Bad Advice

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

We have had a backlash against some metaphysical self-help paradigms that have swung too far in one direction, calling out things under the terminology of toxic positivity or spiritual bypassing, but I think we haven’t yet found an equilibrium rooted in wisdom. As I scroll through this next generation of self-help memes and tweets, I feel we are moving in almost the opposite direction, that societally we are in an autoimmune response of inflammation, except in the collective mental-emotional bodies instead of the physical. Like an autoimmune disease, there is an attacking of the collective self by the collective self’s immune response. As someone who has worked with people in healing modalities for twenty years, I see a lot of terrible advice by people in the midst of their own healing crisis getting a long reach because of social media, perpetuating the inflammation, not bringing true healing. While letting things reach a healing crisis can be part of the healing formula, you can’t stay in crisis indefinitely.

I see advice that enshrines your opinion or intuition as infallible, urging you to leave or disconnect when someone disagrees with you or challenges you or is in any other way “low vibe.” This is nothing but shallow and immediate self-care wrapped in consumerism, a temporary bandage, as true care requires a longer education and commitment to health. Online advice is filled with pop culture and psychological jargon without definition, confidently offering diagnosis of complex life situations through a meme. There is a lot of preaching and directives in our “hot takes.”  

Everything you disagree with is problematic. Everyone in opposition to you is toxic. Anyone with a different perception is gaslighting you. In reality, one person can actually have a problem with another and resolve it, or even without resolving it, find other areas of support and agreement. Or believe it or not, we can simply leave each other alone. One can behave badly in one instance and not be harmful 24/7. One can have a different perspective on a situation and not be trying to manipulate you. Not every opposition or confrontation is violence, abuse, or trauma, and to overuse those words does a disservice when there is actual violence, abuse, and trauma. While there is a mental health crisis in the world, not everyone you have conflict with has narcissistic personality disorder or is a sociopath. Those are specific behaviors and conditions. And you can label something as a problem, abuse, or toxic behavior and be wrong. Judgment calls are not always clear, and you can be wrong yourself. You could also be correct, and they could be problematic, toxic, gaslighting, or have an untreated mental health problem, but rushing to label things starkly and completely in black and white terms so that we can enforce our sense of being “right” isn’t the way life works.

Not everything you recognize from another culture is culture appropriation, particularly if you are uneducated or misinformed in how a particular practice entered into another tradition or community. There is a lot of living community memory not set in writing and inaccessible to much of the online world, particularly for those who joined an overall movement in the last two, five, or even ten years and who primarily engage with others online. You can disagree with a particular cultural usage, but if you are not also making the distinctions between appropriation, misappropriation, cultural exchange, inspiration, diffusion, blending, syncretism, and the much more prevalent problems of misinformation, misrepresentation, discrimination, and denied access, you are being intellectually dishonest in an effort to create a binary right/wrong with you being right. Without this subtle understanding, most of our modern food, language, music, and art would be considered misappropriated, and under such wisdom, should therefore be abandoned. Likewise most traditions we know have experienced vast cultural transfusions from other sources, and often those times and exchanges were framed in periods of empire and invasion. 

There is no problem with seeking an accommodation for yourself for particular groups and rituals, but it’s unreasonable to ask the majority to cease doing something integral to their rituals to suit your needs and preferences. You can also decide that the practice, event, group, or community is not a fit for you at this time, but that is a far cry from the declaration that the practice, group, or community is unfit for all people. Not all things are for all people, in Witchcraft and beyond.

A lot of this discourse is framed in terms of justice, but has little restorative or harmonizing intent. I see social movements that are looking for everyone to agree, with some using that agreement as a weapon in “pile on” comment threads whether people find comfort in being in the majority espousing superiority. Not everything fits everyone, and a teacher coming from a wisdom teaching will recognize that. Different things are emphasized at different levels of teaching, and a meme, unlike a living teacher, cannot discern where you are spiritually with your understanding. Beware of mob mentality self-help and scapegoating of others who are different through disagreement. While social media can be quick and sharp and fun, when making critical decisions, seek help from those who can place things in context and speak with nuance. Simplicity is useful, but it can also confirm all your poor behaviors and neglect your greater potential. Real social change can require support beyond the immediate posts of the social media sphere.

I think in three, five, or ten years, we’ll be critiquing this current moment that many have embraced today as flawed, much as we are doing so now upon the past paradigms. My only hope is that in the future, we will not repeat a new phase of this cycle with another psychic inflammation response and will have reached a place of stability, perspective, and wisdom, and that not too many people will have internalized the bad advice of today as new wisdom. Not to say there are not helpful things out there today—there are—but they seem to get less traction than the quick catchy hot takes. With a need to hustle and commoditize everything to survive in this harsh society, many who haven’t yet found a way that works are suddenly “experts” in things. And while they might have some intellectual book knowledge, their lack of life experience results in advice that sounds good because it flatters the ego and justifies our feelings and behaviors, but which isn’t rooted in anything wise at all. The desire for a platform comes first, while the intent and message are secondary, and for some, inconsequential….as long as it “looks” good. It’s hard to get “likes” on a post when challenging people, unless people simply agree and assume you are challenging someone else. When we say something goes viral, there is also the aspect of a social or psychic virus, not just spreading popularity. I wonder how much of our viral terminology is at play on multiple levels in our collective psyche. There is a sickness occurring on many levels, and we forget the psychic is one of those levels. Thought viruses are real.

