I’m Bridget Owens and you're listening to the Waxing Soul podcast where we're adventuring into the world of mindful modern magic and authentic spiritual practice. It's December 9, 2021, and today's topic is the magic of metaphors and symbolic workings. Are you ready to grow your soul?
I’m genuinely excited about today’s topic. Not that I’m not usually enthusiastic, but sometimes I get a sudden bolt of inspiration, like I did earlier this week, and I have to just, like, immediately do the episode instead of putting it on a list and scheduling it down the line.
And where this comes from… I’m going to tell a bit of a story to give you some background. So, if you’ve seen any of my videos on TikTok, I’m doing this… As part of my own shadow work, working on my own stuff that I’m integrating, I’m committing to actually being on TikTok in an active way, not just creating content and talking about the podcast and the book and the whatever other things I’m wanting to promote, not just inspiration and education stuff, but actually being open and, you know, being my authentic self on there in a vulnerable way. And that’s… I’m going to come back to that in a minute.
But if you’ve seen my stuff, you might have seen that on Sunday, I have a spider plant that I keep in the bathroom because one of my cats just will not leave it alone. He is… I’ve heard, actually, that spider plants are mildly hallucinogenic to cats, maybe that’s why, I don’t know, but anything that looks like a plant, whether it’s alive or not, will end up in his teeth, and he’s got a special attraction to this spider plant. It’s named Steve. After Captain America. Because even though I put it in the bathroom and we keep the bathroom door closed, cats are sneaky and we’re not perfect, and over time Stormy would get in and chomp down on a leaf before we could get him out, and it wasn’t long before Steve was chewed down and scrawny, and then I put him up in a plant hanger and repotted him and now it’s like Steve Rogers getting the supersoldier serum.
Anyway, Steve has been doing great and he even put out a couple of runners. He was going to have babies. Which is exciting because the last time I successfully kept house plants alive was my freshman year in college. Then my mom killed all my plants on accident over the following summer, and ever since then I’ve felt like I had a black thumb. No luck with houseplants. But then there’s Steve! Having babies! And then on Sunday, when I went into the bathroom to get the laundry, Stormy must have snuck in and I didn’t see, because a bit later I hear scratching on the other side of the closed bathroom door and I find that he was stuck in there and he ate one of Steve’s babies.
Now, the reason I’m explaining all of this is because of… alchemy. And magic. And intention. On Monday, I was doing my day job work, and Mondays in my day job are all about mindset work, shadow work, and all the work I’ve been doing on myself lately has centered around some of my own stuff around relationships, around not wanting to get into – I don’t mean romantic relationships, I mean just interpersonal relationships in general – basically feeling like if I put myself out there, authentically and vulnerably, it meant that I would be taking on responsibility for other people, for energetic connections, that I don’t want to be responsible for keeping alive. And there’s lots of baggage there, of course.
But as I was doing my work at my desk, and I was looking at a few other little houseplants that I keep in my office because it’s the only other room that the cats can’t enter but Stormy had slipped in and I was monitoring him so he didn’t hop on the desk to eat anything else, I realized a couple of things. The first one was that, as I was kind of focused on this stuff I’ve been doing in my shadow work and then thinking about my houseplants, that my feelings are kind of the same between the two. That my feeling of… I don’t know that anxiety is the right word, but… reluctance? My reluctance to open myself to new interpersonal connections and commitments feels much the same as when I think about caring for a plant.
Also that it’s sort of, for whatever reason, different than… I mean, I take care of cats. They’re living things. That’s a relationship I’m responsible for. And that’s different, probably because I know that my cats will absolutely tell me if I’m not doing a good enough job.
But most importantly, I realized that this link, this sense in which those two things felt the same, that there are parallels there, that’s the same relationship between the lab work and the philosophical/spiritual work involved in alchemy. And that’s not something I’ve specifically dug into with any amount of depth here on the podcast. So what I want to do here in a moment is start to pick apart the way I’m going to set up this plant care thing as a magical working, how it relates to alchemical lab work, and hopefully this will be a good illustration of the function and importance of intention in magic.
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Now back to the episode!
So I mention alchemy quite a bit in my spiritual meanderings, but I don’t know that I’ve ever really dug much into it on here. And if you’ve never looked into it, I know a lot of people think of alchemy as a kind of very old mystical pursuit of transmutation of base metals into gold, a stone or substance that could result in immortality, but it is something that’s still a modern pursuit.
