WELCOME WITCHES AND CO.
Initially I had thought to take some time laying the foundation of much of the terminology this blog will be using, introducing the who, what, and why of my naturalistic practice. Such rudimentary work is sure to be shared in the coming lunations, but as I sat down to write on this sublime Sunday morning, I felt called to discuss a different topic.
The seasons are changing, regardless of where you live in the world. September is usually a time of physical and emotional exhaustion for me, something I attribute to a variety of factors. It is about 3/4 way through the calendar year, so one feels close to the “end” but still with enough distance such that you cannot really conceptualize it. I’ve also been a graduate student for a few years now, and so September has come to represent a time of prickly nervousness for me, when the pressure in my chest cranks up that much higher and the air around me becomes shallow.
September is not just the beginning of a new semester but an entire school year, bringing with it all the trials and tribulations graduate school usually does. Tests, term assignments, group projects, and research papers are just a few of the goblins prancing around my mind during this time. This year feels particularly portentous for me as well because it will be my last before beginning my professional career as a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner.
Deep breath. Exhale.
Just writing those words evokes an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety, unlike any other I’ve experienced in this life. And I’ve lived with quite a bit of anxiety.
If you are a pagan and your practice is religious or ceremonial in nature, you may already be preparing for the upcoming seasonal holiday. Since I’m not a Wiccan and can trace no discernible Celtic lineage, using the term Mabon doesn’t quite connect with me (more on this soon). In general, I’ve taken a flexible framework towards my naturalistic paganism, allowing the artistic parts of my psyche to really shine when it comes to redesigning the Wheel of the Year to suit my needs.
Fall Equinox, for me this year, is a lighthouse in the long-end of a storm–a well in a desert I have been traversing for the greater part of nine months. The activities of cooking, sharing food and company with loved ones, practicing gratitude for all I have done and accomplished this year, and cultivating appreciation for simply being alive–all these things give me the second wind I tend to so desperately need this time of year.
Or at least, in theory, they should. But an insidious part of exhaustion and fatigue is that the things that once brought you joy can suddenly feel anhedonic. So what does one do when the magic simply…isn’t there?
For me, the believability of my magical practice is informed by aesthetics, story and timing. There is often a saying–midnight is the “witching hour”. When I first started my magical practice, I found it easiest to do spellwork at night, surrounded by candles, with deeply hypnotic music playing in the background. I needed to set the scene and play the part.
One way that naturalistic witches conceptualize the how of witchcraft is by attributing the main “power” spells have to shifts in your psychological perspective. Spells can serve as reminders of life values or they can simply boost your mood and make you feel good whilst doing them. Some naturalistic witches say spellwork can even change the world around you by influencing the actions and behaviors of you and anyone else directly or indirectly involved.
In order to participate in this with any sort of efficacy, a naturalistic witch has a barrier to overcome: their beautiful, rational, thinking mind. The good news is that in some ways, our brain is on our side when it comes to this. Durmak of Habdur discusses this more deeply in Season One, Episode Two of the Placebo Magick Podcast, but the cool fact is that our brains, as story-loving and ritual-seeking organs, can be primed to suspend disbelief with certain cues and activities. As night time comes so does natural relaxation and a melting of the rational, ego-centric thought patterns that tend to dominate our daily living.
Neuroscientists have also found evidence to show that while falling asleep, or when we are deeply relaxed, our brains produce theta waves which can contribute to this sluggish, altered state of mind. Theta waves are associated with increased creativity, daydreaming, and intuition in humans and can be tracked as active during EEG’s on people who are sleeping, praying, meditating, or practicing some other spiritual activity. Suddenly, we can imagine why the witching hour isn’t historically in the middle of the day, right after lunch.
So when I find it harder to slip into my witchy mindset, these are some of the things I first examine and attempt to tweak. Am I sufficiently relaxed enough? Have I paid adequate attention to the mise-en-scene? Do I feel safe enough where I am, and without distraction, to loosen my grip just ever so slightly on my logic mind, to allow my inner child to come out and play? Usually the block has something to do with this, and if I can find the patience within myself to carefully, tenderly, cultivate the necessary aesthetic that’s when I am able to tap into that magical vein and get the most out of ritual activity.
Of course, ask a different witch, get a different answer. There has been a lot of content creation on this topic in the supernaturalistic spaces I explore–on why magic or spells don’t seem to work. Most of the explanations revolve around magic being the act of a practitioner exerting their “will” to impact the likelihood of an event taking place.
This line of thinking is not something a critically-minded witch is likely to subscribe to, and so I thought I would take the time to write about why I believe naturalistic magic sometimes fails us–and what we as skeptical, science-seeking witches might consider doing about it.
ORDER FIRST: I do not believe that magic can directly increase or decrease the probability of an event happening.
What does that mean?
For me, and others who identify as naturalistic witches, magic does not work in a supernatural way. When I do a spell for myself, it is mostly centered around
- a) motivating/inspiring behavior
- b) shifting a life perspective
- c) intrapsychic exploration or
- d) self-care and increasing positive mood
Now a) is a very important tenet because I believe that, to a certain extent, is where a lot of supernaturalistic witches (let’s say super witches, for short) are making the connection that magic has the power to increase probability. Almost all super witches will tell you that you must take practical or “mundane” action to follow up your spell—otherwise, it won’t work.
For example, you may hear a super witch chide someone for doing a spell to obtain a job without submitting a single resume. The magic can only do so much, honey. If you are a skeptic, like me, you might say at this point: “Well if the spell doesn’t work without the mundane action…does the “power” really lie within the magic?”
