity is there to create change. You create your own magic, basically.
When I speak of change, it might be something down-to-earth, like saying you're going to learn a musical instrument now to expand your horizons. Or it might be something larger. Perhaps you had dreams when you were a child, and you believe you saw the future in those dreams. It might have frightened you. The change that the universe is offering might be to know that now is the time to go back and look at that power you have forgotten for so long.
Sounds True: If you've done a practice like Buddhist meditation or yoga, is there still a reason to take up Western magical training?
Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki: I go back to what Ernest Butler, my teacher, told me. He lived in India for several years when he was in the army. What he learned about how the Eastern mind works was that they are very concerned with the spiritual, and very adept at opening up the spiritual level. But they seem to forget that the physical part is just as holy, and just as in need of lifting.
Now, the Kabbalah, in which I was basically trained, teaches us that Makhut, the earthly part of us, is as holy as Kheter, the spiritual part of us. In fact, one of the names of Mahkut is Kala, the bride. And the Bride is seen as the feminine part of Kheter. You have this idea that the physical part of a human being is just as important as the spiritual part, and I think there is a tendency, with the Eastern way, to concentrate too much on the spiritual and the getting away from the natural world.
Whereas with the Western Mysteries, we say everything is holy. The whole life, from the physical to the astral to the mental to the spiritual—it's all holy. For students who come to us trained in an Eastern way, we say that you know about spirituality, you know about the different methods of meditation and opening yourself. Now, let us show you how you can bring that spirituality down, and use it to enlighten, to awaken, and to lift the physical body. Because you can't just leave it behind.
There is a story in the Mahabharata that speaks of Arjuna, the godlike archer, who is wandering the earth—his brother has gone to paradise before him. And he has his little dog with him. One day he suddenly thinks, yes, it's time. It's time for me to leave the world. So he calls up to heaven and Brahma sends down this golden ladder. Arjuna picks up his dog, tucks him under his arm, and begins to climb. Brahma says, “Excuse me, no dogs in here.” And Arjuna climbs down and says, “No. If my dog can't come, I'm not coming.”
In other words, if the lower part of life that is my physical body can't reach up to the spiritual world, then I'm not going. And as he spoke, the dog stood up on its hind legs and it became Krishna. And Krishna said, “I have been your companion all these days, and now because you speak up for the lower forms of life, then they too will have a path to enter heaven.”
And this is what we're saying, in the Servants of the Light. We're not saying that you're wrong to develop spiritually. We're saying you do wonderfully well, it's beautiful, we can learn a lot from you by studying your ways, but would you like to have a look at our ways as well? If we can bring the two together, then we will really have accomplished something.
Sounds True:Is there an idea of enlightenment or awakening in magical practice?
Dolores Ashcroft-Nowick: True magical practice is all about light. The light of reason, the light of knowledge, the light of compassion, the light of an understanding of our place in the universe. It's the light of belief, in the ultimate divinity of life itself, in whatever form it takes.
When we finally make it to the stars, hopefully, we will be far beyond the idea of evangelizing what we may see as the truth. It is devoutly to be hoped that by then the idea of missionary work will be long gone. Because, you know, if there is life out there in the stars, it will probably have its own, and very valid, idea of a creator. It will have, in all probability, a belief system. Now, just because that creator will have another name and very possibly another form entirely, that doesn't make it something to be looked down on despised. There's been too much of that in the past.
In the Servants of the Light, we “awaken” students slowly and carefully. Because it means they have to adjust to new ideas and new ways of thinking about what they believe in. We don't take those beliefs away. We show them how to stretch their spirituality to new horizons and understand their beliefs on different levels.
Real teachers never take anything away from a student. They just offer them a new way to look at things. That is how to awaken the inner, the deeper, levels of understanding. That's how a school like the Servants of the Light works. You can't just take somebody in and say, “Right! Now you're in the Servants of the Light, you've got to behave like this. You've got to believe in this. You can't do what you've been doing; ours is the only way.” If you're going to enlighten somebody, you enlighten them—what happens is they wake up inside, they stretch their minds, they stretch their spirituality, to take in new horizons. That's what teaching is. That's what enlightenment is.
John Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Now, if you apply that thinking to magic, don't ask what this new way of thinking is going to give you; ask what you can bring to it, and how you can pass that on to others. I know that sounds a little bit odd and altruistic, but nevertheless, it is true.
Sounds True: It's interesting … What you said about opening up beliefs on different levels sounds very much like Ken Wilber's stage theory of enlightenment. It's surprising to find that kind of overlap in a tradition that many dismiss as superstition.
Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki: There are some people who are always going to look at magic in that way, as a superstition. Magic—or sacred science, whatever you want to call it—can and will happen, to, with, and around you all the time. It doesn't ask permission to exist. It has always been there. Magic will always be there when you and I are long gone. It helps to believe in it, but it's not a requirement. The sacred science—what is happening around us all the time—doesn't give two hoots whether you believe in it as magic, as the sacred science, or whether you believe it's all superstition. It's going to happen anyway.
If you think it's all superstition, fine. Who am I to tell you what to believe in? I happen to believe in magic. I teach people how to believe in magic; I teach them how to see how magical the world is around us. But if people want to call it superstition and say it's a load of codswallop, that's okay too. I don't worry about them. The only one who will lose out is the person who doesn't believe in magic. Somebody who thinks it's all—shall we be polite and call it “bovine excrement”?—people who don't believe in the magic of the world around them are losing out on so much.
Sounds True: Do you have some advice on talking to people about magic who are coming from a religious upbringing, who might have been taught that it's all about witchcraft and evil?
Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki: There are going to be some people who will always look at what we call magic in that way. Sometimes you can give them access in a way akin to Ariadne's thread: get hold of this and follow the thread, wind it up as you go, and eventually you'll end up with this big ball of wool. Hopefully, that will ultimately lead to a realization. I say to them, “Well, do you believe in miracles?” And most religious believers do. And I'll say, What else is a miracle but a piece of magic?
When you look at magic, magic isn't extraordinary. It's super-ordinary. When you create a circumstance in your mind, and you create it and you craft it and you say, This is what I need, this is what I want, and I'm going to bring this towards me, you are exercising your rights. We were told in the Bible, “Ask and you shall receive.” That is magic.
When you look at the miracles that the master Jesus worked during his lifetime, they were, in a sense, not magic—he was using a knowledge that was far ahead of his time in many ways. But, you know, four hundred years ago, if I had suddenly appeared in London with something as simple as an ordinary electric torch, I would have been cuffed into the nearest pillory and put in the stocks or burned. Can you imagine playing a Beatles record in the court of Queen Elizabeth the First? That's something else that would have given you hot feet.
Some would say that magic is the work of the devil. But magic is simply science that we haven't quite yet comprehended. What you would think of as being magic now, in two hundred years' time, is going to be commonplace. I looked at my newspaper this morning, and it said that they've just invented something that if you take half a dozen photographs, in different positions, of the same thing, and put it through this program it will give you a 3-D picture, one that you can actually walk through. They say within a year this will be available.
Twenty years ago, would we have believed in that? We'd say, is that magic or what? My father was born into a world in 1903,that had no airplanes, the odd car. Yet before he died in 1994, he saw a man walk on the moon. When he was a little boy, he would have said, “That would be magical”. And it happened. Magic is relative. Miracles are relative.
You wouldn't say electricity is the work of the devil just because three hundred, four hundred years ago it would have been seen as magical. It isn't magical anymore because we've discovered so much about it. You've got to look at things in this way—what you think of as being magic is simply something that we don't quite understand very much about at the moment. Give it fifty years and we'll have it fixed. Try that approach.
Sounds True: So does the education we've been given to doubt magic prevent us from seeing magical events going on around us?
Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki: Oh, yes. Fifteen, sixteen years ago there was a lovely musical called Flower Drum Song and there was a song in there that talked about “A hundred thousand miracles are happening every day.” Magic, miracles, are indeed happening every day all over the world. As I've just said, we may call them coincidences. Or, if we understand the concept, synchronicity.
