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Defining "intention": What does it mean in magick?

Michelle Gruben beginner intention opinion spells

Dandelion ready for your wish

Magick workers talk a lot about something called intention. As in, “focus on your intention,” or “write your intention on a slip of paper.” Most of us would agree that formulating the right intention is one of the major—if not the major—prerequisites for successful spellcasting. After you’ve settled on the direction of the working, the next step is usually forming your intention into something less nebulous: A sentence, a sigil, an image or object.

But what is intention? Is it the same thing as will (or Will)? Is it deeply felt desire? Is it visualization? Is it as simple as just wishing really, really hard—like in fairy tales?

“Intention” is a term that is both overused and under-explored. Plenty of Witches (including me) tend to just gloss over it when we read it. But despite the limitations of the word, the concept is too important to ignore. So, I’ve put together a few thoughts about magickal intention, what it is and what it is not.

Is intention the same as Will?

Intention is directly related to Will—that mysterious, primal force by which personal magick can effect change on the otherwise unyielding material world. Will eludes description. You might call it a universal drive to exist, to experience, to create, or (sometimes) to possess. It is at the heart of every successful endeavor, whether magickal or mundane. As humans, we meet our Will in flashes of inspiration, sense of purpose, passionate feelings, yearning and bliss.

Intention is just a little more cerebral than Will. Most intentions start as thoughts, located in the head. (They don’t necessarily have to stay there, though. They can also exist as images, energy, or sensation.) Intentions are often formulated verbally—so much that “intention” and “statement of intention” are nearly synonymous in some occult books. Like Will, intentions are fueled by desire—that spark of Divine energy that gets stuff done like nothing else can.

But although Will and intention are close cousins, they don’t always get along. The desire that lives in the head and the desire that lives in the soul (or heart or body or unconscious mind) don’t necessarily match up. In fact, as any experienced spellworker will attest, they have a sneaky way of working at cross-purposes.

Suppose you’re planning a love-drawing spell. It’s been a few months since your last relationship ended, and you believe you’re ready to move on. It is your intention to attract a new lover. But deep inside, your heart is still hurting. Your Will is to stay the heck out of relationships for a while and get some R&R.

What will the outcome of such a conflicted spell be? Well, you could flip a coin—but the real odds are that the working will flop. Like a dog dragging a leash, Will almost always beats intention.

Is an intention a wish?

A wish is a hope for the future. When you make a wish, you’re expressing a preference for some future outcome. People make wishes all the time: “I wish I would get a promotion,” or “I wish it would rain today.” But that doesn’t mean that they’ve formulated an intention. Nobody really expects wishes to come true—we’re just pleasantly surprised when they do.

When you make a wish (silently or aloud), you are indeed directing a tiny bit of energy toward the desired outcome. So technically, yes—even idle wishes are magick. But it’s rarely enough to just wish. If it was, everyone would be lottery winners and all six-year-old girls would have ponies. It's the boring part of magick—the discipline, the follow-through—that most often gets left out.

Setting an intention is more than just stating what you want and waiting for it to happen. It’s a purposeful direction of psychic and physical energy toward a goal. When you have a wish, you just hope. When you have a true intention, you are pledging to do everything you reasonably can to make it come true.

For this reason, the best magickal intentions deal with things that you have at least bit of control over. (That’s why “I intend that it will rain today” sounds a bit silly—sorry, weather witches.) An intention is a wish with some muscle behind it. And perhaps, a plan.

Is an intention a command?

“So mote it be.”

“So say I!”

“Ye spirits, obey!”

A command is a statement of authority over someone or something. Some branches of magick place the magician at the center of the Universe, bossing around spirits and elementals to do their bidding. Other magick workers are more humble, entreating the cooperation of these unseen forces. Generally, the more anthrocentric the magick, the more commanding language tends to show up in ritual.

Magickal commands are certainly more forceful than wishes. When you express your desire as a command, you’re stating in no uncertain terms that such-and-such will happen. Commands don’t leave any room for waffling or backtalk from your magickal self. In terms of assertiveness, you might place the garden-variety “intention” somewhere on a scale between “wish” and “command”.

Formulating your intention as a command serve a very useful purpose. Suspension of disbelief is a fundamental component of ritual magick. As a Witch, you may know that your words and Will have immense power, but remembering that in the crucial moment is difficult. Your mind—your rational mind that has to function in the mundane world—is always whispering that you’re just waving sticks and spouting mumbo-jumbo. You can use the bravado of a command to get help get you over the hump. But if your magick fizzles, all of that commanding language you used will only undermine your future confidence.

Unfortunately, magick at its best is still uncertain. There are infinite factors in every outcome, and the most that magick can manage is a tiny nudge in one direction or another. If we could release our Wills—unmodified and unadulterated—onto the world, then spells would be 100% effective. But then, we would also be Gods.

Unlike a pure command, intention acknowledges the realities of imperfect power and imperfect information. Intention doesn’t try to force everyone and everything to bend to your power. When you make a magickal intention, you’re saying something like, “For my part, and in the belief that it’s the best for me, I hereby do this.” A more concise way to say it would be that an intention is a command—of one’s Self.

The difference between an intention and a command may seem like a philosophical wank job. But it has the potential to make a real difference in spellwork. Specifically, commands are far more likely to yield outcomes that you asked for, but did not want. Intention leaves a little more wiggle room for your magick to work in ways that you may not have anticipated.

Take the example of the Witch who agrees to perform a house cleansing for a friend. The friend has been experiencing some nighttime disturbances: Squeaky stairs, shadow people, spooked pets—that type of thing.

Now, the Witch could come in, waving a staff around, and command all the spirits to leave. (For this example, let’s assume the ghosties are good at taking orders.) But little does she know, the home was inhabited by a grandmotherly guardian spirit who had been keeping the worst of the pesky ghosts on their toes. Now it’s a squeaky-clean house. But it will start to fill up with nasties again just as soon as the Witch’s back is turned.

Or, the Witch could come in with a slightly more flexible intention: Cleanse the house of the more noxious bogeys, and set up protective wards that peaceful spirits can work around. Grandma ghost gets to stick around instead of being evicted by a bossy Witch. That's a lot less trouble (and maintenance) for everyone.

Intention defined?

So hopefully, after this rather long discursion, we’ve stumbled upon a working definition of intention: Intention is focused desire (with an agenda). Intention is stronger than a wish, wigglier than a command, rooted in Will and expressed through word or image. And what they say about intention is true: If you’ve figured out what your intention is, and found a way to sum it up clearly, then you will have a very strong basis for any magick you choose to perform.

Check out our other articles in the archive.

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