Day before yesterday I was chatting with an old, close friend. She’s been dissatisfied with her life for a few years now and increasingly depressed about it because she can’t see the root cause, and therefore can’t see how to deal with it. It’s hard to watch, but there’s little I can do to help since her path isn’t mine. I can tell her about the practices that give me peace and joy and a sense of meaning, but they won’t work for her because she needs to find her own practices. But I have hope for this friend because there are already huge cracks in the old narrative of her life. I think she’s not quite ready to face the implications of that, but I think she’ll get there. I feel like my part is to get the thin end of the wedge into those cracks and give a little push.
I have been encouraging my friend (as I do everyone) to consider the possibility that depression is a natural early stage in the crumbling of one’s narrative, indeed it’s the only sane response at first. Actually, I think more often than not, what people feel at this stage is not so much depression per se as grief and a sense of heartsick impotence. The immediate instinct is to find medicine, but there is false medicine and true medicine. False medicine is an anaesthetic palliative of some sort, to numb the pain and quell the symptoms just enough to keep getting through your day as someone else’s human resource. That is slow-motion suicide. Big Pharma’s various emotional suppressants fall into this category, along with your alcohol, oxy, assorted Schedule 1 substances, porn (all too often), and consumption/hoarding. True medicine is waking up to wetiko reality even though it’s the scariest thing that can be imagined, and committing to staying awake. And then, in spite of it, choosing to spend every day in love, gratitude, awe, and ecstasy, and acting from there instead of from the fear. One does simply walk into Mordor, because there’s no other way.
I think this quote from one of Christina Pratt’s Why Shamanism Now? podcasts (unfortunately I don’t remember which one, so just listen to all of them), sums it up perfectly:
“If you want to call Trickster in, and that’s the only way to change the world, you’ve got to love it all, and give up your stories.”
So during our conversation, I opined that we live in a society so diseased, so collectively psychopathic, that its values are lies and slavery and our so-called “leaders” are effectively all evil. It’s Kali Yuga. But such times are the times that make heroes, and those of us who are aware can choose to start dreaming better. We Cassandras, the canaries in the coal mine, must put up with being branded lunatics, and still keep speaking our truths. Now is the time; today is the day. Start where you are. The good news is it’s up to us; the bad news is it’s up to us.
My friend said my worldview is dark. My roommate says that too.
I can’t deny my interior world is a little nuts, as I’m going through a rather sped-up initiation process (making up for lost time), which, if you have been there, you probably know is kind of like tripping balls 24/7. But goddamn, it’s beautiful. It’s gracious, it’s glorious, it’s ecstatic, it’s scary as hell sometimes, but it is anything but dark–if by dark you mean unduly cynical. If by dark you mean deep and vast and star-dazzled and mystical, well then, yeah, that’s a fair cop. I get many laughs and some tears from the irony that I probably enjoy more hours of pure bliss in a day with this “dark” worldview than my less cynical friends. But ever since I was a little kid, I have been a teller of unpopular truths. Why stop now?
There can never be equality in a socio-politico-economic system designed and predicated upon inequality. Our “leaders” are not only not our saviors, but insatiable wetiko pied pipers leading us deeper into danger. You have to be the change you want to see in the world, not vote for someone else to be it. Related to this: Resist the tyranny of lowered expectations. When you’re in a shithole, stop digging. Stop opting for the least worst and start supporting only what really aligns with your values.
Consume less and think small. Maybe some source of unlimited renewable energy will be found/invented; I’m not holding my breath. We’ve been promised that some magical technological bullet was just around the corner, and for the past 50+ years, as far as I can tell all we have gotten is fancier toys and some increased convenience. That’s wetiko thinking. Whether such renewables are found or not, we need to start living as if the planet’s resources are as finite as they seem. Also, stop identifying with bullshit abstractions like nations or trans-national globalization and start identifying with your local community. Is progress real? I’m highly skeptical, but what is certain is that we have a hell of a lot of remedial work to do before we find out.
Abandon the farce of philosophical materialism. Get right with the spirits. And for that matter all the other beings around us, whom we need to start recognizing not only as sentient, but as kin.
Love it all and give up your stories. Dream lucidly. A heart filled with gratitude and love is the only medicine against wetiko psychopathy. From both permaculture and human history we learn that edges are the places of greatest abundance, diversity, and creativity–make room for the Tricksters there so someone else doesn’t do it for you.
These are my provisional prescriptions, and pretty much the point of everything I find myself saying these days. This is the advice I’d give my friend; I’m not sure she’s ready to hear it, but what the hell, maybe I will anyway. Do these sound “weird,” “dark,” or “cynical”? They seem pretty optimistic to me.
