Is Intention Really Everything?
You see and hear it everywhere in the online world of witchcraft:
“Intention is everything!” cries one witch as the others nod and agree, as if it is some unquestioned law of magic. So in this article, I am going to question that law and see if it actually holds up to scrutiny.
“Intention is everything” has its roots not in the occult, but in the New Thought movement (although they do overlap of course). It is unsurprising then that the most popular articles on intention are by New Age rather than occult authors. One site advises:
“Before your dreams can come true, you need to define them and shift your life toward receiving abundance. One of the simplest ways to do this is to set intentions for everything you do. The benefits are twofold: It creates awareness that helps keep you mindful in the now, rather than wallowing in the past or worrying for the future. And it injects energy into building the life of your dreams.”
This in and of itself is good advice. Setting an intention helps you to be clear about what you want and feel positive about achieving it. It allows you to take a more mindful and confident approach to life. This is simple and effective popular psychology, but it isn’t magic.
Things start to look a bit more magical in another article by a different author who states:
“Intention is my command to the universe on the belief that it is reciprocated. Because the universe is so intelligent, it will set to work as soon as you set the intention. It will start creating what you desire.…the secret is to not to doubt it’s ability, so you don’t confuse it.”
There are several problems with this statement. First of all, it is deeply hubristic to suggest you can command the universe by something as simple as setting an intention. One can find spells and rituals in texts like the Greek Magical Papyri for commanding gods, but even the PGM magicians don’t usually try to command the entire universe! This approach is extremely individualistic and fails to consider that the entities you are working with may have intentions of their own which will not necessarily align with yours. The universe does not revolve around you. The author also contradicts themselves by stating that the universe is “so intelligent” but a bit of self-doubt can somehow “confuse it,” which seems unlikely. The other thing this statement fails to account for is that sometimes we do not get what we want. Shit happens, if everyone could have anything just by thinking it then we would live in a very different world. Michael Berg, writing for the Kabbalah Center, recognises this and says:
“When an outcome appears negative, it cannot truly be negative if the intention behind it was positive. As long as the cause is pure, even if the effect appears negative, it is spiritually positive in the eyes of the Creator. This goes both ways. When things are going the way we want, we think it means we must be doing something right, and we pat ourselves on the back. But if we manifest great things in the world from a place of impure intentions, then it doesn’t matter how positive the result was, it is not building a stronger connection to the Creator. It is only the cause that matters, not the effect.”
This is worse. What he is saying is that your actions don’t matter as long as you have good intentions. This is patently incorrect. An essential part of being a witch is taking responsibility for your actions and actually creating change. The world is going to judge by what you do, not what you think, so you might as well do your best to act with integrity. Claiming that it’s ok because you had good intentions, however, is not going to cut the mustard.
What about the gods and spirits, maybe they are above such worldly perspectives?
Well the entire history of magic and religion would suggest that no, they are not. If one were to consult a grimoire, for example the True Grimoire, one would find instructions for casting a magic circle with a consecrated knife, prior to attempting any conjurations. This is because the spirits may well try to harm you if you offend them, irrespective of your intentions.If you go back a couple of thousand years (give or take) to the Greek Magical Papyri, you will find spells and rituals calling upon the gods, that require you to wear a protective talisman (known as a phylactery or a lamella). These would not be necessary if the gods were only interested in your intention.
This is not to say that intention is unimportant, it’s not, it’s essential, but it’s not everything. When casting a spell one must have a clear idea of what you are asking for. One of the best ways to get better at this is by practicing sigil magic, where you have to create a succinct statement of intent from which to form your sigil. If you have a clear idea of what you want then you can fix your mind upon it, which is the next step in the magical process. In the Greco-Egyptian, Solomonic, and Goetic traditions, conjuration rites are preceded by a period of purification, during which the magician prays multiple times a day for success in the working. This has the effect of turning the magician’s mind towards the goal. It is when the magician ‘sets their intention.’ However, this is only the first step, not the last.
Magic is about action.* After the period of purification the magician still has to actually do the ritual. Likewise in witchcraft; you set your intention then you formulate your spell around it. Next you cast the spell and (this is very important) go out into the world and do whatever practical things need to be done to achieve your goal. Magical action and practical action are two sides of the same coin, you need both.
In conclusion, intention, whilst very important, is not everything. Action is also essential. To put it in a formula: INTENTION + ACTION = MAGIC. So please, stop saying “intention is everything.”
Published by: Tom McArthur
Tom McArthur is a Classicist, witch and theatre kid. He belongs to a Gardnerian coven, as well as having a highly syncretic (read: eclectic) personal practice. The ancient world has a huge influence on his magical work as he works extensively with the Greek Magical Papyri and has a magical relationship with a number of Greco-Egyptian deities. Otherwise his interests include Wicca and other forms of witchcraft, folk magic, Goetia, entheogens, and mysticism.
* Edit: I initially included the sentence ““Action is everything” would, in my view, be a much more accurate statement.” However, after some feedback on the article I realise that this is just as misleading and inaccurate as “intention is everything.” I am arguing for a more nuanced view of results magic, not a different generalisation.