The Metaverse and The Craft
What a Bo Burnham Netflix Special Has To Teach Us About the Craft
I like pop culture, but as a white woman of a certain age, I have to admit that I am not "cool," and I do not have my pulse on all the latest trends. You probably know this already, I'm not breaking any news here.
So I missed until recently the Netflix special "Inside" by Bo Burnham. Burnham is an interesting character on the comedy scene. He gave up live performing in 2016 due to crippling anxiety, and "Inside" was born from the fact that he was ready to return to live performance, only to find that the COVID-19 pandemic rendered that impossible.
Burnham wasn't idle during the years that he wasn't doing standup. He directed critically acclaimed movies and had a supporting role in "Promising Young Woman," a disturbing tale of revenge against Patriarchy. He says he did some soul-searching, and it shows in "Inside."
"Inside" is a quirky thing that is part comedy special, part maniacal musical, part primal scream. The young man who encouraged me to watch it clearly was deeply moved by it -- it spoke for him in a way that a lot of pop culture doesn't right now. And watching it I more fully understood some things that up until now I only suspected about younger generations.
Specifically, I'm referring to Burnham's commentary on the Internet, through his numerous call outs of Jeff Bezos, the song "Welcome to the Internet," his self-aware poking fun at himself for needing attention, and a bit early on in the special where he comments on his commentary of himself. When you look at it, and think about it, growing up in the shadow of the Internet, and particularly social media, most young adults have grown up with the very pressing understanding that they are always being watched, and everything they are doing is and will forever be available for the comment of anyone and everyone.
Gen-Xers like me love to make the observation that we're grateful that we were able to have our youthful indiscretions during a time when the Internet was non-existent or barely in its infancy, and when social media did not exist at all. But we usually don't take the one step further of imagining what might it be like to grow up with the level of scrutiny, the level of being aware of being watched all the time, that would come from growing up under the ever present eye of social media.
I believe that this is part of the reason why younger generations are really aware of and treasure authenticity as a value. They know that everyone is just putting on a show, putting themselves in the best possible light, and they consequently value when someone isn't doing that.
It also explains why younger generations are more hesitant about things sometimes. I couldn't WAIT to learn to drive and be able to drive myself places. My own child, and my friends' kids are less enthusiastic. Some make it well into their 20's without ever getting a driver's license. They're slower to take the plunge on everything from relationships and marriage to going to colleges that are far from home.
A significant amount of that is the unique way in which late stage capitalism has screwed younger people economically. But some of it is about risk aversion -- the desire to not do a thing unless you are certain that it will be wildly successful, or at the very least not a failure. When you are being watched all the time, and you know that you are being watched, all the time, your fear of failure, and the attendant embarrassment, becomes a little more real and substantive.
Today kids have an anxiety about perfection that feels massively more potent to them than it did to me when I was their age. Their constant state of being both participant and observer of their life on a minute by minute basis makes anxiety about perfection an ever-present companion. Add to that the looming threat of that economic screwing I was talking about earlier, and it's easy to see how the pressure to perform and be "flawless" or to "slay" or "crush" everything is insinuating itself on kids at earlier and earlier ages.
Burnham in "Inside" channels this anxiety with wit and pathos and the dexterity of a man who has had to grapple with it for a long time.
That anxiety has extended to witches in the Craft too.
Almost everyone who teaches new seekers has heard the same refrain from new witches: "I wanted to do this spell that I read about, but I was so worried that I would do it wrong, I didn't want to try it."
One of the reasons why I regularly teach Wicca and Witchcraft 101 classes is precisely to help seekers pursue the Craft successfully, i.e. in a way that meets their needs. I tell all my students the same thing on that first day of class -- my goal for my students is that they will learn what they need to know to pursue their next step on their path with confidence, understanding more about what they are getting themselves into, and enough basics to understand whether the people and material they are engaging with is the "real deal" and whether it is right for them. My hope is that the new witches I teach will confidently try the magic they are interested in, and know how to seek help to go deeper on their path, wherever it may lead.
