Closed Practices

Episode 8 – Closed Practices The Waxing Soul


Episode Transcript:

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 23, 2021, and today's topic is closed practices.

Are you ready to grow your soul?

So recently I’ve started spending a lot of my social media time on TikTok, and while there are absolutely problematic portions of the witchy things which go on there, what is constant is the interesting discourse. It’s a lot like the way I started my path, which was informed by this meetup group I’ve mentioned before, and even though the meetup group had an organizer, it’s never been and will never be a teaching group. People come and share their knowledge, ask their questions, choose the topics from month to month, and so instead of getting, like, a composed lesson plan or information on a specific path, the early days of my practice were just listening to others and picking out the things that piqued my interest, resonated with me, and following those threads on my own time, in my own practice. So that’s kind of what witchtok is like, just blown up 1000 percent.

Anyway, one of the popular topics bouncing around the witchy end of TikTok is closed practices. Respect for closed practices, why certain practices are closed, what’s wrong with crossing those boundaries and practicing things which are part of a closed culture or an initiatory culture. And I wanted to… What I wanted to do as far as digging into this topic was to basically pick apart some of the aspects of the discussion that I didn’t see come up.

And it’s not because… I don’t want to give the impression to those of you who are not in that space that there’s no depth to the conversation there, there certainly can be, but what drives this particular discussion there is the phenomenon of watching people on the app share and talk about their practices, try to teach and mentor or to be influencers or be entrepreneurs in the space, and it’s inevitable that some people are going to cross boundaries that are important to other people, and basically… I mean if you really break it down, really think about it, the fact that there is a constant discourse on closed practices is really just an extended calling out of people. Either you’re being called out, defending someone who’s been called out, calling people out, or defending people doing the calling out.

But, the thing is, that does still mean that this is a relevant thing, otherwise there wouldn’t be so much turmoil over it. And this is why it doesn’t necessarily get really deep as far as discussions go, since, you know, everyone is more caught up in educating and trying to shift behavior and not so much caught up in digging deeply into the topic in an academic sense or in an effort to really understand the intricacies.

So, first of all, I want to dig a little bit into the issue of why people have so much trouble with the concept of closed practice. And…

Okay, let’s back up a little bit and talk about what I mean when I say that. What I’m referring to. Mostly what comes up is stuff like hoodoo and Judaism which are closed as overall practices, closed to anyone outside those cultures. People are born into those types of closed practices although in some cases, not all but some, people can go through a process of being initiated and brought into those cultural groups and accompanying practices. Also there are specific rituals or practices or skills or experiences within a spiritual practice or religion which are closed while other aspects are open. So, for instance, when people talk about smudging being a closed practice, it’s a matter of that practice having special meaning and significance to the native groups who practice it and which those groups hold as sacred and not open for sharing with those outside that group.

Now, this doesn’t really get talked about, but there’s also spiritual practices which are initiatory and secret, they’re closed in the formal sense, where they operate like a closed culture but it’s a created culture, one that’s open to and welcoming to a certain number, at least, of new members but which restricts knowledge based on levels and initiatory steps. Stuff like secret societies pops to mind, of course, but I’m thinking more of stuff like Scientology or even Mormonism where you have to jump through hoops to get closer to the core practices and truths and even those in the tradition have parts closed to them.

Which, like… I think if we consider why those first two things are something most of us defend and respect as closed to us but applaud the revealing of the secrets held in the third one, we’ll start to reveal some things about how we approach closed practices. Because in a lot of ways, you know, the actual practices aren’t… Like they’re all literally techniques and activities and rituals. None of the practices or ideas are particularly, like, revolutionary. For the most part, there are things that serve similar purposes or achieve similar things in different ways in other traditions that aren’t closed, it’s just the details and the background, the meaning behind them that sets them apart.

So what it really comes down to, when we’re looking at something that within whatever contexts is closed to us or which is part of our tradition but closed to others, the issue comes down to larger relational issues, which we’ll dig into in a moment.

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Now back to the episode!

The thing about closed practice, the reason we talk so much about this in certain circles these days is because the boundaries set around closed practices are not readily respected in all cases. The whole reason it’s a hot topic is because people who are not parts of closed traditions take part in closed practices and then there is a conflict between those who want to protect those closed practices and those who want to continue to access them.

