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 16, 2021, and today's topic is the ways in which capitalism has impacted our understanding and practice of magic. Are you ready to grow your soul?
Hello witchy friends! Today I’m digging into something that might not sit super comfortably with everyone, maybe edge a bit into controversial territory, but there’s something that’s been bothering me in the general witchy community lately and I want to encourage you to sit with it a bit because these are some really important questions when it comes to the core of what our spiritual and magical practices look like.
Because something I’ve noticed more and more over time is that so much of what it seems people are focusing their practices around has to do with money. Prosperity. Wealth. Money bowls and money spells. And I know that it isn’t just social media, either. Over the years of going to the local pagan meetup I can think of all sorts of times when especially new people, new practitioners have specifically asked how to attract money. What crystals are good for prosperity. I remember one case specifically when someone asked if we could help them find a spell they could do to cause them to just come across a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk or something like that. It’s… most of what I find people teaching and asking for has to do with either money or relationships.
And it makes sense given that we live in a capitalist society. We’re… Money and the amount we have or don’t have is one of those issues we kind of can’t seem to escape. Money is one of the biggest driving factors in the way the modern western world works. So it makes sense that when we start into our spiritual work, our magical work, a lot of what we worry about, a lot of what we want to change, the basis of a lot of our interpersonal relationships, the way we define success and failure, all of that ties into money quite a lot of the time.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I want to make that clear from the beginning. Like many people have pointed out, not all commerce is capitalism. Money isn’t evil.
But it’s so important to really examine and investigate our motivations, our intentions, our desires when we’re doing mindful magic, and this is one of those blind spots that often goes unexamined. So what I wanted to talk about really was the way that some of the core principles, core ideas of capitalism have gotten brought into spirituality and magic without us actually realizing it, without us questioning it, and without realizing that we’re reinforcing that in our lives through our practices.
There are lots of ways where, if you look around at the way spirituality is dealt with in our world, some of the less desirable, some of the destructive or harmful or questionable aspects line up really well with the things we critique about capitalism. If we look at spiritual energy, knowledge, experience, etc as having the same place in modern spirituality as money has in capitalism, it’s kind of easy to see these parallels.
For instance, one of the hallmarks of capitalism is that power comes from accumulation of money, and it doesn’t take much to see how pervasive it is that spirituality is presented as a path to accumulating knowledge, accumulating spiritual ability and understanding. It’s the ascension model, not as in ascension through initiatory levels or planes of existence, but as in ascension to a level where your knowledge, your ability, your skill or whatever is recognized and puts you on a level above those behind you on the path.
It’s how gurus are made. How people start cults.
And what’s important to examine in all this is that assumption that, you know, spiritual energy, spiritual knowledge is something that you can or should accumulate. Is the point of spirituality, is the point of your spiritual practice, the accumulation of spiritual power? Is that a reasonable way to measure your spiritual growth? Because what I think is absolutely obvious about capitalism is that the accumulation and possession of money and, therefore, power doesn’t actually work as a measure of the worth of a person. It doesn’t speak to any real valuable measure of a person’s identity, their skills, their outlook, the way they treat other people, how truly successful they are.
And that’s the same when it comes to spiritual or magical life. You can learn all the things, master all the techniques, get all the initiatory credentials, and it doesn’t mean anything about your spiritual well-being. And this also… Pay attention to the way people, and that might be you, I fall into this too and I think we all do, but the way people measure the effectiveness of their spiritual activities in the same ways we measure material success. Not just in the sense that being spiritual will pay off with money, but the idea that being spiritually evolved and powerful and enlightened or whatever can be measures through things like social media following or books published or other…
Like, every time I hear someone say they’re just going to put their energy out there and the right people will feel it… Is that the point of spirituality? To attract people to your ideas? To gather a following or get attention?
So it’s worth looking at our practices, our spiritual lives, the way we pursue spirituality, the way we set out to learn magic or whatever skills we want to learn, the way we define the goals in all of that, and question how much of that is the pursuit of more, the pursuit of an accumulation of spirit, of energy, of ability, of enlightenment or influence or whatever and all the things we think that should bring us.
And question whether that’s really the way we want our spiritual lives to be focused. Does it mesh with your world view, your understanding of the universe, that the point of spiritual practice is to become more powerful and attain more?
This is part of our shadow work, too. Looking at the ways that our choices and behaviors and stuff are reflections of beliefs that we don’t realize we’re following, beliefs that are different from what we would say we believe. But if our spiritual practice is focused on gaining and accumulating and all of that when you’re telling yourself that spirituality is about healing and growing, that’s definitely something to dig into and unravel.
