Capitalism and Charon’s obol

Bradley Platz-Charon_and_the_Shades
Charon and the Shades by Bradley Platz, 2007

I haven’t been writing much (well, not for public consumption) because things continuing to fall apart is just not that interesting for you. I’ll get back to it when I can assemble it into a coherent narrative, with hindsight. I will say, for the benefit of any others going through the process, that it can take much longer than you expect, and when you think you see signs of a new beginning–well, you probably do, but don’t count those chickens yet.

It takes as long as it takes. Things die and decompose and depending on the local environmental conditions, decomposition can be slow. You can relax and trust that it’s a necessary process that makes way for new growth and greater authenticity, or you can get impatient and freak out and still not be able to do a damn thing about it; I strongly recommend the former, because I usually do the latter.

But I just want to throw this perhaps rather tacky question out there, to wit: Why do people providing spiritual services (including but not limited to death care) charge so damn much?

Just one example: I was considering a weekend course recently, which would be held in my state (nothing ever seems to be available in my state), but it was $750. When I was an adjunct teaching university courses, I might–if I was lucky–make $3000 for an entire semester. That’s 15 weeks, usually meeting two to three times per week for a single course, and independent of the number of students (and therefore the amount of student assignments and exams I had to grade). And this course was almost a thousand bucks for three days! And of course one had to provide one’s own meals and accommodation. I’ve seen herbalists and shamans charging hundreds of dollars for single consultations. Don’t even get me started on astrologers and magicians, who all want to be Dr. Dee at the Queen’s right hand (or left–buh dum CHING!). It’s not that the service they provide isn’t worth it, but it quite literally prices most of the population out.

So I have to ask, how are we deciding the value of these services, and more importantly what does that say about how we decide the value of those who need them?

I sympathize with the desire to make your living doing what you love and feel called to–God(s) know(s) I do. At the risk of repeating myself, though, let me repeat myself:

I have no problem with morticians or other death professionals (deathfessionals?) being recompensed for their time, effort, skill, and expertise, except in the larger sense that I am not a fan of capitalist exchange dynamics and the monetization of human relationships. Unfortunately, we live in a society where you gotta make money to live, and deathfessionals deserve to live too. I suspect–call me crazy here, but I suspect–that deathfessionals don’t get into that biz full of champagne wishes and caviar dreams. But as I think about some of the efficient, green, time-honored ways to facilitate a body’s decomposition, or touching stories about honoring the dead and faring-them-well, I realize that I and countless other Americans can’t afford any of these things.

Ok, I’m poor, my impecunious situation might not be that representative…except, oh wait, yes it is. And poor people go through a lot of psychological, physical, and spiritual challenges they could sure use some help with. You think their ancestors don’t have issues? You think they don’t live in haunted houses? You think they don’t have soul loss? You bet your sweet bippy they do. Where do you think all those opioid overdoses and suicides come from? For people who are devout followers of a mainstream religion, I think they can still get some help for free, I don’t even know because I’m not on speaking terms with The Church. And if you want mainstream medical consultation, there are even free clinics for that.

But what about us weirdos? Why do we gouge each other?

I suspect that part of it is the idea that high prices are a kind of credibility, something that, as weirdos, we rarely get to enjoy. If your service is expensive, people will think it’s valuable. Plus you get wealthier, “more exclusive” clientele. Supply and demand doubtless plays a role: there are not a lot of providers of, e.g., soul retrieval, herbal health care, or exorcism (although it sure seems like there are a hell of a lot of tarot readers and Etsy witches out there). I’m not really sure what the relative frequency of alternative spiritualities is among the wealthy versus the poor; there was a time when it was a distinctly middle-class sort of thing to be SBNR or New Age or pagan, but nowadays I don’t know. Perhaps some spiritual service providers figure poor folk aren’t among their clientele anyway, but in that case I’d say we may be looking at a chicken-or-egg question.

But even if that’s the case, do we want things like soul retrieval, herbal health care, and exorcism to only be within the reach of white suburbanites in Portland and LA? (I can tell you this much: Nick Culpeper is spinning in his grave.)

When you look at groups who have/had been providing spiritual services for their communities for a long time–such as curander@s, shamans, sin eaters, even midwives and herbalists–they don’t make bank. Granted, in the wayback capitalism wasn’t a thing; granted, there were cultural contexts for these sorts of services that allowed their providers to (sometimes) enjoy a good deal of social prestige. But mostly these people did what other people did to make a living, i.e., they farmed, they hunted and gathered, they traded goods and services, etc. Their spiritual or medical work was usually above and beyond meeting their survival needs, and that’s part of why most people didn’t want to do it.

I get it, times have changed. I get that we can’t rely on our communities to feed diviners or support shamans in their twilight years. I get that if you work a full time job, between the huge amount of time and energy you devote to that (plus commuting and getting ready, etc.) and the soul crushing tedium of most modern work, you have damn little left to accomplish the basics like feeding your family, making love to your partner, or cleaning your house, forget about pro bono spirit work. I get that if you want to train people, you don’t get an apprentice who helps in your work, you teach courses, and those take a lot of prep work (far more than non-teachers imagine). I get that rich people have problems too. I get that we all want out of the rat race. I get that not everyone is guilty of the spiritual price gouge (one reason I think this project is so important even though I’m not a magician). I get that we are all caught in a bind.

Poverty isn’t a virtue, but neither is wealth. Artists shouldn’t have to starve, but that doesn’t mean we’re all entitled to be rich. I am not advocating that we sacrifice all our own dreams and aspirations for the sake of others (as too many women have had to do, laboring in obscurity and anonymity while history recorded the men as heroes). I’m not saying it’s evil to make money. I am, however, urging us all to ask some uncomfortable questions about how we define success, how much professional satisfaction and social approbation we can live without, whether the services we provide are about satisfying our need for personal pleasure and fulfillment or about those who actually need our help.

