Magical Thinking…

It is the season of the witch. I should be in my element. Yet I am generally… not… I just get so frustrated with modern paganism. Here, I think, is a philosophy and a way of living that has so much potential to heal, to create joy, to fix all the crap that western culture has inflicted upon the world. So much good could flow from it. And yet… it nearly always seems to fall short. Often woefully so. In fact, it tends to be hog-tied to all that crap, rather than being in any position to overcome it. 

For example, take magic. Most humans throughout existence, and probably all of those who could be labeled pagan (that is, not closely associated with any state-sanctioned religion, those tied to place-based folkways), have practiced magic. Almost none would recognize that which comes with western baggage as magic. Magic is not ceremony and ritual, spells and incantations in the moonlight, though those things could be part of magic. It is not even all that mysterious. It is simply training the mind to see, and therefore understand, reality as it is, not as the human mind perceives it. It is really no different from science, though there is a usually a good deal more humility involved. A truly magical quest is to understand one’s place in the universe. And if you go even a little down that path, you are very quickly disabused of any notion of human specialness or superiority. Whereas western science seems to prop humans all the more firmly up on their imaginary magical pedestals. 

Mostly magic is used to trick the human brain into being content with this lack of specialness — which the human brain seems to be uniquely and determinedly set upon manufacturing, much to our detriment. Magic is traditionally used to understand why we are born (because we are) and why we die (because everything does). It is used to find stability and balance — what we might call truth and justice — in the jumble of chaos that is existence. It is used to see the wholeness and connection and love in this universe and to truly feel that we are entangled up in that web. It is used to heal the hurts that come from our mind’s false sense of disconnection and isolation — and specialness. 

Magic is not about waving wands or casting spells or muttering imprecations and getting whatever you want. It is about altering your wants so that what you have been given in this life is what you want — and what you want desperately for all beings. Enough to spur your body into enacting that want in the world. It is putting one’s self in accord with being, not twisting being into granting wishes. Now, wish-granting is not evil, per se. It is not inherently bad to get what you want. But until we understand life and how it works, it is very hard to make a wish that doesn’t hurt somebody else and therefore our selves. Because we’re all connected. Magic is the psychological toolkit to get to that place of understanding. 

But you would not know that from reading nearly every book written on magic. (Or religion, for that matter…) Of course, those books are written and published with the goal of selling you something. At least the book. More commonly quite a package of other nonsense as well. And to get you to buy it, you are promised rewards that are commensurate with spending money on something. It is a market transaction. There must be a personal gain, a profit over your expense. Magic is reduced to buying wish-fulfillment. There is never a whisper of reflection on the nature of wishes or on the nature of buying things. There is no consideration of the moral quality of either wish-buying generally nor of the sort of wishes that are typically for sale — which are mostly centered on status, wealth and romance like everything else in the market world.

And that’s the best of them. The worst peddle revenge…

Even modern pagans will admit that magic is not supernatural hand-waving that defies nature. Yet… that still seems to be the unexamined goal. They call it manifestation of will or whatever new age-y phrase is in vogue. What they think they are doing is pulling on the hidden strings of existence to get what they want. They do qualify it with mumbo-jumbo about harming none (but then never rigorously define either harm or none) and reciprocity (but generally over multiple life-spans in a karmic fashion so that the three-fold return likely won’t impact this current body). But most are just enacting ritual theatre to obtain more money or to find a love-mate or to “banish negativity” from their lives. There is no thought for why or whether it should be done or what any of this actually means…

Some might genuinely be trying to heal the hurts in the world, but they’re going about it in backwards fashion. Instead of reducing consumption and waste, instead of teaching others how to live simply, instead of caring deeply about the world and acting on that impulse, they light paraffin candles and do breath-work while sitting on their bums in their climate-controlled bedrooms. At best, they might get outside and learn a little about the more-than-human world. They might explore forgotten low-tech skills like herbalism. They might even join with activists in protesting any number of our culture’s horrors. But most center magic on themselves. Just like everything else in this culture. Exactly why this culture is so very bad for the world…

They are not practicing magic. They are striving to get what they want through unsanctioned channels. They are practicing the shadow market, the crooked paths to wish-granting — since the straight paths to market-based gain in life are denied to nearly everybody. (That being the entire point of capitalism…) Suggest to a roomful of robed mages that maybe they should stop chanting and go wash the dishes or weed the veg patch or play with their own children, try to convince them to strip away their smug superiority, their specialness and mystique, and you will quickly see the emptiness in their pledge to harm none.

This is not magic. This is alternative marketing…

And this is what most paganism has been reduced to… exactly the opposite of actual life-based folkways. Which is pathetic. Because those folkways create the joy and real wealth and love that modern pagans crave — that everyone craves — but that the market will never, ever grant to anyone. (Because satisfied people do not buy anything, the market dies when we are happy. It must keep our wishes unfulfilled…) But if they just practiced paganism, real place-based living, they would not need the market and they would find fulfillment. Paganism is about enacting a joyous life embedded in a community of humans and everything else, seen and unseen. It is a way of ordering life to be a we not a collection of I-am’s. It is the original socialism… but without the anthropocentrism that so mars modern economic philosophy. Paganism is wish-fulfillment… but in western culture it’s been twisted into a self-centered parody. Ritual with no physical meaning. Ceremony with no communion. Life with no magic.

I read these books and blogs, I go to public rituals and gatherings always hoping that here I’ll finally find something like what I’m pretty sure most humans outside this time and culture would call paganism. Or just living… But for a few notable exceptions, I am usually disappointed. So I am on a mostly solitary path as far as human company goes. And I do not like it. Not least because I like conversation and still do not get the language of trees… (Though I think I am becoming at least nominally proficient in crow and chickadee and dog…) That is sort of what this blog is about, trying to find my coven, I guess. Probably not going to work out all that well, given that no humans around these parts read these words. But still, I’m trying. And maybe this is one of those stones that will cause a ripple that will build into a wave that will flow so far and so powerfully that it will encircle the whole world and come right back round to gently lap at the stone again. That is my hope. That is my wish… And I do believe in magic.


©Elizabeth Anker 2022