Starting on this last new moon, the New Moon in Sagittarius, I felt like I was on the cusp of something very important. I’ve been writing and wrestling with it for the last week or so. Well, really, I’ve been writing and wrestling with it for many many years, it’s just that everything’s kinda coming together now.
I really want to like… sum up everything I’ve been thinking about and all the changes I’ve made over the last few weeks. Well, not even sum it up, but just write it all down. Document every change and process and major thing that’s been making me think. I think I need to accept that’s not going to happen; while I have a lot of notes and things, it’s not going to fully capture every thought I’ve had. Even the process of writing is changing my thoughts anyway! But I want to be able to preserve at least some little pieces of my development and process. So I’m going to do my best here to paint some broad strokes—and trust me, these may not look that broad, but this is nothing compared to everything that’s been going on in my head.
I hope you enjoy this is tale of philosophy, exploration, personal development, and magic.
Where I started
So a little background, the major thing I’ve been thinking about is a resurgence of something I’ve been struggling with for basically… eight years now? Since my dad died. And that’s figuring out my relationship with spirituality. This is a theme that’s even present in my astrological chart—balancing skepticism with an interest in mysticism and art. This month, I had a lot of spare time. I mean a lot, because I intentionally took the semester off and took some time off work in anticipation of some difficult depression feelings surrounding grief about my dad’s November death. Those definitely happened, but they weren’t as debilitating as I thought they might be. Which is good, but it also left me with a lot of free time. My brain had been prepared to tackle some unacknowledged things, no matter how scary or complicated or overwhelming, so now it was itching to do it. And when playing Animal Crossing all day was starting to feel like a distraction, I finally took a lot of time to sit down, think, and write out some stuff.
Here’s the thing—for the last few years, I’ve been exploring a lot of things related to spirituality, but relatively little “doing” of it. Although I was motivated to learn about it, and although I (thought I) had a desire for actually building a “practice” and defining some of my beliefs, I just. Never did. I certainly tried defining some of my beliefs and writing down theories about magic and spirituality. I followed outlines for building an authentic spiritual or witchcraft practice from multiple books and YouTube videos. I got lots of advice from friends, therapists, spiritual mentors and tarot cards, and I gave myself even more advice. But just setting up something, whether it’d change or not, whether it was complex and ritualized or simple and folksy, whether it was a daily routine or observation of holidays or involved this that or the other thing, it just never happened despite many, many well-laid plans. And I think it’s because in the back of my head I knew there was something I had to figure out before I’d be able to get over that hump, I just didn’t know what it was. And I think the hump was something fundamental with the concept of spirituality, or how I was approaching it.
Laying shit out
What I ended up doing first to start parsing this all out was making lists. I started by trying to make a list of my current beliefs and nonbeliefs, but that didn’t really go anywhere. What did crack things open was making list of stuff I’m interested in that I’d put in the category of “spirituality” or somehow related to spirituality. I knew that certainly all of these things could be explored without being spirituality, but maybe there was something they had in common, or maybe having all of them laid out could give me some idea of the feeling I was getting from them. And because you’re probably as curious as Future Me will be reading this, here’s that (unedited) list:
Things I’m interested in
- Alchemy—the process of transformation and transformation by process. The idea of “something occurring” as being significant even if the outcome isn’t visible (multiplying by one, etc.)
- Metaphysics—the structure of the universe, if there is one. And especially the implications of alternative metaphysical models on how we can know things otherwise unexplainable (eg. divination)
- Models of time are especially interesting. I like eternalism and the possibility of timelessness
- Understanding the flaws in our senses, like the Allegory of the Cave, how our brains try to understand things as being different from how they are outside of us
- Animals—the life of animals and how they experience seasons and others and all, natural behaviors, as well as symbolism and depictions of animals by us
- Alpine Paganism—cultural traditions and folklore/mythology from the region my family is from
- Art—both as a process, a creation, and how we use symbolism. Art as an attempt at alchemizing “transpersonal” moments (moments beyond ourselves) into something more clear, distilled, and practical (visible by our senses).
