What scares me

scared egg

There are a lot of things that scare me: heights, water (especially when I can’t see to the bottom), having a job, not having a job, bankruptcy, homelessness, rape, relationships, commitment, having my teeth knocked out, losing my hair, rejection, being buried alive, making people unhappy, causing a car accident, choking to death alone…basically I am a chickenshit. I manage to soldier through in spite of myself, but I always worry the next time will be the time I lose it and just can’t go on. Ironically people often perceive me as strong and then lean on me, which causes me to buckle under the strain–or more often, freak out and run away before I can buckle, and, well, that’s probably a big part of why relationships are on that list. I barely have enough backbone for myself, let alone two people. But I digress.

But lately what fills me with existential dread is the idea of trying to get to know this inspirited landscape in which I live from scratch, without the benefit of myths, folklore, names, or pre-fab religion.* Our ancestors did it, sure, but we don’t have the same cognitive faculties they did. Our fundamental neurological wiring is probably the same, but the effects of environment and upbringing are quite different. It’s often been repeated that in brain studies of Tibetan monks or other experienced meditators, their brains work differently from the general population. I remember one study in which the researchers made some loud noise next to (I think it was) Matthieu Ricard while he meditated, and his brain–even the limbic lizard brain–didn’t register any startle reaction. It has also been remarked that different cultures perceive, e.g., distance very differently. The below explanation by John Michael Greer sums that up neatly:

“The example I have in mind is borrowed from Oswald Spengler, and it has the immense advantage of absolute simplicity: the representation of distance. In Western painting from the Renaissance straight through to the present, art that attempts to look like what it portrays—realist art—represents depth by way of linear perspective. The shapes of what’s being portrayed are canted and slanted, angled and foreshortened to fit our way of representing space; lines converge on one, two, or more vanishing points that represent infinite distance. Learning how to draw those lines and fit images to them is an important part of becoming a realist artist in our society, because to us, an image that doesn’t follow the rules of perspective doesn’t look real—that is, it doesn’t represent reality the way we do.

This all seems very straightforward until you notice that no other civilization in all of human history has used linear perspective in its visual art. The traditional painting styles of China, Japan, and other east Asian societies use a different kind of perspective—atmospheric perspective, which works by fading out colors of distant objects—and so get a different sense of depth, one that people from Western societies find exotic. Most other traditions of visual art don’t use any kind of perspective at all, and many of them—the art of ancient Egypt is a good example—avoid the experience of depth entirely…

The Egyptians had the geometrical chops necessary to lay out a scheme of linear perspective, and they certainly had the artistic skill to do it. That’s just as true for the Chinese, the ancient Greeks, and all the other cultures around the world who developed rich, realistic, highly capable traditions of painting but never saw any reason to use our kind of perspective. Art historians by and large flounder when they try to explain why it is that something that’s so obvious to us eluded the eyes and imaginations of so many other people for all those millennia, but the reason’s quite simple, really: people in these other times and cultures didn’t see distance the way we do, because the representations they created in their minds didn’t look like ours.”

Practice also influences the acuity of your senses, as for example when a blind person develops acute hearing and smell because they rely more on those senses in the absence of vision. The point is that your mental/cognitive capacities are shaped by the uses you put them to. If we had all grown up in a culture where animism was the dominant philosophical paradigm (rather than materialism), we would be much better able to perceive the life and the spirits active in the world around us.

For some reason, this concept seems to cause extreme cognitive dissonance for some people. It’s a bit mystifying to me because I think it’s self-evident–there’s more than one way to construct a world, and they all work to varying degrees. The variability in their efficacy seems to have a lot to do with how adaptable they are, because the ecological conditions of which they are a part are constantly changing. If your worldview, say, drives you to destroy your home planet’s atmosphere, we could say that it is less than efficacious. (We might also speculate, then, that such a worldview will either adapt or die; but that’s a topic for another post.) But I guess having holes punched in your worldview is the fastest way to get on the 8th-9th house rollercoaster, and to be fair, it is a scary ride.

I’m aware of changes in my mind that started when I went to college and became concretized over a dozen or so years of postsecondary education. Prior to that time, I was an avid artist: I drew and painted in every free moment. I doodled through all my classes and doodled through my lunch break; doodled when I got home from school until I went to bed. I had a burning need to express myself through visual art, and when I was interrupted or prevented from doing it I got very irritable. (Artistic temperament + teenager = no fun for anybody.) The subject matter of most of these drawings and paintings were characters from myths and folktales, and each one was a portrait of a distinct individual. I never knew in advance what they would look like; their appearance unfolded as I drew. I used to say they drew themselves.