But the thing is, even experienced witches can fall victim to the kind of perfection anxiety that I'm talking about. It just looks a little different.
I have seen it in witches who struggle with mastering more advanced skills. They do a thing over and over again, thinking that because they did not have the reactions and feelings they expected to have from a working, that they must have done it wrong. Now, this isn't a case where the witch didn't get ANY reaction or see ANY results. In many cases the witch is experiencing impacts from the working. But because those impacts just don't match their expectations, their immediate assumption is they did it wrong and have to do it again.
This may seem like a simple thing to say: different witches are going to experience magic differently. But often the hardest part of the journey to understanding a thing is letting that thing you know in your head reach the place where it is established in your heart.
The fact that your working of a spell or a ritual doesn't feel the same as when I do it does not make your working bad or wrong. You are a different witch. OF COURSE your magic will feel different from mine.
I can teach you how to draw a basic banishing pentagram as part of a warding exercise. I can describe to you how that looks and feels for me when I do it. I can tell you how to visualize the shape in the air, how it feels when it is imbued with protective energy and how I know it has done its work. But those are my experiences. Other people can do the same exercise and their description of it will be totally different. Instead of a golden infusion of light it might be green. The feelings may happen in the pit of your stomach or in the center of your chest or someplace entirely different. You may see it with your minds eye or feel it more like a vibration. Everyone's sensory experiences with magic will vary slightly.
This actually shouldn't be all that surprising. Our magical senses are no different in that respect from our physical senses. If you stand outside when a storm is on the way, most people can physically sense it, but which senses kick in and in what way will vary. Some will feel a change in the quality of the air pressure. Others will hear the wind change. Some will taste ozone on the breeze. Others will smell snow before it comes. None of these experiences is more wrong or more right than any other. They merely reflect the fact that different people experience the world differently.
And yet as witches we are very quick to judge ourselves, to fall into that trap where we watch ourselves from the outside, from that meta place, and feel like we must look crazy or stupid, and therefore, our magic must suck. And because imposter syndrome is a real problem for many of us, we are all too happy to hand a megaphone to that little voice in the back of our head so that it can scream at us about how much of a fraud we are.
The Craft is not, nor should it be, a meta experience. With the very specific exception of when you are actually doing astral work and are purposely creating separation between your physical body and your spirit body, your magic will always work best when you are fully integral and present in your work. That means turning off the part of your brain that wants to watch you from the outside and offer critique.
To do magic, to make your intent manifest in the world, requires a singular sense of purpose. Buckland wrote that you needed your will to have the same kind of intensity and focus of a toddler that has fixated on a chosen desire. Your mind and your emotions, your body and soul, need to be all of a piece, focused on what you are attempting to do. There is no room for bystanders in your head.
What "Inside" teaches witches is that while that meta gaze, that temptation to fixate on how you look, what you appear to be, is seductive, it is ultimately crippling to the ability to do good Craft. You cannot apply the kind of intention you need effectively if part of you has found a place on the sidelines and opted to watch instead of participate. Sure, the angst of such a bifurcated existence can make for good theater. But that's all it is -- performance.
Performative witchcraft is not effective witchcraft. It can look really impressive from the outside, and might be good to make other people think you're a badass. But usually if you are too obsessed with how something looks while you are doing it, you can't give proper attention to actually doing it. That is not to say that attention to the details of a working isn't important. Choosing the right color altar cloth, the right crystals, the right robes, the right talismans to wear, can have a big impact on a work. And certainly when you are creating a ritual that involves others, attention while you are preparing as to how things might appear when you do it will always be helpful in creating the right experience for the participant.
But all of this focus on how things look needs to be part of the preparation of a work. Not a part of the work itself. When you are doing the work you need to be authentically and entirely IN the work. Feel all the feelings. Do all the actions with your whole being. Be fully present and engaged in the whole process from beginning to end. This is not easy to do. But your work will always be more effective the more you are able to do it.
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