Sunday, January 18, 2009

Spiritual Aesthetics: Part I

The other day while at lunch, I overheard two men talking at a table nearby. One man said to the other, "So I prayed, you know, I asked God, 'Lord, if this woman isn't right for me, give me a sign. And He did, the next day...'" The man leaned in towards his friend and lowered his voice, so the "sign" he had received was lost in the surrounding murmur of the restaurant. But it got me thinking about prayer, magic and my recent contemplations on theology and irony.

It seems to me that the arguments against the efficacy of prayer and the reality of magic run much the same way: how can you know that what happened as a result of the prayer or spell wouldn't have happened anyway? And, if you don't know for sure that they wouldn't have, what is the point of praying/casting spells? Wouldn't it be just as effective to wait and see? These questions are not limited in their implications to the reality of magic and prayer alone, but concern the more general question of how a spiritual life--a life of spiritual activity in any form--can play a real, meaningful role in our practical, everyday lives.

Independence & Control

This, I think, is what deo meant when he talked about a "mind-independent universe": a universe that functions according to its own objective and established laws, laws that to some extent must be engaged on their own terms, not bent to the will or passing whim of any given person. According to this view, if prayer or magic are to "work" in any meaningful way, they must provide the tools for the practitioner to do something to external reality, not merely reframe the way in which that reality, as it happens, is interpreted. A scientist developing an experiment, for instance, may have a particular hypothesis in mind, and this will inevitably affect the way in which she arranges the testing of that hypothesis or interprets the results, but she is still actively engaging a "resistant" external reality, she is still doing something to a world that is (or that she perceives as being, in this context anyway) beyond her own mind. One important aspect of a scientific experiment is that variables are controlled and particular activities incited in order to observe the results. The scientist can say with a good degree of certainty that, if she hadn't lit that bunsen burner, that mixture in the beaker wouldn't have boiled over (this tells her the boiling point is apparently much lower than she hypothesized, but she can still be fairly sure that the mix wouldn't have boiled over on its own had she done nothing).

On the other hand, people who work spells or pray to deity are in some very specific ways relinquishing control, releasing their hopes and intentions into the mess of chance and circumstance or putting their faith in the capable hands of a "higher power," whatever that may be. When the man at the restaurant prayed to God to give him a sign, this act was at once an act of will (intentionally invoking the help of deity) and of vulnerability and release (relinquishing control of the situation to a supposed greater perspective). Likewise, a person who works a spell takes particular actions with specific intention (usually invoking deity, shaping energy through ritual acts, or both) while at the same time "releasing that intention" to work its own way out to manifest the intended goal. Because these acts involve a kind of paradox of willed surrender, there will always be a question of what really caused the results to manifest. Certainly doing nothing is also a form of relinquishing or surrendering control. Why make the willed effort, why organize it according to ritual or traditional recitations? If it was going to happen anyway, what role does the act of prayer or magic play?

My answer to this question is, in part: many things "happen anyway." In fact, things are "happening anyway" all the time. Often times, the same thing will "happen anyway" repeatedly, without a given individual either noticing or caring. Then again, many things don't happen at all, and their persistence in not happening can be painful, joyful, irrelevant, any combination of complex emotional and intellectual responses. Clearly, the correct frame of mind, or rather a mind or awareness that is receptive to certain possibilities as opposed to others, plays a large part in how we interpret all these happenings and their interrelationships. Acknowledging this simple reality--that our "frame of mind," for lack of a better term, inevitably affects how we interpret our experiences--may seem to lead us inevitably to the conclusion that magic and prayer really are merely ways of "changing your own mind," and don't actually do anything to change the external, objective or "mind-independent" world. If we accept this opinion at its most obvious, without probing any deeper, we may come to feel that needling sense of irony that deo mentions, engaging in a kind of play-acting, performing acts that we do not think have any meaningful effect on or relationship to the world outside our own brains.

Coming soon... "Spiritual Aesthetics: Part II: Art & the Unconscious"


  1. But this all depends on how you define magic in the first place. Much of the modern conception of magic seems to me to be derived from fictional accounts of the 'supernatural' manipulation of the material universe - all that Harry Potter stuff. Quite aside from the question about whether natural/supernatural is a meaningful division, for me magic is about understanding the material and non-material world (or parts of it) to the point where you can work with them to achieve your desired ends and further, to allow the world to work through you. At a basic level, this is the keeping-your-apartment-clean-and-tidy spell to help attract a mate. At a higher level it is the understanding-colour-and-form spell that enables the painting of a picture, the understanding-of-words spell that enables the writing of a poem, the understanding-of-the-complex-nature-of-small-scale-ecology that enables successful organic gardening. A materialist might try to reduce these things to a materialist explanation, but many of these activities have dimensions other than the purely material.