The constant stream of information—fun, serious, helpful, sad, toxic, inspiring, and healing—is overwhelming. We go from birthday photos to a magickal meme to an announcement someone is in the hospital dying. Even a newspaper article gives us more time to process the facts or focus on a clear narrative than the media stream we continually scroll through. This creates a lot of stress on our body, brain chemistry, hormones, and consciousness. We have been conditioned to consume and react quickly with no psychic digestion. We have FOMO, a “fear of missing out,” so we don’t take enough breaks. We want to belong and participate by sharing posts and mimicking posts that get the approval of others. We want to participate, to be liked, successful, and seen. None of these desires alone is bad, but collectively, they can create unconscious harmful behaviors. These behaviors are often in opposition to the time-honored practices of those who would seek magickal attainment, or at the very least, greater self-awareness.

Influence is now the goal rather than experience. Bite-size pieces packaged to be easily consumable can distort whatever root wisdom is there. Quotes fit well in memes, but what is the greater context? Much of the content is not grounded in any philosophy, but masquerades as wisdom and experience with key buzz words. People cheer or argue for the sake of cheering or arguing, with little thought. It becomes a tribal dynamic, like rooting for a sports team. Observation of an external process feels like actual participation in something greater. 

While I’m a magickal practitioner first and foremost, I find that if you are looking for simple foundational wisdoms, a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and a Buddhism primer go a long way for some basic understanding of consciousness and behavior. They are certainly framed in their context and history, but their essence is timeless. In times past, teachers and practitioners in our communities could grow and make our mistakes on a tiny local scene. Now everyone’s reach is magnified, but not always in proportion to their experience and success in helping others.

Their advice is often given in absolutes, but outside of the context of sacred relationship. For example, the idea that you must “do witchcraft” for five years before you approach any gods might be true in a specific tradition, or in an individual’s experience, but it’s not good advice for most new Witches. For many, it’s the call of the deities that open the way, and theirs is a path of devotion.

Statements like, “You do not need to make an ancestor altar. You are the altar to your own ancestry” can be a problem in the magickal world, true on one level, but truly unhelpful on another. You don’t have to do anything at all, really; it all depends on the type of experience you desire. If you want direct communication, advice, aid, and magick from your ancestors, you can partake in the time-honored spiritual technology of the altar to facilitate clear and direct contact…or not. You can have successful contact outside of ritualized formats, but it’s often hard to untangle from your own ego, fears, and projections, and when strong, easy to confuse for psychosis. Much of my work over the years has been helping people through psychic experiences that appear to be mental health crises, and mental health crises that appear to be psychic experiences. The altar is an aid to connect and clear the connection; feeding the link with offerings strengthens it. The initial externalization helps create boundaries, and then you find the process internalizes more with the practice. If it didn’t work so well, it wouldn’t be found in numerous traditions and passed down so often. Good advice might come from the perspective and experience of knowing the benefits and drawbacks of both having and not having ancestor altars. Poetic declarations are beautiful, but if you are instructing someone metaphysically, you need to go through the whole process and its steps.

I knew one particular teacher who advised students not to read books, as books would be confusing, and encouraged students to get all their answers from said teacher. Now that bad advice has moved in the opposite direction, with today’s  recommendation being to buy and read all the books, but no encouragement to engage with and then digest the contents of the books before having an opinion or posting about them. One wants to be the first to share, to set the trends, but if you haven’t really integrated anything from the book through experience, how valuable is your opinion?  

Beware those who lead with their wounds so much so that you immediately identify with them when you are in crisis because you are so alike, as that might be a clue that they are stuck in the same place you are, but have found a way to glamorize and even monetize it. Leading with your wounds is a natural part of the progression of healing, but it can’t be the goal, and those in this stage probably should not be at the forefront teaching and leading others until they recover more. No one needs to be perfect to aid others, but those with open and reopened wounds should take care of that issue before running out to offer others aid. Those with the skills, teachings, and wisdom to help you through crisis should probably be modeling something that will make you reflect, question, and think and feel deeply, not validate exactly what you are already doing and thinking.

We struggle with the Aquarian paradox, a sign ruled by Uranus and Saturn, a continuous cycle of breaking and then restoring limits and boundaries. The occult becomes revealed and no longer hidden, producing an “occulture.” The techniques and information are more widely and freely available, rather than concealed by oath and secrecy. The more widely available, the more people who will benefit, right? Yes and no, because as more people have access to life-changing paradigms to create life-changing experiences, we have another operation in effect: widely available access often generates a lot of misunderstanding, misinformation, confusion, and distortion, particularly when dominated with consumerism as the key tenet rather than education and growth. The mysteries become occulted again, even in an occulture, but this time by a layer of bullshit covering them on the surface. One must pan the muck to find nuggets of gold, or leave in frustration. It’s the two waves of Aquarius, a surface wave and a deeper layer still hidden below. Twenty years ago I thought this availability was wholly great, that its benefits outweighed the drawbacks, but I’m not sure of that today as I see so much bad occult, social, psychological, and healing advice. I do love a growing occult culture alongside more dominant mainstream culture, but it also has some of the same drawbacks of any mainstream culture.

We are all works in progress, and I would like to believe that in all but the worst circumstances, those dedicating their work to helping others, sharing, and creating are all, in the words of Ram Dass, “just walking each other home.” We can do that, walk side by side in the journey. Our roads are all different. But the quiet contemplative moments as we walk together are just as important, if not more so, than the more dramatic ones. For it is in these tranquil moments that we experience each other’s pure presence.

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