Well, I keep getting asked about "The Basics" again in mail and in chat, so I thought I'd repost some stuff that I had posted some time ago with the addition of some further thoughts.
What are the basics?
The basics, as they are known on this site, are the building blocks of magical practice. They are neither truly al that basic nor so dramatically necessary to the practice of magick as most people on this site will tell you. Stemming from a wide range of cultures, they provide the stepping stones that offer many eclectic magical practitioner the beginning to their path into deeper study of the mystic traditions. Many magical traditions call them by different names and offer different routes to them through different concepts. First and foremost for the new practitioner, I recommend the extensive study of the many and varied traditions of magical practice and their origins. From this study, one will often find a deep understanding of any such beginning steps to practicing on one's own without the need for any such guide. However, as always, many would prefer to neglect history in favor of leaping into "magic."
What is magic?
So then what is magic? First and foremost, it is not the stuff of Hollywood that so many come here, and to other stores of magical knowledge, seeking. Magic, as a practice of the mind, spirit, and body, can certainly influence the physical world. It can alter and stir emotion and the perception of others, and to one extent or another it can influence the world around us. This does not mean, however, that you will be able to control flame and summon wind. It does not mean that the ripples you observe in water are the result of the exertion of your willpower. It does not mean that you can otherwise master and manipulate the elements more than any other man or woman. Why?
Magick, though extraordinary and largely unexplored by modern science, is still rooted within the physics of the world around us. Sure, it may bend some of the rules that most people take for granted. That is merely because of our understanding of these rules is not absolute. Magick may offer slight changes on all levels, but at its core are the simple concepts of inertia and energy. All things forces have an equal and opposite force. Energy cannot be destroyed or otherwise eliminated, it can only change form. This means that to lift an object through telekinesis or manipulate flame through elemental magick or "pyrokinesis" you must somehow supply the same amount of energy such a feat would require in the physical world. Can you lift a car? Imagine how exhausted you'd be if you channeled enough energy to do so merely through willpower. And why bother with smaller objects? You can simply get up and move them yourself, by hand. Even where the development of such wonderful-sounding super powers was possible, it sounds a lot easier, more practical, and even wiser to me to simply do things through a little bit of elbow grease and intelligence.
No, magic is far more than this, despite seeming less at the surface to the beginner. Magic is the art of the subconscious mind melding with the conscious. In the lowest, practical sense, it can help you to achieve your goals and better your life through this subtle influence upon the world around you. In a higher sense, it offers you a deeper understanding of the world around you, and the very fabric that composes all of creation - something that I find to be a far more stimulating pursuit than simply hoping to get that girl you saw in class or on the subway, or put a little extra cash in your pocket.
Often the first thing suggested within the public chat and forums, the urging of more experienced practitioners to first explore meditation can feel like a broken record. And indeed, meditation is often stressed as a solution to complex matters in answer to the common request for spells.
On this site and within most magical practice meditation is commonly regarded as one of the "basics" to learn. Most frequently the view is that through meditative exploration one will develop focus, willpower, and perhaps open pathways to magical power. All of these facets are true, and important to one's magical studies. They are all also detailed repeatedly elsewhere, with many different views on the examination of chakras, energy flows, and other such methods of mystical and spiritual exploration.
What often gets left behind, in my opinion, is the examination of both the internal and the external. What I mean by this is that meditation offers not only an opportunity to examine and improve the flow of energy, but to examine and analytically explore the world outside of yourself as well as the world within yourself.
Within magic, there are many forces at play that can readily alter your state of mind. There are forces at play that will affect emotion and personality. These range from spirits that will intentionally seek to get you riled up, upset, or afraid, to energies that leave you unnaturally content, to those that will leave you numb. But they also encompass the individual psychology of "mastering the forces of nature." Often it will lead to an arrogant, almost megalomaniacal view of one's own ability and power. This is often found within the stages of development where one truly first taps into the energies of the world, and realizes most fully how to manipulate them with one's will and prior to understanding one's true place within those energies, and the subtleties involved within seeking balanced growth (both within and without).