I started identifying as an animist when I was probably about 10 or 11. I was spiritually inclined, but Christianity wasn’t doing it for me, and I said as much to my dad. My dad opined that we (modern Western society) were evolving away from monotheistic scripture-based religions and toward something more animistic. What is animism? I asked. He explained, very anthropologically and agnostically as is his wont, that it is the belief that everything is alive and aware. Well that sounded like something I already knew to be true, truer at least than scripture. I mean, when I was a kid I would agonize about walking on grass, and hug and thank my pillows and towels for being so nice and soft, and empathize with Christmas trees. Don’t even get me started on toy stuffed animals.
But as I complained in my last post about Gnosticism, we are in desperate need of a better animism, especially if we want it to get a seat at the philosophical and academic Big Table. It is not enough to say that everything has a spirit or soul or sentience. (And I do mean “we” here because I am as guilty as anyone else of using the term without sufficient reflection or explication.)
First of all, the term was coined by anthropologists as a way of distinguishing the so-called animistic (primitive, brown) cultures from their own scientistic-materialist belief that most things in the universe are inanimate and sentient. So the term is etic and generalist, and when you ask for the emic perspectives of the “animists,” you’ll find a lot of diversity. I don’t think being etic or general (even reductionist) necessarily invalidates the term, but from the perspective of those sitting at the Big Table, we will have to bring something more rigorous and well-argued. But more importantly, perhaps, do it for yourself. I think it will only benefit us to do this kind of reflection, and indeed, we can only do it for ourselves because as I said, there are many, many animisms. Trying to do this has been revelatory for me anyway.
Second, beyond merely articulating our worldviews, what are the implications of pan-animacy? Technically animism means that everything is ensouled/inspirited (i.e., has anima), but I get the impression that most of the time, what we mean is that everything isconscious and has agency. Which is perhaps not quite the same thing. How does animism differ from other philosophical/religious models of conscious-everything or ensouled-everything, from panpsychism to pantheism to panentheism? You could probably spend a lifetime just exploring the Indian philosophical takes on this question.
If we are talking about everything being conscious and/or ensouled, what do we mean by “everything”? Are we talking about a single monolithic everything, all-that-is, a Universe or Monad, whose consciousness pervades all? Are we talking about multitudinous independent consciousnesses? Perhaps some combination of both, like mini-souls within a greater soul? Do we view the other beings in an animist universe as bounded, autonomous individuals, or something more blurry? What are the relationships among us? Where are the nexus points where they touch and communicate and how does that happen? What is the place of humans and spirits within this ontology, what are our moral and ethical obligations, what epistemologies does this make possible or foreclose? What is the relationship between consciousness, sentience, anima, soul, and/or spirit to matter? For example, does consciousness arise from matter, or vice versa, or does matter even exist and if so how?
“Animism needs to get itself a Richard Dawkins and a seat at this Big Table because, of all the options, it better models psi effects, NDEs, spirit communication, unexplained biological effects like morphic fields… as well as UFOs and conspiratainment theories… as well as providing as good an explanation as any of the others (better than Materialism’s) for the creation and purpose of the universe.”
Jeez, I hope animism gets better than a Dawkins. (I know what Gordon means here, a popular proselytizer, but Dawkins is shit at what he actually claims to be, a scientist, and we all deserve better.) I think animism could become a better model for all these things than anything we’ve got currently, but at things stand I don’t think it is. At present I think it’s a catch-all for a bunch of different more-or-less-spiritist ontologies. And diversity of opinion is not a bad thing but it still wants deeper exploration. As it currently stands, animism is just a description, not an explanation. For example, I don’t see how animism necessarily provides any explanation for the creation and purpose of the universe, let alone a better one. If we’re talking about any one specific animist cosmogony, then chances are good I will find it much more appealing than the reductionist-materialist one, but that is a very low bar to jump, and (much as I may wish otherwise) my personal aesthetics aren’t widely recognized as a metric for accuracy.
None of this is to say there aren’t people working to articulate a better animism. I can’t claim to have read all the recent works of/about animism, though I’m working on it. (Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall-Kimmerer is highly recommended as a series of personal reflections born of a deeply held animistic worldview which give a sense of the potential moral obligations that entails. Meanwhile in my opinion Tim Ingold is one of the best anthropologist-philosophers of animism, among other things, though he’s not usually considered a philosopher. His work is also a good source for learning about specific permutations of animism. And here is a useful post articulating what the term “bioregional animism” was, and wasn’t, meant to describe.) My point here is not to say that no one is thinking about this, but that we should be too. We, as esotericists, occultists, armchair philosophers, and assorted magical folk, need to engage with this more fully and explicitly. We owe it to ourselves to define animism(s) that are more than just a reactionary stance against materialism, especially if we want them to be explanatory.
I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t attempt to articulate my own beliefs more clearly, so in the next post I shall do so.
