Otherworldly Bleed, Consensus, and Magic

Otherworldly Observations

A few years ago, back when this idea of the otherworld bleeding through began to make its way into Pagan/Witch discourse, I had a curious incident at the side of a river with a witchy friend. We’d been on a walk together as we often did back then in the pre-plague years, end eventually (unsurprisingly) we’d begun to “talk shop.” You see, both of us had noticed the uptick in otherworldly activity, in a similar way to how hunters are often the first to notice disease in deer.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not comparing the Other with disease here (I wouldn’t dare). I’m just saying that as magical practitioners, we tend to be among the first to notice this kind of thing.

But we were both also getting messages from multiple people. Moreover, these were often from people who didn’t ordinarily experience our kind of strangeness, and that stood out.

At some point in our discussion, I mentioned the fact that a witch’s knowledge and power was believed to come from otherworldly sources where I’m from. And I wondered what the effects of this otherworldly “bleed” would have on magic and what we humans can do with magic. Naturally (because I’m an idiot like this), I grabbed a stick and drew a sigil I use when creating portals into the sand and silt of the riverbank.

The effect was almost instantaneous: a shifting sensation that used to take more effort to achieve.

I closed it and scrubbed it from the sand almost as soon as my friend and I noticed the shift. But I’ve been musing about the changing limits of magical possibility, consensus, and opposition ever since.

John’s Rising Currents

Discourse is a funny old thing. Sometimes we can have an observation or thought sitting in the soil of our mind for a long time without writing about it. But then, something will happen to water it, and it’ll take root and grow.

(As an aside, it’s interesting how we refer to events that spark action as “precipitating events.” Soil and seeds. Soil and seeds.)

I’m a firm believer that most things have their season. And if the blog John Beckett posted this morning is anything to go by, then this subject’s season has come.

In The Currents of Magic are Getting Stronger, John Beckett makes the same observation I did at the side of that river. Ironically, he uses the analogy of a river running higher and faster to explain his observation that the “currents” of magic are getting stronger and enabling an increase in possibility/greater results. He also goes on to cautiously suggest some possible causes, and this is where I feel like I have something to add.

Magic and the Otherworldly

I’ve blogged about this before, but in the historical witchcraft traditions where I’m from, the source of the witch’s power and knowledge was otherworldly. This is where we get into familiars and hierarchy. These are all complex topics, and more than I can cover in this blog, so I encourage you to read the posts I’ve linked here if you want to go deeper. That’s not to say that what we call the “otherworldly” is the only possible source of magic and knowledge though, nor the only possible framework through which these changes can be understood.

We also cannot ignore the fact that most of the discussion on this topic is coming from US sources.  I’m not saying that strange things aren’t also happening elsewhere—some of my mother’s stories from back in Lancashire have been decidedly stranger than usual of late. But we also cannot assume that just because this stuff is happening here, it’s happening everywhere.

In my opinion, an important consideration in this discussion of how widespread or localized this “trend” is, boils down to the relationship between a culture and the otherworldly beings they interact with. ( Assuming the relationship between Otherworldly beings and magic is found within those cultures in the first place.)

Fairy-like beings are found in lore pretty much all over the world, but not all cultures have responded in the same way to their presence over time. Some cultures—such as many Western European cultures—equated them with demons and/ fallen angels, destroyed their sanctuaries, and drove them out after humans converted to Christianity (LeCouteux, Claude. Demons and Spirits of the Land. Pp. 23-28, 68-80).

And I’m not saying that folk practices involving the otherworldly didn’t still exist, of course. We know they did. But as I’ll hopefully make clear in the next section, consensus (like all stories) is a powerful and often binding thing.

This process wasn’t limited to Western Europe either. If Cotton Mather is to be believed in his Wonders of the Invisible World, early colonizers in what would become the US also drove out “devils.” He even goes on to blame the apparent preponderance of witches in Salem on a counterattack by the devils, thus retaining that link between witches and the Otherworldly in his interpretation of events.