From my very first year in college I suddenly found myself unable to draw. Or rather, if you had given me an assignment to draw something, I could do it rather competently (I drew many stone tools, artifacts, and bones in my archaeology classes, for example), but I had no inspiration, no passion. I have never regained that artistic inspiration. Occasionally I get an idea to draw something, but when I can even talk myself into starting–my skill is not up to the task, and knowing the finished product will never live up to my vision, I usually can’t bear to begin–I end up abandoning the project before I finish, when it becomes obvious that it has failed to live up to my hopes. When I was a teenager, art wasn’t about how well the finished product matched the original vision, it was that I couldn’t not do it. Often there wasn’t much of a vision at all–it was more like hand-eye channeling.

After spending a dozen years (about 25 if you count my whole educational career) engaged primarily in non-fiction reading and writing, I’ve gotten pretty good at that, but in retrospect I don’t think the cost of my art-channeling was worth it. In addition I’ve developed some personality traits/habitual thought patterns that are annoying: in particular, I became very defensive. I had bulleted mental lists of anticipated counter-arguments to my ideas, and bulleted mental lists of counter-counter-arguments. One also tends to become an increasingly dogmatic and conservative thinker. Academia is extremely hierarchical and tradition-bound; you have to follow the rules to get ahead (although there’s enough of an element of favoritism, backstabbing, and sudden shifts in intellectual fashion to keep things unpredictable). You know your every idea will be attacked just as a matter of course, and that you must always be prepared to give supporting evidence. Now I believe everyone should be able to articulate the reasons for their opinions–if only because it makes for better conversation–but being that defensive is frankly sick. And it makes you kind of an asshole. (My housemate/best friend, a professor and scientist, does this to me all the time and sometimes it makes me want to gut punch her.) I think I’ve gotten over that, for the most part, but it takes conscious effort and intent.

My longwinded point is that through specific patterns of use, I’ve gained certain mental abilities (e.g., logical analysis, science writing) and lost certain mental abilities (everything else). I am now dedicated to regaining some of those lost capacities, but one of my greatest terrors is that I’ll never be able to. I’m no spring chicken, and my mind’s not as elastic as it once was. Huge tracts of brain appear to now be permanently dedicated to ’80s song lyrics. Even if I live another quarter century I’m scared that it won’t be long enough to unlearn all the bullshit.

As I argued previously, I feel that we North Americans of European descent have to start from scratch in getting to know Turtle Island and its denizens, but we can’t even do that without first retraining our brains. (Africans seem to have adapted much better to life in the Americas, and I imagine it was at least partly due to the fact that they arrived without Age-of-“Enlightenment” mental baggage. They already had spirit-recognition skills, and that plus dire necessity forged some incredibly vital and powerful spiritual and magical traditions. I would be curious to learn more about the experiences of Asian-Americans in this regard.) I am as convinced as I possibly can be that our minds are not the same thing as our brains, yet our minds have to use our brains to operate our meatsuits, so there is some kind of feedback loop there. Even if I’m wrong about that, my own experience says that minds have to be trained just as much as brains do.

I realize this is why a lot of people use entheogens. I’m not arguing against entheogen use, and I’m aware they are used even by societies that don’t suffer from our particular set of cognitive limitations; but I don’t think they are a substitute for liberating your mind from the Black Iron Prison that is Western scientist-nihilist-capitalist-materialism and the inculcation of obedient-little-worker values. They are a useful tool but not sufficient unto themselves.

Damn. I meant for this to be a short post. I guess I had more to confess than I realized.


*I am trying to research the Native lore of this region, but there doesn’t seem to be very much, at least not that is accessible to white folk. It seems the colonists did an extra thorough job of wiping out the people here.


2 thoughts on “What scares me

  1. I keep feeling that you’re making the assumption that Europeans all lost their spirit-awareness to the extent that when they came to the Americas they were unable to discern the Neighbors at all, and I have to argue against that. 16th and 17th century colonists relied on magic as much as everyone else did to navigate the hardships of life; if that magic was filtered through a Christian lens (or lenses, since Puritans and Catholics, to name two, went at Christianity rather differently from each other) it just meant that they thought of devils and saints instead of fairies. And some of them did think in terms of fairies. The Enlightenment project didn’t really get rolling until roughly two centuries after Europeans started colonizing the Americas, and I think in a lot of ways it didn’t have a very strong impact on non-elites until compulsory child education became widespread in the nineteenth century.