“Who knows where madness lies? Too much sanity may be madness; and maddest of all, to see the world as it is and not as it should be.”
– Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote
There’s a saying in Spain, “Take what you want and pay for it.” It means that everything has a cost, whether you pay it now or later, and you should know this and be ready, or at least resigned, before you even start. When we are dazzled by the glamour of our desires, the costs seem distant–yeah yeah, we think. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. But when the time comes to settle up, sometimes we realize the cost was greater than we imagined.
Last night I had a fight with my housemate and best friend. I don’t think we’ve ever had a real argument before. There was a split second that I can’t get out of my head, as she slammed a door in my face to stop me from talking, of a look of shock and disgust on her face. And more than that, a lack of recognition. It’s like she realized I’m not the person she thought I was, and now I’m a virtual stranger to her.
I don’t feel like a different person, in fact, I think I am more authentically myself than I used to be; but I suppose I’ve changed a lot. Though my friend and I talked long on the phone while I was taking care of my mom, we lived in different cities and didn’t get to see each other. And while she was sympathetic, she has never watched the person she loves most in the world suffer and slowly die, so she has no way of knowing how deeply transformative that is. To be honest, I don’t think even I was fully aware of it. To me, she seems changed, but I don’t know anymore whether we both changed, or if it’s all me. Probably some of both I guess.
“I feel homeless and alone most of the time; orphaned figuratively as well as literally. I do not often say this to anyone, and it is only sleep deprivation that is making me publish it, but there are many times when I want nothing so much as to roll the dark earth over me like a blanket to sleep forever….I am become too much a creature of the crossroads, always hovering between one thing and the next, unable to make any real decisions, unable to make any real movement.”
I’m a living ghost.
I’ve always been an introvert and loner, and was never lonely being alone. In fact, I’m more likely to feel lonely in a crowd, because it’s rejection that makes me lonely. You can’t feel alienated without people to be alienated from.
So what was this big fight about? It started as just a discussion, though it was obvious from the get-go that our perspectives are very different now. The part that apparently became intolerable for my friend, so much that she threw her hand up and refused to speak to me anymore, was that I don’t believe in progress.
That seems like a pretty abstract point to get so worked up about (although John Michael Greer likely wouldn’t be the least surprised that a challenge to the cherished myth of progress could have disastrous consequences).
To me, it’s self-evident from even a cursory examination of human history that human behavior (including “civilization”) is not a line but a circle. The extent to which this is obvious is I guess predicated on how wide a view of humanity and how long a view of history you adopt: if your concept of history is limited to your own nation-state over the last couple hundred years, maybe a belief in progress seems more justifiable. But I’ve always been a big-picture kind of girl. I think I actually laughed out loud when my friend tried to convince me that oil prices, crumbling infrastructure, education, and politics are unrelated.
As proof that progress exists and some presidents are morally better than others, my friend brought up marriage equality. Now, make no mistake, I think marriage equality is a good thing, and a worthy thing to care about and work towards. But that doesn’t make it “progress”. My contention is that as long as you have a politico-economic system that is based on the exploitation of inequality, there will never be equality either at home or abroad.
And there are costs. They are externalized so we don’t have to look at them, but they’re there nonetheless. Every “social justice” victory on the domestic front is paid for by the victims of wars of empire that prop up a corrupt system. This is not a reason not to work for equality in whatever ways matter to you; nor am I saying that supporters of marriage equality can’t celebrate that victory. Even hyper-local acts of compassion have meaning. All I would ask is that we occasionally take a break from patting ourselves and our preferred politico-du-jour on the back to remember that blood continues to be spilled to make “the system” “work”. Maybe lose a little sleep now and then wondering about the other injustices we might have overlooked while we were focused on our own particular causes. I think it is one of the great ironies of the modern age that “social justice” and “progress” can be made into a carpet under which we sweep the inequities too ugly to even be named, let alone challenged.
My friend argues that marriage equality is the most important thing in the world to people I care about, and by implication it should be to me too. Perhaps she sees it that way because she’s an atheist materialist who doesn’t believe in life after physical death. Perhaps, from that rather Epicurean point of view, a law that makes life better for some (those that live in countries with marriage equality laws) is the best that can be hoped for. We can’t do anything about the bigger picture, she says. I can’t help but notice that materialism tends to give its proponents a very narrow view of “life” and all too often it’s “me and mine first”. As for me, when my heart is weighed against the feather of Ma’at, will support for one American step toward equality balance out all the lives destroyed globally to perpetuate inequality?
That’s what I would have said to my housemate if it hadn’t been past our bedtimes, if I hadn’t been sick and cranky, if I were better at marshaling words in a disagreement with someone I love and whose respect matters to me. I never got the chance, so I suspect the look of disgust she gave me is because she thinks she is sharing her home with a homophobic bigot. Sadly, I probably won’t get the chance to prove her wrong or even explain myself. Even if she gave me the chance, she doesn’t seem to hear what I’m saying anymore anyway.
