September Links Roundup: Could This Be Magic

Apologies for another long blog hiatus due to book promotion, practicing witchcraft, and reading the picture book Construction Trucks twice a day to the Young Master. (I highly recommend this one, by the way: very informative, with illustrations of multi-ethnic male and female workers. Bet you didn’t know how cement gets to the top of a skyscraper.)

A high blood pressure scare this summer motivated me to rethink my expectations and self-image with respect to health. I wondered, what if I set my sights on true wellness, instead of settling for functioning on top of a constant feeling of fatigue and fragility?

I remain deeply conflicted about how much to have faith in this vision. I have enough friends with PTSD and chronic illness, not to mention the brilliant disability activists I read online, to know that positive thinking can’t wish away every limitation. Our idea of “wellness” is partly constructed by a society with unforgiving norms about bodies and productivity. On the other hand, I’m well aware of my learned helplessness as a trauma survivor and the health toll of a habitually over-activated nervous system that hasn’t learned that the danger is past. As the bumper sticker says, I don’t have to believe everything I think.

A friend sent me Louise Hay’s self-help book You Can Heal Your Life, which gave them great hope during a low point in their recurring health problems. I achieved some stress reduction through her mantras; “I trust in the process of life” was an appealing re-framing of prayer because I’m going through a phase of mistrusting anthropomorphic god/parent figures. However, I found her wider philosophy kind of crazy-making for my personal trauma recovery.

Hay is also a child abuse survivor, and like some other spiritual teachers with this background, e.g. Teal Swan, she has coped by believing that we attract all our negative experiences–either in order to grow spiritually, or because we had the wrong beliefs. This feels to me like a flight from the painful truth of being powerless at our parents’ hands. It also elides the political dimension of trauma, an analysis that has empowered me more than any mantra. I prefer Alice Miller’s advice that our psychosomatic illnesses will clear up when we listen to the child inside. Hay overstates the case by framing all misfortune–medical, financial, relational–as an individual psychosomatic symptom.

I got a reality check from this 2010 article from Tikkun Magazine, reprinted on the blog Common Sense Religion. Be Scofield’s “When Positive Thinking Becomes Religion: How ‘The Secret’ and Law of Attraction Poison Spirituality” skeptically examines the historical lineage of the positive thinking movement, from 19th-century opponents of Calvinism through Christian Science to today’s Oprah Winfrey Show celebrities. These movements always run the risk of becoming cultish and neurotic because there’s no process for recognizing factors outside an individual’s control (boldface emphasis mine):

While there are no claims of virgin births or bodily resurrections made by the new prophets of positive thinking they do preach many miraculous and magical ideas. And the law of attraction’s most prominent promoters borrow tactics from the play book of Christian fundamentalism, ones that are found in any group based on psychological totalism. Like other religions the law of attraction (as it is taught) promises salvation from the difficulties, anxieties and tensions of everyday life. Charismatic leaders viewed as Godlike shout the gospel in auditoriums and halls instead of churches, practitioners meet in small groups comparable to Bible study and devotees believe they have discovered a revelatory truth. The storyline of many of these new prophets is that they were once lost but are now saved.

The law of attraction is actually the perfect example of a postmodern salvation. It is individualistic (no community needed, one person’s thoughts run the world); narcissistic (the universe will supply ME with anything I ask for); focused on immediate gratification (its central teaching is to “feel good now”); materialistic (strongly emphasizes achieving money and wealth); detached from structural reality (lacks an awareness of political/social/cultural systems) and is hypocritical (claims to be free from religious dogma when it is actually reproducing it). Just like Christianity created a religion about Jesus which most often disregards the teachings ofJesus, a religion has been created about positive thinking while distorting its real meaning.

Many Christians believe that Jesus is the answer for everything. All you need to do is accept him as your savior and pray when in need. When Jesus (the invisible, magical and wish granting friend) doesn’t answer a prayer the error can never be with the doctrine or dogma but rather it resides in the individual who doesn’t have enough faith or hasn’t prayed hard enough. This aspect is perhaps one of the greatest ironies in the history of positive thinking because as the new thought pioneers in the late 19th century broke away from the harsh Calvinism of the day they kept its most central element: incessant and obsessive self-monitoring of the internal landscape. Both the conservative Christian and law of attraction devotee must continually purge themselves searching for either sin or negative thinking. But rest assured both are not allowed to question the doctrine or dogma because this is just more evidence of their own shortcomings. Once the idea that the doctrine is perfect, flawless and divine has been planted the believer has only one place to examine and deconstruct when something goes wrong: his or her own mind and soul. Critical thinking in both cases is portrayed as dangerous and harmful.