And the reason why I wanted to do this episode isn’t that I feel like I need to throw one more voice into the mix to yell at people, as fun as that might be sometimes. It’s more that, you know… I think there’s some missed dynamics here.

And I want to go back to an idea that I come back to again and again, which is the fact that there is no universal truth and no universally applicable spiritual tradition. Which does play into this for sure.

So, like… hang with me here. Anytime someone or a group of someones sets a boundary which someone else doesn’t honor, there’s a reason. And I think we can boil it down to the idea that the boundary violator regards the motivations of the boundary setter as invalid. The boundary setter doesn’t trust the boundary violator with access and the boundary violator feels that something is being withheld from them that they should have a right to access. It doesn’t matter if that boundary is set to protect a practice, protect a tradition from exploitation or to protect it from being revealed to avoid scrutiny and accountability. Whatever the reasoning, that’s… it’s a matter of protection.

And because humans tend to think of spirituality and spiritual tradition in the same way as religion, meaning it’s about truth, about finding truth, then on one side or the other of any boundary it becomes a struggle about either protecting or accessing truth and, therefore, power. It’s perceived to be that. Either the boundary setter believes they are connected to a valuable truth and power and the boundary violator has to be kept away from that truth because they don’t respect it, or the boundary violator believes that the boundary setter is withholding something of value, something of truth and power from them and that it’s wrong for them to be denied it.

So here’s why it’s important that there is no universal truth, no universally applicable tradition. If you take the universalness out of the equation, then it also removes this idea that if something has spiritual value, everyone and anyone is entitled to it. Because that’s the… if there is a universal spiritual truth, if all the various paths and philosophies and whatever in the world are all seeking the same thing, the same truth, the same goal, if that’s the way we look at the world then it’s kind of… We can easily see why the idea that any valid part of that is being held behind a boundary and kept away from some of us, we can easily see why that feels wrong. Why it feels bad to people.

But this, I mean… it is a very Christian way of seeing the world, this idea that there is one truth and so we’re all entitled to every part of that truth so we can save ourselves. But… But there isn’t one universal truth. Or if there is, it’s not accessible to us. We don’t have it. And later in the episode I’m going to dig into how this isn’t even really about truth, but I think this is the important step towards that point.

Of the thousands of different religions and subsects and philosophies and practices, the chance that any of them holds truth that the others don’t have, not to mention that we’re just a blip on the human timeline which is just a blip on the universal timeline which we still don’t understand, there just… It doesn’t make sense that anything we do or think or know right now on this planet as a species is valuable even in a global sense.

So if a group of people creates a practice or tradition which they hold as globally or universally true and significant and sets up a boundary to shield adherents from influences which might convince them otherwise, that’s manipulation and exploitation. If a group of people creates a practice or tradition which they hold as globally or universally true and significant and sets up a boundary so that they can control who gains access to that truth and keep certain people from having what they think is valuable, that’s manipulation and discrimination. The boundary is to protect what’s inside from external forces which threaten to destroy it.

But if a group of people creates a practice or tradition because it has special relevance to that group and isn’t universally or globally true and they set up a boundary to protect the group and its culture because it’s the people outside that boundary whose valuation of the practice threatens that group’s ability to keep practicing, or even threatens the culture itself, that’s a whole different thing. The boundary is to protect what’s inside from external forces which don’t want to destroy it, they want to have it. And the having, the taking, comes with destruction for the people more than the practices.

And the thing is, when we acknowledge that these closed practices that fall into the second group, the ones we talk about in terms of cultural appropriation and such, that their value lies not with how useful or attractive they are to us, but with the cultural significance and traditional legacy it has for that particular group of people, that if we remove them from their context they lose their original meaning and only have the new meaning we give them, which at best is a watered down understanding of what they mean in their proper context and at worst is a pride at having taken them and made them into a fetishized trophy – if we put all of that in the context of there not being some kind of universal truth that makes their value also universal, then it should be easier to see why crossing those boundaries isn’t such a great idea.

But there’s also the issue of sacredness, which we’ll dive into next.