    Moreover, parts of the U.S. had thriving “Anglo” magical cultures up into the 20th century. Pennsylvania had a sensational Pow-Wow motivated murder in the 1930s that riveted the rest of the nation as they discovered the “superstitions” of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Appalachia arguably kept its practices strong until the 1960s. Add in Hispanic communities and you get some, like in New Mexico, that are still going strong.

    What these places had or tend to have in common is poverty and isolation from mainstream culture. They needed magic to survive and weren’t enculturated to think it was impossible. And probably they weren’t making journeys in the spirit to chat up the local mountain or lake beings, but you can bet they were keen observers of the weather and soil and animal behavior; they were planting by the moon and signs, and Doctrine of Signatures-ing it all over the place; and they were keeping track of where the haints were and which trees you do not cut. And that’s pretty much the way living with the spirits goes on a daily basis.

    So I find it hard to accept that white folks are culturally spirit-blind to the extent that it’s become fashionable to think. (I mean, come on, Spiritualism was started by white folks — you don’t get much more spirit-y than a little genteel parlor necromancy.) We totes have a mainstream culture that insists the Neighbors can’t possibly be real (or are aliens if they are), and that *is* a big problem, and one many of us have to struggle with because it’s what we grew up in or were professionally trained in, or both. I think the real problem we have is that our culture doesn’t think its *important* to have good relationships with the Neighbors — and I would argue that that is as much about not thinking its important to recognize the smell of rain, or what signs indicate frost is likely, as it is about not knowing who the local spirit beings are or their legends. The two things are not distinct from each other, and I am **not** downplaying the spirit contact. The spirit contact is real and necessary.

    We, white folks, Anglos, collectively do know quite a lot about Turtle Island and its denizens, probably even a little more than we think we know. The problem is we aren’t letting ourselves know it, preferring to maintain that imperial distance between ourselves, our own past societies, the wrongs we’ve done, the people we designate as Others, the landforms, the animals, the rivers, the “superstitious practices,” the “Fortean anomalies,” et al. So, yes, the Black Iron Prison as you said. I’m just banging on about this because I see us occult and pagan types mistaking the awareness of spirits for getting out of the Black Iron Prison worldview, when it’s more like the thing that makes us realize the Prison is there. Getting out of the Prison is much harder, because it requires us to relate to everything in the world differently and change how we live in huge structural ways. Which I suppose is a lot of the work of the Great Work on an individual level, but on a societal level requires a lot more people to be willing to speak with the trees, speak for the trees, and respect what the trees are saying.

    Ooof, that got long. It’s kind of been rolling around in my head in one form or another since your post on “indigeniety,” but life kept sending me distractions so I never responded to that one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. No worries, I like long comments. 🙂

    Well pooh, I didn’t mean to come across as saying that white folk in America have no magic or spirituality. I guess I can see, in retrospect, how it looks that way. I reject entirely the notion so popular today that “white people don’t have culture,” which is a misunderstanding both of white people and of culture.

    Thinking about it, I would say this series of posts is a reaction to a couple trends I see happening all the time. The first is an (to me, seemingly unthinking) attempt to just transplant European (or Euro-American neopagan) beliefs and spirit typologies to the Americas. I don’t think it’s unique to this particular colonization, after all this is one way deities get moved around so that you find a certain Near Eastern god all over the world now. The second is what seems to me the most common form of neopaganism, which is worshiping pantheons or eclectic groups of deities that are usually imported. Now, the fact that I keep running into these two attitudes may not reflect their actual popularity in the pagan population at large. Maybe it’s just a weird stream I keep moving in and out of. And it may be partly due to the modern phobia of cultural appropriation too–with people of European descent feeling safest with European pantheons and so forth. Regardless, I bump into it all the time and I feel that if we don’t (as the academics would say) interrogate and problematize these attitudes, we miss some great opportunities. In particular, the opportunity to become acquainted with and work with local spirits in ways that are specifically adapted to this context. But, I’m biased toward that sort of spiritual practice so maybe I’m inadvertently evangelizing for it a bit. Still, I think it has been badly overlooked in the modern West both by the scientist naysayers and the neopagans.

