Skip to content

Magic

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.

The Philosopher and the Magus

Last week, if you remember, I was at a Buddhist seminar in the Colorado mountains, taught by a Tibetan Buddhist lama called Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. This was quite different to other Buddhist retreats I’ve been on. There wasn’t much meditation, instead there was four hours of teaching every day, over nine days.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche first came over to the US to work as a philosophy lecturer at Naropa University, the Buddhist university founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder in 1974. His talks were mind-blowing. I’ve never actually been to a philosophy lecture before, and it’s a head-trip, trying to follow subtle arguments about the non-existence of the phenomenal world, in real time, for two hours.

Rinpoche said: ‘People like dharma teachings to be like opera [ie very emotional]. They’re lazy, and don’t want to grapple with philosophical arguments. In Buddhism there are two kinds of people. Those who are faith-orientated, and those who use discriminating intelligence. The Buddha encouraged the second kind of path.’

This immersion in Buddhist philosophy made me think about the difference between studying philosophy in western academia, and studying it in a Tibetan monastery.

The main difference is there is a specific goal for the student of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy to reach: enlightenment, for you, and for all beings. Philosophy is not something to be studied for the sake of a degree, a PhD, or tenure, it’s meant to be studied as part of the total transformation of the student’s mind and heart. It’s never just theory, it’s always tied to contemplation and to how one lives. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: ‘you may be fluent in the lecture-room, but out in the street you’re miserably shipwrecked.’

In Buddhism, as in the philosophy of Pythagoras and Plato, the journey to enlightenment happens over many lifetimes. Rinpoche taught within this context – he said we may not fully understand Nagarjuna’s teachings on emptiness in this life but ‘if you get it in 10 lifetimes, or 50 lifetimes, I will be happy’. So there’s a longer time-perspective than the traditional three-year PhD. The Guru is your supervisor over countless lifetimes (tough if you don’t like him).

Imagine your university lecturer saying, as Rinpoche did, ‘I am confident you will all reach enlightenment!’ Yet this model of philosophy has a lot in common with ancient Greek philosophy. There’s the idea of philosophy as a medicine for the soul. There’s the idea of philosophy as a way of life. There’s the idea of philosophy as a training for death – and books of philosophy as guides for the afterlife (as in the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Plato’s Phaedo, which Cato read as he died).

There’s the idea that emotional disturbance comes from misperception, or inaccurate seeing – tsul min yiche in Tibetan. Epictetus famously said: ‘Men are disturbed not by events, but by their opinion about events.’ Likewise, the Indian Buddhist philosopher Tilopa told his student Naropa: ‘It’s not appearances that bind you, it’s your attachment to appearances.’

In Stoicism, and in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, we heal ourselves by realizing how our opinions cause our emotions, and how the opinions may be wrong. The example I use in talks is that you walk into your office, and see Jennifer frowning, and you immediately feel offended and angry. The Stoic philosopher would get you to realize how your opinion caused your emotion – you thought something like ‘Jennifer is frowning at me, she doesn’t like me, what a bitch’ etc. Your view may be inaccurate – she may not be frowning at you, she may not hate you. And it may be unwise – even if she is frowning at you, so what? Is it wise or helpful to hate her back?

Buddhism likewise suggests that everything depends on the view you take of it. Machib Ladrong, the 12th century Tibetan teacher, told her students: ‘You may think that Gods are the ones who give you benefits, and Demons cause damage; but it may be the other way round. Those who cause pain teach you to be patient, and those who give you presents may keep you from practising the Dharma.’ As Marcus Aurelius put it, ‘Life itself is but what you deem it.’

But the Buddhist goes even deeper in dissolving the opinion ‘she offended me’. Jennifer doesn’t really exist, as a separate, independent, permanent self. She is a bundle of a trillion constantly changing conditions – her genes, her ancestors, her beliefs and culture, her body, how she slept last night, and so on. You don’t really exist either, not as a separate, independent, permanent self. There is no separate ‘she’ nor a separate ‘me’.

For three days, we dug into the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness, or sunyata, as developed by the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who lived in the second century AD in the south of India. He took the Buddha’s idea of dependent origination – nothing exists independently, everything arises and passes based on causes, including samsara and nirvana – and developed it into a rigorous systematic philosophy of emptiness.

All theories of the phenomenal world can be undermined through his ‘tetralemma’ (like a dilemma, but four possibilities rather than two):

The phenomenal world is not born from itself.

The phenomenal world is not born from something else.

The phenomenal world is not born from itself and something else.

The phenomenal world is not born without cause.

For each of these positions he gives various philosophical arguments (I won’t go into them here, as I don’t fully get them yet!) In general, his ‘Madhyamaka’ school of philosophy tries to undermine both the essentialist or eternalist school of philosophy, which argues that things can be reduced to some eternal and indestructible essence such as God or atoms; and the nihilist school, which argues nothing really exists. It tries to find a middle way – things don’t exist in the way we think of them at the gross or relative level, but they do exist in a relative sense.

A rainbow does not exist in a permanent or independent sense. It arises from certain conditions, from a certain perspective. However, it’s still there, in a relative sense. It’s still beautiful, in a relative sense. The problem is, we grasp at things as solid, real and permanent – we particularly grasp at the self as real, permanent and eternal. We chase the rainbow and try and find the pot of gold (ie to ground the self in permanent security, pleasure and contentment and to defend it from all threats). This chasing rainbows is what leads to grasping, which leads to negative emotions, which leads to samsara.

