Coming out of the woo closet: Facing shame, stigma and historical trauma

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“Although the process of seeking intuition sounds clunky and awkward as we describe it here, with practice it gets smoother and more effective….To many readers this passage will sound too New Age for words (one of Janet’s regular partners a highly intuitive body worker and martial artists says indignantly, “I don’t do woo woo shit.)”

– Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton in The New Topping Book

“Because this magical “conversation with nature” was interpreted as a prohibited intervention in God’s plan, the witches had to atone for this heinous act with their lives.”

– Claudia Müller-Ebeeling, Christian Rätsch and Wolf-Dieter Storl in Witchcraft Medicine

I am a witch. A powerful sorceress. I can fly.  I read tarot cards for myself, my community and for my work and I take seriously what they reveal. I see and feel the spirits of animals and people that aren’t always visible on this plane. I live in an attic room, next to an empty room occupied by a ghost. I have an uncanny ability to predict things before they happen. I can feel the spirits of plants and the feelings of other people in my body – as colours, temperatures, tingly and wisdom. Sometimes I see other people’s feelings as blasts of colour or I see the memories attached to their feelings like old worn film clips before my eyes. I believe that what happens in my dreams is really happening to me – that I will carry those experiences with me on this plane.I can feel the lips of people I’ve kissed in my sleep linger through out my day. I think astrology matters. I will ask you what your birthday is and ponder it for a while. It might make you feel uncomfortable. I know the cycle of the moon affects me and the living beings around me. I see plants burst when she is full and we are howling. I can feel the energy crystals carry. Sometimes it climbs up my arm like distrust in my belly. I know I have lived previous lives and I have a sense of what happened in them. I can see glimpses of my partner now, as my lover then, in a different gender with smudged mussel blue eyeliner, faded red lipstick and bruised cheeks.

Even though I know all of what I just wrote to be completely and totally true, it feels tender and terrifying to write. And I’m publicly out as a witch… and have been for some time. You think I’d be used to it by now, right? But I’m not and it’s still not easy and I can’t help but ponder why. I need to write through it.

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Recently I received an email from one of my tarot clients that explained some of what my process and challenges have been with coming out of the “woo closet”:

“I found the reading really amazing, thank you. For some reason I got a headache and shoulder/back/neck pain right after and had a salt and essential oil bath to try to make it better, but it almost felt like strange release of some sort of negativity. I find it quite hard to write this stuff in some ways as I’ve avoided things associated with ‘hippies’ for a long time despite a longstanding but stifled interest due to the commonality of finding arrogant, privileged, politically clueless, culturally appropriative white people who think ‘cast out negative energy’ alone will somehow help people when actually there’s a whole system of capitalism colonialist white supremacist patriarchy going on and actually material solutions are needed in addition to personal practice.”

So what might you ask, is the woo closet? It’s a concept that has been written about before. In this piece I want to establish specifically what I mean when I talk about it. Essentially, the woo closet is the forces that keep us from being open about the way that magical, energetic, psychic, extra-sensory or spiritual forces nourish and guide us. To my mind, the woo closet is very old and is one of the most powerful spells (or cluster of spells) that keeps us from stepping into our truth and power.

I see the woo closet as being composed of several parts: historical trauma that has roots in the witch burnings, the stigmatization of neuro atypical mental states, and also the legacy and present day impacts of colonization – specifically as it relates to spirituality and conceptions of knowledge and knowing.

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Joan of Arc. Image via Flickr

Historical trauma aka. the fear of burning that lives in our bones

Earlier this year I took a course with Rain Crowe about the historical legacy and present day implications of the witch burnings. These concepts are explored primarily through the text Caliban and the Witch. I cannot recommend this course enough, though it’s learning is definitely geared more towards folks with european and settler routes. As in some ways, is this piece. Keep that in mind if you choose to read further.