Because we* can do so much better. When we put huge price tags on our services, we are making it very clear that we prize our own caviar dreams above the health of our communities. I long for a world where we can all spend all our time doing what we love and feeling fulfilled, but instead we live in a world where we have to make sacrifices and judgment calls. If we want a better world, how are we going to get there, by helping already wealthy people, or by helping those who are otherwise forgotten, ignored, invisible? Are we brave enough to go where the brokenest, ugliest, most disgustingly suppurating wounds are? Because those are the ones that need urgent care.

*By “we” I mean weirdos; I don’t presently provide services except occasionally to friends, and I don’t charge for that. That’s not to say that I never have, or never will. In the meantime I try to answer the needs of the community that I can, but for now, with my current skill set, that is not much. Still, you start where you are and do what you can.

The sweetest holiday

beehives 14th century

Nope, I’m not talking about Valentine’s Day. Tomorrow (13 February) is the feast day of St. Modomnóc, the patron saint of bees and beekeeping. Sorry, I never give you enough notice on these things, do I?

In case you were wondering, I consulted with an Irish scholar and confirmed that the name was probably pronounced MOTH-ov-nohg, with the first Os short like in sock, the last one long like in oats, and the TH as in there, not as in think. In modern Irish it would be spelled Modhomhnóc. The accent mark in Irish doesn’t indicate which syllable gets the stress, but lengthens the vowel. I’m told that although we can’t be sure which syllable was stressed in Old Irish, the first syllable is a good guess.

Modomnóc came from Ossory (Osraige) in southeastern Ireland. He traveled to Wales to study with St. David (a.k.a., Dewi Sant, patron saint of Wales, his feast day is 1 March) and live at the monastery where the lovely town of St. Davids now stands. Now, David was all about celebrating the magical in the everyday, the divinity immanent in all of creation. At his intentional living community monastery Modomnóc cared for the beehives, planting bee-beloved flowers and talking to the bees, who buzzed all around him and never stung. When Modomnóc returned to Ireland, three times the bees flew after him and swarmed on the ship’s mast, so they all went to Ireland together. Modomnóc established his own monastery, with a garden and hives for the bees. It’s clear that he walked the walk of David’s teaching, “be joyful and do the little things.” Real devotion, real love, is shown in humble, everyday acts, not in grand displays.

St. Ambrose of Milan is also considered a patron saint of bees and beekeeping, but in his case it was because of a legend that his father found his infant son’s face covered with bees, which of course didn’t sting, and that was taken as a sign of Ambrose’s future eloquence. That’s cool and all, but I think Modomnóc deserves all the credit, since he actually undertook to care for the bees. He loved the bees, and they loved him back. However, another patron of bees arguably worthy of that title is St. Gobnait (pronounced, I am thinking, GOV-nat*), a rough contemporary of Modomnóc’s. She charmed her bees into attacking invaders and thieves and driving them away, and like Modomnóc is said to have been a devoted bee-tender, as well as a healer. Her feast day is 11 February, so while we missed it this year, next year you could do a joint Modomnóc-Gobnait thing, if you so desire.

A friend of mine started his own tradition of celebrating St. Modomnóc’s Day rather than Valentine’s, and making bee- and honey-themed “modomnócs” rather than “valentines” to give to loved ones. I won’t bore you by repeating what I wrote before, but given the precarious situation that both bumblebees and honeybees face (maybe other types too), I wholeheartedly embraced this idea.

bees on clover

Every year on Modomnóc’s Day I think about what I will do to support bees’ work this year. It’s not just because bees have been harmed by human activities and now need us to realize the error of our ways and make amends; it’s also because bees are awesome and deserve to be loved and thanked just for being what they are and being part of our ecosystem. (That’s true for all living beings, I believe.) Add to that the fact that they sometimes share with us a gift of delicious, medicinal, beautiful honey, and I think it’s clear which saint’s holiday we should really be celebrating.

This year I will be:

  • Planting pollinator-friendly wildflowers in the meadow in front of our house. One of the varieties of flower seeds I bought are Phacelia tanacetifolia. I had always just heard it called “phacelia,” but in German its common name is Bienenfreund, “bee’s friend.” How cute is that? There will also be many bee favorites among the herbs I grow in my garden closer to the house.
  • Tomorrow I will be taking a Beekeeping for Beginners class and I joined our local beekeeping association. I don’t know whether I will be able to afford to start keeping bees this year, but if not this year, then next.
  • I checked out Rudolf Steiner’s Bees and a book on beekeeping from my local public library. I’ve also been doing internet research on bees and bee-friendly methods of apiculture.
  • I’m going to try my hand at pouring my own beeswax candles for ritual and household use.

What might one do magically on this day? Just brainstorming here:

  • Make or obtain beeswax candles and consecrate them for…whatever.
  • Bless the bees, the beekeepers, and the scientists doing research to solve Colony Collapse Disorder.
  • Do the opposite to the makers and purveyors of neonicotinoid pesticides.
  • Meditate on bees.
  • Go talk or sing to the bees. Start a dialogue.
  • Do a honey jar spell, with special thanks to the bees.
  • Do some garden magic to promote flourishing flowers.
  • Set up an altar and make offerings, prayers, or petitions to Modomnóc, Gobnait, Ambrose if you’re into him, or any of the deities associated with bees. Consider doing something nice for bees as one of your offerings.
  • Give your ancestors some honey.
  • Do some food magic with honey.
  • Launch a “swarm” of sigils.

Now the vegans among us disagree with using the fruits of the bees’ labor, wax and honey (and propolis, royal jelly, and bee pollen, let’s not forget those). My own thoughts are that using these products–provided they are obtained from local, small-scale, ethical apiculturalists–helps ensure that small beekeepers can keep doing what they do. Some beekeeping is done at a virtually industrial level, and that’s another matter.

Locally produced raw unfiltered honey is usually rather expensive, which helps us treasure it and treat it like the medicine it is. Likewise, pure beeswax candles are more expensive than paraffin, but they last longer and produce less soot, they smell nice, and some claim they purify the air (but I don’t know what the source of that claim is, so, grain of salt and all).