    One could draw a parallel here, also, with homoeopathic medicine or placebos. Materialists will tell you these don't work, that if a person got better it is because they were going to get better anyway (their explanation for miracle cures). They cannot prove this assertion. They simply do not understand enough about the mechanisms involved - if they did, conventional medicine would always work. And it doesn't.

    I believe it also has to do with the fact that we are not separate from the rest of the world. We alter the world around us everyday with small, spoken spells and gestures. To smile at someone and say 'Thank you,' may sound a commonplace, but it can and does alter the world. It makes someone else feel good. That perhaps is the most potent magic of all.

    Anyway, I've drifted a bit. The point is, any meaningful discussion of magic (or prayer) and its effectiveness must have some cogent definition otherwise we all talk at odds. We may not agree with any given definition, but that is good starting point for discussion.

  2. I see prayer and magic, and whether or not the intended objects of prayer and magic would have happened anyway, as matters of faith. I also see faith as the point or purpose in praying / casting spells to begin with.

    The paradoxical willed surrender you spoke of made me smile. I smiled because enough of our universe operates on paradox, that a person who engages in the paradoxical act of using will while surrendering it may very well be more aligned to the whims of the universe than someone who doesn't.

    Another rich feature of faith is its resiliency. Had the man you overheard not received his sign, he would likely not have had his faith shaken. In fact, he may very well have found himself a different sign, and been just as content with that. Is this a mental state interpreting its environment; or is it a link between the faithful and the divine? That, it would seem, is a matter of interpretation :-)

  3. Lovely post; I can't wait for the next part!

    "Willed surrender" -- this is such an essential concept; thank you for highlighting it! In my experience, Spirit cannot and will not touch you, help you, reach you, or make itself known to you unless you explicitly give it permission. I'm not sure why; perhaps Spirit is extremely careful not to violate our free will. But there are many people, I think, who struggle along and struggle along, trying to solve all their problems by themselves, without realizing that they have never given Spirit permission to help them out.

  4. Graeme,

    When it comes to being separate from the world, you've jumped the gun a bit on some of the points I'll be making in later parts of this series. The main thrust of this whole series is, in some ways, to establish a working definition of "magic" (as well as prayer) by taking a very careful look at what it is people do when they pray or "work magic." One reason deo finds the idea of magic "ironic" is that he has a problematic definition which expresses itself in his scientific metaphors.

    I find it generally unhelpful to say magic is anything that is done with acumen and understanding, since as you point out, then almost anything could be "magic" if done effectively in a way that ripples out and affects the larger world. This is akin to people wanting to insist that "anything is art" as long as it moves them and looks nice. A photograph of a sunset may be art, but the sunset itself is not--why? What makes this distinction? I find it helpful to define a process by looking at what actually takes place, what a person pursuing the process actually does, rather than merely by its results. People who pray do so with the specific intention of "praying" in mind, and I think this is an important aspect of the role of prayer in spiritual life. Likewise with the practice of magic, which to me seems like a more active, expressive version of prayer (which tends to be passive and receptive).

    Certainly people can pursue other activities with the metaphor of magic or prayer in mind. Gardening, painting, cleaning--these can all be done with an intention of "doing magic," just as they can also be done with no such intention at all. There are Christians and Buddhists who talk about making every daily mundane activity a kind of prayer, but again, this does not mean that merely doing those mundane activities are in themselves prayers (hence why people take monastic retreats in order to cultivate this sense of daily "praying"--it does not come naturally, it is not whatever we naturally happen to do). Indeed, the reason the distinction is made is so that people will do something different, approach these tasks differently, because they have translated the idea of prayer or magic into their everyday lives.

    As Stormgazer picks up on, I think one important aspect of the definition of magic is "willed surrender." Not merely acting on the paradox, but being consciously aware of and intending the paradox. For me, the definition of magic, like the definition of art, absolutely must involve the issue of intention. I do not think a person can "unintentionally" do magic (though of course all of us do things every day which have unexpected, seemingly unpredictable consequences in the world).