It’s times like these, when I hear the words “You’re weird” for the hundred-thousandth time, when I see the look of shock, when someone I care about slams a door in my face literally and/or metaphorically, when I’m told that the only success that matters is the kind that comes from following all the rules, that I ask myself if I am the crazy one. If you haven’t been through it, let me tell you that losing your most beloved person, watching them suffer and being powerless to stop it, pokes a lot of holes in the wool covering your eyes. You question everything you ever took for granted–and that’s even if you know that life persists after physical death, as I do. Prior to my mom getting sick, I had made a decision to get some enchantment back in my life by hook or by crook; when I was caring for her, as scale after scale fell away, I willingly embraced the idea of the Great Work. Sure, I thought, there will be costs. I’ve been warned. I’m strong enough to pay them, and anyway, it’s worth it…
So far those costs have been losing my only real parent, my job, my home, my health insurance, moving halfway across the country, a lot of credit card debt, and watching my closest friendship crumble in slow motion. Which is all the more heartbreaking since I am dependent on that friend for my housing, and I have no other friends here. And lest we forget, the person I was before my mom got sick is gone too. Occultists talk about the “death in life” of the mystery schools–well, I doubt this is what they had in mind, but believe me, it fits the bill. Cervantes wrote a lot about madness, and seemed to conclude that it was better to be mad and happy than sane and jaded. (The ending of Don Quijote is truly one of the saddest things I have ever read, and its message that letting others impose their “reality” on you and crushing your beautiful dreams is fatal couldn’t be more timely, as this year is shadowed by Neptune-Saturn conflicts.) But I can’t go back to the relative safety of who I was before, and what I believed then. Was it worth it? Do I see clearly now, or not at all? Am I mad, or too sane? And which would I rather be?
Can members of a diasporic community become indigenous to their adopted land? What if they are the descendants/inheritors of brutal colonization? Is indigeneity something to aspire to (is it even a word?), and if so, how does one get there?
Sometimes I wonder if I’m just weird (I mean, weirder than the average weirdo who is into the kinds of metaphysical and magical stuff I’m into). Maybe it’s just something about my personal neurology. Maybe it’s because I’m still a magical newbie. But for whatever reason, all my experiences of big powers–I hesitate, more and more, to use the term “god/dess”–have been very localized. I’ve tried to take them with me when I moved, but it just doesn’t seem to work. Either I have limited experience with non-place-specific beings, or I am only able to really connect in certain places.
A while back I drew on Shinto as a model for a polytheism full of spirits-of-place. And just recently I became aware that there is a growing internet presence of Westerners who consider themselves Shinto or Shinto-Pagan hybrid believers/practitioners, for example here and here. It makes me happy to see that I’m not alone. I shouldn’t feel like I have to make a disclaimer here, but with the constant kerfuffle about cultural appropriation I feel like I do: Japanophilia among Westerners is not a new thing, and I don’t know what influence that might be having in the adoption of Shinto outside Japan. When I was doing archaeological research on/in Japan, other Americans would often accuse me of being a Japanophile (and yes, it was definitely an accusation). Sometimes that would then be followed by bafflingly irrelevant comments on how “weird” the Japanese are or bad things they did during the early- to mid-20th century colonization of Korea, “Rape of Nanking,” etc., not to mention assumptions that I am into manga, anime, and cosplay (which as it happens could not be further from the truth, though I have been known to enjoy certain Japanese variety shows). In other words, in the West you can find equal parts Japanophilia and Japanophobia.
I think about this a lot because Shinto is not like the “world” religions we tend to be most familiar with in the West–it’s not about what you believe, there’s no conversion necessary, and because it’s so intimately bound up with Japanese geography and ethnicity there has never been much effort to export it. Here in the US we do have Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Washington (State), a branch of a parent shrine in Japan, and St. Paul, Minnesota has Shi-Yaku-Jin no Hokora, which curiously enshrines (alongside conventional Shinto kami) Baba Yaga. The priests? proprietors? maintainers? of Shi-Yaku-Jin no Hokora identify it as an expression of Minzoku NEO-Shinto, which is defined thus:
“What is minzoku NEO-shintô? The technical answer is, ‘A universalist approach to existential Japanese folk religion practices.’ But what does that mean? To break it down, universalist means it’s open to anyone who’s sincerely interested, it’s not just for people of Japanese ancestory. Existential means it’s based on personal experience, not on scripture or dogma. Folk religion means it’s religion as practiced by the commons – the everyday people – and on a local basis; it’s not religion as taught in the seminaries, universities, or on a national or international basis.”
I am so down with that.