The same conflict causes me to waver in my commitment to my new spiritual path, which is turning out to be a combination of Tarot, spell-casting, and some vestiges of folk Christianity (saints, hymns, the Holy Spirit). In both liberal and conservative churches, I used to shield myself from the weakness of my faith through intense engagement with theology. My current practice is intuitive and charismatic–not in the sense of speaking in tongues, but in expecting effects from my invocation of spiritual forces. I have to conceive of prayers (which is what spells are) as making changes in this world, not merely as a psychological trick to make myself feel better.

Some of my new role models for responsible magic are the bloggers Clementine Morrigan and Maranda Elizabeth. They’re both queer, disabled, survivor witches who use Tarot and creative rituals to re-center themselves in their life stories. Morrigan’s seawitch ‘zines are affordable ($3 US & Canada, $4 elsewhere) and filled with experimental essays, poems, and collages placing ripped-out phrases from psychiatric reports into a ritual context. Magic serves as critique of a mental health system with no room for non-normative bodies or spiritual modes of healing. In her recent post “Theory, Magic, More-Than-Human Worlds, and the Arts”, she reflects on a summer writing conference and the difficulty of translating her sources of inspiration into academia’s approved ways of knowing:

From a theoretical standpoint I am interested in how the more-than-human world can be a source of relationship, solidarity, and strength, in the face of trauma and violence. My lived experience as a survivor of child abuse has shown me that the more-than-human world can be sustaining. My relationship with trees, birds, and landscapes are what allowed me to survive. These relationships, which continue to be central to my recovery and growth, are difficult for me to articulate. These relationships were never linguistic and they were not relationships I spoke about with others. The safety I felt in the presence of trees was a private wonder, one which I now long to express.

As a writer and artist I am interested in how the arts can create space in which to speak trauma, in ways which traditional discourses do not allow. Because the violence I experienced happened within the family, within the home, as so much violence does, and because this violence existed in the double-reality of simultaneously being true and untrue, as so much violence does, and because the body experiences violence in nonlinguistic ways, I have found that mainstream discourses of trauma fail in expressing the complex embodied realities of trauma. The arts have opened up space for me to express aspects of trauma which I have been unable to express in any other way. The arts have also offered me the work of other trauma survivors which are instrumental in the process of my own healing…

… As much as I feared bring my creative practice into conversation with academic work, I feared bringing my spiritual practice into the conversation even more. Again and again, in subtle and overt ways, spiritual ways of knowing are dismissed and laughed at within academic writing. Each time I read theory which quickly and without engagement dismisses spiritual ways of knowing, I feel discouraged from being honest within my academic work. My creative practice and my magical practice bleed into each other. They both involve ritual, pause, noticing, intuition, and awareness of the connectedness of things. Writing poetry, filming plants, planting a pollinator garden and noticing bees, each of these practices returned me to my magic. This return opened up a deep space of sadness and longing. I began to feel deeply ambivalent about my academic work. I use language like ‘more-than-human relationships’ but I am not honest about the spiritual nature of these relationships. My creative work this summer resulted in a crisis of faith, not in magic, but in academia. I began to wonder if I could exist within academia if I could not be honest about the role that witchcraft plays in my experience of the world, and in my knowledge production. This resulted in the writing of a paper titled “Can Theory Be a Spell?” in which I unpack the importance of spirituality in my life, as a survivor of violence and sober alcoholic, and take the first steps toward bringing my magic into conversation with my theory.

Buy “Can Theory Be a Spell?” as a ‘zine for $3 here.