The foundational idea explored in the course is that the trauma of the witch burnings is still alive in our bodies and in our society today. As one small example, my partner who is a non-binary trans person, on some level feels and carries and trauma of Joan of Arc being burned alive at the stake for refusing to wear women’s clothes and being accused of witchcraft:

“The grand inquisitors condemned Joan for cross dressing and accused of her of being raised a pagan. Church leaders had long charged that the district of her birth, Lorraine, was a hotbed of paganism and witchcraft. One of the principal accusations against Joan was that she associated with “fairies” a charge leveled by the church in their war against paganism.”

– Leslie Feinberg in Transgender warriors.

If we accept that our bodies carry trauma from previous generations then we must also accept that unless we find ways to heal that trauma, we will carry it with us in our bodies and spirits. What this means is that, in a very real and tangible way, my body fears for its life in coming out as a witch and this manifests as anxiety, defensive self-judgement and deeply woven feelings of shame. The feeling of fear that I have when being honest that I can see and feel spirits, isn’t one that is just in my head. It’s in my bones and my spirit and it’s literally been burnt and drowned into my memory. And no, it won’t just go away with positive thinking, though that is one small piece of the magic needed to turn the tide of this spell.

Stigmatisation of neuro-atypical mental states aka. being “crazy” aka. The Spiritual Gift of Madness

Much of what we practice and cultivate in magical circles can, and frequently is, labeled as “crazy” – a stigmatized phrase used to belittle and degrade people whose minds don’t fit into a colonial-capitalism-cog-machine box. Trance states, speaking with dead people, communing with spirits, hearing voices, seeing the future, channelling prophecies, talking to plants – these are all things that many western medical doctors see as symptoms of mental illness  rather than spiritual gifts. People are frequently medicated or institutionalized for admitting these experiences. Their goal being to stop these experiences from happening and to encourage us not to trust our ability to receive (let alone find value in) extra-sensory perception.

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This stigma is one aspect of historical and cultural trauma that lives in us and can keep us from proudly naming and claiming our identities as witches, healers or people who benefit from the wonderful world of “woo”. However, this stigmatizing perspective is not universal. Not even close. There are some cultural perspectives (predominantly ones that are tied to strong indigenous spiritual systems) that uplift and encourage the growth of extrasensory perception:

“In the shamanic view, mental illness signals “the birth of a healer,” explains Malidoma Patrice Somé.  Thus, mental disorders are spiritual emergencies, spiritual crises, and need to be regarded as such to aid the healer in being born. What those in the West view as mental illness, the Dagara people regard as “good news from the other world.”  The person going through the crisis has been chosen as a medium for a message to the community that needs to be communicated from the spirit realm.”

by Stephanie Marohn (featuring Malidoma Patrice Somé). Excerpted from The Natural Medicine Guide to Schizophrenia, pages 178-189, or The Natural Medicine Guide to Bi-polar Disorder

The witch hunts were not just designed to murder women, witches, midwives and healers – they also lead to the deaths of disabled, queer and gender non-conforming people – many of whom often tend to see their magical gifts as inherently tied to, or even derived from, their experience of those identities. Some even consider these identities and the magic that flows from them (which are all too often labelled as sicknesses), to be super powers.

I know I do.

It can be terrifying to come out as a magical creature (which I believe, on some level we all are) when you need to put food on the table and pay electricity bills. Especially if you’re scared that being perceived as “crazy” will prevent you from being able to meet your basic needs within consumer capitalism. Ableism is real and has devastating impacts on our lives, especially when it intersects with other systemic oppressions like racism and homo or transphobia.

One of those impacts is upholding the walls of the woo closet. Because you see, keeping us scared of our gifts means we will be less powerful and less able to see through the veil of the death-wish-oriented monster that currently dictates most of our lives (read: consumer-colonial-capitalism and all its supporting systems of oppression).

Seeing our gifts as a curse keeps us from stepping into them.

Shame is a powerful prison.

Legacy and present day impacts of colonization aka why you shouldn’t buy a smudge kit at Urban Outfitters

The witch hunts, which began in europe, eventually spread throughout the world and became an instrumental tool in the assertion of global colonial violence against indigenous people. There are many academics who have done lifetimes of work exploring these topics such as Andrea Smith, Dory Nason and Lee Maracle just to name a few. A fundamental aspect of colonial violence is the intentional destruction of matriarchal societies and the spiritual systems that sustain them.