Small scale, ethical apiculture is one form of animal husbandry where humans can benefit from the animal products without actually harming the animals. It is, moreover, a step towards self-sufficiency for the humans involved. That is to say, we will never be “self-sufficient” independent of nature–nor, I would argue, should we try. But we can make it a goal to disconnect as much as possible from an inherently exploitative monetary system of value (yes, even though, for now, I am advocating giving money to beekeepers!) and instead (re)connect with our ecosytem and bioregion. My main motivation for keeping bees is not to pilfer their honey and resell it, but to enter into a relationship with a beehive. I want to make friends with bees and see what happens. Maybe they will give me some of their honey and wax, maybe not. I’ll be happy if they just hang around and bring their bee-ness.

Bees Attend Keeper's Funeral

For magnificent magical weirdos like us, there is even more to love about bees. Bees have been associated with resurrection and psychopompery, sometimes the soul is even envisioned as a bee; prophecy, as good omens and messengers of God/the gods; eloquence–the metaphor of a honeyed tongue, face, or mouth is seen in India and the Classical world, as well as in English, so may have deep Indo-European roots; and “mother” or “fertility” goddesses–e.g., Potnia (Minoan), Artemis (Greek/Anatolian), Demeter (Greek), Bhramani (Indian; a wrathful incarnation of Shakti), Hannahannah (Hittite) (as well as various gods, such as Ra, Telipinu, and Aristaios, but in my non-expert assessment it seems the male deities are usually either more associated with beekeeping as opposed to bees and honey, or are somewhat indirectly associated). And of course the beehive is often held up as a model for human society. Here’s a weird bit of trivia: bee boles with openings carved to look like flowers are built into the towers of Rosslyn Chapel. They were only discovered during restoration work and are way too high up for anyone to get into them to remove honey–they’re there just for the bees, it seems.  In Irish custom, bees must be told about major events in the family of the beekeeper, such as weddings and especially deaths–otherwise it is feared they will take offense at being left out of the loop and abandon the family or even cause more deaths in the family. Or, if the hives are not draped in black crepe, the bees themselves may die. In one account, “telling the bees” involved making offerings of sweet foods, shaking keys (very interesting, that), and saying:

“Honey bees, honey bees, hear what I say. Your master, J.A., has passed away. But his wife now begs you will freely stay. And gather honey for many a day. Bonny bees, bonny bees, hear what I say.”

I like this recognition that bees can leave if they want; they are really not domestic animals, for all that they sweeten domestic life. I think there was some now-lost Irish metaphor or symbolism to do with bees, because the three extant medieval mnemonic glosses for the fourth ogham (corresponding to S**) are, respectively, “pallor of a lifeless one,” “sustenance of bees,” and “beginning of honey.” I don’t know if that speaks to some association between bees and death, or nectar or flowers (bees’ sustenance and metaphorically a “beginning” of honey) and a pale, perhaps light green or yellow color…there could have been a folk belief that bees subsisted on something other than nectar and honey.

The bee has filled our world with beautiful flowers (which may have evolved entirely because of bees–source), brightened it with candles lit against the dark, healed our wounds, and is directly responsible for at least a third of our food–and that’s not counting the honey. Yet these little marvels may well ask what we have done for them lately. On the feast of St. Modomnóc, let us give thanks for the sacred work, life, and messages of the bees. Let us be inspired to love them and not only to tell them, but to show that love everyday in joyful little acts of care toward them and the other members of our “hives.” And if you choose to also celebrate Valentine’s Day on Sunday, just remember who pollinated those roses.


*The Wikipedia page (grain of salt) says that Gobnait was a patron of ironworking, and that archaeological remains of ironworking were found at the site of her church at Ballyvourney, County Cork, and her name is apparently the feminine form of Gobniu, the “god” of smithcraft. Gobnait is also associated with white deer, which smacks of faeries.

**Nowadays this few (the Anglicized term for an ogham character) is called Saille (willow), but it’s well to remember that the tree names were also mnemonics. Ogham is not really a “tree alphabet” any more than “A is for Apple” makes the Roman alphabet a “tree alphabet.” Though I admit I love the poetry of the tree names.

Revisiting appropriation and authenticity

Muscogee war bonnet

I keep thinking about these topics, which tells me that I’ve probably missed something important. This post is me thinking aloud, as it were. I think part of the reason why discussions of appropriation in magic leave me cold (including my own, if I’m honest) is that it makes us talk about magic as if it were like putting on and taking off a feather headdress. I’m not saying we shouldn’t think about the issue and figure out what is and isn’t honorable and ethical. But when the conclusion ultimately comes down to “Just don’t be a jerk,” I feel like I shouldn’t really have to say that. I’m pretty sure you already know, so if you are being a jerk, it’s probably because you sincerely made a mistake, or you don’t mind being a jerk. In which case, you know what to do. Good talk.

But magic isn’t just a hat. Indeed, the very fact that we can discuss it that way could be a disturbing sign of what Io calls “the market sweeping into the sacred.” While we don’t consciously regard it so, unconsciously, we speak about magical practices as if they were commodities. We talk often about whether this or that method gets results, and that’s an important rubric, but we don’t talk as much about dangers. I mean sure, we all know magic is dangerous, but it’s much rarer to find someone who will talk specifics. I’m arguably guilty of that too, since this isn’t a post about specific dangers of magic, but then I’m new to this path so I wouldn’t really know what I was talking about. No, my point here is that when it comes to magical tech, before we think about whether we are being offensive or even full-on racist assholes, we have to think about efficacy, the wishes and needs of Other parties involved, and safety.

