I want to start off with a confession; I’m not sure I believe in magic. I want to follow that confession up with a second confession. I also think I might believe in magic. Maybe. It really depends what you mean by magic (or magick, but I don’t like the way that spelling looks aesthetically, so I’ll write it the other way). It will probably be easier to start with examples and then explain what I do and don’t believe in for each.
Note: I am sharing these because I want to confront my fear of talking openly about spiritual practices, not because I want to proselytize. I am not saying that anything that is positive and meaningful for me is necessarily going to be the same for anybody else.
Most people are generally familiar with tarot cards from popular culture, where it is used to create a creepy atmosphere and the Death card always, always, always shows up.
Here’s a quick 101; a tarot deck has 78 cards, divided into the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana is a set of 22 cards with special names that represent big philosophical concepts, major psychological archetypes, and significant turning points in life. Death is one of them; it represents a transition, especially one that includes both a mourning period and an opportunity for new beginnings. Not literal death. The Minor Arcana are like regular playing cards, with four suits, ranks numbered ace to ten, and pages, knights, queens and kings. They represent various aspects of everyday life. Each suit has a theme. Cups represent relationships, emotions and the element of water. Swords represent conflict and the element of air (they are also associated with the logical mind by way of strategy). Wands represent passion projects, creativity and challenges, and the element of fire. Coins, also called pentacles, represent finances, home life, and earth.
Tarot cards come in a variety of styles. The three classical decks are the Marseilles deck, the Rider-Waite deck and the Thoth deck. It has also become popular in recent years to design your own; you can get decks themed after everything from Russian folklore to cat memes to anime.
Regardless of the style, you use them by focusing on an issue or question, then laying out the cards in a pattern called a “spread,” and look for ways that the meanings of the cards relate to your problem.
- What I think tarot cards definitely do; the mind is wired to find patterns. Each card is like a writing prompt; specific enough to give you a jumping off-point, but general enough that you can go any number of directions. Mostly they point you towards positive ideas. The famous Death card, for example, means that change is always the end of one thing to make way for the beginning of another; mourning and rebirth are two sides of the same process. Other cards advocate kindness, caution, patience, diligence, collaboration, and so on. Put those things together with the right mindset, and it’s almost hard to avoid giving yourself good advice.
- What I think definitely doesn’t happen; the cards don’t know the future. I don’t think the future is knowable at all. Too much of it is determined by our actions now, and correct predictions are usually self-fulfilling prophecy.
- What I think might happen; while I don’t think the cards predict the future, I am open to the idea that the cards you need are likely to surface where and when you need them. Some people call this synchronicity – the idea that meaningful coincidences arise when you open yourself up to personal growth. It’s impossible to fully prove or disprove, but it’s a nice idea. I do think that, even if there is an element of synchronicity, it doesn’t excuse us from being self-critical during tarot readings. I swear I have this one deck that sometimes intentionally throws “bad advice” just to force me to devil’s advocate my way into trusting my own judgment. I know that sounds a little wacky. Bottom line; whether I’ve opened a channel to some higher guidance or just found a way to hack my brain into getting out of ruts, I stand behind them as a way to make decisions more healthfully.
Sometimes, when I want something, I draw sigils or mix weird substances in jars, or just burn shit. Sometimes I get what I want and sometimes I don’t, and honestly the former freaks me out a lot more than the latter.
When spells don’t have the intended effect, it’s interesting to compare different explanations. Some people will say that such-and-such an herb has these objective properties, and if you use pepper instead of mint then nothing will work. Other witches say spells are symbolic actions that align, store and concentrate your intentions. A minority says they’re just cathartic and fun; the nice thing about being a witch is that if you’re one of these, nobody is going to cast you out as an apostate. I mean, maybe from a specific coven, but you can think your spells are metaphors and still be a witch.
The interesting thing about the latter two groups is that they both say your actions still matter. If you are willing to do some chanting in front of an altar while burning incense but not actually apply for a job, your choices reveal that you don’t want money enough to honestly work for it. That makes the universe less likely to help you out.
- What I think definitely happens; I’m anxious. I struggle to trust myself. Even when I work for something, I’m so afraid of failure that I don’t put myself out there as much as I should. Doing spells shifts my self-image into something more competent and powerful. It makes it easier for me to do all the other things that I know I should be doing.
- What I think definitely doesn’t happen; I can’t move things with my mind or pull rabbits out of thin air. Nobody can. If they could, we would know by now.
- What I think might happen; maybe there’s something to that whole “putting your intentions into the universe” thing. At this point, I’m not sure, and I’m okay with that.
I don’t believe in astrology, for a very simple reason. My birthdate says I should be a Virgo sun with an Aries moon, when to anyone who has met me, I am clearly a Virgo with a Pisces moon, if I’m a Virgo at all. So either my birth certificate is wrong, or astrology is.
On the exact opposite side of astrology, I’ve gotten into herbal home remedies for minor ailments. Not all herbal remedies, of course. Plenty of herbal remedies have been researched and debunked, and are just being sold by modern snake-oil hucksters. But there are scientifically validated herbal remedies; ginger soothes stomach pain, valerian helps with sleep, St. John’s wort can relieve mild depression symptoms and so on.