- Art as magic: bringing about a feeling; and magic as art: self-expression through performance or existence. The idea that magic and art are ultimately the same thing… I haven’t fully developed that idea into something easily explainable, but it comes up a lot for me.
- Use of symbolism and playing with symbolism in general. Number symbolism, astrology and tarot, animals, werewolves are a really potent symbol for me tbh
- Also the idea of naming as being a very important power humans have. Naming and using words and language to declare a special type of value and understanding and appreciation.
- Regional difference in generally accepted “complete” symbols. Basically, for example, Chinese astrology uses five elements. So why does the west declare four to be the “sum” of elements on earth? How would Western purists account for Chinese elements? Interested in cultural appropriation and assertion. Interested in differences but also possible synergies.
This list ended up being incomplete, but these are a lot of the major things I’m interested in that I’m referring to in my head when I think about spirituality. And I think the thing they have in common is that I don’t think I could fully understand any of these things just by learning about them as I would learn about math or English or whatever. There’s an aspect of deeper thought, really digging down to my Self.
This spawned another list, which also ended up being incomplete, about what I wanted to get out of a spiritual practice. A lot of the books I’d read and advice I heard suggested this step, which I had never actually done in earnest. I don’t know how relevant it ended up being (yet), but for the sake of posterity, I’m gonna post it here too:
What I want to get out of this
- Feeling supported by my beliefs instead of constantly feeling the need to justify or defend them (to myself)
- Feeling artistically inspired, making more “occult” zine, having enough depth of symbolic knowledge & exploration to apply it to artwork
- Curiosity and uncertainty as a motivating force instead of a petrifying one
- Basically, I want to wrestle with things. I want to feel how I feel when I’m working on my occult zines, or taking notes on something I love reading.
- Something that gets my spark back when I need it
- Something I can think about deeply when depressed (metaphysics)
- Something that strengthens my connection with my dad
- I want to be able to initiate that feeling of transpersonalism intentionally [editor’s note: will probably talk about what the hell this means later. maybe]
The meaning of “spirituality”
The next thing I had to do was to was to really look at the word “spirituality”, because honestly, I was incredibly uncomfortable with it. I had sort of guessed that my discomfort was because “oh, I considered spirituality and logic and science to be incompatible for a long time”, and just assumed that I had to just ignore the discomfort and get over myself. But the thing is, I had never really examined why I felt they were incompatible, or why I was comfortable with one and not the other. I had to actually look at the discomfort and try to parse it out.
So although I thought I wanted a spiritual practice, if someone were to ask me to describe my “spiritual practice” or what I wanted by it, I’d feel sort of uneasy. I’d always start by saying “I don’t really have one… but I guess here’s a few things I do [tarot] or am interested in [see above list] that some other people would call ‘spiritual’, but I’d never use the word to describe myself.” And that’s not inherently a bad thing, but the discomfort wasn’t coming from a place of me thinking “eh, that word just doesn’t sound right”, but rather from a place of fear. It was an intentional effort to distance myself from the “realm” of spirituality.
I instead referred to my relationship with spirituality as an “interest”. But I think it’s kinda clear that if I kept craving what I was thinking of as a “spiritual practice”, despite my discomfort with the word, it meant that “interest” wasn’t a comprehensive enough word to me. Something being “just” an interest wasn’t a bad thing by any means—there are plenty of things I’m interested in where I feel completely satisfied and fulfilled when “just” learning about them! But the word “interest” didn’t capture that mysterious, deeper thought, integration-of-the-self aspect that united the things on my list.
The question of course became that if “interest” wasn’t a comprehensive enough word, why was I using it? I think it’s because the word “interest” feels like it’s in the intellectual realm in a distancing way. Having an “interest” is neutral, it’s noncommittal. And in that way it’s somewhat more protective and almost secretive. I can say—to others but mostly to myself—that I “just” have an interest in spirituality, as a way of ignoring the other parts of my relationship to it, which are scary and unknown and feel more serious.