Using meditation to explore "within," or the world within yourself, will help you better understand your own psychological process. It can help you understand the difference between that surge of anger and frustration or fear and anxiety that negative energies might invoke and the true, underlying emotions that are at your core. Knowing your true self will provide you with the confidence and understanding of nature to eventually realize and progress down your path within the world around you without either delusion of grandeur or fear of inadequacy.
Using meditation to explore "without" will similarly allow you to interpret better the world at large. It will help you discover and develop your intuition and otherwise unlock the unconscious senses that eventually result in the ability to "see" and otherwise sense auras, energies, and so forth. It will aid you in exploring the true mind and emotion of others, and therefore see through falsehoods of situation, people, and spirits. It also allows you to see through your own desire to succeed within magic, and know the difference between circumstantial evidence of magic (the flicker of a candle flame being your will... or the breeze created from the natural air currents created by your house's heating system) and the true result of spiritual enlightenment.
In an addition to a deeper understanding of creation (all that surrounds us and is within us), meditation opens the gateway to exercises in energy manipulation, visualization, and many, many techniques that stem from a wide array of traditions within magical practice.
Humility and Courtesy
While not often mentioned as key concepts within "The Basics," I feel that humility and courtesy are crucial to the development of any magical practice. While frequently regarded as simple virtues of the physical world which, unfortunately, seem to be widely disregarded in this day and age, it is my opinion that both have rich heritage within metaphysical tradition.
Humility, born of looking "inward" through meditation and contemplation, is the result of an honest view of one's self. It is the realization that while you really know a great deal, you are likely ignorant to just as much. It is the true assessment of your own strengths and the honest ability to admit when you are wrong. Obviously, this has many positive social implications. But the implications in magic are just as great; true humility provides you with the honest ability to learn, grow, find balance, and honestly interpret all that you sense.
Similarly, viewing everything without through meditation cultivates a sense of respect for all things that exist, as everything has its necessary place within the balance of the multiverse. Good requires evil. Light requires darkness. Creation requires destruction. Chaos requires Law. And so on. The result is courtesy... A standard in etiquette that you will discover to be most profoundly useful in the dealings of all intelligent forces. Men and women respond more favorably to please and thank you than they do to "give me now." A dog will instinctively react with anger or fear to hostile intentions and overt lack of respect. A spirit, in turn, will see you as fair game if you cannot treat it with calm courtesy. The examination of without brings us, through necessity, to the realize that it is far better (and easier) to simply cooperate and work with the world and entities around us than it is to force it all to our will. This is courtesy.
As such, these concepts, I feel, are vastly important to the young magician, witch, or spiritual practitioner. They are far more valuable than any semantics in color magic or any exploration of herbalism, chakras, or spellcraft. These concepts, at the core of mystical study, provide you with a solid foundation upon which to build spiritually. And perhaps possessing an equal value, they provide you with a firm foundation for developing your role among all that lives and currently exists.
While some may argue with my point of view on this, it is my contention that in many cases the exploration of the chakras is over emphasized. Too many new practitioners appear to be overly concerned with the degree to which they can open one chakra or another, for one reason they read about or another.
The Chakras, as I have come to understand them, are a metaphor for the flows of energy through the body that originates within Indian mystical tradition. Many consider them deeply important to magical practice as they provide for us a rather clear understanding of both our physical, mental, and spiritual state of well being as well as the manner in which we interact with the world on all three of these levels. Their contemplation allows us to not only monitor these interactions and energetic flows to help maintain a degree of health, but also come to a deeper understanding as to how we work on all levels, and, through this, how the world around us works.
If you take time to simply meditate upon the chakras, observing them within your practice as you go through daily life, you will observe changes within the flow of your energy rooted within your mood, physical state of being, as well as with how open, aware, and receptive you have become to all things. For example, the heart chakra might flutter open when love blossoms between you and another, or it may grow dark with negativity after you have been hurt or had your heart broken. Similarly, the third eye chakra may open as you become more aware and understanding of the energies that exist around you.
You will note too, that you need not stress about these things. Indeed, struggling, and generally trying too hard to develop your chakras in any way will only cause more harm than good. The goal is harmony and understanding, within and without, and to rush the development of anyone chakra simply because you wish to attain a new experience will only leave you inhibited further down the road.
