The Art of Being a Student of Magic

Episode 14 – The Art of Being a Student of Magic The Waxing Soul

Episode Transcript:

I’m Bridget Owens and you're listening to the Waxing Soul podcast where we're adventuring into the world of mindful modern magic and authentic spiritual practice.

It's February 3, 2022, and today's topic is how to study and learn as a student of magic.

Are you ready to grow your soul?

Hello witchy friends and welcome to spring! For today I wanted to kind of use last week’s topic as a jumping off point and talk more deeply about actually, like, how to be a good student of magic.

This is kind of a weird topic for me to get into in some ways because I… When I was younger, being a good student was really the core of my identity. It was how I understood my identity and who I was. And at the same time, when I was in high school I was asked now and then to tutor other students and I really struggled with it because it was one of those, like, sometimes I didn’t have a system or a way of explaining how I knew things or how I figured out things that actually translated to other people very well, especially if they were struggling. I’ve very rarely struggled to learn things as far as, you know, the literal act of putting information into my brain so that it sticks at least long enough to pass whatever class or test I’m learning it for if it’s not something I really want to know and learn about.

But what I can also say now with some, like, perspective on things, years of perspective, is that being good at picking up information isn’t what makes someone a good student. And in the real world, if we want to use that kind of phrasing, the model of learning that we learn from school isn’t really a good model in practical terms for a lot of reasons.

So what I want to get into today is some guidance for really being a good student of magical life, including how to get started as a newbie in all of this, although I think this is really pertinent to everyone. We could all stand to elevate our approach to learning and advancing our practice and just learning and expanding our understanding in a general sense.

So the first thing I think we need to acknowledge and get into as a foundational concept here is that learning magic isn’t going to be like learning in a school environment or a formal training environment. Unless you’re literally signing up with a teacher or a program that is going to guide and shape your magical education, in which case I still would say it’s only a part of your learning journey.

If you think about how school is set up, how it works, there are a few basic assumptions that go along with it, that set that up as the right way for things to be. One being that there’s a collection of knowledge that all students need to have to function as members of society, which actually in the case of public school has a lot to do with the stuff people need to learn to be employable. And which I absolutely would agree that there are some basic concepts and common skills that are good to know as a magical practitioner, there’s not an across-the-board curriculum that fits everyone.

And even more than that, the idea of school is that these things are learned in a controlled environment, a low-risk environment where things are mostly theoretical and on paper or demonstrated and used in small-scale, low risk classroom contexts because that whole process is separated from the real world application by a rite of passage, a bestowal of credentials by experts. Right? Like, you learn stuff and pass tests and then the teachers and administrators stamp you as graduated. Designate you as, like, basically functional as an adult. Doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve learned the things you need, doesn’t mean you’ve retained the things you’ve learned, and it doesn’t have anything at all to say about your understanding of why the things you’ve learned are important, how to apply them, when to apply them, any of that.

Plus there’s the fact that the whole system relies on there being standards for the training of the teachers, right?

And the thing is that none of this applies when we’re talking about learning magic. There isn’t a consistent agreed-upon basic curriculum, everyone is teaching from their experience and what they got from their teachers, there’s not a theoretical environment for learning separate from real-world application of magic, and therefore any credentials that do exist in the world of spirituality and magical practice aren’t really the equivalent to something like a degree or a diploma.

And what I think we all need to realize from all this is that it means that the responsibility for shaping our learning journey, guiding it, deciding what to learn, how to learn, when we’re ready is all up to us.

Which is… I know it’s intimidating and can be paralyzing for people because it means that there’s inherent risk in it. Even if you find a mentor or someone to guide you and teach you, you’re not just doing bookwork and taking tests – and if you are, that’s… you’re not really learning to do magic, you’re only learning theory – and in the end you’re learning what they know, which doesn’t mean you’re learning what you need and want to know for your own path. And good mentors are hard to find, just in general, and especially if you’re not planning to pay someone for that service.

So that leaves especially new practitioners in a position of wondering why nobody will guide them, looking for someone to at least point them to good teachers and lay out the progression of curriculum. But what is really needed is to learn to be a student. To learn to be a self-guided learner, to unlearn the book-to-test-to-certificate kind of learning structure and actually learn to learn in our own way. Which is what I hoped to get across to some extent last week, but I really want to dig into some of the practicalities of self-guided, self-driven learning.

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Now back to the episode!

So if the best way to learn isn’t to find a good teacher and rely on them to guide us in the right direction, how are we supposed to actually learn? Like, what does it mean to be a self-guided student and to unlearn the formally structured system of learning that we’ve been basically indoctrinated to think is the way learning happens?

And the first thing I would say is that there’s some unlearning to do before the learning. As much as I know there’s, like, real frustration that comes from… I think probably all of us starting out were or are told that we’re supposed to do our research, maybe we’re told to focus first on learning protection magic or whatever, but otherwise there seems to just be this expectation that we pick stuff up and jump in without any real guidance. Just to pick up a book and a couple of supplies and just go for it. It’s frustrating guidance, but it’s… I mean, that’s what gets recommended because it’s how most of us learned.