The next part happened when I finally watched an Áine Órga video I’d been putting off for a long time called “Why spirituality is important”. I’d been putting it off because my inner punk hisses at the idea that anything is universally important, that I “need” to do anything in order to be a fulfilled human. Of course, that’s not really what she was saying, but that is a somewhat common view among new age people—that however it’s fulfilled, everyone does or needs to have some sense of spirituality. For example, people might say that for some, spirituality isn’t god but the sense of wonder at the universe, and even atheists have or need that. I always took issue with this view because I didn’t like people referring to my beliefs as though they were spiritual ones when I didn’t see them that way. Like I said in my list, naming is a super important power, and I’m the one who gets to name my beliefs or way of being as spiritual or non-spiritual, not you! But I digress. The part of the video that really grabbed my attention was a somewhat random phrase she said about the role spirituality can sometimes fill—“spirituality is like an embodied philosophy”. Hey, philosophy? I like philosophy!
That line really got me thinking. Because I find that philosophy, similar to many of the things on my interest list, involves a different, deeper sort of thought than many other subjects. And it started me on this path of thinking about the relationship between spirituality and philosophy. Is spirituality just an aspect of philosophy? Does philosophy form the underpinnings of spirituality in the way that metaphysics forms the underpinnings of science? What is the difference between spirituality and philosophy, and what do they have in common?
So this next part is a little funny, and I’m not sure how much detail to go into. Basically, I had what I thought would be a big breakthrough, the thing that helped me figure it all out and get over my issue with the word “spirituality”. I wrote a big essay, thousands of words long, with the intention of using it as a video script to describe how I’d grown and developed, how I was getting more comfortable with the word, how an alternative approach to the concept of spirituality would look, blah blah blah. And I had almost finished it, decided to share it with my partner, and then after a long (lovely, friendly) philosophical conversation with him, I realized “wait, maybe this doesn’t sound right”. Shit! Now what am I gonna do with all this stuff I spent the last six hours on?!
Looking back on it, I do believe that whole process was necessary for what’d happen next! But I was definitely feeling defeated and exhausted after all that, like I’d done all that work and ended up basically where I started. I’m going to try to summarize my initial thought process essay here, but I won’t include the examples and arguments and all the big long reasoning parts:
My thought was that I was uncomfortable with the word “spirituality” because it felt like it required or implied a certain commitment that the word “interest” didn’t. And what I thought that commitment might be is some type of belief—“interest” doesn’t suggest that you believe in anything, while “spirituality” does. If that’s the case, what is it that you are believing? And I figured it meant you believed in something non- or not-exclusively scientific, or else it would just be a “belief” in science. It also wouldn’t exclusively be ethics or politics, or else it wouldn’t be spirituality, it’d just be ethics or politics. What made something spiritual was that it was explaining something we couldn’t otherwise explain, which would make it metaphysics. The difference between spirituality and philosophy then, was the commitment aspect.
Basically, on this model, spirituality was a commitment to and belief in a certain metaphysical worldview. Some sort of beliefs about the way the universe is constructed, whether that’s the idea of a central source or creator deities, or a cyclical universe, or energies, or synchronicity, or life after death, or the distinct lack of life after death. Or someone might be agnostic, but that still means decidedly ascribing to a belief—that is, the belief that we can’t know certain things. And spiritual practice is then basically acting on that belief. As one, practical example, if someone says they are doing ancestor work in the context of spiritual practice, that seems like it’d imply that they are doing something based on their commitment to a metaphysical belief, namely the belief that it is as least possible that one could have a special connection with their deceased ancestors.
The thing that made me uncomfortable about spirituality, at least on that model, is that I don’t want to commit to any metaphysical view, including agnosticism. This is why I call myself an atheist instead of agnostic. I know people’s definitions will vary, but to me, agnosticism means a commitment to the idea that we can’t know certain things. I don’t think we can’t know certain metaphysical things, I think we don’t know certain things. Atheism to me is being uncommitted to certain metaphysical things due to lack of personally compelling evidence or reasoning.