And it’s a… There’s just not a way to get a thorough explanation of it here. I could probably do a whole podcast – like, not an episode, the whole podcast, on alchemy. But what is important for this episode is that alchemy isn’t just about what happens in the lab. It’s not just primitive chemistry. Everything done in the labwork, using plants and minerals and such to make tinctures and elixirs and stones and whatever, isn’t just about the physical processes and what gets made, it’s a metaphor for larger spiritual and philosophical concepts. Doing the work is as much about trying to understand the larger universe and the inner workings of the deep self as it is creating medicines or whatever.
For instance, working with a dried herb, the plant becomes a metaphor for myself or for life in general, and the things I do in working with the plant, transforming it and breaking it down into its essences and such, becomes a metaphor for other types of activities or interactions in the world. That sort of thing. So, for instance, in breaking plants down into their salt, sulfur, mercury components, body, soul, and spirit, however you want to say that, it’s not about going through the motions and just, like, taking the information presented in texts or whatever at face value. The even bigger part of that is then extrapolating from that experience what the various components are of other things in life, in the universe. Like, thinking through how spirit is used to extract the soul from plant matter, so what would a similar process look like for other things? Like humans? Or like a planet? And what are the larger implications? It’s not just cool lab work, making plant tinctures.
So that’s really become more or less the backbone of my practice. It’s kind of a step up from something like sympathetic magic, where you perform actions with or on things which kind of stand in for and are symbolic of something else. This is a bit more advanced than that, in that it’s the relationships which become symbolic. It’s the entire dynamic.
But the real key to all this is that the extent to which this is useful and to which it, I guess “works” is the best word, all comes down to intention. Not in the sense of an intention around an end goal, but in the sense that you intend for the relationship, the symbolism, the active engagement with it will teach you something or reveal something to you. It’s an intentional openness to observe and feel and learn.
Here’s what I mean by that. Now, I intend to… the point of this whole plant thing is that I’m going to kind of devote myself to the care and nurturing of my houseplants in such a way that it’s a metaphor for my ability to care for and nurture relationships with people. If this were just a, you know, sympathetic magic kind of thing, a spellwork kind of thing, I might draw direct correlations between each plant and a specific person, or a specific type of relationship, or a particular relationship activity. Like, this aloe plant represents my relationship with my aunt, and this fern is my wife.. That’s not what I’m going to be doing. That’s not…
I think there’s a place and a role for that kind of stuff in a magical practice, but what I find to be much more useful is what I’m about to embark on, which is much more in the alchemical vein. I decide, I set the intention that I’m going to take on caring for plants and being responsible for them because that is, in a lot of ways, like having friendships and interpersonal relationships. I recognize that there’s a lot of links between the two, such as being a bit jealous of people who have and can take care of lots of house plants and fondly recalling times when I had and took care of house plants being a strong parallel to me also being jealous of people who seem to be able to effortlessly make and keep friends and attract people to them and fondly looking back at times in my life when it seemed like maintaining relationships was easier. Not because I need to water my friends or be social with my houseplants, but because they can be metaphors for each other and in doing things like watering my plants, when done in a mindful and intentional way, can become a ritual that helps me dissect the more difficult thing – braving the obligation and vulnerability of relationships – by looking for symbolism in the less difficult thing – risking the death of a few plants if I screw up their care.
I’m setting the intention that I’m going to undertake this project not so that, you know, if my plants do well it’ll mean my relationships will do well, but so that in working with plants there will be lessons revealed to me about the human relationships I want in my life.
Like I said, it’s not like the way most of us think of spellwork, where I think it would be more about choosing certain plants which are related to relationships and courage and confidence and whatever. This isn’t about that. It doesn’t matter what the plants are. And it’s not something that’s going to work the same way for everyone, because the power isn’t in the action itself. It’s in the connections my mind can make between the actions and the larger ideas. The power isn’t in the stuff, it’s in the metaphor. But also, the power isn’t in the end result, so let’s talk about that next.
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Some listeners may have picked up on the fact that I generally use words like “working” or “ritual” more than words like “spell” when I talk about the active part of a magical practice, and the reason is that I think one of the biggest mistakes practitioners make, especially beginners, is to expect a magical practice to focus almost entirely on spellwork.
Spellwork is meant to have a specific effect. Spells are created with an end result in mind. And sure, if I’m feeling a bit isolated or alone or for whatever reason desire to have more friendships, have more people in my general sphere of influence, for a lot of people who consider themselves witches or witch-adjacent the go to approach is to do a spell to cause those connections and relationships to form. Spells to attract certain people to you, spells to form bonds with people, love spells and friendship spells and that sort of thing.