No, the spell isn’t making your desire/intention come true—the mundane action is and quite possibly luck, coincidence, or the support of whatever privilege and community resources you have all play a role. The spell is not weaving itself on some hidden realm, pushing or pulling the chance of a certain outcome in your favor. But it may be doing something else to aid the process…
ORDER SECOND: For many of us who use witchcraft psychologically, it’s often because there is usually something in the way…
Some “thing”, usually mental or emotional, that is stopping us from…
- Overcoming paralysis and taking that first step
- Outlining actionable plans for addressing our life struggles
- Connecting with our Higher Selves or inner values to know what we want in the first place
- Holding ourselves accountable
- Cultivating a sustainable practice of self-grace and self-love
For me, this is where the magic comes in.
My magic motivates me to take the mundane actions I need to better my life.
My magic organizes me when it comes to daily living, personal life, and even self-care.
My magic soothes me when I am feeling emotionally dysregulated and need a break from “rumination station”.
My magic encourages me to reach out to others who are likeminded and to seek and build a supportive community.
My magic liberates me to play with my inner child, use my imagination, and indulge in my creativity in new ways.
Maybe this moment, this spark, is the secret sauce that makes the magical world go round, and you are certainly at liberty to conceptualize it how you desire.
ORDER THIRD: It’s a thin line, but an important one nonetheless.
The fact that you can do a spell and not follow up with any mundane action and still have a 50/50 percent chance of something working out in your favor does not comfort or inspire me.
Seeing things turn out in my favor after a spell which I followed up with no direct action does not make me think hot dog, my magical power is growing! It makes me wonder about things like coincidence and the Barnum Effect. (Note: I still relish moments of true synchronicity, when the universe just seems to be speaking directly to me and whatever internal life adventures I’ve been having recently. This happens to me with a considerable amount of regularity.)
This understanding that the potency of my spellwork has little to do with supernatural probability also allows me to mostly skip the whole “when will my intention come true” phase many super witches will instruct you to include in any spells that you work. I may set checkpoints to return to an ongoing, active spell (for example, the spell jar I made when I launched this blog)–but those are mostly there as touchstones for my values, as reminders of the intentions I set however long ago. Deep down, I know that my spell comes true when I’ve done enough action to make it so.
The neopagan maxim goes: As my will, so mote it be—and I interpret it rather literally. Not the universes will, not some arbitrary, supernatural, grand design, but my will. My ability to take action and to seek guidance and connection from others. My inspiration towards forward motion. That is the will I am reinforcing when I cross the threshold of rational and emotional mind, and allow ritual to swallow me up on the full moon.
Perhaps, a super witch may say “but truly what is the difference?” If you do the spell and then get inspired to do the action, isn’t that the spell working? Sure, in a way. But for me, and maybe for other naturalistic witches, it’s not working in the way that is implied—not supernaturally. The spell is a road, a conduit, a boon of inspiration, a catalyst for action that the practitioner may need to get started. Once the spell is done and you finally feel able to take that first precious step towards achieving your intention, that’s when the Real Magic begins.
So if I’m a naturalistic witch, and I’ve run out of jet fuel for my broomstick, what can I do?
Remember the dynamics of spellwork and what it can and cannot do for you. If we can reframe our understanding of how we ought to feel pre- and post-ritual, we might be able to lower our expectations and provide ourselves some grace, especially during these exhaustive seasons.
Consider shifting your focus to self-care centered rituals. Taking a cleansing bath on the new moon is just as much “doing the Craft” as is consecrating a space and summoning your latest inner demon to bind and dispel. Big Magic doesn’t have to be the majority of your practice, and just as the calendar year moves in seasonal cycles, so can our relationship with the Craft ebb and flow in the amount of energy it consumes from us.
Take advantage of your brain’s tendencies towards magical thinking! Do your magic at night, when your brain is ready to transition into dreamland and your ego is much more pliable. Double down on the theater: wear a special magical gown/robe, light your favorite smelling candle in an otherwise dark room, and play some deeply meditative music (recommendations include: binaural beats and singing bowl meditations, easily found for free on Youtube).
Allow yourself to get in touch with that curious, what if side of yourself–you know the one you used to be really close to as a kid? Fun fact: theta waves are common in children younger than 13 even when they are awake. That larger-than-life dreamy sensibility you had in childhood can still be of use to you even now, no matter how old you are.
There is a lot of research on the importance of play in childhood, and now some more is being done on whether these benefits extend into adulthood. Take a playful stance towards your Craft, laugh if you feel silly perched at your altar, try out different vocal intonations when chanting, and see how much lighter or rejuvenated you feel afterwards. These are not to be considered adjunctive tactics to enhance or revive your magical practice. This is the magic.
This essay is a very specific discourse on the efficacy of spellwork in my naturalistic practice. I cannot overemphasize how useful naturalistic paganism and witchcraft has been for me in an overarching sense too though—especially when it comes to self-discipline, sustainable pursuit of my life goals, and developing more of a routine with self-care. Some of those benefits include me doing spellwork, some center around divination, following the lunar cycle, utilizing components of archetypal psychology, and a plethora of other magical activities. One day I will write on all the little daily microtransactions between me and my Craft that help to construct the scaffolding of my life.
Until then, for all my fellow witches who seem to have lost the spark of magic during this transitional period, I give a loving reminder of what I consider to be the first tenet of naturalistic witchcraft: