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The era of magical thinking

Instagram witch Harmony Nice

Recently, I’ve noticed several friends and acquaintances – mainly millennials – getting into magick.  A 30-year-old successful professional woman who pays to consult a globe-trotting voodoo-priestess about her love life. A 33-year-old musician who’s left a humanist community and joined a coven. Stephen Reid, formerly a leader of UK Uncut, who then set up The Psychedelic Society and now runs magick rituals. 

I get the sense our culture, and particularly millennial culture, is having a magickal moment. But why is now the witching hour?

Several possible reasons – these are just guesses. 

Millennial women are attracted to magick perhaps because it offers a form of spirituality that empowers young women, rather than subjugating them. The image of magick has gone from middle-aged bangly suburban women to hip young urban influencers like Lana Del Rey, or ‘witches of Instagram’ stars like Harmony Nice. Witches, says Cosmopolitan, are ‘the new social media influencers’. Magickal symbols increasingly show up on the catwalk, in music videos, or Netflix shows like the re-boot of Sabrina. Young women sign up to astrology apps, read Sabat magazine, and swap copies of Women Who Run With Wolves. There’s a networking aspect to it – covens are the contemporary equivalent of the 70s feminist circle, or the female equivalent of Masonic lodges. 

Magick has also flourished thanks to the internet, both as a medium for dissemination (wicca forums, astrology and tarot apps), and as an ethos. As the writer Erik Davis has explored, Silicon Valley tech-heads have been drawn to magick since the 1990s – it fits well with the idea that one can use tools or algorithms to conjure up virtual worlds, which in turn alter material reality and make you powerful and rich. Think of the opening scene of The Social Network. Eduardo writes an algorithm on his dormitory window and – abracadabra! – the whole of Harvard is in uproar within an hour.


More broadly, the rise of magick is part of the growth of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic, particularly among millennials. Contemporary spirituality is decentralized and anti-hierarchical. We’re suspicious of gurus and priests, we’re not even sure we’re into a monotheistic God. We want our spirituality close to the Earth and nature, we prefer local spirits to transcendent principles. We want rituals, but prefer to make up our own rather than fit into crusty established ceremonies. Magick fits well with this DIY, bricolage spirituality.

Both shamanism and tantric Buddhism have proved popular in Western spirituality, and both incorporate the magickal idea that you can use your imagination and intention to channel divine energies and change your reality. In some ways, it’s a ritualized version of the Law of Attraction – visualize the future you want, and it will happen. Both promise quick results. 

And who knows, maybe millennials are particularly drawn to magick because they grew up on Harry Potter. My generation grew up on Star Wars so we’re more drawn to eastern wisdom (Yoda). 

Magical politics

I also wonder if we’re having a magick moment because of our desperate political situation. It strikes me that both Amazon shamanism and Tibetan tantric Buddhism are religions of the oppressed. These cultures, both at the mercy of foreign invaders for centuries, turned to magic out of despair, when they are outnumbered and the facts of material reality are against them. Are young Westerners also drawn to magick today out of political despair?

I’ve been reading, this week, about the Kalachakra ritual, one of the highest tantric rituals in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s the Dalai Lama’s favourite ritual – he’s conducted the three-day ceremony 11 times in public, twice in the West, and once, in 1985, to 200,000 people in India.

The ritual has different levels, open to different levels of initiate. The highest level apparently involves a male initiate having sex with one or more mudras, or female consorts. The male adept then takes on the female’s energy and becomes highly empowered by balancing male and female energies within him (the woman is typically an accessory to male empowerment in Tibetan tantra).The Dalai Lama has hinted he’s taken part in this highest-level sex magick – it’s curious to think this kindly old man, global symbol of inoffensive spirituality, is also a high-level sex magician. Hey, if he can still do it at 83, good luck to him.