But that’s just one layer. There’s more.
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Now back to the episode!
Another way that I’ve started seeing and noticing capitalist dynamics in the spiritual world relates to the idea of a profit motive. One of the hallmarks of capitalism is that the primary motivation for pretty much everything is profit. And yeah, obviously, there’s the discussion about the ethics of profiting from spiritual work, but that’s not really where I want to go with this.
I want to dig a little deeper beneath the surface because the only way for there to really be profit potential for anything is for there to be a consumer somewhere in the mix. You have to sell something, make the product or service or whatever activity it is available to someone, put a value on it, and exchange that thing for money.
Now, not all commerce is capitalist, and I don’t want to imply that it’s bad to put a value on things or to make our spiritual services or whatever available, not even to make a profit from it. But what I would argue is that we damage our spiritual practices and spiritual lives when we judge what is worthwhile, what is important based on its value to others. And this takes a lot of different forms. I think for those in the pagan and witchy and even just generally spiritual community online, it’s really easy to look at various aspects of practice in terms of how they can be leveraged. How valuable they are or could be to others.
On social media this looks like people shaping their practices around what they see from influencers and feeling an expectation to emulate them, to also put their practice out for public consumption, because that’s how they learned. Parts of practice which are personal and individual and can’t be made valuable to others at least in the sense that as we get more advanced, we teach what we know to those who come after us, and those parts can tend to get pushed aside.
I’ve noticed that, you know, people who set out to learn tarot often feel some level of pressure to read for others or, at least, to reach the level of skill and confidence that they could do it. That’s the standard against which people judge themselves, and it stops being about seeking insight for personal spiritual purposes. It comes through in the way a lot of people talk about spiritual gifts and the.. not obligation but some level of expectation that if you have a gift it’s for the benefit of others. That if you have some kind of special insight or talent, it’s specifically so that you can bring that to others who can’t do that for themselves.
And yeah, it’s good to want to contribute to the community, to share talents and gifts, but there’s also this pervasive pattern of people in the pagan and witchy communities setting a higher value on things which can be leveraged for influence or commodified in some other way than things done for personal spiritual benefit.
So, for instance, if someone begins to learn tarot, until they get to the point where they can read for others and get paid for it or do live readings on social media or something like that, they don’t consider themselves good enough to really be a tarot reader. Like the pinnacle of achievement is to do it in a professional way for the public, and that that is more important, more high value than mastering it for use in personal practice.
Which only makes sense within a capitalist approach to spirituality.
When we twist something that is, ultimately, a personal and internal thing, something that is about a personal and internal benefit, into something that pushes us to commodify ourselves, commodify our growth and advancement, to make it about what we can offer that others want, we lose out on the core benefit and get stuck chasing something else. Chasing influence and chasing attention.
And again, it’s not that influence or attention is bad, it’s not that we shouldn’t have ambitions to build and offer skills to a community, but doing that isn’t the point of spirituality and it has the potential to suck all the real substance from the path.
And it pressures us to make our personal practice palatable to others as if it needs to be anything but our own. It muddies the waters to where we start looking at our own spiritual growth in terms of whether we can make a living at it or get some material benefit from it rather than focusing on the actual spiritual benefit. And sure, some of us do leverage parts of our skills or abilities or insights in a spiritual sense into something that generates money or whatever, but, for instance, when I’m writing or creating something, even when I was doing tarot readings professionally, I realized very quickly that those activities, even when they’re related to my spiritual path… Let’s… The more I focused on being a good professional tarot reader, for instance, the less I found myself using it for my own spiritual purposes.
Reading for others absolutely honed my skills, but that didn’t have a true spiritual benefit for myself. And where the capitalist mentality plays into this is where there’s the pull to focus more on the pursuit of accomplishment and building leveragable skills – there’s the profit motive – and downplaying or devaluing the the importance of applying those skills to meet our own spiritual needs the same way capitalism demands that we put more importance on how we earn money than on taking care of our health in any way.
Plus, where there’s a driving profit motive, there’s exploitation. It’s absolutely worth considering the ways in which commodifying elements of our spiritual practice can actually result in the exploitation – and not just financially – of those who are just beginning on these paths. A hallmark of capitalism is the way it benefits from keeping us dependent on resources that someone else profits from. It’s sort of an exploit or be exploited situation, right? Which is why, first of all, we’re pushed to aspire to wealth and power in society and, second, why we are taught to judge people by the type of work they do.