    Huh. Writing this I just noticed that it has been a theme with me recently to take an “adapt or perish!” attitude toward everything. That might come from events in my own life–and not just the recent events. “Adapt or perish!” could be the motto on my coat of arms. I’ve always been prone to nostalgia and idealism and have too often been seduced by the notion of the past as the source of authenticity, and in that sense I have sometimes been very conservative if not downright reactionary. (Not in the political sense but definitely in the magical and spiritual sense.) I’ve been aware of that tendency in myself for years and try to stay conscious of it because politicians and hungry ghosts alike (is there a difference?) know how to manipulate you that way. Lately however I’ve started to view that tradition-centric attitude as more than just a soft place to land in troubled times, but as actively unproductive, and felt like it’s time to resign ourselves (well, myself) to change, realign, and get on with things. If you try to hide from the painful or awkward aspects of your reality you also miss the opportunities. This is the only reason I use social media at all. I think this is one of the manifestations of that interminable Pluto-Uranus square as Uranus is in my 1st house and Pluto in my 10th where my progressed Sun also is. I’m much more focused on workable, lasting structures and practices than every before, but very cognizant that they all fall down. Sometimes because I smash them.

    I also reeeeeeally hope my posts aren’t reading as white guilt which I have always thought of as a sort of masturbatory noblesse oblige, a way of cloaking a sense of imperial entitlement and warrior prowess with a veneer of regret. Let’s all shed a tear for the noble savage we civilized. There certainly is a history of prior bad acts on the part of European colonizers in the Americas that I don’t want to deny, but again, my feeling is “that happened; now what?”. I also don’t want to paint the experience of all white people in America with the same brush. Or, conversely, the experience of all non-white Americans. I’m aware of the variability at the micro level as well as the structural similarities at the macro level. I don’t want to exoticize and other non-white Americans (e.g., African Americans) as being more spiritually in-tune or whatever, it’s just they don’t have the same kind of structural inequalities relative to the indigenous population as whites do. And, I know I’m not the only person in America right now who is working on forming relationships with their Neighbors–far from it. It’s just that over the last few years I’ve become aware of how many “truths” I have taken for granted because someone or something I trusted told me it was so. Perhaps, in my desire to dispense with any a priori assumptions about the nature/identity of spirits here that may have been unthinkingly imposed from a European perspective, I am throwing babies out with bathwater. That is, admittedly, part of what scares me. I learn best when I try things on my own; but I get a lot wrong that way, and since I am scared of failing, I’m scared of trying. Haha, I feel like I’m revisiting that college-freshman experience where you have just learned some of your cherished beliefs were wrong, but you still haven’t sloughed off your childish black and white thinking, so now you think nothing is true, and that you are sooooo sophisticated in your nihilism.

    Anyway, (now look who’s writing a long comment!) to get back to your specific points, you’re probably right that I have overlooked the ways that European magic HAS adapted in North America as I focus on the ways it HASN’T. And you’re right when you say “We, white folks, Anglos, collectively do know quite a lot about Turtle Island and its denizens, probably even a little more than we think we know. The problem is we aren’t letting ourselves know it, preferring to maintain that imperial distance between ourselves, our own past societies, the wrongs we’ve done, the people we designate as Others, the landforms, the animals, the rivers, the “superstitious practices,” the “Fortean anomalies,” et al.” I think we are seeing this knowledge, or awareness, starting to bubble back up to the surface, but unfortunately it’s happening in a very tacky Hollywood-inspired way so you get watered-down camera-ready Boho-chic feel-good magics. But at least it’s getting back in the conversation. And after arguing that there’s something magical going on inside the Pirates ride at Disneyland, it would be hypocritical as well as naive of me to suggest that hipster magic couldn’t work.

    I think the most viable approach long-term is just as with ancestor veneration–you work with your own people (gods, spirits, faeries, etc.) from the old country, make nice with the locals, and gradually accrue a few from who-knows-where, that for inscrutable reasons of their own take a liking to you and come along for the ride. But I do feel there is a lot of work and re-learning to be done in making nice with the Neighbors, since in the macro sense, the last time we (again in the macro sense) did that work was in Europe hundreds of years ago. Though you’re right that European settlement in the Americas predates the Age of Reason, it didn’t predate the Age of Empire and therein, I think, lies much of the problem.


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