This all dovetails into my argument that the vitality of a given magical tech or tradition might be more important than authenticity per se. To give a personal example, I don’t know much about African Diasporic religions or magic. I know more than the Hollywood version, but I’ve never lived in a part of the world where those traditions flourished, so I’ve had virtually no direct exposure. Also, I have no African ancestry myself (well, not within the last 25,000 years anyway), so there’s no family lore about it. So ATR traditions could not be more culturally foreign to me, and since I don’t feel motivated to go to a place with deep ATR roots and learn from the masters, I feel it would be a little approriatey of me to try and use their methods. But I do find these traditions interesting and appealing because they strike me as very vital indeed. It’s precisely because of this vitality that I am convinced that if I do become seriously interested in ATR, I should probably seek proper instruction. It is clear to me that there is a current there which couldn’t be captured in books, as well as fraught political relationships between me as a white American and peoples of African diasporic descent. Moreover, if I as a dilettante were to go around encouraging spirits to possess me, I might get some decidedly undesirable results. Josephine McCarthy’s advice (in a comment here) is sound: “Learn how to put yourself back together before you attempt to blow yourself up.”

Then too we have to consider the wishes of those on the Other side. I  am not going to turn away Hathor, Oshun, or Xi Wangmu just because we don’t happen to come from the same place. And I don’t assume that Nodens or Llyr want to work with me just because we may share some spiritual DNA. If some spirit is in need of aid and there’s no extant tradition (gods, can we have another word for this? I feel like I’m beating this one to death but I can’t find a good synonym) that deals with the issue, then I’ll have to seek elsewhere. And I will.

If our only worry with regard to the magic of other cultures is appropriation, then not only do we trivialize the magic and the entities involved, but we also hamper ourselves in ridiculous ways. If, say, becoming a houngan is off-limits to me because I’m not of African descent, then goetia and theurgy should also be off-limits because I’m not of Greek or Egyptian descent. There are lots of us in this world whose ancestors’ traditions were lost through colonization; are we just supposed to (once again) take our lumps and accept the diktat of cultural essentialism and imperialism? Hell no. I just have to quote again from Disrupt & Repair because Io says this elegantly and succinctly whereas my own attempts amount to only the most pitiful of verbal fumblings. He is referring specifically to Jake Stratton-Kent’s essay “What Is Goetia?” but I think what he says applies equally to our issues with authenticity and my own prioritization of vitality:

“The attitude/potency Stratton-Kent claims as ‘goetic’ [substitute here whatever attitude/potency you want] isn’t a special aspect of the Western magical tradition [substitute here whatever tradition you want]. It is more basic, resting in our humanity. When it manifests, it manifests in a magpie fashion, laying hold of whatever it can to anchor itself into the fabric of the visible world. Trying to establish a historical lineage for it misses the point that it has an allegiance to the atemporal. Throw away every book with the word ‘goetia’ [or whatever system] and the potency would manifest again and again in some other avenue….We don’t need a continuous tradition to approach that human birthright. What we need to appreciate is that the diversity of manifestations are an essential part of the process, not an accident to be erased by a return to a primal root. The diversity of negotiations being done by people all over the world, in all kinds of cultural context, forms the basis for understanding how profound the unity that joins them is.…A proper tradition needs more intimacy than that, it belongs closer to the level of kinship than to the level of the nation-state.”

(My emphasis.) Whichever end of the telescope you look through, whether you focus on diversity of practice/tradition or on unity, you inevitably come back to this: the diversity is a feature, not a bug. And the same could be said, I think, for whatever it is about human consciousness or neurology that inclines us to repeatedly interface with the numinous in certain ways.

Empathy and ethics

Is empathy a virtue? Can it be put to conscious use?

Frater Acher has a couple very interesting pieces “On Magic and Empathy” and “A string played from both ends: on Empathy and Magic,” which present some opinions that I think merit consideration. He regards empathy as a tool and not a virtue, which is a bold position considering it runs counter to the mainstream here in the West. Since this is a topic of major interest to me and I think it could benefit others, I want to address it.

The difference between sympathy and empathy has always been a bit vague to me. My understanding is that sympathy can be a matter of natural affinity (though not necessarily), while empathy is a conscious choice to try an experience a situation from another person’s perspective. It’s easy to see a conscious choice to empathize as a virtue, but we should consider that critically, rather than taking it as a given. Furthermore, what about when empathy isn’t a conscious choice?

Let me back up a bit. In Western cultures, between five and six senses are recognized: taste, touch, hearing, sight, smell, and sometimes, a “sixth sense” or “second sight.” But this sixth sense has in turn been broken down into various kinds of “psychic” ability. In parapsychology and paranormal research, it has been customary for the past century or so to refer to these abilities as clair-whatever. Clairvoyance, claircognizance, clairsentience, clairaudience, etc. Collectively, I call these the clairs. The idea is that these result in the same or similar kind of sense impressions as the other five senses, but are not mediated by the body’s sense organs. The information comes directly into consciousness, as it were.

Another category has been recognized in the past 25 years or so, that of the empath. An empath is someone who feels the emotions of other people, not in the ordinary way that humans, as social primates, read each other; not in the sense of inferring or imagining what another person feels, but actually feeling it exactly as if it were your own emotion, to the point that it is often difficult to determine with whom the emotion originated in the first place.This includes “feelings” in the sense of emotions, in the sense of physical sensations, and in the sense of “vibes.”

Counselor Troi feels your pain.
Counselor Troi feels your pain.

I am one of these people, but I don’t particularly like the term empath, for several reasons: (1) Note that “empath” refers to the person having the ability. What would the ability itself be called? Empathy? But empathy is a normal ability that pretty much everyone has and uses on a day-to-day basis. Those who don’t have it are typically regarded as mentally ill (e.g., sociopaths) because their behavior is so far outside the expected. How do we distinguish between the two? Are they qualitatively different, or merely a matter of degree? (2) I’m not sure where the term “empath” originated. I first encountered it in the person of Counselor Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Fairly or unfairly, the pop-culture and sci-fi associations don’t enhance the credibility of the category when you come out of the fortune-teller’s closet to your friends and family. (3) There was already a term for this ability: clairsentience. (Some empaths dispute that it’s the same thing as clairsentience but I think it is, at best, splitting hairs.) (4) Though this would be a problem regardless of terminology, it deserves mention: There is confusing overlap with a category recognized by some (non-mainstream) psychologists, the “Highly Sensitive Person” or HSP, which in turn overlaps with what used to be called “neurosis” and with cultural factors such as how much empathy is rewarded or punished by one’s peers.