Shinto is a religion in the old sense of the word, but not as commonly understood in the West today–it’s not a “faith.” It is, more than anything else, a practice and a worldview. In Shinto terms, the “congregation” of a shrine is made up of ujiko–people born and living in the surrounding precinct, and usually descended through generations there; and sûkeisha–non-local people who for their own reasons feel committed to that shrine. A non-Japanese can become a sûkeisha, but never ujiko. I think for most Westerners, it’s more likely they would feel dedicated to a kami (spirit/god) than to a particular shrine, as most of us have had close to 2000 years enculturation within monotheistic, universalizing religions. Anyway, you don’t have too many road-to-Damascus-style conversions to Shinto, or rather if you do, it doesn’t matter much because in Shinto your personal beliefs are pretty much irrelevant as long as they’re not getting in the way of practice. Like all of Japanese culture, Shinto practice is a complex web of mutual obligations, consideration, and gift-giving. It’s amenable to evolution and to hybridization, as evidenced through its history. I sort of fell into Shinto while I was in Japan because I was already an animist philosophically, and my friends took me to shrines and showed me how to participate.
But I didn’t try to bring it back to America with me, though I thought about it and heartily wished we had something similar here. (By “we” I mean diasporic Americans and “mainstream” American culture.*) I have weird feelings about trying to translate Shinto to another continent, because while it’s eminently doable, is it right? Most of the Shinto kami are not universal–they are landform-specific. An American Shinto could honor the few universal kami, with certain modifications**, but it would also need to make room for many new kami, those that are specific to locales on this continent. Then you have to ask, do you need Shinto, or do you really need something entirely new? At some point you may end up where I am at, which is a completely individual animism with forms inspired by Shinto practice.
In the comments on John Michael Greer’s most recent post on his occult/magical blog, someone said something along the lines that they wished more American herbalists and magical types would learn to use their local North American plants rather than European ones. I agree on more than one level: First, every ecosystem has plants with purifying, cleansing, uplifting properties–usually more than one. Not only does using a non-local plant place a burden on that plant and its original community, it also arguably doesn’t work as well as a plant that belongs to the local ecosystem. There are probably exceptions to this but I think it’s a reasonable rule of thumb. Second, think of the hidden costs that are incurred in the transportation of the non-local plant to you. Not exactly eco-friendly. Third, I think everyone should be forming relationships with their local plants anyway (and not merely for their own benefit, ahem).
Consider: Have you ever thought about why white sage (Salvia apiana) is the favored herb for smudging nowadays? Because it grows around Hollywood. Seriously, that’s it: It has a very small natural distribution in the coastal sage scrub zone of Southern California. At some point white folk found out that Native Americans used it for purification, then Hollywood, the publicity capital of the world, got hold of the idea and bam, an industry was born. Now you have people in Europe thinking they need white sage to cleanse their haunted castles. Do you really want Hollywood to be the source of your sacred spiritual texts and traditions?
There were people on this continent before our diasporic ancestors arrived, who had already built up such relationships. Leaving aside the question of appropriation (which is becoming a major red herring anyway), it comes down to this: You can’t just use Native American ethnobotany as a cheat sheet to get around having to form those relationships your own damn self. They won’t tell you everything anyway, probably. Be respectful of existing traditions, of course, but ultimately, there’s no shortcut in this Work.
The same thing goes for the spirits and bigger powers here. The thing is, this is hard Work. We can’t just rely on tradition to tell us who, what, where, when, why, and how, because those traditions were built in and for other ecosystems. That means we also can’t rely on tradition for authority, justification, or legitimization. We’re on our own here. Had history gone a different way, had our ancestors made different choices, been subject to different forces, had there been no genocide, forced assimilation, and ecological destruction, we might have been able to harmoniously integrate our ways with the indigenous ones. We might have had partners in this Work. And I should note that some diasporic Americans did choose a more harmonious route, notably African Americans. But the European American ancestors opted to follow other traditions instead, so this is where we find ourselves. No matter what your race or ethnicity or cultural identity, you’re caught in this situation because it was/is the European Americans who hold the hegemony.
I started thinking about this while reading Robin Wall-Kimmerer’s (highly recommended) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. She suggests that diasporic Americans won’t really have a sense of commitment and caretaking toward this land, its flora and fauna, until they/we become indigenous. Perhaps we haven’t earned that right yet. But if/when we do, how will we become indigenous? What would it take for us to rewrite our creation narratives?
In his response to my comment on his post taking up this issue, Greer wrote:
“I suspect that in the long run, the thing that’s going to make Americans of European ancestry turn to the native resources of this continent is when they have no other choice — when that’s the only source of medicine and magic they’ve got. Certainly African-American conjure magic embraced quite a bit of North American herbal lore through exactly that process — and I’ve long suspected that the white population of this continent will only become, in a deep sense, native here, once they have gone through experiences of the kind they inflicted on the First Nations and the enslaved nations of Africa.“
(My emphasis.) That’s a sobering thought.