But I do think there’s some better advice to be had, and I would start with immersion. To some extent there’s, like, an element of learning a new culture, learning a new language in the process of developing a magical practice, so in some ways that’s a good parallel. You learn a language more quickly by surrounding yourself with people who speak it, sources that are written or recorded in that language, rather than just doing the traditional lessons. It’s easier to understand a culture when you’re surrounded by it and immersed in it. And this is really no different.

So starting to surround yourself and involve yourself with others who practice magic is an important step. Consume media created by other practitioners. Not because they’ll become your teachers or because everything you’ll find, everyone you’ll find is right or has something valuable to say, but you do learn a lot about the dynamics, the way other practitioners conduct themselves, by just watching and listening. You pick up on the lingo and the customs and unspoken rules.

You also learn a certain amount by observation that way, and I think one of the key skills in self-guided learning is observation. Not only in the sense of, “hey they’re doing something that looks cool and I want to do that” or “they sound like they know things so I’ll rely on them to teach me.” More in a really, like, grounded and analytical way. Going back to some of the stuff from last week of, like, practicing discernment and asking why people are doing these things, why they’re doing them that way.

Plus, this is a really good opportunity as far as, just, if you hear a word being used that you don’t know, look it up. If there’s a concept being discussed that you don’t understand, look it up. And once you feel like you’ve got some bit of a handle on the culture, the community, what is going on, like, speaking the language of magic and moving in the culture, then you’ll want to do two things.

The first is to get into action. Small action, if that’s how you want to start off. I like… I’ve mentioned on here before what I did when I first found out about sigil magic and wanted to try it out. I did what I would call inconsequential spells. They were experimental, and they were for outcomes that, you know, if they worked in ways I didn’t intend, the worst outcome would be something, like, harmless and funny. That’s always an option if you don’t want to just take your chances and go big or go home.

But the important thing is getting into action. Learning by doing and learning through experience, because it forces a couple of things to happen. It forces you to make some decisions about what to do with that magic. It forces you to consider possible techniques and materials. It forces you to look at options which is a learning experience in itself. You can look at lists and tutorials and all kinds of stuff and the amount of information likely to stay in your brain will be kind of random and unpredictable. But you’ll be able to better think back to, like, your process of putting together your first spells, shopping for and choosing your first tools, and remember why you made those choices.

I think one of the best examples of how this happens for me even now just came up recently. One of the things I’ve started doing in 2022 is using crystals in something of a divinatory way, by which I mean that I have a little dish full of tumbled crystals and on Mondays after I’ve done a little tarot spread I get context on what it means for me to take action or what to focus on by picking a crystal by feel. I hold each one without looking at what I’m picking up and the one that feels right energetically becomes my stone for the week. Now, I’ve worked with crystals since my very very early days as a witch, at some point I’m going to write a crystal guide with a geologist buddy of mine, but learning and memorizing the properties of lots of crystals is a… I mean, that’s a huge pile of data to memorize. And some of my crystals I don’t know where they came from, I don’t know on sight what they are.

So one Monday I picked out a mustardy-yellow rock, and I did a little research and determined it was yellow jasper. And I noted down the properties and figured out what that was kind of telling me in conjunction with the tarot reading, and that was that. Same way I’ve now become acquainted with stones I’ve not worked with much in the past like chiastolite or zebra jasper. Still, just because it’s come up once doesn’t mean I’ll remember long term what the properties are.

But yellow jasper, even though I don’t usually get a lot of crystal content on my TikTok for whatever reason, that Monday I picked out a yellow jasper I got two separate videos coming up which specifically mentioned yellow jasper. And then later than week when I finally unpacked some stuff I’d bought on a road trip several months before, I found I’d bought a yellow jasper carved rose necklace. I ended up talking about yellow jasper because the synchronicities were funny, and ultimately, like… I’m not going to easily forget yellow jasper, right?

So getting into action is the best way to learn things because you learn things in relation to your own experiences, your own memories, you associate things with more than just text on a screen or lists of facts and stuff. Which is, really, all stuff you can look up and will look up all through your life. Experience is how most people finally memorize and master tarot. It’s how learning happens best. So getting into some kind of action, jumping in and trying things out is the absolute most important part of learning.

The second really crucial thing you’ll want to do is to enter into dialog with other practitioners, and not just the ones you agree with, and not just to fight with the ones you don’t agree with.

Now, I know that not all practitioners are also interested in being, like, philosophers or subject matter experts or whatever, but the thing about magic is that not only isn’t it a, like, here’s your curriculum, do this, learn from these certified teachers, that kind of thing, it’s also a living thing. It changes as humanity and human society changes. So that means it’s important to stay in contact with the larger community even if it’s only to kind of have that contact with new ideas and the shifts going on within it.

