"...An excellent man of great intelligence, a learned Qabalist, once amazed (me) by stating that the Tree of Life was the framework of the Universe. It was as if someone seriously maintained that a cat was a creature constructed by placing the letters C.A.T. in that order. It is no wonder that Magick has excited the ridicule of the unintelligent, since even its educated students can be so guilty of so gross a violation of the first principles of common sense..."
- Aleister Crowley, Magick: In Theory and Practice
For the last 25 years or so, on a fairly regular basis, I have had dealings with spirits.
Mind you, I am hardly alone in this. Any Catholic who prays to Mary or the Saints, any Hindu who communes with the gods, any child delighted by Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny has done much the same. Of course, in such cases the communication is usually one sided; we talk, and the spirits listen. But my involvement with them is a bit more active. When I talk, they talk back. I see them, hear them, invite them over to my place and occasionally drop in at theirs.
Magick is a tricky business. Unlike religion, it asks you to "do" rather than "believe." For example, billions of Muslims throughout history have believed that the prophet Mohammad spoke with the archangel Jibreel (Gabriel) in a cave. If Mohammad had been a Magician, rather than a prophet, instead of handing over the Qur'an he would have instructed his disciples how to call Gabriel themselves. In this way, Magick is like a science, because it depends on a series of techniques that theoretically anyone can use to achieve similar results. Where it breaks with science, however, is that these results are internal and difficult to share. Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) summed it up in his Confessions;
"I admit that my visions can never mean to other men as much as they do to me. I do not regret this. All I ask is that my results should convince seekers after truth that there is beyond doubt something worth while seeking, attainable by methods more or less like mine. I do not want to father a flock, to be the fetish of fools and fanatics, or the founder of a faith whose followers are content to echo my opinions. I want each man to cut his own way through the jungle."
Thus, the techniques of Magick, once practiced and mastered, consistently produce results. The problem is that these results are usually personal. This is not to say that they cannot have any validity for others, but rather that it is best if each and every individual experience the results for themselves and come to their own conclusions. And there is a danger even in that. Just as in religion, it is dangerous in Magick to ever conclude you have found all the "answers." As Crowley warned his students at the very beginning of their magickal studies;
"It is spoken of the Sephiroth, and the Paths, of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether they exist or not. By doing certain things certain results follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them."
In other words, in all his dealings with spirits and visions, the Magician must remain detached, skeptical, and objective. The ones who fail to do so usually end up as the nuts who give Magick a bad name.
I can look you straight in the eye and tell you I have conjured spirits to visible appearance, and that it was not simply a case of imagining them. Rather, the techniques of Magick have brought me to a point where I can willingly induce a sort of hallucination, or perhaps more accurately a waking dream. I am awake, alert, and fully conscious, but can see and hear and on occasion even smell the being or entity before me. Nor do i "tell myself" what the spirit looks like or control what it says and does. Whatever part of me the experience is coming from is separate from the conscious regions of my brain.
This is where many would-be Magicians stumble. During the period where you are interacting with the spirit, it must be just as real to you as your neighbor or co-worker. But once the spirit is gone, it absolutely must not be. Once the guest is gone and the lights come back on, it is best for you to pour a drink, go have a shag, take a shower, and put your sane, skeptical hat back on. You need to get back "into" the world. The people who get lost in the mazes of the occult are the ones who want to follow the spirits back into them.
"Thus, when we say that Nakhiel is the "Intelligence" of the Sun, we do not mean that he lives in the Sun, but only that he has a certain rank and character; and although we can invoke him, we do not necessarily mean that he exists in the same sense of the word in which our butcher does..."
- Aleister Crowley, Magick: In Theory and Practice
But just as I can say to you that I do not believe the spirits exist the same way my friends do, I can't tell you that I am "making them up." They do, indeed, behave as if they have an existence entirely separate from me. Further, they often seem capable of things I am not. This is why I have learned over the years not to pitch camp on either side of the "they exist" or "they don't exist" argument. In fact, I can see the merits of arguing from either side, and depending on my needs can assume either position. I suppose part of this was my graduate school experience, where I learned a convincing argument can be made for just about any position in the world. Politicians call this "spin."
But why do it? What is the point of any of it at all? Crowley would tell you;
"The advantages to be gained...are chiefly these: A) A widening of the horizon of the mind. B) An improvement of the control of the mind."
Speaking for myself, I can say that I have had intensely profound experiences which challenged my preconceptions, forced me to look at things from a different angle, and occasionally even initiated life-changing events. Because the one thing that Magick cannot fail to do is strip away the layers of your own character armor and expose you to yourself. Operations of this kind forced me to confront and accept my sexual identity, pointed me in the direction of my deepest wishes and desires, and even caused me to pack my bags and leave the land of my birth for Japan. At least in my life, I have always found that I am a better person when doing the Magicks then when I slack off them (as I had the last three years, with disastrous results).
I suppose that Magick has provided me with what religion gives others, minus the dogma. Through Magick, I have experienced wonders, seen mind-blowing things, and come to feel connected to a greater and larger reality. In times of stress or need, I have turned to the spirits rather than prayer, always with excellent results. Whether or not these things would have turned out the way they did without the Magick is immaterial; I have always felt that one of the most beneficial aspects of prayer is alleviating one's sense of helplessness in situations he or she cannot control. Though some Magicians will promise you health, wealth, love, and happiness in your dealings in spirits, the best ones don't. We aren't hawking The Secret here after all. But you will feel empowered.