Does being clairsentient/empathic make me virtuous? It does make me painfully sensitive to others’ feelings, and I sincerely try not to cause suffering. But I’m not saying that I’ve never done anything to hurt someone else. In fact, I regret to say that in moments of rage I have a special talent for finding the exact most vicious and mean thing to say and blurting it out. It’s just that afterwards I feel beyond-horrible when I start to sense the other person’s feelings and realize that I caused that. Guilt and shame do not even begin to cover what that feels like.

super sniffer
I wish I could turn my super sniffer off. 😦

And lest you think that I am bragging, let me tell you clairsentient empathy is no bed of roses. My sensitivity is not only emotional, it seems to be part and parcel of my whole nervous system. I’m intensely bothered by certain sounds and all bright lights. I’m a supertaster and supersmeller. I get drunk practically just from looking at alcohol (possibly the best thing about this clairsentience gig is that I don’t actually have to buy booze, I can just hang around drunk people to get a buzz), get all the side effects of pharmaceuticals including the rare ones, and my skin is uncomfortably sensitive to certain materials (polyester does not touch this body). Highly-charged emotional situations are a problem, especially sex because it combines both emotional and physical stimulation. It is virtually impossible to sleep in the same bed with another person. I need a ton of alone time. I am a people-pleaser and over-nurturer and often despise that about myself. Perfectly ordinary situations make me want to scream and run away.

In fact, I regard uncontrolled clairsentience as bordering on a disability. Maybe not even bordering. It’s a pathological lack of boundaries and there are undesirable tendencies that frequently accompany strong clairsentience. I base this not only on my own experiences but on conversations with many other self-described empaths. They are generalizations, and of course there are exceptions to every rule, but this is what I’ve observed in broad strokes:

  • Most people are agreed that having boundaries is a good thing; empaths have next to none. This can lead to extreme emotional lability–imagine constant PMS-like moodiness.
  • With such raw senses, empaths frequently expect everyone to tiptoe around their triggers.
  • For those in relationships or sharing a residence with an empath, you can pretty much kiss your emotional privacy goodbye, but woe betide you if you lie, attempt to obfuscate, or trespass on the empath’s privacy.
  • Many empaths love the feeling of total merging with another person for a while, only to become super-irritated when that other person is “too close.”
  • Empaths often think they are attracted to another person when in fact they are picking up the other person’s attraction to the empath. Inevitably the empath realizes they aren’t really interested in their partner after all. Woops! Do they then abruptly break off the relationship? Or continue so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings?
  • Empaths can be manipulative without even realizing it, and though most will avoid a fight to the point of being passive-aggressive, when they want to, they know how to wound.
  • After a fight or break up, there is nothing an empath hates more than lack of closure or a solution, and they may hound the other person until they get it. Similarly, many empaths seem to feel it’s their mission to fix everything and everyone. But knowing what others are feeling does not mean understanding how and why they have come to feel that way, or what to do to fix it. Therefore the empath’s attempts to solve the problem can just make it worse.
  • Even when it comes to identifying emotions, empaths do sometimes get it wrong–they are just as subject as anyone else to errors of interpretation. As Ingo Swann has said, getting information psychically is one thing, but it is then subject to the mind’s “analytical overlay.” The more you think you know about something, the more likely you are to filter it through your preconceptions. Or as Mark Twain put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that get’s you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” After being right about others’ emotions for years, some empaths become convinced they are never wrong.
  • Some empaths develop an unconscious ability to shield themselves by becoming numb or closed off; they can be incredibly difficult to connect with.
  • Two words: martyr complex.
  • Finally, there are empaths who think they are the epitome of virtue and goodness.

Don’t strain yourself trying to pat yourself on the back while tooting your own horn, empaths. You need to get your shit together (says the voice of experience). Every empath needs two things: (1) to learn to modulate their sensitivity according to the context, and (2) a system of personal ethics and self-care. And although I won’t presume to tell you what your ethics should be, I will say that taking care of (1) takes care of most of (2). That’s why meditation is so essential to the Great Work. Meanwhile, you’ll notice that I said self-care–no one else is responsible for your sensitivity. But you also don’t have to be a sucker and give people a hundred chances because you can see the tiny seed of goodness somewhere within them. If you don’t have natural, instinctive barriers, perhaps try putting up some arbitrary ones just to see what it feels like.

And this brings me back to Fr. Acher and the question, is empathy a virtue? He argues that empathy has been fetishized as a “universal solvent” that can heal all ills, but such an extreme attitude risks making empathy “isolated, imbalanced and ultimately deformed–over time equally deforming its devotees.” He also worries, understandably, about the negative fallout that may happen to anyone who is perceived to not empathize correctly or enough. The command to empathize could all too easily become a demand for conformity, which is anathema to magic folk.

On this latter point I am 100% in agreement. Lately I can barely hear myself think for the din of well-meaning but lazy “progressive” speech-police jumping on each other and everyone else for innumerable perceived transgressions. As in so many other aspects of life nowadays, the pretense is what matters, not the actuality. Real compassion for others prompts you to make real change; pretend compassion prompts you to bloviate about everyone else’s failure to make cosmetic changes. This is an example of the deformed empathy Fr. Acher mentions.

But there are two claims I need to dispute. The first is that highly empathetic people are obnoxious and impose themselves on others. The second is that empathy is projection. Neither is one of Acher’s main points, but I still feel they need addressing.

First, he cites an example of a supposedly highly empathetic person who is lauded, but who obviously sets off Acher’s alarm bells*. The characteristics that are extolled as virtues strike Acher as invasive, manipulative, infantilizing, needy, and un-self-reflective.

His critiques are not entirely unfounded. I have to admit the way the person is described, she sounds irritating. And as you read above, there are pitfalls that go with extreme sensitivity. On the other hand, Acher’s reaction seems overly defensive. When empathy is working, one realizes when one is making others uncomfortable and, hopefully, changes one’s behavior. So it seems to me that what Acher is complaining about is a failure of empathy.

Secondly, Acher implies (in both articles linked above) that empathy is merely projection. For example:

“…what magicians need to function well in society can be described as a different kind of empathy: They need the ability to NOT conclude from their own inner states on other people. As magicians we need the skill to NOT project our own feelings and emotions onto other people.”

“So learning to be empathetic…requires us to being [sic] with a pretty counter-intuitive first step: that is to tame, to hold back and comtain [sic] our own emotions – so they do not cloud our ability to observe objectively and unbiased….only once we are ready to let go of our own needs and stop projecting them on beings around us that are essentially different to us, have we built a first maiden-fundament for future magical practice…”

I am not sure where this notion of empathy-as-projection comes from, but it makes little sense to me. I’m not denying projection happens, and that it’s undesirable. But what makes Acher think that it is specific to empathy? I have considered the following possibilities:

  • Perhaps what Acher means is that, when consensus pressures people, their attempts to achieve a higher level of empathy leads to projection.
  • Or perhaps there’s a difference in how “empathy” (or for that matter “virtue”) is conceived in Germany, which I believe is Acher’s native country, versus in the Anglophone world. For example, perhaps he is thinking of empathy in terms of the effort to feel from another’s perspective, rather than the process of actually doing so.
  • Or perhaps he is actually thinking of the “analytical overlay” that gets applied to empathy, that distorts the raw sensations.

I don’t know. I do know that in a social species living in large, complex groups–such as Homo sapiens–there is a major selective advantage in being able to accurately assess the emotional state of other members of your group. As any primatologist can tell you, even monkeys empathize. If all empathy were just a matter of projection, there would be a large number of false attributions of emotion that led to disastrous consequences, and the ability would never have come to be common in primates. In other words, empathy is a real process, and while projection is an ever-present human issue, I don’t think empathy predisposes anyone to it–in fact, it’s the cure for projection.

Acher’s ultimate argument seems to be that you have to turn your empathy off in order to become truly empathetic. I read this as meaning the process has to be brought under control and made subject to conscious application. As he puts it, in magic, empathy “is a tool and not a virtue.” Though I don’t think of it as a tool per se, I certainly wouldn’t call my empathy/clairsentience a virtue, any more than farting or burping is. It happens whether I want it to or not; I don’t have to work at it, in fact, I have to work at restraining it. Strongly empathetic/clairsentient people may have an extra hurdle to overcome in developing inner stillness and learning how and when to turn their sensitivity up or down (that’s certainly how it has been for me…sigh), but provided you are willing to put in the work, I don’t see why you can’t become a kick-ass magician. (Or whatever.) On the other hand, strongly empathetic people may find it easier to accept and experience the emptiness, in the Buddhist sense (sunyata), of the individual ego-self. I understand this comes in very handy as protection.

Suffice it to say, for those who are clairsentient empaths or strongly empathetic, it is imperative to get your sensitivity under control, because not only will it make you miserable otherwise, you will in turn make others miserable. Not to mention you won’t learn anything from it. I find the Thelemic motto, “Love is the Law. Love under Will.” to be a very useful mantra/mnemonic. If, on the other hand, we become absorbed in stroking our own egos for our supposed innate virtue, we will stray from the path faster than you can say “lightworker.” Fortunately, the very things that make you a better magician–meditation, solitude, exploring your shadows with compassion but also with discipline–will make you a better, and happier, person too.

*The example comes from The Science of Evil – on Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen.

On appropriation

What is appropriation? And what does it mean for magic?

Appropriation is a topic that circulated through the magical blogosphere a couple years ago, but it still gets referred to frequently in passing. Honestly, I am tired of it. But it seems de rigeur that one should articulate a position on the topic, and I kind of promised I would when I wrote about Xi Wangmu and the Star Festival. I hate to conform to trends, but on the other hand, the worries about appropriation are a reflection of wider social trends in the West and I do think it is useful to critically consider the issue, so here I go…generating more questions than answers.

I am not even going to address the ubiquitous hipster violations of good taste. I’m talking to, and about, people making respectful, good-faith efforts not to trespass on or steal from others.


Just to get straight to the point, my opinion is that the real problem is usually not appropriation per se, but alienation or de-contextualization. I guess you could say that I am turning the point of view around, from focusing on the alleged perpetrator to focusing on the implications for the relationships involved. There are two areas of concern: operational and ethical.

Appropriation means co-opting elements of other people’s culture without consent. There is a lot of hand-wringing about it in well-meaning, liberal or “progressive” circles, but mostly it stays in the realm of talk. Calling an injustice out as such is an important task and I don’t want to denigrate that or discourage anyone from doing that, but most of what I see nowadays, from all political sides, is more group-identity-signalling as opposed to any attempt to actually change anything. I don’t intend to go into all the ramifications of white privilege here, because I’m only addressing one aspect of that, I could not possibly hope to cover it comprehensively, and I feel it’s already been done more eloquently than I am capable of. This doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the issues involved. The only reason I am addressing this topic at all is that I want to bring up some points I haven’t seen addressed elsewhere, that I think are worth consideration.

Operational issues

We in the West are heavily invested in essentialist notions of culture, ethnicity, gender, and race that developed along with our imperial ambitions. But contrary to our wishes, cultures are not bounded entities. They have always been permeable, negotiable, in flux–they form, separate, regroup, identify, and reinvent themselves with reference to other groups of people. Even when human population density was very low, due to Homo sapiens’ propensity to move around and covet shiny stuff, human communities were in direct and indirect contact with other groups, exchanging stuff, ideas, and bodily fluids. Yet for some reason, even though reality keeps slapping us in the face with the inadequacy of our models, we don’t easily let go of them.

Archaeologists call the spread of technologies, styles, and objects from group to group “diffusion.” Sometimes it happens through imitation of something seen at a distance; sometimes it happens through direct teaching. At what point does this normal human behavior become the dreaded appropriation?

Anyone active in the Western Magical Tradition is the beneficiary of cultural diffusion. Some major cultural threads in the WMT include Greek, Jewish, and Egyptian, just to name a few. The populace of Alexandria 2000 years ago don’t seem to have been too fussed about the potential ethical perils of syncretism–their focus was operational: Does this work, or doesn’t it?