And in the spiritual community, the same dynamics aren’t hard to find. We’re pushed to aspire to advancement and attainment and power and possessing some kind of important quality or skill or to be part of a respected group or whatever, and we judge others by where they are on whatever path they’ve chosen.
Which brings me to the issue of competition.
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Competition is a foundational aspect of capitalism. Wealth and power, for them to mean anything, have to be limited resources. Abundant enough so everyone can have a little, limited enough so that only a few can hold enough to truly control anything.
Because ultimately, capitalism marries wealth with power and control. Power and control comes through hierarchy, and the thing that seems good on the surface about capitalism is that instead of putting power in the hands of people based on who their parents were or who they married or putting it in the hands of whoever can seize that power through military conquest, there’s the illusion of fairness since theoretically anyone can build a business, build wealth on their own and rise through the ranks.
But the reality is that only so many can actually hold that power, there’s still a hierarchy, and those who get the wealth, get the power, aren’t going to willingly share. And part of… you know, I work in the online coaching space, and even though I like what I do, I feel like my particular job aligns really well with my beliefs and values, I see a lot of stuff in the space in general which is questionable if not really damaging.
For instance, business and wealth coaches especially sell the illusion that they are sharing the secrets necessary for people to create the same wealth and success they have. They teach specific habits, mindset tricks, rules and systems, and the problem is that, first of all, those aren’t ever the real things that let them reach the place they’re in because what really got them to the top are things that can’t really be taught like connections and luck and a familiarity with the culture of power and wealth, and second of all, if they actually did teach a lot of people to do exactly what they did and become successful then they wouldn’t keep any of their clients so it doesn’t make financial sense to deliver anything more than hope and small average amounts of success.
The unfortunate thing is that a lot of the same structure exists in the spiritual and magical community. Not just in coaching and mentoring, either. Which, yeah, there’s… it’s the same structure a lot of times in spiritual teaching because, like, I mean, prosperity and wealth is a huge central tenet of a lot of philosophies and frameworks. It’s about manifesting wealth and manifesting success and that’s problematic in a lot of ways. But it’s also true when it’s just about, like, practitioners building expertise in something to get followers, to build a community, whatever, and simultaneously setting themselves up as an example of what magical practice or other spiritual path can get someone, and then doing enough teaching to keep their followers engaged but not any more than that because most of them, a, can’t teach those things to their followers and, b, aren’t truly in it to help people reach the level they’ve reached because doing that would erode their place of leadership and prestige and influence.
And yeah, that’s not all of us, but it’s a thing.
And even deeper than that, this concept that there’s some ladder of attainment that not everyone will be able to reach is alarmingly present in an awful lot of modern magical traditions and informs the way we conduct ourselves in the spiritual community. It’s the… If you look around, you can probably pretty easily find examples where the process of learning and growing in a magical or spiritual tradition is both commodified and weaponized to create an artificial hierarchy. How we have started repackaging and rebranding old ideas not just to update them or make them make more sense in our time and culture, but so that those ideas can be resold to people. So that the goalposts are constantly moved. So that there’s always something new to chase, some new thing to learn and master.
If you’re part of an established magical or spiritual tradition, I really recommend taking a very good look, a deep examination of the benefits of whatever initiatory path or learning structure has to the culture as a whole and the individuals at various levels as opposed to those at the top. Because there’s absolutely a culturally healthy form of progression where it’s about, like… If you think about, for instance, initiations and rites of passage and ranks which you might find in cultural traditions, formal traditions, usually those hierarchies and processes have to do with cultural identity, group cohesion, protecting the elements of cultural belief and practice which are closed to those outside the cultural group, that sort of thing. It’s not about enriching whoever is at the top of that power pyramid.
Even magical traditions where it’s customary for beginners to seek out or be matched with a mentor lack the competitive aspect where the student is never allowed to reach a level of mastery where they might match or surpass the knowledge the mentor has. It’s about guiding new people safely along the path. And I would bet that for most of us, our core magical worldview includes a belief that there isn’t a limit to how many people can master and excel at their craft. If that’s not how whatever communities you’re in operate, that’s a red flag.
Bottom line, one of the healthiest, most beneficial things you can do in your practice, whatever your practice is, is put in the effort to center it on personal spiritual wellbeing, community spiritual culture, and not on competition, attainment, and attempts to have things validated and valued by others.
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.