As regards Shinto as a model for functional polytheistic animism(s) outside Japan, I would suggest that rather than try to import it wholecloth, we might be inspired by it to foster the organic growth of something indigenous, working with the local spirits and powers–or kami if you will–heaven knows we could use a better vocabulary for these experiences–of our bioregions. I suspect that, like so many paths that seem simple, it will make up for its lack of superficial complexity with sheer cussedness. It’s also a lonely path. I’m a solitary person by nature, so I rarely get lonely, but the one thing that is guaranteed to have my crying in my beer is the feeling that I am alone in this and maybe I’m doing it wrong. (Oh Gods, am I doing it all wrong?) It makes me feel like even more of a magical impostor newbie than I am. I sometimes have fantasies about immigrating to one of the countries my ancestors came from and finally just getting to relax into some pre-fab pantheon. But then I’m reminded:
“At the heart, to be a witch doesn’t mean that you manipulate reality to your liking. It means that you can see and call forth manifold possibilities. It means that your perception of reality goes beyond what has been handed to you. And that you can perceive the presence of freedom, and healing, in all things.”
(My emphasis.) When I was a kid my family used to laugh at me for being a stubborn little idiot, proudly insisting on doing something the wrong way just because I would be damned if I’d let anyone tell me how to do it. I remember my aunt saying, “You always have to do everything the hard way. You always have to reinvent the wheel.” So chances are, no matter where I found myself, I’d be banging the drum for us all to start from scratch. I guess I belong where I am–when I am, how I am–doing it the hard way.
*I would hate to think this little ol’ blog’s readership was limited to white Americans. I’m speaking from my own experience, and I happen to be a white American. I assume some of my readers are too. If at any point it seems like I am privileging that viewpoint, please say so. That is to say, I welcome perspectives coming from other perspectives.
**For example, Inari, the god of rice plants, becomes a god of the more abstract principles “food” and “abundance,” because Americans aren’t culturally co-evolved with rice the way the Japanese are.
I’ve never been a big New Year’s resolution person. New Year’s was just never a thing in my family. I think it’s because we are all history buffs, some of us are or have been archaeologists, and we’re accustomed to thinking in long timelines. The passing of another 365 days isn’t all that interesting when you are habituated to, say, a 5000-year span, even if it does correspond to a trip around the sun. Another thing about a deep fascination with history and big cycles of time is that you learn there is no such thing as progress, and nothing new under the sun. It’s also hard to get excited about the New Year because it is totally divorced from the turn of the seasons in temperate zones of the northern hemisphere. The beginning of spring is super exciting! If it corresponded to the New Year, I could get into that…but no. So combine all that with the fact that I’m not much of a drinker, and basically I’m no fun at New Year’s parties. (I do like fireworks though. Shiny colors!)
I don’t make resolutions because there is nothing about the beginning of another arbitrary group of 365 days that makes me think I’ll have any more resolve this year than last. I don’t really set New Year goals either, because somehow the idea of tying the goal to a very abstract, arbitrary date makes me feel it’s bound to go unrealized, like a kind of enchantment for failure.
Instead I set priorities. Or rather, I have previously kind of vaguely imagined some nebulous guidelines that might have been priorities–but this year, I consciously articulated them so I can Work them.
It was necessary because I now have even more irons in the fire than ever. Even as I’m writing resumes and cover letters and trying to get paying work, I’m trying not to get too much work so that I can have enough time for the more important Work here on the farm. (Officially, the farm isn’t a farm, and doesn’t have a name; but my roommate and I have dubbed it Firefly Farm for the zillions of fireflies that light up the meadow in summer.) I regard this as capital-W Work–for reasons I’ll explain momentarily–but it has the potential to be income-generating down the line. It’s just there’s a lot to do to get to that point, and it turns out farming isn’t for the impatient. And I am very impatient.
By this point you are probably sick to death of hearing my random musings and feelings, so let’s get down to the brass tacks–maybe my method will work for someone else too, who knows?
First I realized there is a lot of Work to be done, and it feels like nowhere near enough time to do it. So I will have to get more organized. Organization is something I am not really good at. Actually, I’m great at organizing information, especially for other people, but my own life is a mess. So this will be a steep learning curve.
Second, I reminded myself that I have to start where I am and be willing to start small and slow. I have visions of glorious vegetable gardens and flourishing beehives, but when it comes to taking concrete steps to create them, I balk, worrying that I will mess up and they won’t be perfect, and then all that money and time and effort will be wasted… Even though I know it’s never a waste if you’re learning from it, and there’s no other way to learn but to try, I still allow perfectionism to hamstring me. This is another steep learning curve.