Many indigenous cultures across turtle island and the world, were and still are, intricately woven into and supported by ancient earth-based spiritual systems of knowledge and knowing. A fundamental mechanism of colonization is devaluing ways of knowing that don’t fit into empirical knowledge systems. This devaluation is used to undermine the sovereignty of indigenous people and ultimately to steal land, resources and labour. It has also been used to justify cultural, spiritual and physical genocide. Much of western science and higher education models are based on the assumption that empirical, measurable “truth” and linear understandings of time are more valid than understandings that do not fit into this box.

Last year I spent time at the Unistoten Camp where I assisted Amanda Lickers in giving a direct action workshop. I have been processing and thinking about her phenomenal skill as a facilitator since then. One of the things Amanda said that really stuck with me is that spirituality is an extremely powerful tool for indigenous resistance and direct action. She spoke about how drumming, smudging, song and ceremony are not often seen as legitimate direct action tactics by white people, but that they are and always have been, fundamental to the success of movements fighting for indigenous sovereignty.

If you go back far enough European people also have similar but culturally unique spiritual tools within our origins. Yet a collective myth/lie/ruse lives on that keeps us believing that we are peoples deprived of meaningful culture or spiritual history, from which we can draw guidance. Yes, this information can be challenging to find, but it does exist and we can do work to recreate it. To do this we must be open to discovering our ancestral routes and willing to do the magical and learning work that will grant us access to this knowledge. It is a slow and humbling process. It cannot be purchased at a meditation retreat, with a new mala, or at a lululemon.

This false belief in a spiritually void past leads many european people to feel justified in appropriating the spiritual practices and traditions of indigenous people. And thus, we perpetuate the process of colonization in our spiritual and cultural practices. We see this with yoga, smudge kits sold at trendy hipster clothing stores, twerking and headdresses at music festivals just to name a few examples. This penchant for appropriation leads many people of a political bent to righteously deny any kind of woo or magical activity that might be perceived as new-aged or racist. And at face value, this appears to be wise reasoning, but we don’t need to be appropriative in order to be magical or spiritual. Witches Union Hall has done some phenomenal work on this topic if you wish to explore it further.

The legacy of colonization and witch hunts has lead many people to believe that things like energy, visions, dream work, astrology, herbalism, tarot and magic are bogus and manipulative pseudosciences that should be disregarded with righteous fervor. Sure, we should be discerning (particularly with regards to oppression and appropriation) and yes some people are lying manipulators, but that doesn’t mean we should just dismiss whole systems of knowledge that have long and rich histories with tremendous learning and guidance to offer us.

Dancing on tables and coming out of the woo closet

Below is an excerpt from an online chat conversation I had with a friend recently. They are a powerhouse organizer, healer, ally, leader and activist. We chatted about trusting intuition in their work and why they aren’t more out about their witchy tendencies:

me: it’s so fucked that people wouldn’t take you seriously for being too woo. like your body is an instrument of knowing. it’s fucking colonial bullshit that people are so disconnected from that. it’s really sad.

Brilliant Friend: I know – its something that really guides me in my work when it comes to the land and disasters and Ive been trying to hone it but I havent found a way to really bring it outright into my work, its just part of my inner compass and knowing. ;) <3

me:  sometimes it’s ok to keep those parts close to your heart. cause they are tender and people don’t get it. while on the other hand it can be useful to talk about it openly cause then people who respect you will be like – yeah. totally. or question their views. maybe when you are older and super established and in the phase of giving no fucks you’ll just be like – yeah. i’m a fucking wizard. get down with it or fuck off. haha.

brilliant friend: EXACTLY! I’ll be like hey fuckos FUCK YOUR POWERPOINTS IM A WIZARD (jump on the table, drop the mic finger gunsssss). that’ll be me when Im 80 giving zero fucks! ;)

me: i actually can not wait.