It’s a very radical view. All theories are empty. They all depend on polarities like ‘high/low’ or ‘good/bad’, which depend on each other and don’t really exist as independent terms. There is no God, no Platonic One, no ultimate and permanent Good. Nor is there an ultimate Zero – you mustn’t get attached to nihilism either. You could say, as Heraclitus did, ‘everything flows’, and what we call the self is really a bundle of continuums – continuum of the body, emotions, mind etc. But even the continuums don’t really exist in a permanent or absolute sense.

The theory of emptiness is also empty, as are all Buddhist teachings. They’re not the truth itself, they’re a raft to the truth, which is inexpressible. Over-attachment to any philosophical theory causes suffering – this reminds me of the ancient Greek school of Scepticism.

As the famous heart sutra teaches, revealing the dharma itself to be empty:

There is no suffering, no cause of suffering,
no end to suffering, no path to follow.
There is no attainment of wisdom,
and no wisdom to attain.

The heart sutra, by the by, was supposedly taught in the Buddha’s time, and then hidden by underwater serpents until humanity was ready to receive it. One legend has it that Nagarjuna – a magician as well as a philosopher – travelled to the underwater kingdom and was presented with it. Hence his name, which means something like ‘lord of the water-snakes’. He also taught that external reality should be seen as a dream or a magic show – it’s beautiful, but don’t get hypnotized into thinking it’s real.

‘You see the moon reflected in a pond’, said Rinpoche. ‘You know it has no reality, so you don’t try to grasp it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could relate to our life in that way, without churning emotions?’

So, I had a glimpse of an alternative conception of philosophy, an alternative path to the one taken by western academic philosophy, without the Reformation or Descartes or Kant or the Positivists. Wouldn’t it be great to study at a Tibetan monastery?

Well…yes and no. Sometimes Tibetan Buddhist philosophy reminds me of boring Aristotelian scholasticism – endless lists which the student is expected to memorize, like the 18 dhatus or the 37 limbs of enlightenment. Monastic philosophy also seems rather authoritarian and static – how could a young monk disagree with a supposedly enlightened Rinpoche? Ideas did change in western scholastic philosophy, but they changed extremely slowly. And of course, western monasteries often became corrupted, as many apparently still are in Asia. Imagine if tenure was granted not through achievement, but inheritance!

Still, I’m glad that the ascetic or practical or eudaimonic model of philosophy is gradually returning to the west, via Buddhism and Stoicism.

There is another side to Tibetan Buddhism, which I’ll end by discussing briefly, and that is its love of magic ritual. The last two days of the seminar were spent on a Tara empowerment ritual, which took ten hours, all in all, of chanting, ritual cleansing, visualizing and various other ritual actions – including visualizing Tara in various forms, with a flower on our heads, standing on a magic bicycle (no, really) and taking some grass back home to put under our beds, to inspire prophetic dreams.

This obviously felt quite alien to me – not least because the chanting was in Tibetan, most of which I didn’t quite catch, so God knows what I actually said. I’m all for using imaginative visualizations in meditation, but I’m not familiar with imagery of Tara, so abruptly summoning up an image of a white girl with seven eyes led to rather monstrous results.

I also found it off-putting because it seemed like operational magic to me. By operational magic, I mean rituals designed to create effects in the world. The Tara ritual, like all tantra rituals, supposedly grants great powers, or sidhis – such as longevity, magnetism and enrichment. Other tantra rituals supposedly grant powers like the destruction of enemies. We’re told Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism is the ultimate Buddhist teachings – the most secret, the most exclusive, the fastest way to enlightenment. But, to be totally frank, this aspect of it reminds me more of folk Catholicism, prosperity theology, or even the Law of Attraction. It risks becoming a grasping after power – at least, that’s how it struck me, as a novice outsider.

And with that grasping after power comes spiritual pride and hierarchy: we’re the special ones, specially empowered in a rare and exclusive ritual. The front-row of the tent were extra-special – his closest students were called up for special direct empowerments by the Rinpoche. This included his dog.

I was piqued that his dog got preferential empowerments. And I was also put off by the divination rituals to discover what sidhis Tara would grant us. Would we have lesser or supreme accomplishments? We cast a stick onto a mandala to discover. I got the lesser power of magnetism. Doh! Can I try again?

I also had a dream, after I put the magic grass under my bed. In the dream I was with friends, and we came across a party, where everyone was wearing white. We weren’t wearing white, but we tried to blag our way into the party. ‘Is this a…vajra party?’ I asked. ‘We’re into vajra too.’ Sorry, we were told, you’re not on the list. I don’t know if that was Tara telling me I’m not called to Vajrayana Buddhism, or my subconscious telling me that spiritual hierarchies always make me afraid of being left out. And esoteric magic always has hierarchies – you’re a ‘level 7 wizard’ or whatever.

Anyway, I’m not so into the magic side of Tibetan Buddhism (there was plenty of operational magic in Platonism, Stoicism and Renaissance Neo-Platonism, by the way). But the teachings of emptiness? I haven’t totally understood them yet. It’s OK, I have another 49 lifetimes before my essay deadline.

Ain’t nuthin’ but a vajra party, y’all