The otherworld is bleeding through, the devils are coming back, and they’re bringing us witches with them?

However in some places, maybe the Otherworld didn’t need to bleed back in from anywhere else at all.

Reality, Consensus, Possibility, and Feedback Loops

Another story now. Back in the mid-2000s, I came across an interesting interaction at a Pagan Conference in England between a gentleman from an African country (I didn’t get chance to ask him which), and a vendor who was selling these tacky, crystal-encrusted “wish books.” For her, even as someone who considered herself a witch, these books were just a bit of fun and to be commonly understood as such. There was no real expectation that writing your wishes in them would yield any concrete results. But her potential customer clearly had far greater expectations of the “wish book” than her and kept asking her in a deadly serious voice if it really worked.

As you might imagine, this became increasingly more uncomfortable the longer it went on.

To me though, as an observer, I couldn’t help but be struck by the wildly different expectations of magic that were revealed through this interaction. Again, this is something I’ve written about before, but much of what we commonly call “reality” is more accurately described as consensus. We take in far more information through our ordinary senses per second than we can even be conscious of, let alone store in our memories. Moreover, studies have shown that we’re more likely to become conscious of/retain the information that aligns with our existing beliefs and biases.

This is impossible to separate from consensus. I believe that consensus, in a sense, both delineates and limits the boundaries of possibility.

From this perspective, the more people that experience and/or interact with the strange and Otherworldly, the more the consensus that THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN IN “REALITY” is challenged. And over time if enough people start to have these experiences, the consensus of a culture shifts to include them in the realm of possibility. This in turn, creates a kind of feedback loop in which that consensus is progressively widened. (A process that is not so different from what you find in a propaganda campaign.)

This is theory, but I would argue we have historical proof of the reverse: the binding effects of consensus.

I’ve written about this before, but we can see this in how concepts of dreaming change in Northwestern Europe after the advent of Christianity. People went from considering dreams a place where they could encounter the dead and otherworldly in a concrete way, to a state of consciousness in which people only experience nonsensical or anxiety-driven scenarios.

(Again, another way of driving out the otherworldly, I might add.)

This is all very exciting to think about, but I think we need to also be cautious here too.

The Other Side of the Coin

Within the Pagan and Witch communities, I think there is a tendency to assume that we are the only ones out there working magic. We forget that Christians also have their magic, and that a more forgiving consensus is also going to benefit them as well.

Unfortunately for us, they tend to be very much against our kind of magic, and they still largely label the Other as “demonic.” They also have an established tradition of weaponized “prayer” in the form of “prayer warriors,” who often work together in groups and are capable of a level of faith and zeal very few Pagans and Witches can muster.

Another area of concern is that I suspect a lot of the more “fringe” Christians are feeling the same uptick in activity as we are. I’m far from an expert on this subject, but I keep an eye on some of these groups as part of my omen-taking, and this is something I’ve noticed. There seems to have been an uptick in videos of “demonic possession” over the past few years. And talk of spiritual warfare against demons and witches seems to have become more common. (Here’s a recent example.) There have also been large events such as the Jericho March earlier this year. Participants of the march blew shofarim and marched around the Capitol building seven times while praying- a clear imitation of the Israelite siege of the city of Jericho. The next day was 1/6, in case you were wondering about their intentions.

If there’s anything we can learn from history when it comes to religious fundamentalists of a certain kind, it’s that this usually doesn’t go well for us. The more people believe in the possibilities of magic in general, the more they tend to blame magic (and practitioners) when things go wrong. So, the Otherworldly may be more present, and “currents of magic” may be rising and growing in strength, but they’re not without a brewing backlash.

I just hope we don’t wind up in a place where humans meet the same fate as books.

Neoliberalism and Spirituality

neoliberalism - puppet2

A specter is stalking Europe. Well, not just Europe really, it’s pestering the whole bloody world. It often goes unnamed, though we can all point to its effects, and has been credited with everything from the 2008 financial crash and decline of public health and education, to the epidemic of loneliness.