And, of course, when done correctly, that kind of thing can work by worming into our subconscious and implanting that desire for relationship in our deep self layers where it can drive our actions. But the problem with that is that the way in which you get from A to B can take all kinds of paths, some of which aren’t so likely to get you what you really want, only what you think you want. That’s the… Go back to episode 1 of season 1 for more on intentions and getting that piece right. Because if the focus is on wanting attention, if you don’t know how to make friends and you haven’t worked on whatever things have been holding you back from forming those connections that you want, chances are you’re not going to end up with healthy ones. You may technically get what you ask for, but it won’t be what you want.
That’s the challenge with spellwork. With spells, the power is in the achievement of the end goal. Process is irrelevant, which is kind of what makes it magic. When we do spells, we release control over the process in the interest of the end goal. The thing about a working like the one I’ve described with my plants is that it’s about the process rather than the end result. The power is in the activity. The power is in the mindful observation of the actions taken and the knowledge and understanding gained by meditating on the connections. It’s in finding meaning in something small and symbolic which can be extrapolated to be meaningful in a different context.
That’s… I wouldn’t consider it divination but there’s a divinatory element to it for sure because what I’m hoping for is to discover things about myself through this working. There is an element of taking the action to get lessons or a specific type of enlightenment out of it. Instead of taking up your magical toolbox and using it to be like, I struggle achieving this outcome, this thing I want, so I’ll use magic to make that happen, it’s saying, I struggle achieving this outcome, this thing I want, so I’ll use magic to pinpoint what’s standing in my way and how I can overcome it.
And there’s a huge advantage in that. It does require mindfulness and a certain level of creativity. It means actually paying attention to yourself and the world around you and really thinking deeply about patterns and meaning and connections you can make mentally between internal and external in your life. Which, absolutely, is not something everyone is used to doing. But it’s a hugely valuable spiritual and magical skill.
And it’s a really valuable part of shadow work. Identifying the things that stand between you and a healthy, thriving state of being not by looking directly at yourself and getting into the “what’s wrong with me” rabbit hole, but instead by looking at something that stands in for the process or challenge you struggle with and, as you do the relatively easier actions, think about what that might mean for your struggle.
So, for instance, as I’m looking at my plants and thinking about how people have started giving me plants for various occasions and that in some ways that feels like an imposition of obligation, giving me a living thing that I’m now expected to keep alive to prove that I appreciate the gift and the relationship, that is a parallel for how I can feel sometimes that if I’m friends or trying to nurture some kind of relationship with a person and they introduce me to a third party, I do feel an obligation to make an effort to connect with that person even outside the 3-way interaction so that the original friend doesn’t de-friend me for not liking this new acquaintance, but that really if I’m given a plant and something happens and it doesn’t thrive, it doesn’t live, that has nothing to do with my relationship with the person who gave me the plant and I’m also not obligated to like my friends’ friends. It’s all part of the same pattern, and working through that feeling with my plants goes a long way towards working through the bigger feeling.
It can be so much easier to both recognize those issues and to take actions to reframe and relearn things when dealing with the metaphor, the stand in, than it is to just flat out look in the mirror and pick apart the reasons why interpersonal relationships are a challenge and try to formulate a way to unlearn those things.
And don’t forget the advantage of being able to do these kinds of workings without special magical tools and without drawing the attention of anyone who you don’t want to know about your magical practice.
So my challenge to you is to spend some time, make a note somewhere, do some journaling if you need to, whatever, but instead of setting a resolution for the New Year, plan some kind of working like this. Whatever it is you think you need to change in your life, figure out a metaphorical activity that stands in for that and mirrors it, something you can undertake which will give you a secondary thing to focus on and learn from and contemplate in order to get some enlightening understanding of yourself from it. If there’s something you do a spell for all the time, do some thinking about why you need that spell or type of spell so often, why you rely on it, and if there’s some spiritual growth which would free you from reliance on that spellwork, and then engineer a working to focus on that growth and change.
Thank you so much for listening. New episodes of the Waxing Soul drop every Thursday. All materials and resources except the music are copyright Bridget Owens. Many thanks to my readers, listeners, friends, mentors, inspirations, and my framily for riding with me into season two. Until next week, blessed be and be good to yourself.