That’s maybe the most important stuff to know and study and learn. Because frankly all the technical stuff, the techniques of here’s how to do a spell or use this herb or whatever, that stuff is easy to find when you need it. But if you’re not paying more attention to the larger conversation and context around some of this stuff, you end up with a practice that isn’t… You know how I’ve talked about the flow of spirit including the flow of ideas, and that’s what it takes for your practice to be a healthy, living thing. Asking the hard questions about ethics and meaning, the further-reaching impact of our practices, the assumptions we make that might be not even healthy for ourselves, hearing and being aware of different takes on the things we do and believe. If you want to really learn magic, really be a good student of magic, that means not cutting yourself off from the larger magical context and flow. It means being open and yet discerning about new ideas, new critiques, new input that can impact and hone or refine your practice.

So next let’s dig into this issue of discernment specifically in terms of learning, teaching, educational content.

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Let’s talk about the concept of expertise. Because this is a major sticking point, I think, when it comes to the way a lot of us struggle to be self-guided learners within the world of magic and witchcraft. We’re told and taught to find experts to learn from, to vet our sources and teachers, but how are we supposed to do that, especially for those of us who aren’t in, like, a path where there’s some kind of initiatory thing or a way that experts or elders or whatever are certified or selected or trained?

The thing is, as weird as this might be for a lot of people to think about, the idea of expertise is flawed. Especially within the magical world, since there isn’t very much that’s actually objective, practical, testable stuff that someone could be certified in or whatever. Magic is built on ideas more than knowledge, which is something I’ll circle back to.

But the thing about expertise is that knowledge and experience isn’t static. We’re constantly learning new things as a species, we’re constantly advancing what we know, and we’re using that new knowledge to spawn new ideas and inspire new theories. So no certification of expertise is worth much after time passes.

That’s why even in industries and fields which do require certifications and lots of knowledge, continuing education is always a thing. If the so-called expert doesn’t continually work to be up on all the latest knowledge and ideas, their status as expert continually becomes less and less relevant. Expertise is temporary at best.

So the danger of picking someone you consider to be an expert and learning from them is that even if they impart all their knowledge to you and you retain it all, you’d still have to continue to learn to for that expertise to continue to mean what you want it to.

Now this doesn’t mean there’s no point in learning from people who are mentors or teachers who have a depth of understanding and knowledge we don’t have. But it’s just really important to remember that your practice is your own, and when you seek out a teacher or a mentor or even a book or a course or whatever it’s for a purpose that you choose. You decide what you want to learn or get guidance on, and then seek out the right source for that, after which you then move on to the next thing.

I think this is super important because otherwise what we get is… You know, when someone latches onto someone else and lets them guide their path, gives that person the reins to their spiritual development, you get into a guru situation. You stop being a student and start being a follower. So, you know, that’s… I think that’s probably not what most of us are looking for but it’s kind of easy to fall into.

Like I pointed out earlier, the best way to learn things is experience, and if someone else is shaping your experiences you end up only learning what they think you should know. And when it comes to being guided or taught, you know what isn’t the most important thing that sets good teachers and guides apart from bad ones? It’s not how much they know. I’m sure we all can look back on our school days and think of teachers who knew things but were terrible teachers. And we had to sit through their awful teaching, but we don’t have to do that in our own spiritual practice.

Honestly, I think especially in the beginning, the best thing to do is when you’re doing the thing I mentioned before of looking up things you don’t understand or want to know more about as they come up, if you struggle to get a clear answer or want a deeper understanding, then seek out a teacher or guide or whatever who is a good choice for getting you that information.

And stop there.

Like, don’t pick someone early on to exert a ton of control on your practice. Keep a hold on the wheel.

So, like, if you’re starting to get into, say, energy healing and you feel like you’ve got questions that your research isn’t answering for you, go looking for someone who is experienced – that’s more important than self-proclaimed expertise or certificates – find someone who not only has experience and actively does energy healing but who is also open to questions and offers their guidance. Don’t assume just anyone is ready or willing to take the time and energy to teach, particularly not for free. But go looking for the answers you need as an extension to your research. And ask specific questions. Not, like, “hey, can you teach me energy healing,” but more like, “hey, I’ve noticed you do xyz and I’ve looked that up but I feel like I’m missing something, can you explain this thing that doesn’t make sense to me?”

And here’s the last bit of advice on all of this that I think is crucial to cover. There is no reason that whatever ideas you have should be considered less valid than if they come from someone else. The things you learn in your experiences is just as valid as the things others learn in their experiences. Ideas and knowledge should come from within because that’s how the flow of spirit in the form of ideas actually works. You take in ideas and experience and things you learn and that stuff will inspire questions and ideas. When you share those ideas and questions and whatever with others – and you should – you will get feedback and guidance in return. Not all your ideas will be good or valuable or well-received. But those that are will be taken up by others and changed and evolved as they spread. That’s your contribution to the spiritual world. It’s how not only we learn and evolve, it’s how the whole species learns and evolves.

Thank you so much for listening.
New episodes of the Waxing Soul drop every Thursday.
All materials and resources except the music are copyright Bridget Owens.
Many thanks to my readers, listeners, friends, mentors, inspirations, and my framily for riding with me into season two.
Until next week, blessed be and be good to yourself.

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