My martial arts instructor said something the other day that’s been on my mind. I was working on my latest form, which I just started learning maybe two weeks ago, and we got to talking about how there’s more to a form than technically performing the movements. I’ve got the sequence down, and my technique is good, but there are places where I’m not really “feeling” the form. He pointed this out to me by saying that there’s a difference between feeling the energy of the form and “someone told me to do this.” In other words, just going through the sequence because that’s how you were told to do it is very different from feeling the flow of one movement into the next, and fully understanding in both mind and body what you are doing, and why.
At the same time, you have to learn the form before you start feeling it, and that requires just doing the movements as taught. For me, an early focus on technique allows me to move into a phase of working with the form internally, where I can focus on the meaning and the energy of the movements without having to consciously think about them. Visualizing the imaginary opponents I’m fighting, paying attention to changes in direction and tempo, varying the speed and intensity with which I move – all of these things help me feel my way into the form. Repetition is key, but it becomes much more than a mechanical repetition that’s the same every time; instead, each performance of it brings the form closer to being a living embodiment of my art, and a moving meditation on energy and flow.
You can probably see how this got me thinking about magick. For one thing, there’s that meditation aspect, and the need to keep a sense of “aliveness” in rituals that are repeated often. I especially see standardized rituals like the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram (LBRP) as being like martial arts forms, and while they carry the risk of going stale with repetition, they also offer the opportunity to find deeper and deeper meanings over time.
They also provide some structure for strengthening the basic techniques that go into them, and for seeing some of the ways in which those techniques can be combined. Using the example of the LBRP again, you combine drawing precise pentagrams, holding specific postures, vibrating Divine names, sensing and moving energy, and visualization, all while maintaining clear focus while moving through space. You could practice these one at a time, just like you could spend an hour throwing nothing but side kicks, but it’s much more interesting to combine them into a specific rite. I’d also argue that in both magick and martial arts, practicing these things in combination is ultimately more valuable than doing each of them in isolation, because the transition points are important, too.
There are martial arts styles, and individual martial artists, who dislike forms as inhibiting spontaneity, preferring free-form practice and sparring, which I agree are absolutely necessary if your goal is actual fighting skill. If you become locked into a set series of moves to the point where you can’t properly respond to something that isn’t choreographed, well, that’s a problem. But I don’t think forms are meant to substitute for all other types of practice, just as I don’t think all magick requires three-hour rituals in full regalia – I just think that they offer a very different type of experience that can be quite valuable.
And so, while I also work magick that is simple and spontaneous, I really like having some longer rituals that I practice often. Things like the LBRP can look complicated and clunky at first glance (in which case, don’t even peek at the Greater Pentagram Rituals!) but as with a martial arts form, once the steps are familiar you can start to feel the energy flowing through them. But, again, as with a lot of things you can’t start to feel it until you’ve done it for a while, or done something close enough that you can readily adapt. That’s why I think it’s good to have some specific set of practices to start with when first learning magick, or learning a new style of magick; not only does that give you something manageable to work with, in this age of a zillion spellbooks, but working with the same rituals or spells repeatedly lets you start to feel what you’re doing, rather than just following the steps because “someone told me to do this.”