And so, I realized I would have to define and articulate my priorities. These do not have to be tied to calendar year 2016, and they don’t have to be forever, but they do have to start immediately and they do have to be long-term. Whatever they are, they have to be something that I would be ok with, if every single thing I did in 2016 had to relate to them in some way.
Now for those of you of a more earthy, practical bent, this will seem laughably simple if not downright inane. But for water-fire types like me, this is a huge deal and very difficult. If you too tend to juggle many projects at once, none of them receiving adequate time, attention, or effort to ever reach completion; or if you are torn between the things you want to do and the things you “should” do; or if you have a lot of great ideas that never seem to get off the ground, perhaps setting some priorities will help. (I also recommend checking out Ivy’s Practical Magic Project Management series.)
I debated about whether to share mine. I mean, I’m sure no one cares, right? And anyway, it’s very personal so it’s embarrassing. But I wanted to prove I do actually d0 some Work sometimes, I’m not all book learning and armchair theorizing. So without further ado, here are my priorities:
Become a skilled magician. This is not about gaining power or material benefit for myself–though if that’s what you’re into, you do you. For me it’s obvious that magic is how the universe works, and I want to understand it better, experience it more fully, and work with it instead of against it.
Become skilled at life-sustaining technologies. This means low-environmental-impact, relatively “low” tech such as making stuff you need by hand (sewing, knitting, woodworking…), harvesting energy and water, and growing and foraging food and medicine. Not only is my intention to support myself and my family, and to help support my community, but also to integrate harmoniously into the landscape and spiritscape. The key word here is life (I’m an animist after all). Most of the stuff related to the development of Firefly Farm fits under this heading. I am guided by two bits of wisdom in this, which I call my operating principles: First, use appropriate effort–as much as necessary, but only as much as necessary, only when and where necessary. (I “know” this but seem to require relearning it all the time.) Second, as you get older, work in a lower gear–slower, but with more power and focus. Now that I’m in my late 30s, my energy can no longer keep up with my impatience and tendency to constantly accrue new projects and goals, but I do have more wisdom, power, mental fortitude, and endurance.
Become a skilled herbalist. Herbal medicine is something I love learning about and practicing, and is a way to give back to my community.
Now all of these are things you could spend a lifetime working on and never achieve to your satisfaction–that’s why they’re priorities and not goals. No doubt you will have noticed that #1 and #3 can actually be subsumed under #2. I could have collapsed them all together, but that would have made the single priority too big to deal with. Breaking it into subcategories was necessary to keep focused on specific activities, but I doubt I could handle more than 3. Your mileage may vary.
Once you’ve got your priorities defined, it becomes easier to see what actions each one requires, but also (perhaps more importantly) what actions don’t matter and aren’t useful. You can also easily identify two-birds-one-stone actions that fall under multiple priority headings, and thus should receive special emphasis. And it helps me deal with two things I struggle with: Procrastination–when I can see how an unpleasant activity (writing cover letters) contributes to something I deeply desire (money for seeds, yarn, and chicken feed), it’s easier to get myself motivated–letting my own needs, wishes, and expectations take a back seat to other people’s. Lest we forget, you can also enchant for your priorities, once they are defined, or make sigils to represent them as I like to do, pray for them, meditate on them… Obviously for enchantment purposes, you will need to define more concrete sub-goals, but you can see how the smaller goals slot into overarching, long-term workings related to the priorities.
Because organizing my time for greater efficiency is utterly alien to me and has always failed before, I am going to try a new method for scheduling and recording what I do: bullet journaling. It’s a simple, modular, analogue system that accommodates seemingly infinite creative tweaks. I’ve always been a journaler but hell, you’ve seen these blog posts–you can imagine what my journals are like. I can’t stand to look at them again once I’ve dumped my verbal diarrhea into them so they are basically just paper mind-toilets. Periodically I shred them all, and it’s impossible to find any useful information I’ve previously written down so I frequently have to re-invent the wheel. Now, everything is going to be recorded, in a consistent and organized format, in a single place, and archived for later reference. Will I be able to stick with it? Time will tell. But my chances are vastly improved by staying focused on how the journaling contributes to all three priorities. It sounds mundane but it’s actually one of the early steps in this Work.
As a final note I have to admit that “priorities” is kind of an inadequate name. I could also have titled them “values”, “ethics”, or “mission statements”. Activities that fall under these headings are ways of putting my spiritual and moral beliefs into practice, and I treat them as such. They are both devotional and organizational, and so far they are Working.
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.”
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.
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.
“What all of them have in common though is that they require you to work on yourself first; only then do you encounter another higher being. The focus of work moves from inward to outward. The raw stone has to be finished first before it can shift into the space that has been left empty for it in the temple. Our journey towards communion with our Holy Guardian Angel is a journey towards fulfilling, towards becoming what we are meant to be…Achieving this is the first step in a long journey, not the finishing line.”