Then I started to question whether that reasoning about spirituality requiring belief was sound, and considered that maybe spirituality doesn’t require belief in anything or even a commitment to certain ideas. And I instead was considering an approach where spirituality, like philosophy for me, could instead be a means of exploring multiple ideas distinctly without commitment. So then the question is, if philosophy and spirituality could both be exploring multiple ideas without commitment to any one answer, what is the difference between them?
My very broad answer to this very broad question is that spirituality and philosophy are each really good at exploring different things. Philosophy is very good at exploring certain ideas, while spirituality is really good at exploring certain feelings. Feelings of harmony, feelings of identity, feelings of connection, feelings about death, and most notably feelings of transpersonalism, or being personally connecting with something outside yourself. And “doing” spirituality, then, is engaging with those feelings as directly as possible—exploring, expanding and strengthening your repertoire of complex feelings or extrasensory sensations. And in that way, a spiritual practice would be, quite simply, practicing feeling those feelings and sensing those sensations.
So this model of spirituality is what I thought the big breakthrough would be. But… “it’s only a model”! And I definitely think it’s interesting, and it’s something I want to keep thinking about. But what I realized while talking with my partner is that it’s built upon the idea of not requiring belief in something in order to work. And while I think that’s really nice for a model that’s more universally applicable, it doesn’t entirely address my personal problem.
When I was talking with my partner, what we were mostly talking about whether it’s possible to neither believe nor disbelieve something. His general view was that belief is a binary state—either you believe something or you don’t, there isn’t really a “both/neither” option. My general view was that there is a “both/neither” option, and this model of spirituality basically allows you to stay in that place of neither believing nor disbelieving indefinitely while still doing actions that might, to an outside observer, imply you believe in something. His thought was that while there isn’t a “both/neither” option, it may look like there is that option when we look at things “overall”.
Basically, on Sean’s view, your status of belief or disbelief changes. And it can change frequently, perhaps even without you fully realizing or accepting it. And when you’re seeing belief as “both/neither”, one of a few things could be happening. One possibility is that you only believe certain aspects of what you say you believe, and the belief you’re looking at isn’t specific enough. Another possibility is that you’re seeing belief as fixed, and therefore you are hesitant to recognize your status as “belief” or “disbelief” because you’re operating on the idea that doing so somehow means it won’t change, or that it’s more significant when it does change, which isn’t necessarily true. Another possibility is that you’re trying to account for both instances of belief and disbelief at the same time—basically, you’re saying “I both believe and disbelieve” or “I neither believe nor disbelieve” when what’s really happening is that in one moment you believe something and the next moment you disbelieve it. It’s sort of like if you had two lights flashing between each other so quickly that it looks like they’re both always on, when really the lights are never both on at the same time. And another possibility is that due to some sort of pressure, whether external or internal, you haven’t fully acknowledged your belief status. If you were to drill down and take away the layers of societal expectations, feelings of guilt or shame, and any efforts to find a “justification”, you would find that you either believe or disbelieve. Trying to say that there is a “both/neither” option is basically you trying to accommodate these extra layers of pressure.
I found Sean’s approach very compelling. I don’t think that accepting a binary state of belief means that my model of spirituality wouldn’t work—whether you believe in a metaphysical statement or not, spirituality could still be seen as a means of exploring feeling. But it was clear to me that if I felt a belief was something to be committed to, rather than just a binary statement of fact, of course I wouldn’t want to say I believe in something or disbelieve in something! Because the statement takes on so much weight, and it’s absolutely influenced by these layers of pressure from internal and external expectations and implications and all that stuff. This conversation made me realize that maybe my problem wasn’t really with what spirituality was, it was with was belief was. My redefining spirituality to not require belief was an effort to separate the two. And just how I used the word “interest” to avoid grappling with “spirituality”, I was using this model of spirituality to avoid grappling with belief!
So belief then
The central lesson that I am working hard on accepting is that belief is not a bad thing. Belief or disbelief—as a state of being—does not have an inherent moral value. Belief on its own doesn’t mean a commitment to anything, whether that be certain actions or certain thoughts or whatever.
Now, I want to be super clear—belief as we typically think of it can and does influence thoughts and actions. But a lot of what we think of as belief isn’t exactly belief, but a commitment to a certain idea. Like let’s take as an example the statement “I believe gay people are evil”. That obviously does influence actions—someone who makes that statement is very likely to act on that statement in particular ways, such as voting against gay rights legislation or even enacting violence. But looking at that statement, I think we need to ask—is that statement an honest, separate reflection of the status of their belief at that given moment? Or is it more of a statement of their commitment to a belief? Is it really more of a reflection of the layers of pressure that obscure their “belief status”—the layers of societal expectations, thoughts on ethics, guilt and shame and fear, etc.? I think that statements of any kind are very rarely, if ever, reflecting true feelings, because statements are always influenced by how we think and how we want to appear, which are in turn influenced by our society. There’s a lot lot lot of meat there, and there are so many different views on what belief is, whether it can truly be something separate from thought and action, whether it is indeed a binary status or not.
But my point as it relates to spirituality, and specifically my relationship with spirituality, is that it’s important for me to accept that belief on its own doesn’t automatically imply anything else. Because accepting that takes off a lot of the pressure I’m feeling about “justifying” certain beliefs. It allows me to be more honest with myself about what I believe, because I’m approaching it without the layers of guilt and shame and expectations and rationality and whatever else might be influencing it. And I think being really and deeply honest with myself, without beating myself up, is what I need right now.
Back to the beginning
Okay, so by this point I’ve detangled quite a lot of stuff, which is a lot. But I’m still left with my central question, the thing I’ve been trying to figure out this whole time: what do I mean when I say that I want a spiritual practice? And is what I want indeed a spiritual practice, or something else?
So you can picture where I was at this point, completely surrounded by all these ideas and discussions and research and thought trails, frankly not just from the last couple weeks but from the last many years as I’ve been exploring and thinking about all this in earnest, and I’m looking around and thinking like “man, how have I done all this work and still feel so trapped and confused?” And I tried to settle my thoughts a bit with a tarot reading, no particular direction or anything. And I ended up pulling two cards, from the Heartspun Tarot: the Eight of Swords and the Three of Cups. In the Eight, we have a trapped deer, and in the Three we have these wolves with a lot of imagery of success and abundance. And when you think about it, these images are kind of each describing the same situation—when wolves corner a deer. For the deer, it means death, for the wolves, it means life. And it made me think a lot about perspective.
Maybe my current situation, being surrounded by all these ideas and notes and whatnot, isn’t really a sign of work, but a sign of play. Maybe getting tangled in these messy ideas is a good thing, because it means that for one, I’ve thought and engaged enough to get somewhere, even if that somewhere isn’t a particular conclusion. And for two, I care enough about the topics that I’m willing to get really messy with them. It’s sort of like, if I were to see a kid covered in paint and glitter, my immediate reaction is “looks like someone had a good time!” Here I am covered in half-finished philosophy notes and essays that seemed right but quickly broke apart and dozens of books and piles and piles of ideas and directions, the response should be “looks like someone had a good time!” Any maybe the specifics, the outcomes, and whether it’s spirituality or philosophy… maybe that just doesn’t matter to me.