The lower levels of the Kalachakra ritual are more open to the lay-person, and the Dalai Lama has authorized the English translation of the ritual. It’s basically a very long and extremely complicated visualization process. The initiate imagines entering a palace shaped like a mandala, then imagines seeing various deities and spirits, and becoming one with them. It’s a feat of both imagination and memory to keep this extremely complicated picture in your mind. I took part in a Tara tantric empowerment once, and I was lost after five minutes.

The Kalachakra mandala, painted onto sand, is then visualized by initiates as a magickal, reality-altering symbol

It’s interesting to consider, in passing, how important the imagination is to Tantra, to shamanism, to Sufism, and to Christian meditative traditions like the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. In all of these traditions, the imagination is a divine power which can transform the psyche and also transform the body (meditate on the Passion intensely enough and you will receive the stigmata). Modern psychology has learned a certain amount from these wisdom traditions, but I don’t think it has a deep appreciation of imagination – what it is, what it can do, how we can use it to change ourselves.

But these traditions don’t think the imagination can just change the mind and body. They also think it can change the world.

The Kalachakra ritual, for example, is more than just a ritual of personal transformation. It’s a magickal rite of political transformation, a weapon of war for a dispossessed people. The text mentions the myth of the magical hidden kingdom of Shambhala. Supposedly, in the future, the world will descend into chaos and barbarism. The armies of darkness – described in the text as mlecchas – will come together under a world-emperor. At that point, the magical kingdom of Shambhala will reveal itself, and its king will ride out with his armies and magical weapons,and utterly rout the enemies. Then Tibetan Buddhism will be established as the world religion, and the Earth will enter a golden age of peace and prosperity.

This is the Tibetan Buddhist version of Jihad. The mlecchas are identified as the followers of Mohammad and Jesus. Contemporary Tibetan Buddhists, naturally, say the jihad is just a metaphor for an inner revolution, but that was not the case historically – the myth seems to have arisen when Buddhist communities were being attacked by Muslims in Afghanistan and north India, and pushed back into the Himalaya. This grand fantasy of revenge was born out of historical defeat and despair. I wonder – does the Dalai Lama think that initiating hundreds of thousands into the Kalachakra today will help save Tibet from Chinese occupation?

Perhaps millennials are also drawn to magick out of a need for sense of control amid bewildering global change. The Atlantic asked earlier this year why millennials are so into astrology and came to a similar conclusion – they’re an anxious generation at a difficult historical moment, and astrology gives them something to hold onto (even if they don’t totally believe in it). Certainly I find myself paying more attention to astrology in times when I feel stuck and unsure what to do. 

Perhaps the turn to magick expresses this sort of political despair and hope for a miracle. I noticed Stephen Reid, formerly of UK Uncut and now director of the Psychedelic Society, organized a magickal ritual in Parliament Square as part of Extinction Rebellion – in eight years he’s gone from traditional socialist activism, to psychedelics, to magick. Myths of the apocalypse or golden age are also coming back into the mainstream – the myth of Shambhala has struck a chord with some environmental activists like Joanna Macy (here she is talking about it). Friends warn me of the astrological turbulence set to hit the world in 2019, or the Maian prophecy, or the end-time warning of some Amazon elders. 

This is exactly what you’d expect to see happening now, when we’re going through a historical crisis comparable to the birth of modernity in the 15th to 17th-centuries. Back then, as the historian Norman Cohn explored, Europe was filled with end-time prophecies and sudden millenarian movements – the prospect of apocalypse propelled many unlikely prophets to temporary prominence. They would inspire their followers with their incredible certainty, seize control of the historical moment, proclaim the coming of a Golden Age, and then inevitably, be routed as their dream failed to materialize.

I see contemporary western politics as increasingly prone to magical thinking. Like medieval peasants, we suspect our enemies have access to secret occult powers. We blame the rise of Donald Trump on chaos magick, and try to use our own magick against him. We try to concoct the magical spell, formula or symbol that will galvanize the masses and save the world. We rely on imagination to save us from the present quagmire. ‘What’s money really?’ asks Russell Brand. ‘It’s just an imaginary concept. We can just stop believing in it.’

It’s true that, in the short-term, magickal techniques – stories, symbols, mantras, ceremonies – can have surprisingly large political impacts, because politics is partly a question of trying to seize the public’s imagination. This is what scholar of the occult Gary Lachman calls ‘meme magic’. You come up with a mantra like Take Back Control, or Make America Great Again, and see if it spreads in the imagination of the masses. You come up with a symbol like the Guy Fawkes mask beloved of the Occupy movement, which was created by comic magician Alan Moore. Or you conjure a utopia to aim for, like the Shambhala myth, or a dystopia to avoid, like the Tory party’s Project Fear.

The comic writer and magician Alan Moore goes to Occupy London and sees the magickal symbol of rebellion he created (in V for Vendetta) playing out in this world

So in that sense, political magick does work. But if it isn’t backed up by effective policies in the material world, the city in the sky dissipates into thin air.  Look at Trump’s magical MAGA spell, for example. He very effectively conjured a dream into his followers’ fevered imaginations. Hillary is a crook, a Satanic witch. The elite are evil, possibly demonic. He is going to save America, drain the swamp. He’s going to build a wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it. But, two years into power, the intoxication is wearing off, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious, there’s no wall. Where’s the magic wall? The more Trump and his government insist the wall is a reality,the more they sound like Hitler in his bunker in 1944, insisting the war is nearly won. The magic trick is exposed.   

I expect we will turn to increasingly far-out forms of magical politics this century, in our desperation to avoid the grim facts of material reality.  Still, we do need a miracle. We need hope. At the very least, we need to be able to imagine a future beyond the collapse of the status quo.

If that’s magical thinking, pass me a wand.

‘Painting the heart’: how to create inner worlds

There is an anecdote in the psychotherapist Stephen Grosz’ book, The Examined Life, about a client who is always talking fondly about the house he is renovating. Whenever he’s had a bad week, he lets off steam by talking about all the wonderful improvements he will make to this dream-house – the new conservatory, the bay windows, the rock garden, and so on. Then, at the end of the long course of therapy, he tells the therapist, ‘you know, of course, that the house doesn’t really exist’. It was just an inner construction, but no less real or therapeutic for its non-materiality.

I had a similar sort of experience, writing Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations. For the five years I was writing it, I had Raphael’s School of Athens on my wall, and it became a part of my inner architecture, with its beautifully-harmonious city-scape, filled with animated philosophers. Imagining that dream-school helped me, I’d suggest, almost as much as the ideas of the philosophers within it.

The ancient Christians were particularly skilled at this sort of inner architecture. St Augustine called it ‘painting the heart’ with images, symbols, metaphors, myths, in order to expand and beautify your inner psychic life. The fifth century monk Arnobius wrote:

Paint, paint before your eyes the various fabricated things, whenever you chant of these [the psalms]. Of what sort? Those which were seen with wonder by the apostles: paint the temples, paint the baths, paint the forums and the ramparts rising on the high summit.

The Renaissance refined these visualization and memorization techniques for painting the inner world. The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, published in 1548, are a four-week course through which participants paint various evocative scenes in their mind – the fires of Hell, the sufferings of Jesus. Poetry helped to enhance these vivid inner worlds. Milton, who went blind in middle age, nevertheless said that the inner sight of poetic vision helped him to wander ‘where the Muses haunt / Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill’. Until very recently, memorized poetry was part of the inner architecture of educated people.

One of the rooms in San Marco monastery, Florence

Art was also a means to this inner architecture – think of the stages of Christ’s story painted in each of the cubicles in the monastery of San Marco, in which the novice would go round, day by day, painting their soul with its sublime imagery. And architecture itself helped to paint the soul – who could sit among the great stone redwoods of Durham or Chartres without some of that Gothic grandeur imprinting itself on their soul?