I was attracted to Acher’s approach because there is nothing about it that precludes also using other methods, such as invoking the Headless/Bornless One or the agathodaimon, should that be one’s persuasion; also because it seems like plain common sense; also because it’s something I can start work on now, even though I don’t feel “ready” for K&C.
It is a facet of my personality that I don’t ever feel ready for anything except dinner. I love to plan, research, and dream, and sometimes I find that having done all that, my desire is sated and I no longer feel the need to carry out the plan. Although it’s contrary to all received wisdom, and frankly a mystery even to me, rather than having defined, achievable goals, I seem to stick with things better when I feel like I am stepping into a stream that started before I came on the scene, will occupy my whole lifetime, and continue long after my incarnation has exited the building.* Rather than being pulled by the future, I seem to be more pushed by the accumulated force of the past (not that time is really linear like that, but it’ll do for a model for now). It is easier for me to commit to something when it feels bigger than myself, as opposed to manageable milestones that I ostensibly control. I have nothing but admiration for those earthy types whose magic is practical, but I’m all fire and water, and there is just nothing practical about anything I do. I am trying to learn to be practical temporarily for situations that require it, but alas, my success rate is not high.
K&C of the HGA can be a very long process, operationally speaking; and it has certainly been around a long time. So this project satisfies my need to step into a continuous current. The first stage of Acher’s everyday approach to K&C of the HGA is trust. He explains:
“…it all starts with a choice. A choice to trust or not to trust. In my humble opinion that choice depends on the fact wether [sic] we have a stable point to hang our trust onto. A fixed point, a guiding star, a hand that we trust to never let us down.
From my experience this is the real veil of Paroketh, this is the real guardian of the threshold – our fear to trust. Because before we can know anything about, long before we can commune with our Holy Guardian Angel we have to trust that it exists. We have to learn to believe. And the way we do this is by practice. By practice with the things that surround us, that we can touch, fear, feel, kiss, smell and breathe in. We practice on ourselves and with the people that surround us. Only then can we proceed to the things that we cannot touch, that are out of reach for our physical senses. So in order to lift this first veil we have to become experts in trusting.”
This is. So. Hard. I have a lot more trust in invisible, intangible things than I do in humans. Humans, in my experience, do not have a good track record of trustworthiness. Not only do we tend to let other humans down, we often stupidly put our trust in ephemeral and dangerous things, like emotions arising from post-coital hormone surges, cult leaders, elected officials, and banks. Maybe I am a particularly cynical, secretive, and mistrustful person. I have always prided myself on not having to get burned twice to learn my lesson. Yet at the same time, I have chided myself for my inability to trust. There have been times in the past when I have ignored my misgivings and given second, third, nth chances to someone just to defy my own prejudices. (The results never failed to disappoint.) I mistrust my own mistrust! I mistrust myself most of all.
As you might infer from the above, I am not interested in magic as a path to worldly power or control. I have always been more mystically oriented, I guess that’s just how I roll. K&C of the HGA is one of the core mystical practices of the Western Magical Tradition, and though I don’t yet understand why, I trust that my predecessors in the Great Work were onto something.
Practice makes perfect. Practice lays the neural pathways that allow one kind of cognition and not another. Practice = learning. I learned to distinguish between intuition and imagination by trusting everything as if it were a true and correct intuition. I had to allow for the possibility that my perceptions could be accurate before I could determine which ones actually were. This is a process I am still working to refine, but refinement too comes through practice.
So I am now officially practicing trust. For me, this means that when I encounter something I fear, I choose instead to trust. In the past, I tried to overcome my mistrust through discipline and rationalization. That failed utterly. This time I am trying to approach it from a more sacred-playful perspective. This practice also requires me to sacrifice some things that have become precious to me, like my habit of secretiveness. This is perhaps all the harder because sacrifice is a devotional act, but I am not devoted to any specific path or deity. I have to be devoted to an alien feeling, i.e., trust, and an HGA about whose existence I am still rather skeptical.
This blog is one aspect of this project. I can already sense certain entrenched habits beginning to come unstuck, but only time will tell where it all leads.
*A little synchronicity: I had already written this post and was proofreading it. I decided I wanted a picture of an angel, and did an image search and found one that really jumped out at me. It turned out to be too small, but of all the hundreds of angel pictures, this one happened to link back to Josephine McCarthy’s blog, where she used the same fluvial analogy with regard to the HGA:
“…it is about who you are, your own unique deep connection with Divinity and your ability to think/feel like a river – a river does not rush from A to B in a predictable straight line… it meanders, races, stills, pushes boundaries, and swirls.”