Balance within the chakras, as is often sought out, or imbalance if that is particularly looked after, can always be achieved through the activities one pursuits. Healthy mind and body will often be reflected in a healthy energy flow. Similarly, seeking enlightenment and understanding will result in such things as the opening of the third eye, and so forth.
Much as The Chakras, the Elements are the next thing that all new comers gravitate to. They seek to immediately answer the question "What is my element?", to which they are lured through misconception and curiosity, often believing that in having a personal element they will gain greater ability within magic, regarding that element, or otherwise possess fantastic powers that (as we have discussed above) are simply not attainable.
Well, the answer to "What is my element?" is simply: All of them. You are all of the elements at once, even as you embody none of them. Water is the glue that holds you together. It flows through every cell, tissue, and organ, and helps sustain you with all of the nutrients you need. Earth gives you substance and form. It is what defines you, what makes you solid and stable. Fire gives you passion and the spark of life. It is the pure warmth of the living. Air is whim, creativity, thought. It is the vapors of your longs and the vapor of your mind. You are all of these things.
What then, of spirit you ask? You have read of the fifth element, as it is sometimes called. Traditionally, Spirit is not an element at all. The elements cling to the physical. They define matter and all that exists in this world. Spirit is the touch of the divine. It is your soul, it is good and evil.
And what then of the other sub groups that some modern practices teach of? Lightning, smoke, light, darkness, ice and so forth? These are unnecessary. They are but aspects of the four base elements, which encompass all. Smoke is air given form, a coupling of air and earth. Ice is water deprived of fire. Darkness is the absence of fire's light. Lightning? Fire and air, striking briefly.
You need not seek to be any one of these. You are not just one. Sure, you may possess a kinship or a familiarity with the aspects of a single element above all others. In this case, begin your studies with this one. Allow it to help you understand the rhythms and flow of nature as you expand your study of the elements to all others. If you pin yourself to one, you only hinder yourself.
If you seek a deeper understanding of the spiritual relationship of the elements, I suggest exploring Agrippa's concepts within "The Three Books of Occult Philosophies." His exploration of the elements, though brief, offers a keen understanding of each force's properties. Similarly, if you'd like to explore them in more depth, Eliphas Levi wrote a great work offering detailed pathworking exercises in coming to understand each in turn.
Energy, as it is so frequently called, is not necessarily a separate force from any other within the physical world or the spiritual. It is a part of everything, and yet nothing. It abides by all of the laws of physics, and yet possesses no true physical form over which physics can govern it.
Now, that mess of contradictions will leave a lot of people scratching their heads. What do I mean? Energy is creation. Energy is magic. Energy is the core of our spirits, the core of all demons, angels, spirits, and so forth. Energy is the essence of magic. It is the essence of the mundane. Energy is our will turned into action. Through the art of magic, we learn to influence energy and achieve the results that we seek by translating conscious desire into subconscious thought and other subtle influences.
Will, willpower, etc. is that which we use to make magic happen. Many arts instruct that through the use of various magical tools we can enhance this, and certainly such aids are helpful but they aren't strictly necessary, either. Whatever path you end up finding for yourself, the bottom line is that the goal is to control your conscious whim, thought, desire, etc. utterly, melding it with your subconscious to help exert an influence upon yourself, or the world around you. Will therefore is the effort through which we craft magic.
Deceptively comparable to simply "imagining," Visualization is the process through which we visually transform our will into the magic we wish to manifest. Utilizing this process, we more or less imagine what we wish the impact of our magic to be, mingling this visual image with all of our intense, desire, and emotion, as well as the force of our will, to aid us in achieving the desired results.
By no means the end-all-be-all, this guide touches upon many of the terms and concepts that you will see many more experienced folks discussing in chatter and in forums. Hopefully it will provide you with an understanding and reference point for your future research. Don't be afraid to borrow, purchase, download or otherwise explore all of the books on the topic you can. And certainly don't hesitate to use Google or other search engines to find more opinions and options as well. Good luck!