Abraxas stone
Abraxas stone

These are the operational questions as I see them:

1. If you take X out of its original context, will it still work? Will there be undesirable blowback?

It’s in the magician’s best interest to tread carefully, since we may attract more than rolled eyes and tsk-tsking if we err. (Though–full disclosure–I have not yet been smitten by any wrathful beings. As far as I know.) Magic tends to bring one into the orbit of the sacred, or at least the uncanny. And though globalization is nothing new, its scale is certainly magnified compared to pre-steam engine days; so all of us are constantly within the orbit of other cultures, ethnicities, and identities. Safety requires knowing what you are doing, and more importantly, knowing when you don’t know. Working with magical “tech,” deities or spirits, or charged objects outside their original context means you are taking them into terra incognita. You won’t know how they are going to react until you try, and hopefully you understand there is risk attached to that. Then it’s a matter of pivoting and course correcting as necessary to avoid calamity.

Of course, not everyone is agreed as to what works: e.g., some have argued that deities from different pantheons can’t play nice together; others say it’s no big deal, and rightly point out that pantheons have been mixed since forever. Some have argued that you can’t cherry pick deities from a pantheon, but must work with an entire pantheon together (e.g., multiple posts on this blog); chaos magicians would beg to differ. If we assume that deities and spirits are sufficiently au courant to understand the workings of, e.g., cars, vaccinations, and paper money, why wouldn’t we think that they understand globalization?

2. Can X be known/have meaning outside its original context?

Every attempt to reconstruct or revive religions of old involves de-contextualization (and re-contextualization). Take druidry for example. What we really know about druidry in ancient times pretty much boils down to something something oak trees something something mistletoe something something wicker men. The rest is cobbled together from the testimony of lying and/or baffled Romans, de-contextualized interpretations of de-contextualized oral literature, and UPG. Authenticity is really unattainable, and every act that makes these religions more relatable for us probably alienates it from its original setting. This doesn’t make revived religions invalid, but these uncomfortable facts should not be allowed to go unrecognized. If results is your only metric of success, then the proof is in the pudding. If, on the other hand, your magic is theurgic or goetic, you would presumably care about the answer(s) to this question. Which brings me to the third issue…

3. Are the deities, or spirits, or ancestors, etc. ok with it?

When it comes to dealing with Otherworld beings, I’m not particularly swayed by humans’ dickering over legitimacy and authenticity. If I’m going to be working magically with an inner contact, deity, etc., it seems to me the only person who’s qualified to determine if that’s ok is the being in question. Of course, since my conversations with that being would be UPG, I wouldn’t presume to tell others that my way is the right way for all.

If, on the other hand, I wanted to serve a deity in a religious context, and that religion were still a living tradition, then it would only make sense to become initiated within that tradition. If that were not possible, I wouldn’t claim to be a priestess of that deity.

Ethical issues

The main ethical issue with appropriation in the modern context is whether an empowered group, by co-opting material culture or traditions from a disempowered group, is effectively using that theft as a club to further beat the subaltern down. (Intentionally or not.) Most complaints about appropriation–so far as I have seen–are triggered by the dominant group secularizing and commodifying something sacred to the marginalized group.

1. Is it possible to not appropriate from others?

I think it’s impossible not to appropriate, and that being the case, the term becomes useless. We need vocabulary to distinguish qualitative differences in “appropriation.” To my view, this complicates discussion of the topic. In cultural studies parlance, it’s impossible for, say, African-Americans to be “racist” towards whites, for for women to be “sexist” towards men, because African-Americans and women don’t have the power of an entire social system behind them. In other words, they can feel the bias, but they can’t enforce it.If we extend the same rationale to appropriation, then a disadvantaged group “borrowing” from the dominant culture is not appropriation; and conversely, no matter how innocent the intent, when the dominant group “borrows,” it is always appropriation. So you can see how neither “diffusion” nor “appropriation” really works to cover all aspects of the dynamic.

Globalization is nothing new, and neither are differential power dynamics. Like it or not, de- and re-contextualization are an inevitable part of the interaction of human communities. You don’t think Gravettian mammoth hunters were complaining about those tacky Neandertals appropriating their backed foliate side scrapers or whatever? Well maybe not, but I’ll wager it started up not too long after that.

Consent or permission seems like a pretty good rubric for what is ok to use and what isn’t, but what if we’re talking about the culture of dead ancestors? I mean, we can and undoubtedly should ask those ancestors, but the answer will always be UPG and thus not necessarily universally applicable. I look at this problem much as I do at eating: Since humans are not autotrophs, it’s impossible for us to eat without killing something; but it’s still possible to approach the issue consciously and conscientiously and define a system of personal ethics in light of one’s values. Similarly, viewed in the long duree, appropriation may be unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean we get free license to be dicks about it.

2. Does using X out of context cause unintentional harm? Who gets to determine that? And who then determines the appropriate remedial action or laws?

I know who should not determine those things: The privileged, young, white, liberal, “progressive” Westerners who would like to. As much as they like to think they have the moral high ground for calling attention to the evils of appropriation, there is danger inherent even in anti-appropriation stances: to wit, racial or cultural essentialism and white-guilt-as-noblesse-oblige. Declaring an anti-appropriation stance requires drawing unrealistic notional bounds around cultures–mistaking your abstract heuristic model for reality. This has always been a prerogative of the empowered. Another prerogative is the claim to speak for the disempowered. Even if my intentions are good, if I as a white American draw the boundaries, am I not just reasserting and reifying my own relatively more empowered status? It’s all fine and good to recognize one’s own privilege, but who gives me the right to be the appropriation police?

It is for the harmed to determine whether harm has been done; and yet I have seen claims of appropriation that I think are frankly a bit of a stretch. Just because you personally are offended by something does not mean it is systemic oppression.

In any event, the best remedy is probably going to be an honest assessment of just how much one doesn’t know, and then a respectful, kind, but wary approach to finding out more. A sincere effort not to be a jerk combined with willingness to take responsibility and make amends if necessary seems to me like a good general policy in human relations.