A blade of grass growing through the tarmac of a disused airfield is the magic of life, that will exist against all odds. The first time a baby recognizes its mother's face and smiles, that's magic. Life is, at that moment, correlating features, scent, and emotion, into a single understandable form that says “mother.”
Now, we've been taught that all this is explainable by science. Explainable by people who insist on using six-syllable words because they think it makes them sound better. But if these scientists, and indeed ordinary people, look long enough and hard enough, everything around us is magic. Everything around us, in a sense, is an illusion.
I can explain to you why a rainbow splits into seven colors. Or why the sky appears to be blue, when actually it's nothing of the kind. The fact is, the explanation will only tell you how it appears to be like this. It doesn't tell you about the cosmic causation behind it. This is one of the reasons why quantum physics is so interesting, because the more you go into quantum physics—the deeper you get into it—the more you realize that everything around you we are creating from moment to moment to moment.
When you look at a picture on a computer screen or when you look at your vegetable garden and you see that all the vegetables are coming up and it's beautiful, if you're walking on the beach and you see the waves crashing on the rocks, your brain is telling you what to see. Basically, because all that—everything that I mentioned—is a mass of vibration at varying speeds in varying rates. It becomes something that the brain gets hold of and thinks, “Ah yes, now I know this vibration, I've come across it before.” And it looks through its own encyclopedia and then says, “What you are really seeing is a bunch of carrots coming up. And they're going to be really good carrots cause they look nice and healthy.” Or it might tell you, “That in front of you, that movement in front of you, is a flock of birds. That's what I'm telling you to see—a flock of birds in flight.” In actual fact, they're a bunch of molecules and vibrations just moving together. Nothing around us is real; nothing around us is what we think we're seeing. And that is pure magic.
One human being, who is a mass of vibrationary molecules itself, is making all this up. It's making up a solar system; it's making up a cosmos; it's making up everything around it, including itself. Now if that isn't magic, I don't know what is.
Sounds True: In the Western Mystery Tradition, and in Your Unseen Power, we hear the term “Pathworking.” What is it for? Does it really connect us to old gods or ancient myths?
Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki: Pathworkings, which some people call guided meditations, are as old as humanity itself. Every time you settle down in bed and think about what you're going to do tomorrow, you're doing a very basic Pathworking. Humanity was given two priceless gifts: imagination and the ability to build images in the mind. Pathworking is about training yourself to get the most out of these abilities.
We know through the study of quantum physics that the entire cosmos is built on vibration, which breaks up into things like sound and color and light. When we think, we create images of what we are thinking. We may not know this, we may not think about this, but we do that. In other words, thinking and imaging uses the basic material of the universe. We build things; we create out of the vibration of light, sound, and color. We build these images inside our physical frame.
To this, we add a third gift, the all-important emotion of human desire. Humans want to create; we've always created things, all the way back to Paleolithic times. This is the basis of every successful business, invention, book, painting, or sculpture ever made. And also, it's the basis of every human being conceived and born. The imagination and the ability to build images, the ability to perceive things inside our heads—it's all part of this vibration of the material of the universe.
Pathworking, as we use the term in the Western Mystery Tradition, is how a trained mind creates new concepts of the world around it. It can create these on other levels as well. We can daydream in the astral. There, we can talk and speak and walk with the ancient gods. We can visualize abstract concepts. Then in the physical, we can create around us the mental locations that we've built, like when we can build temples. I think it was a philosopher called Anaximander, who lived in Miletus in ancient Greece, who was the first one to define abstract thought. Then there's the spiritual part as well. We've got these four—the physical, the astral, the mental, and the spiritual. And not only that, there are spaces between those levels. Dimensions that exist between them.
Now, Pathworking can, and does, create worlds, images, events, life forms, concepts, even existences, in and on all those levels that I mentioned. When an idea takes hold of the human imagination, and it's kept in focus for long periods of time, the vibrations of which it is made become real on another level, an inner level. If it is continually focused on, it persists, and gradually, often over many centuries, it will become more and more solid. And then something happens—there's a war or some big upheaval, there's an exodus, or a different teacher comes along and changes the spiritual way of belief, and suddenly less and less power is given to that creation. And it begins to fade away. That is what has happened with things like ancient Egypt and ancient Greece and so on. The people of those times were equally as capable of using this creative imagination that we've been gifted with. And they built up a whole concept of things like the gods and deities, the great halls and places, locations where the gods lived, all these things. And they believed in them. And they gave them life, they created them, through the imagination. So they became real because the emotion and the imagination joined together to make these things absolutely real.
But after a long period of time—remember, that lasted for about five thousand years, so it had plenty of time to get really, really solid—but after a while, other belief systems came in. Judeo-Christianity, the world of Islam, the world of Buddhism, and then suddenly the old gods were just that—old. And they faded. However, they only need a little bit of effort, a little recognition of them, and they are back. Because they never really fade away entirely. Let me give you an example of that. I was with a friend in Greece some years ago. We were at Olympia, and they have a huge complex there of ruins, mainly of the Temple of Zeus. Emily and I were walking through these ruins, and we came across this beautiful old little placard that was chipped and weathered, and it read: “This was the altar that was used in the temple of Zeus.” We looked at each other and we thought, Well, it's been a long time since he was given an offering on his altar. So we collected a few bits of dry wood, put them on the altar. We didn't have any incense, so we sprinkled a little bit of perfume from a bottle that Emily had in her bag. And we set light to it, stood back and admired our little offering, and sort of said, you know, “Hail, Zeus. Here's something to show you're not forgotten.”
And out of a clear blue sky we got a clap of thunder that nearly deafened us. We looked at each other and thought, “Ah, yes, I think we'll go now.” So we went off.
A little while later, we came past a smaller shrine dedicated to Hera, the wife of Zeus. We passed it and I thought, “Oh yes, that's her altar.” We were going past when there was another clap of thunder. All this is on a sunny day. So we got the message. We went back, found some more wood, poured the last of the perfume—and I might add it was an expensive perfume—over that, and lit that. I mean, after all, you can't ignore the wife when you've just given something to the husband. So we left a little offering on both those altars. Okay, so the thunder may have been a coincidence, but I was always taught that coincidences are small acts of magic. And as far as I was concerned, it was a little “Thank you. Haven't had one of those in a long, long time. Love, Zeus.”
Sounds True: At least you weren't approached by an amorous swan.
Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki: Well, swans I can do without. But if it was a shower of gold, I wouldn't mind.>
Pathworking can recreate the old myths and the gods of ancient times, if we put imagination, visualization, and emotion into these Pathworkings. And that will take us all the way back. You can be quite certain the amount of emotion—joy, happiness, and absolute “Wow!” factor—that went into the making and creation of Star Trek and all its spin-offs has created somewhere on the astral level that kind of world, complete with starships, and Captain Kirks, and Spocks, and salt monsters, and what-have-you.
Sounds True: What are the greatest rewards and responsibilities that come with learning magic?
Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki: Inner Balance. A true sense of your own worth, that owes nothing to ego or false pride or pretension; it comes when you wake up to your inner divinity. That isn't to say that you're suddenly going to be able to walk on water. You will always, in the work, walk on the edge of the sword, keeping a continual balance between the two selves—your regular self and your divine self.
We learn through mistakes—that's the only way we can learn. No matter how far you go, and how high your achievements, you will achieve what you learned by mistake. You learn, and adjust, and go on. The main thing is to learn to forgive yourself when you make a mistake, and say, “I have learned through that. I will recognize that mistake when I make it the third or fourth or fifth time.” On the sixth time, you'll get it right.
Responsibility. You will learn that you are just one small particle of life in a vast ocean. But you will also learn you're not alone. You can make a difference, no matter how small. And perhaps the greatest thing you will learn is it is quite true; you are indeed your brother's keeper. That brother might be an intelligent crystal on a planet circling a sun a million light-years away. Or it might be the puppy you just bought. Or your next-door neighbor who plays drums into the early hours of the morning. You are responsible in a deeply spiritual way that, at the moment, you may not understand.
Magic. Sacred science. Call if what you will. It can uplift you, teach you, awaken you, and bless you. It will give you balance; it will give you harmony; it will teach you to take responsibility for what and who you are.