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Protective boundaries don’t just define permissions and whatever, they’re also the mechanism which defines things as sacred.

I wouldn’t say that every single boundary is a way of making something sacred, but anything held as sacred by an individual or a group of people sits within a defined boundary. When we declare something sacred, we’re saying we want it protected, we want to make sure it remains whole and undamaged.

So, like, I like to talk about our living spaces, or at least the private portions of our living spaces, as our sacred spaces on an individual level. That’s… Our authenticity, our evolution on a spiritual level, those things are nurtured and supported by having places and spaces in our lives where we’re totally comfortable being ourselves, where our authentic selves aren’t pushed to be something we’re not, all of that, right?

We need sacred spaces for ourselves especially if the rest of our lives aren’t particularly, you know, welcoming and nurturing to who we are. The more hostile our personal lives can be to our authenticity, to our core identity, the more we need those sacred spaces, those safe spaces. And making them sacred means creating that boundary so that they’re protected.

If you think about the dynamics around most things that are in the forefront of discussions about closed spiritual practices, closed magical practices, the same reality applies. The more hostile the world in general is to a culture, a group, a belief system, the more vital it is to those groups to create sacred spaces, sacred traditions, sacred practices within which they can exist in full authenticity. Protecting and declaring those things as sacred protects them and helps those cultures and groups maintain their core identity and strength.

I think we tend to think about sacredness in terms of religious ideas, in terms of importance and, I mean, we’re back to truth and value and whatever, but there are lots of things that are important and valuable that aren’t so much sacred. There are lots of things that are expressions of cultures and religions identities, that are important, but which aren’t closed. Those are shared with others. The difference is the protection. The desire to do whatever is necessary to keep sacred things unchanged, undamaged.

So when we’re talking about closed practices, especially closed practices in terms of cultures protecting their beliefs and practices from outsider appropriation, the act of closing them is the act of declaring them sacred and protected. And here’s where I think we get into… There are lots of people who struggle with this idea that one group of people should be able to declare something potentially desirable as off limits, and in all the conversations I’ve ever either participated in or witnessed on the subject, what tends to happen is the discussion boils down to, like, whether the originating group has good reason to set that limit or boundary and whether the appropriating party is being judged or treated fairly, and really both of those things miss the point.

If I set a boundary about something in my life, the extent to which other people will honor that boundary comes down to an issue of respect. Like, I’ve set very strong boundaries with my parents in my own life for my own reasons, and they don’t agree with my reasons but they respect that the boundary is set. So, like, when those of us who are not part of a particular culture and therefore not part of their spirituality, when we violate those boundaries to take those practices for ourselves because we like them, we think they will benefit us, it doesn’t matter our intentions or how much respect we think we’re acting with, we’ve violated the boundary they set and therefore that’s a demonstration of disrespect. It’s an act which disrespects that group’s declaration of sacredness and by crossing that line we’re inflicting some level of threat on that sacred thing.

I think it’s important, really important, to focus the conversation there. Because it does come down to intention. Not the interpretation of who is in the right and who is in the wrong, whether the boundaries around a closed practice is justified or not, but the intentional choice to cross those boundaries. So, like, someone choosing to intentionally cross the boundaries set by, say, the Mormon church or some kind of secret occult society or something to reveal their closed secrets as a deliberate act against them isn’t all that different than someone choosing to intentionally cross the boundaries set by, for instance, an indigenous culture they’re not part of to obtain and use their sacred medicine without the blessing or facilitation by them. Those are both the same in that it’s a deliberate, intentional crossing of a boundary. And to those who set those boundaries, both cases are threats, both are equal violations.

So when we’re looking at closed practices, the question is whether we respect that the boundary has been set. Whether we are going to own our intentions if we choose to cross that boundary. This is a crucial aspect of the statement that, you know, we all hear a lot in the magical community about how intention is everything. Intention is really important.

So look around at the choices you’ve made in your practice and consider whether your intentions match your actions in respect to the boundaries of others AND the boundaries you have set for your own sacred and closed practices. Because in some sense we all have them. We all have private, sacred aspects of the way we practice, and respecting our own boundaries enough to hold them is also important.

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.

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