So that is my statement on that.

On karma and magic

“Karmic,” by Horacio Cardozo.

When it comes to the nature of reality, one of the few things I feel pretty certain of is that most Westerners are completely wrong about karma.

The general attitude to karma in the West is that there is some cosmic scorekeeper, who punishes you with unpleasant life circumstances when you do wrong, and rewards you when you do right. Just as declaring bankruptcy doesn’t erase your student loans, death doesn’t rebalance your “karmic debt,” so if you are a bad person in this incarnation you can be assured of having a bad time of it next time around.

It makes sense that Westerners would see karma this way–it’s a viewpoint drawn directly from Christianity. Though there are some sects of Christianity in which it is believed that there’s no way for a person to deserve God’s grace, there are others–especially Catholicism–in which a person can accrue merit through good deeds. This may or may not result in blessings in this life; my understanding is that usually it’s construed as shortening one’s time in Purgatory. Many Protestant sects, especially those influenced by Calvinism, are of the opinion that happy life circumstances are a sign of God’s favor, whether or not you did anything to deserve them (not that you ever could, you miserable sinner). In fact, they argue that your behavior is already pre-ordained anyway, so the amount of grace in your life was determined before you were born.

In the 20th century, many Christians abandoned the idea of a judgmental God, original sin, and heaven and hell, but still wanted wrongdoers to be punished, and a misunderstanding of karma as an impersonal yet deterministic and judgmental force fit the bill. Even people who are not Christians (at least not any more) love the idea. There are even magic(k)al versions, such as Wicca’s threefold law of return (everything you do comes back to you in triplicate).

I recently came across this opinion that karma “has no place in western [sic] society” and “there is no karma unless you choose to believe in it.” (Spoiler alert: The author doesn’t believe in the threefold law either, and is pretty down on Wiccans generally.) I am not a Wiccan so I have no dog in that race, but I do take issue with the idea that karma exists only if you believe in it and you shouldn’t believe in it if you’re from the West.

I don’t have the slightest problem with learning from other cultures. Indeed, it would be stupid not to. Archaeologists and historians are pretty sure this is why the Norse colony in Greenland died out–they tried to farm and raise livestock like they had back home, and when the climate proved unsuitable, they opted not to learn marine mammal hunting from their “heathen” Inuit neighbors. The Inuit made it through the Little Ice Age fat and happy; the Norse Greenlanders all died. Racial and cultural essentialism is ahistorical bullshit and also stupid from a survival perspective.

But appropriation is a big worry for many Western white people nowadays. Basically, we pitched most of our traditions into the rubbish bin in favor of scientistic materialism, then, having grown dissatisfied with that, many white Westerners cast about for something that would give them a sense of spirituality and meaning and connection, and they/we pretty much had no choice but to borrow from other cultures that hadn’t fallen into the materialist trap, or occasionally, make up new stuff. (I’ll come back to appropriation in another post.)

At the same time, not coincidentally, European empires were heavily invested in oppressing and exploiting various less-materialistic societies, and that created a convenient opportunity for mining interesting philosophical and spiritual teachings. Especially for the British in India, where there were thousands of years’ worth of philosophical writings to reward those who could be troubled to learn Sanskrit and Pali. And so karma–or rather the total misconstrual thereof–made its way West. There were a lot of things that the Theosophists didn’t get right (and to be fair, plenty of Asians get it wrong too, as is the way with all esoteric conepts), but “karma” has probably been the most popular for the reasons I outlined above.

But as defined in its original meaning–and there are subtle differences of interpretation among different Indian philosophical schools, as one would expect–karma is an immutable law, and a damn useful concept. It’s an essential component of a worldview that magic(k)al people should recognize.

It works like this:

All beings are interconnected, directly or indirectly (six to infinity degrees of Kevin Bacon). For us animists, that means literally everything is interconnected. (Here’s one take on that.) Sticking with Indian philosophy for the sake of consistency, we can call this Indra’s Net, in which each being is a multifaceted jewel. From the Avatamsaka Sutra:

“Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering “like” stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.

(My emphasis.) Indra’s Net is thus a metaphor “used to describe the interpenetration of microcosmos and macrocosmos.” Hmm, interpenetration of microcosm and macrocosm…where have I heard that before? Oh right. That would be the Western Magical Tradition then.

If we accept the interpenetration of microcosm and macrocosm, and thus of all beings in the universe, it stands to reason that the ripples of one’s actions touch all beings. Given sufficient time (and pretending for the moment that time is linear and unidirectional), each action would affect and reflect from every single jewel in Indra’s Net, bouncing around and back again.

That’s karma. Karma is the situation of every action as–to borrow John Michael Greer’s phrase–“an ongoing cascade of interactions” within the infinite interconnectivity that is the universe. The complexity of it is beyond what the human brain can grasp.

Is there some cosmic calculator that makes sure you get punished for being bad? Of course not, but there is already shit in the pool, and if you shit in there too, there will be even more shit to swim through. What is this “shit”? It’s the Black Iron Prison, it’s man’s inhumanity to man. No one punishes you, you just deal with what you and others have co-created.

Magicians, sorceror/esses, witches, wizards, occultists–I haven’t met one that doesn’t believe in taking ownership of one’s creations. I don’t believe in a law of return, but I do accept the laws of thermodynamics. Because I recognize my part in unconsciously befouling the pool, with my conscious actions I try to fill the pool with rose petals, diamonds, and unicorns. Inevitably I am, like you, only magnificently human. We mess up a lot. Your personal system of ethics doesn’t have to include the concept of karma; you don’t have to be guided by empathy for others; you don’t have to think about the wider (indeed, infinite) effects of your actions or the unforeseen unfurling of your magics in space/time. But whether you think about it or not, you are bound in Indra’s Net. We are all in this universe together (unless we’re not, but that’s a topic for another day). Now that the term has been well borrowed into my native language, English, I find “karma” to be a convenient and succinct handle for this truth. What you choose to call it is up to you.