To us, as liberal individualists, soul-painting seems like brain-washing. But it wasn’t entirely passive and top-down. Rather, the Christian world was a sort of massive multi-player open-source world made up of Scripture and fan-fiction. The medieval adept absorbed the words and imagery of the past into the deep sources of their imagination, and this led them to new encounters with Jesus, Mary, Gabriel, Michael, Sophia and others, which in turn became part of the open-source world.

Of course, the Christian world was blessed with some master-builders to help with the construction (today we’d call them master-programmers). Dante and Shakespeare, above all, helped to body forth spirits and to expand the inner landscape of the Renaissance soul. How lucky people were to have access to their great inner worlds, how lucky we are to still have their books of spells (even if we’ve more or less forgotten how to read them).

What we lost, in the Scientific Revolution, was a shared inner world. We also lost the sense of there being any point in trying to cultivate such worlds. What was the point in spending hours or even days contemplating a painting or poem? What was the use? Our minds became ever-more technocratic and focused on external, tangible results.

A few Romantic rebels still constructed beautiful inner worlds, but lacking a common open-source culture, they were often quite idiosyncratic and private, like the eccentric world of William Blake, who insisted ‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.’

Last week, I met a lady who, in all honesty, had chosen a deity to worship from an app called Godpicker. She had picked a Turkish goddess, half-woman, half-fish. Things went well for her, she assured me, as long as she remained faithful to this goddess. Which is fine, but a rather lonely and private religious life (and who knows, if she has contacted something, whether it’s benign or not? What protection does she have, on her own, without teachers, outside of a community? It’s like meeting someone on Tinder and immediately inviting them to move in).

We still long for a collective inner landscape. This is what Star Wars and Lord of the Rings provided for my generation, to some limited extent. Their landscapes, characters and crises are imprinted on our souls. The multiverses of 20th century fantasy and science fiction are comparable to the medieval world of Christendom, with their massive, vivid, open-source universes, in which adepts become co-creators.

But most of these new myths lack the quality of Lord of the Rings. They are infantile fantasies of power, invulnerability and self-aggrandizement, while the greatest stories – of Jesus, Oedipus, even Frodo and Luke – are stories of anti-power, vulnerability and self-abnegation.

Still, even if we have forgotten the old method of ‘painting the heart’, we’re still doing it, unconsciously. The internet has made it far easier to create inner worlds. Where the medieval adept painted their heart with icons of the saints, today we paint our online walls with selfies. Where the Christian or Buddhist icon was a window beyond the self, today we wall ourselves in with our own reflection.

We also paint the soul with the hyper-real images of pornography. As a man / self-employed person, I’ve watched my share of online porn – how could I not, it’s so bright, so real, so immediately absorbing. Yet, a few years back, I had a series of dreams, where I was wandering through my inner world (it somewhat resembled Constantinople, if you’re wondering), and I’d find myself drawn down backstreets and alleyways until I was perusing the shelves in a porn shop. Porn had become a portico of my inner world. Which is fine but…well…it would have been more fun if I was making love to actual people in my dream-world rather than looking at images…

I find that computer games – again, so bright, so real, so immediately absorbing – also become part of one’s inner world. You close your eyes, and you’re still there, wandering the streets of San Andreas or Vice City, blowing things up. I happen to love gaming. Games masterfully create inner landscapes – think of the beautiful landscapes of Assassin’s Creed, Halo, Super Mario World, or Batman: Arkham Asylum. Some games let us co-create these worlds, as in Minecraft, Spore, The Sims or Second Life.

Perhaps we just need to dream up better worlds. Imagine an online world, a dream city, where we could absorb the best of our culture, where we could witness the great events of our common story, where we could speak with prophets and philosophers, where we could expand our soul and come back to the outer world prepared for the next level. Perhaps some monastic coders are making that world, even as we speak.

One of the player-constructed landscapes in Minecraft

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