Discomfort In Belief

In the sphere of mysticism and magic, one will find an emphasis on belief in many modern practices. Belief makes things happen, gods are created or sustained by belief, etc. This is not a modern idea by any extent, but I feel it’s more prominent today than I would expect, and I’ve been analyzing it now and then.

So yes, this column is not just an attempt to communicate, but organize my own thoughts. What can I say, I believe this will work.

Last pun, I promise.

I think the sheer prominence of emphasis on belief in mystical practices has been amplified by such believe-to-achieve stuff like “The Secret” and its related and origin documents. There’s been something about the 20th and 21st century that has emphasized the idea that we can just believe something and have it happen. It’s both highly individualistic and also very comforting to people – and that’s where I think this prominence gets “sticky.”

It’s comforting to think you can change your mind and change the world. It’s comforting to think your destiny is in your hands. It’s comforting to think that there are gods that just exist as you believe and there’s no one in charge but you. It’s comforting – until you think about how we really believe.

A lot of our beliefs are handed – or forced – on us by parents, society, friends, and our own poor choices. A lot of what we believe and have believed is not something we chose, and even if we “take control” are we that sure we’re making the right choices? A lot of what’s us has its origins outside of us.

This means a lot of beliefs are unconscious. We say we may believe something in a ritual or attempts to “focus out will,” but do we really? Are we believing something, just reflecting what’s already there, or is there something else crawling beneath our thoughts? If you’ve ever been to therapy you know how much stuff is just under the surface – and that’s not comforting.

Whatever power our beliefs do have (which I may, perhaps, write more about) they’re also working with – or conflicting with everyone else’s beliefs. Taking a materialist or mystical viewpoint, our beliefs – already quite complex – are forming a web with everyone else’s beliefs. It might not be the one we want.

Then, finally, there’s the idea that our beliefs shape supernatural – or supernatural-like powers. That may sound comforting to think you have power over the gods, but far less comforting when you think about the above. And all that is even less comforting if you have any concept of the gods and spirits being independent entities

So “belief affects reality? Yeah, probably, but it’s not comforting, it’s not a source of unlimited power, and it’s very complex.

Perhaps this is why the “believe to achieve” type quasi-mystical B.S. sells and keeps selling. It gives us hope of power and control – and when we don’t get what we want or confront the complexity of the universe, people buy more. It’s not comforting and is easily challenged, so for some people you buy another book or take another class.

Belief is just part of life. It has its role – and that role is not to make you feel better or in charge.


A Practical Mystical View

I am a practical person – project manager, a writer who manages his own works, and a cook who has tested recipes up to eighteen times to get them right. I’m also a mystic who mixes magic, meditation, Taoism, and syncretic paganism. I find that a mystical viewpoint is very practical.

The fact I even feel I have to say that says something about the American culture I live in (as well as some of my own personality, but that’s for later). Our culture seems to be awash in religion and spirituality and an obsession with supposed-practicality – to judge by the various self-help books and seminars I see. In reality our culture seems to mostly be interested in making money not actual life – which in many ways is sort of impractical.

Making money is not the end-all-and-be-all of life. In fact that’s where I find a mystical viewpoint useful – dare I say, practical.

Let’s take a look at a sort of “generic” mystical viewpoint. The world is composed of powerful living forces like gods and spirits. There are connections and correspondences in the world, an interconnected reality beneath our supposedly mundane world. People can alter themselves with meditations and practices, interact with this world via ritual and activity.

It is a view of an organic, living world that a person can adjust themselves to and interact with.

Viewing the world as organic – complex and connected – is useful and accurate. From the way disease spreads to complex cultural changes, our world is not like a mechanism on any larger-scale level. An organic viewpoint helps you get the world – as if it is alive. In fact . . .

Viewing the world as alive, as filled with living (or life-like) forces, is also accurate. We can argue if spirits or gods are literal, but as I’ve said before, they’re at least a useful concept to grasp the world. Understanding the world as alive, respecting it, fearing it, understanding it’s as complicated as you lets you live within it better (and know it may crush you so get out of the way).

Viewing oneself as able to improve and evolve in this living world is vital to growth and participating in the world. Sure some stuff about aligning forces, energies, whatever is bullshit. But the idea of learning to rethink yourself as a changing being lets you, well, change – or resist change when needed. You just need to be careful of the bullshit, which is often prominent AND has neat diagrams.

Viewing the world as something we evolving beings can participate, is both empowering psychologically and for real. We evolvable beings, connected to this living world, can work within it and live our lives better. We think in terms of interaction, be it energy flows, correspondances, or whatever.

The mystical worldview is being engaged. Which is, as I note, rather practical.

The “dressing” for all of this – correspondence charts, pantheons of gods, etc. are just tools for doing this. They are ways to wrap up these living complexities in ways we can understand and share. They’re a mix of art, advice, maps, and metaphors to help us deal with the world.

You’ll notice none of this asks what’s “real” because in many ways that’s not the point. The question is does it work and help us deal with this world – a practical one. For many of us who engage in mystical practice, the answer is “yeah, it works.”

Of course it only works if we’re also engaged in thinking and rethinking our practice. But the whole thing is about being engaged, isn’t it? Most people I know who are inclined to magic and such spend their lives refining practice and their understanding. Many a witch or magician is more skpetical than supposed skeptics.

And thus we arrive back at my conclusion – the mystical viewpoint is practical and useful, a way to interact with our living, wide world. Indeed I wish we explored this in a more secular, systemic way so others can learn from it.

But then again, that’s for another time. Or perhaps something for you and I to discuss and see what we and our friends can learn together.

– Xenofact