Philosophy and spirituality really are similar in that they can both be immensely frustrating but they’re so fascinating and rewarding that just to engage at all is a worthy activity. Looking back on how I was analyzing the meaning of the word “spirituality”, I was really caught up in the idea that belief plays some important role and trying to get away from that role. I was caught up in that because I saw belief as being some big commitment. But if it’s not a commitment and instead just a neutral, factual statement of status, then it seems like whether you believe or not is sort of secondary. So maybe it’s also the case that whether you’re doing spirituality or not is also secondary. If you’re doing the same action, then what does it really matter whether you’re doing it “because” you believe this vs. “because” you’ve grown to like the ritual? And if your belief can change, and perhaps even change moment to moment, then why bother labeling it as spirituality or not-spirituality? Labels may feel more or less necessary at different moments in time, but if I were to zoom back and look at the whole picture and ask myself “okay, so was this spirituality or not?”, well, the answer is always going to be arbitrary because there will be some moments the answer describes accurately and some moments the answer doesn’t fully reflect. Whether it was my actual “belief status” or simply my perspective of it that changed, any answer is going to be missing that element of change itself.
And so I wrote a bunch of this down, and I was feeling pretty good, like I had achieved some sense of… what I can only describe as post-thought clarity. And I decided to take a shower, which I had been kind of putting off because I’d been so focused on working on all this stuff. And like all of life’s greatest thoughts, I had an incredible idea in the shower. And I came out of the shower feeling so essentially myself, completely enlightened and unburdened and confident and in tune with everything around me, and I knew I had hit that missing piece that brought everything together for me.
One thing that has always been important to me and will continually be important for me is naming. I know a lot of people can feel very limited by labels. For me, finding the right word or words to describe my experience is tremendously valuable. It’s like looking through a mirror with one eye and a telescope with the other—seeing myself and everything around me and suddenly feeling like so many more things are possible because I have a name. So even if I have reached the conclusion that it doesn’t matter if what I’m doing is spirituality or not, I’d still like to have a name for what it is that I’m doing. Something that I can refer to casually, something that feels accurate and comprehensive and reflective of my Self.
And since I was feeling pretty good, I asked myself “okay, so how would I describe what I’m feeling right now? What’s the unifying thing that I can use to describe these feeling of bliss or control or clarity or confidence or whatever it is that’s arrived after this possibly-spiritual, possibly-philosophical enlightenment?” Well… why not magic?
That’s what this feels like! Magic! And if what I’m doing is chasing and using magic, then well—that’s witchcraft! That makes me a witch!
And as soon as that entered my head, everything clicked, I had my big shiny Eureka moment, angels descended from the rafters, all that shit! My Eureka song started playing in my head, the one that always seems to pop up when I have a Eureka moment (I’m a Boy by The Who). I wanted to run out of the shower and scream and spring and run and collapse in a big field of flowers! Seriously, I felt so thrilled and happy and confident. It’s like when I realized I wanted to be called Wesley and I suddenly felt at place in the world.
And at least for now, at least for a while, everything makes sense. I’m a witch. That’s what I’m doing with all this, when I’m thinking or feeling or philosophizing or spiritualizing or making art that really feels like me—I’m doing magic! And if it all changes… I suddenly don’t care. Because change is magic too. And my witchcraft is embracing that confidence and curiosity and stubbornness and fun and deadly seriousness, and every single thing that’s encompassed by these all of these mysteriously powerful, tangled explorations that leave me in a big pile at the end.
This is the first time I’ve ever really felt it. I. Am. A. Witch. And this whole process over the last few weeks was like my final test, to see if I’d give up when I sorted through all these tangled brambles and thought it made sense but realized that no matter how I arranged them, they were still brambles. That put me in that floaty, open place of clarity. And getting in the shower was the final necessary act—of not only commitment to thought and truth and exploration but also to myself—that sealed it. That running water was my initiation ritual. I entered that shower as an unnamed being and came out with the title of Witch. I’ve graduated, I’ve begun, I’ve seized my power and knowledge and entered a new phase of identity.
So that’s the story. That’s how I became a witch. And of course there is a lot more story to go, but for now, that’s the end. Talk to you all soon!
Image from English Book-Plates, Ancient and Modern (1893). https://archive.org/details/englishbookplate00castrich