Maranda Elizabeth offers online Tarot readings “for weirdos, queerdos, misfits, & outcasts!” Her series “Exploring Trauma, Madness, Chronic Illness, & Disability with Tarot” meditates on selected cards with an emphasis on their significance for these issues. She wants us to discover the elders or role models in our “lineage” as mad people–a provocative question, since I’ve always thought of my family’s mental health history as a curse or a burden. My biological mother owned several popular books on magic (I suppose everyone did in the 1970s, but still…), used to brag that she had psychic powers to know what I was thinking (it usually wasn’t good), and was somewhat proud when my aunt pointed out her resemblance to the Wicked Witch during our annual viewings of The Wizard of Oz. Embracing my magic potential scares me because she didn’t use her powers for good. Some part of me would rather have no power than risk being connected to her this way.

Not coincidentally, this year I’ve been binge-watching Once Upon a Time on Netflix. This fantasy-melodrama features fairy-tale characters trying to change their fates in the modern world. I wouldn’t say it has a consistent theology, but it tackles the great questions of religion: Do people have free will to choose good or evil, or are they predestined by the Author or their own intergenerational trauma? Is anyone completely good or bad? Does magic always come with a price that’s too high?

By the end of the first season, supernatural events convince the skeptical characters that their enchanted cosmos is not a delusion. The town psychologist is bumbling and ethically compromised (and also doesn’t remember that he’s really a cricket) so no one makes a strong sanity-saving case against magical thinking. So far, no villains have tried, cult-leader style, to make people believe in fake magic as a smokescreen for real abuses of power.

In the world I live in, belief in magic is riskier than that. And under “magic” I include the Law of Attraction and other New Age philosophies that attribute practical power to your intentions, as well as Christian prayers and rituals. I return as always to the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” The wisdom is the kicker. In my abusive family of origin, I was groomed to fix adult problems that I actually had no power or duty to change, while having to resign myself to unnecessary physical pain and fear. So every time I light a candle to ask St. Dymphna or Ursula the Sea Witch for protection, I wonder, “Is this just my child self escaping into a fantasy world, avoiding the knowledge of my helplessness?”

Perhaps the conclusion of that Tikkun article can offer some guidelines. The author asks “What is a healthy spirituality?”

…[A]ny holistic system of spiritual or psychological development and transformation embraces the shadow. The law of attraction’s incessant avoidance of all things “bad” and obsession with feeling happy all of the time is what leads to narcissism and a dangerous denial of reality. A much more healthy but difficult approach is to learn to be present with what is arising in your awareness whether it is feelings of sadness and anger or joy and happiness. There is very little depth to a spirituality that is based on a superficial and shallow attempt to be happy all the time, but yet this depth is crucial for true growth. When devotees of the law of attraction are unable to be perfectly happy it is easy for them to blame themselves for failing to apply the law properly, thus doubling the pain or sadness…

…[I]f a spiritual tradition makes cosmological and metaphysical claims about the universe it needs to be done in the context of the reality of immense structural inequality, oppression and injustice. We can ask, can this idea about the nature of existence hold up in the face of racism, Imperialism and war? Or does the idea simply justify the dominant powers that be by empowering them to believe the divine or cosmic order of the universe is on their side? These are just a few of many elements that can be described as part of a spiritual system that is ethically sound and responsible.

Come to think of it, the characters in “Once Upon a Time” do sort themselves into reality-based or denial-based worldviews. Belief in magic is not the dividing line. Rather, it’s the kind of magic they practice. Good magic is powered by true love; takes moral responsibility for using power; sometimes requires sacrifice; is merciful even to wrongdoers; doesn’t trample on others’ free will; and is used for the benefit of others as well as one’s self. Bad magic tries to acquire love through control and deception; is frequently focused on revenge, blaming everyone but one’s self for bad outcomes; benefits at others’ expense; can be defeated by true love; and if practiced by women, causes them to expose more cleavage. (Hey, I never said the show was immune from sexism.) While practitioners of both types of magic may feel trapped by intergenerational trauma, the bad magicians use it as an excuse to repeat their forebears’ misdeeds, while the good ones say, “The buck stops here,” even if they have to give up something they really want.

In other words, the power of magic–the power of intention, desire, and belief–is like any other power. Delusional, selfish people wield it badly, and self-aware, empathetic people wield it as well as possible (though not perfectly). I can’t protect myself from all possible harms or errors by refusing to commit to anything. I guess I’m an existentialist witch.

Image result for regina once upon a time images

Regina the (reformed?) Evil Queen from “Once Upon a Time”.  (Source)

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