I’m not an advocate of doing this without research or consulting with your doctor. Doctors are not the enemy; they are, for the most part, nice people who got into their careers because they wanted to make you healthy. I’m also not going to rhapsodize on the benefits of “natural vs. chemical” because that’s not a thing. In the end it’s all chemicals.
I just like the witchy delivery method better, because when all else is equal on a chemical level, herbal remedies come with other good lifestyle changes. Gardening is good for physical and mental health. Preparing something with your own two hands is good for self-esteem. Tea shops are less depressing than pharmacies. The plastic heavy, mass-marketed, homogenized world of today is bland and stressful, whereas plants are pretty.
I swore I was not going to get into crystals. Two of my anger buttons (claiming to cure diseases like cancer with something pricey and demonstrably fake, and using “quantum physics” to justify something hippyish without knowing the first thing about quantum physics) are a big part of the crystal marketing industry.
Then, one day, I was wandering through a witchy store, browsing their tarot decks, and I found myself picking up a piece of tiger’s eye. It was only a three dollars, and something about its weight and color was comforting. It was that specific stone that drew me; not the display of crystals as a whole. I had that experience with a few others, and I’ve found that holding them while meditating helps me focus on particular goals – tiger’s eye for courage, lapis lazuli for open expression, selenite for feelings of safety, nephrite jade for self-love. I still won’t buy from anybody who is claiming to cure scary diseases with crystal vibrations, or is charging more than standard market value for a small, tumbled piece of semi-precious rock, but as a meditation tool, I’ve come around on crystals.
- What I think definitely happens: color, visual patterns and existing folklore affect the mind. Also, thoughts that are reinforced with actions tend to become stronger than thoughts floating through the air. So when I’m fighting between my anxiety and my desire to be brave, holding a tiger’s eye can help me focus my thoughts in the right direction.
- What I think definitely doesn’t happen; crystals don’t cure cancer. It’s just a scary disease that’s hard to beat, and some assholes are willing to prey on your fear. For any serious medical condition, see a doctor.
- What I think might happen; … you know what, just apply the Reiki stuff below to this.
Reiki, Chakras and Energy Healing
All my life I’ve been what Victorian novels would call “a sickly child.” Exhaustion and pain follows me around, and when I get a mild cold it will linger for weeks at a time. I already wrote in a few places about my experiences during a Reiki healing, and I’ve also started focusing on chakras during meditations. Since doing this, I’ve noticed that mild physical pain often corresponds to a source of psychological stress. This is especially true when there isn’t an obvious physical cause. I tend to get sore throats when I’m anxious about telling somebody something. Lower back pain often comes when I’ve pushed myself without taking breaks, or ruminated on financial insecurity. My chest feels heavy when I’m lonely.
Like many people from traumatized backgrounds, I am good at dissociating myself from my body. Now I’m working on paying attention to what my body is telling me about my overall needs; physical and emotional. I’ve started using these physical pains as a guide to making lifestyle changes, and in addition to growing emotionally, there is a definite trend towards better physical health. I’ve gotten sick less often and bounced back faster.
- What I think definitely happens; psychosomatic pain is a thing. That’s hardly controversial. Chakra models are giving me a narrative framework to work through it.
- What I think definitely doesn’t happen; some mystical and spiritual traditions teach that all illness is in the mind, and all diseases can be overcome with the power of thought. This includes some Reiki practitioners; not the ones I go to, but it was a belief of the founder and it is an idea that’s still out there. If you’ve gotten this far, you can probably guess how very much I do not endorse this.
- What I think might happen; maybe energy, in the mystical sense, is something real that we don’t have the ability to directly observe yet. I could do a whole post on this, but for now, I personally am no longer pretending “we don’t have an explanation or a way to directly test this” is equivalent to “we know for a fact that this isn’t real.”
So, if I’m not sure what I think works and what I believe about it, and I don’t care to convince anyone to follow my path, why describe this at all? Mostly because I don’t want to be in a bubble. Since leaving the Evangelical Christian world, I’ve always had friends who were believers and unbelievers. I stayed out of atheist-only circles and, while I was honest about my skepticism, I never tried to convert my religious friends and I listened to what they had to say.
One of the key traits that toxic, cult-like groups have in common is a policy of isolation. Good vibes only. Suppressive persons. Be ye not unequally yoked to an unbeliever. These are all different ways of saying, “don’t you dare question me.”
Truth is always strong, and true strength is marked by the ability to be vulnerable. Talking about your spiritual beliefs to someone who might not agree is a deeply vulnerable thing to do. It’s like bug spray for religious extremism. When a religious or spiritual group takes a convert-or-cut-off type stance, it’s a dead giveaway that they aren’t built as strongly as they should be. They overbid a bad hand and they don’t want anybody to call their bluff. So instead they focus on control.
I don’t have control, I don’t have certainty, and I don’t have answers. All I have are some cool, affirming people in my life, plus the knowledge that over the past year I’ve grown more than I thought was possible. That feels pretty damn magical.