This specter does have a name though; shall I name it?

It is none other than “neoliberalism”, and I guarantee that this poisonous ideology is currently fucking up a spiritual practice near you.

Defining Neoliberalism: The Roots

Neoliberalism is one of those terms that is difficult to define, and despite its early proponents happily referring to themselves as neoliberals, is a term seldom heard nowadays, even as the ideology has rooted and solidified.

Curious, no?

It started, as with many things, with a group of people thinking they’d found a better way. Collectivism is a force that can either be exceedingly positive or neoliberalism - treeexceedingly terrifying; and the earliest proponents – two Austrian exiles attending a meeting in late 1930s Paris had certainly seen plenty of the exceedingly terrifying. So it’s not hard to understand their aversion to anything that smacked of collectivism. I do not mean to paint these men with too much sympathy though, and the reasons for this will become clearer as I go on.

What began as a term coined during a meeting of minds in the City of Lights would coalesce into theory in 1944 when Hayek published his book The Road to Serfdom in which he argued that government planning not only crushed individualism, but would eventually lead to totalitarianism. This unsurprisingly caught the attention of some extremely wealthy individuals who saw in this ideology the potential for both limitless profit and an escape from taxation.

So it’s no surprise that when Hayek founded the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947 – the world’s first organization dedicated to spreading neoliberal ideology – he did so with the backing of multiple millionaires.

Defining Neoliberalism: The Ascent

Hayek went on to create a transatlantic network of supporters, and his rich backers put their money towards a series of organizations with names that some of you might recognize such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Institute For Economic Affairs, the Center for Policy Studies, and the Adam Smith institute.

As time went on, the movement changed and gained new thought leaders such as Milton Friedman. It was also around this time that the term “neoliberal” curiously all but disappeared as a self-identifier – or indeed from public discourse.

But no one was paying attention to that back then – Keynesian economics that emphasized the social contract were in vogue, and so the neoliberal leviathan slept.

The 70s brought with them economic crisis and the old Keynesian policies were struggling to keep up. This was when neoliberalism popped up again with all the enthusiasm of Internet Explorer when you accidentally hit the wrong icon at the bottom of the screen. Except with you know…a weird illuminati vibe.

“When the time came that you had to change … there was an alternative ready there to be picked up”
-Milton Friedman

Defining Neoliberalism: Dominance

1979 and 1980 were big years for neoliberalism – or rather the ideology that was now curiously unnamed. Key proponents of the ideology swept to power in both the US and the UK and set about following Hayek’s prescription to the neoliberalism - povertyletter. Deregulation was pushed so as not to impact the efficiency of industry. Public health and education were privatized and dismantled as much as possible. Special efforts were taken to break the collectivism of the trade unions (and the threat they posed to the neoliberal agenda). And all the while, the rich got to divide up and profit off everything that was outsourced and privatized – all with increasingly egregious tax breaks of course.

And that is the world we now find ourselves in, kids! That

is neoliberalism.

A world in which money buys freedom and political voice while the vote and wages of the average citizen decrease in value. In which the earth itself is sacrificed for profit, and people are kept docile by endless consumerism and entertainment. (Or as the Romans liked to call it, bread and circuses.)

But hey, “you can have it your way”, “you’re free”, this isn’t really the road to serfdom.

Neoliberalism and Spirituality

“Consumerism is the opium of the masses…along with well, illegally acquired prescription narcotics.”
– Me

But what in the Sam Harris does any of this have to do with your spirituality, and how is probably fucking it all up for you? Well, I’m glad you didn’t ask, because I’m going to tell you anyway.

In my last post, I wrote about consensus and how it affects perception. Well neoliberalism is a huge part of the consensus reality we live in, and it guards its neoliberalism - puppet2position fiercely. How often is it presented as being the only option (and the only alternatives presented as being either Nazism or Communism)? Think about that for a second. Does it really make sense that out of however many years humans have populated the earth in all of our countless cultural variations, this (or Nazism or Communism) is the only feasible option for forever?