  5. Stormgazer,

    "Enough of our universe operates on paradox, that a person who engages in the paradoxical act of using will while surrendering it may very well be more aligned to the whims of the universe than someone who doesn't. "

    Well said! :) You're anticipating, somewhat, what the fourth part of this series is going to talk a little more about, though I think in that one sentence you put the idea much more clearly than I have so far managed to mumble in five paragraphs! ;)

  6. Jeff,

    I think I know what you mean about "struggling along"--in fact, I think I'm guilty of it more often than not. There's definitely a certain kind of stubbornness that can rear its spiny head. (Now I want to make some clever metaphor involving a porcupine up a tree, but I'm too tired to think of one... so.) I think many people who haven't pursued artistic, creative work with any regularity might not always understand how the weirdness of "willed surrender" to a process actually works--which is why I love that Druidry embraces art, music and poetry as such essential aspects of the spiritual life. And also why all schools should have well-funded music programs. :)

  7. Ali, thanks for posting these to MetaPagan, they look really interesting - but next time could you create a post with links to parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 and then post that to the feeds.

  8. Yewtree, Yeah, sorry about that! I didn't realize they'd show up all in a row like that (thought they were listed according to post publication date, not by the date they were tagged)! I'll know better next time. :)

  9. I just found this blog, and it's wonderful!
    This whole idea reminds me of a vaguely similar musing I made long ago on my blog, (shameless plug here!)
    Specifically the latter part of the entry linked, where I discuss traffic and fish in a stream.

  10. Maebius,

    Thanks for stopping by! I'm very glad you're enjoying the blog. :)

    And there's nothing wrong with a little shameless plug now and then. ;) I'll be sure to stop by your blog and check it out.

  11. Great serial Ali. ;-)

    I can't speak from a magical perspective, as I've never really done magic, but I can speak from a prayer perspective and what it used to mean and currently means to me.

    When I was part of a rather fundamentalist Christian group, prayer was about asking for favors. I asked that my friends and family be converted so that they wouldn't die in "God's great war." I asked for strength not to swear or to avoid "worldly influences." God was a great big vending machine that I could plug a quarter into through the act of praying and hopefully I would get my prize.

    What I never did was sit still and listen. Is sitting still and listening for the voice of God also prayer? If so, how might that relate to magic?

    Just a few rambling thoughts ...

  12. Kisses,

    Have you gotten to the post with the diagrams yet? :) In that part, I think I talk a bit more about the role of listening and sitting quietly within that sacred stillness.

    For a long while (back when I was still working through the whole Christian witch thing), I felt a strong need to insist that prayer and magic were two different things. I think this was mostly due to my dislike for the explanation that magic was just "prayer with props." That always sounded, to me, like a way of dumbing-down the concept of magic, making it palatable to folks uncomfortable with some of its more potent (and therefore more dangerous) implications.

    Even then, though, I was seeking ways to relate magic and art. These days, I tend to make less distinction between magic and prayer, considering the "vending machine" model of prayer that so many people fall back on (is this even magical/aesthetic? I wouldn't call it that). But it would probably be fair to say that while sometimes we can pray or meditate, sit and seek stillness within which to listen, without any intention of moving on to act creatively or intentionally, any creative, aesthetic or magical act must involve a period of listening and attending. Otherwise, the act won't have that most basic relationship to the world that it needs to be effective and meaningfully.

    Make any sense? ;)

  13. Ali,

    I haven't gotten to the post with the diagrams yet. I wandered back to thin my feedreader a bit more and perhaps through another bit of serendipity, I read an older blog post at Quaker Pagan.

    The whole post is wonderful and I'm going to comment on it when I finish reading all the comments, but THIS is the part I found serendipitous:

    This past First Day, a dear Friend in our meeting related a story of Mother Theresa, who had been asked whether she prayed.

    A: "Oh, yes."

    Q: "To whom?"

    A: "God."

    Q: "What do you ask for?"

    A: "Oh, I don't ask. I listen."

    Q: "What does God say?"

    A: "Oh, God just listens too."
    I love it!

    I don't really think there is much difference between prayer and magic, but I'm sure there are many who would argue with me (us).

    I almost think that popular views of prayer and magic have the order backwards: first they ask and then they listen for an answer. I wonder if it shouldn't be the reverse: first we listen for what we are being told, then WE DO.

    But then it's easier to ask and wait for God/dess to do the work, yeah? (Little sarcasm there.)

    So, yeah, what you say does make sense.