Sable Aradia presents some considerations on both the pros and cons of self-teaching Witchcraft. Looking at things such as choice of study curriculum, level of discipline, external limitations, and politics, Sable does a decent job of looking at how walking alone has some advantages, but having some friends might help as well.
The obvious advantage to a self-directed course of study is that you get to choose what you spend time on. As a consequence, the Craft becomes a lifelong journey that never gets boring. There’s always something new to engage your attention, no matter how many years you’ve been doing it for (though there are humps and slumps, just like in anything else.)
The disadvantage of this is that often important things are missed in one’s study, especially when it comes to the basics. Sometimes, the essentials of magick and the Craft are a “wax on, wax off” type thing, where the basic skills are necessary, but boring; and sometimes, they look a little bit like make-work.
Like Sable, my first instructional text was Donald Michael Kraig’s Modern Magick. (Or at least my first practical instructional text. Liber 777 doesn’t make a great starter text.) It had a great framework to get started, actually had you doing exercises, and had lessons broken up in digestible pieces. Before that I had consumed a great deal of information about magic and the occult, but Modern Magick organized it in a way that enabled me to put it into practice.
I like to think of my magical career as more of a college arrangement. I am free to pursue any direction or subject I wish, to any extent I am willing to invest in, but I like to stick to “class”-sized units that are organized in such a way that I can make sense of them. Kind of a best of both worlds of learning from others’ curricula at my own desired pace.
[T]he only person whose standards I had to meet was me, and I’m a pretty stern taskmaster. I diligently practiced the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram each and every day at the tender age of 14, just as Kraig’s book directed, and I never found it to be “work” as a result. Furthermore, I was not limited by anyone else’s restrictions as to what I was, and was not, ready to learn. I did his entire year-long course in magick within six months, which was a wild ride, to be sure, but well within my abilities, and I was desperately hungry to learn.
The disadvantage, of course, is that for some of us, a gentle kick in the butt (or maybe not so gentle) is often necessary. My husband is not naturally inclined to be motivated sometimes. For him, a group setting was indispensable for real progress; otherwise, his pace was simply too relaxed to really accomplish much.
I am a creature of habit and inertia. I can make a ritual practice utter habitual — once I overcome that abstract “hump” of motivation. Not having an external pressure to perform can be a great relief, but having a work-out buddy can keep you one task. Many times I have fallen out of practice because I was unable to keep myself accountable, and had no one else to encourage me.
That brings me to the discussion of restrictions. A lot of Pagans choose to be solitary because they don’t want to be limited in what they do. Maybe you would like to experiment with hexes and you know the local covens don’t approve. On the other hand, maybe there’s a reason they don’t approve.
The other issue to weigh is that sometimes you will want to accomplish something that you simply can’t do on your own. It’s not impossible to get a group of solitaries together for a specific reason, but it is more difficult.
I choose to be solitary because my magical and religious approach is unique and specific enough that I simply don’t often want to cater to someone else’s sensibilities (at least not with regard to my personal work — I work with groups as it suits me). Perhaps that is a type of restriction: in order to work with a group, you usually have to agree to some sort of rules. I don’t always like those. But true, sometimes it’s good to get some help. Maybe a temporary truce can be arranged?
Wisely, many Witches choose to remain solitary because they don’t want to deal with politics. There’s no sugar-coating this: working with people is never easy and there are always power struggles, especially in Witchcraft when so much of our Work is about learning who we really are, dealing with our personal issues, and focusing and developing our Wills. It almost invites such problems. My only advice on this is to try to take everything with a grain of salt and seriously consider the situation before reacting. Is the High Priestess’ insistence on using “Lady” actually the arrogance it appears to be; or is it because that’s the way her tradition does things and she wants to teach you respect for her tradition’s ways; or is it simply that she’s trying to maintain a formal study atmosphere? Is the Coven Maiden actually a drama queen or is she just struggling with her Second Degree?
The desire to avoid politics in paganism amuses me for a few reasons:
1) Many pagans tend to be socially awkward (and may even celebrate that fact), which can make normal social interactions seem difficult.
2) Every pagan group I have been affiliated with has complained about the infighting and bickering between pagan groups in the pagan community, and immediately followed those complaints with gossip and blame targeting the other groups.
3) Many pagans seem to expect people who use magic to not act like normal, everyday people and have the same aspirations or personal faults as “cowans.” Sure, High Priestess Fluffykins may really be petty, or she may just be genuinely concerned about details that you just don’t care about.
4) Many magic users seem to think that magical knowledge or skill equates to social skill or status. It doesn’t.
5) Sometimes getting involved in a group and learning to deal with the politics is what will help you develop. Taking your ball and going home can be a way of escaping the problem.
That said, most of the magical groups I have worked with have fallen apart due to some manner of political drama or discord. Go figure.
All of these points are good ones, and the pros and cons all make sense. But I’m not keen on an either/or situation. I have worked with many groups, but most of my practice is solitary. I have learned much from both, as well as one-on-one relationships with mentors. They all contribute.
So why not participate in a group that follows a more rigid developmental regimen? Do your own work on the side according to your whimsey. Pursue your own studies, but at least talk to someone about it and ask them to remind you to stay on track. (Often just asking questions on occasion will work.) Work with a group for the extra oomph, but do the work they wouldn’t want to help with on your own. Learn to play in the politics, but keep your alliances loose and your allegiances gentle: find out things first hand, not by word of mouth. Stay connected in your community, even if you work alone.
Because working with friends helps, but most magic happens within, and you can’t have anyone do that for you.