Of course it doesn’t, and yet we can barely imagine actual alternatives.

That’s powerful.

So it only makes sense that as such a key part of the consensus, its influence on your spirituality is significant.

This influence can be seen in two main ways.

Firstly (and most obviously), you can see its influence in the commodification of spirituality. I’ve written about this before, but how many of us buy occult tchotchke like it’s some kind of super special thing that’s going to fix/provide greater connection with/protect us from ______ like right now? And if we’re honest with ourselves, most of the time we don’t need that shit. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t buy pretty arcane things if you have the cash, just don’t kid yourself that it’s anything other than something you just like.

neoliberalism - smudge
Exhibit A

We see this commodification in courses as well, or rather the forms they take, and this is especially prevalent in the “shamanism” courses. Now there are some excellent courses out there that are presenting information as wholly and authentically as possible, but there are many that are basically taking lots of very complex things and simplifying (or outright editing and distorting) them to make them more accessible for predominantly white American audiences.

The second way in which we see the influence of neoliberalism in spirituality is in the cult of the individual. Remember that old neoliberal grudge against any form of collectivism? Yeah, that plays out in your spirituality too.

We live in a world in which staunch individualism and the ability to get by on your own are seen as virtues. Like the tax burden, the solving of problems (regardless of the root cause or capacity), has been shifted to individuals (preferably in a way that does not in any way burden productivity in terms of time and cost).

Have a terrible job that barely pays you enough to live? Here! Take this mindfulness prescription! Go fix it with this commodified, soulless version of a

neoliberalism - yoga
“I make shit for money on my three jobs, I can’t afford to get rid of my crappy roomie, and retirement is something I’ll never see. But it’s all okay, because I’m doing a yoga.”

practice that’s actually deep and whole-making when not completely divorced from its religious context! How’s about a little Jesus to go with that? Yeah, he’ll make you feel better, he fucking loves you! I got some yoga to go with that too if you still haven’t managed to fix yourself (why haven’t you managed to fix yourself yet?).

See what I mean? This focus on the individual has given us a necessary extra job that nobody wanted: ‘self-care’.

And you know, we talk about spiritual bypassing a lot in the Pagan community. Of course, it’s always in terms of the behaviors of individuals within our respective communities. But is it any surprise that these behaviors exist when corporations and society at large push what amounts to spiritual bypassing in order to get people to focus on something other than their shitty life situations (and more importantly, the things that are causing them)?

Interestingly, the term “spiritual bypassing” first appeared in the early 80s. Funny that.

Thinking With Motivation

Which brings me to the question of motivation for spiritual activity. What motivates you? Because if you sit with that question and you come up with what essentially boils down to self-care, then your motivations may need a little work.

Having the right motivation for spiritual practice is an incredibly important yet under-discussed (at least among Pagans) thing. Proceed with the wrong motivation and you either burn out when things become difficult, or it becomes limiting. But if you proceed with the right motivation, then it can both sustain your practice when things become hard, and present a limitless array of possibilities.

neoliberalism - LARP
“My favorite LARP is ‘Paganism: The Escape’. It’s super sweet, really takes me away from it all!”

Motivation that is essentially self-care generally falls into the first category, because (and this is especially the case with paradigms that are very different from what we know in our day to day lives) it can all too easily become a form of escapism. A therapeutic religious LARP, if you will. When this occurs, spirituality is no longer whole-making. It is no longer something that connects us to our lives in a more authentic way, and rather than chasing the real, it becomes an exercise in avoiding the misery.

Final Words

In my next (Tuesday) post, I’m going to take a look at ways in which we can free ourselves and our practices from neoliberal ideology. Sounds like a tall order? Well, nothing is too tall if enough people are working together – just ask that Yahweh one about Babel.