And then of course I wonder, what if we didn’t wait? What if we unabashedly came out as the magical, powerful creatures we know ourselves to be in our dreams and our hearts? What if we said to ourselves today and every day, “I am a powerful witch” and actually took responsibility for what that knowledge means?

That would be the beginning of some powerful unspelling.

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So consider it with me, what can you do to unspell capitalism, racism, patriarchy, cis-sexism, homophobia, ableism and colonization?

Cause I see you. And I believe you are powerful beyond measure.

And I believe that are you more than capable of making beautiful magic.

The question is: Do you believe?

Photos by Beth

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6 comments

  1. Damien Jones says:

    I absolutely believe, ‘tho it’s a recent acquisition, thru trial and much error, experimenting with reality, testing for what’s true. And what I’ve found to be true is that there is indeed a Higher Order of Intelligence operating in the Universe. I call it the Great HOOI.

    The magic I’ve experienced, thru massive upticks in the freqency of synchronicities, synergetic connections, and resources flowing into my life, have left me no doubt that we are far more deeply interconnected than we realize to, and as, this world.

    What really cinched it for me was receiving some direct downloads that I was absolutely sure were not generated by my brain. Simple things. really, but they’ve changed the course of my life.

    And now this — thank you for blasting the covers off my eyes about all of this. Now I understand a lot more about why our hideous history happened Fortunately we get to live in the time where Patriarchy is fading — it’s control of women is still present, but far less restrictive than ever before in human history. It’s dominant reign is fading like the setting Sun, and now it’s the Moon’s turn.

    Women are soon to become fully liberated, I believe, and take their rightful place as equal cocreators of this world we share together. And once the Divine Feminine is completely off the chain, we’re in for a whole new reality. Shaped by pure magic.

    I saw a quote somewhere “Everyone wants a magical solution to their problems, but no-one wants to believe in magic”. So now that we do, and are, whatever’s going to become of our problems? Buh-Bye! On to grander things…

    P.S.
    Here’s the first download, which came to me in the middle of a crowded dance floor, stopping me stock still for 10 minutes as the implications and reality of it settled in:

    You have everything you need
    You always have
    You always will.

    I realized this was absolutely true — that I did always have everything I needed, that even tho I may have wished things had gone differently, there was nothing I truly needed that I didn’t get, cuz I was here, living a pretty good life, and needing nothing at the moment. And that this situation would continue until I woke up on the wrong side of the dirt.

    I felt a sense of complete peace wash over me, and have known and lived that peace ever since, to varying degrees. It’s left me far more fearless, connected, open and vulnerable. And powerful.

    That was the first of several. All I did was start loving people a bit more, and a bit more, ongoingly, doing devotional acts of service, unconditional gifts of love, and that has unleashed magic…

  2. ray tennessee says:

    thank you so much for this post! resonates right to my queer little starseed heart.
    I am in the mental health field, and a part of a pretty radical activist community, and have been very much asking myself these same questions.

    perhaps its a result of the implosive/explosive pressure of too much internalized shame, combined with an innate streak of rebellion, sprinkled with mourning and heartache, I have recently taken the same stance of “fuck all of this status quo,” & I am occupying every bit of my wizardry, woo, extra subtle sensory gifts and each new gift that emerges in the process of opening to them.

    here’s to a beautiful journey and the freedom of busting out of the closet!

  3. Kaia says:

    Thank you for this. I feel like I’ve been trying to put this into words for so long.

    “If you go back far enough European people also have similar but culturally unique spiritual tools within our origins. Yet a collective myth/lie/ruse lives on that keeps us believing that we are peoples deprived of meaningful culture or spiritual history, from which we can draw guidance.” This is so true. It’s easy to believe that those spiritual systems died long ago (we even refer to some of their languages – Latin and Ancient Greek – as dead languages), but I think they’re waiting to be rediscovered through research and spiritual exploration and brought back into the world.

    I always try to disassociate myself from the ‘woo’, but maybe that’s the wrong tack to be taking, yeah? Time to be proud of all my woo beliefs.

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