One of the strongest common denominator of magicians, witches and cunning-folk is the fact that they all spent their lives on the outskirts of society. If they did their jobs well, by definition none of them would have had a name badge in the local pub or be allowed to take on credit at the grocery store. Throughout history the students of the dark arts seem to be the object lesson of the loner - living closer to the woods, mountains, forests and animals than their fellow humans. As a social phenomena they aren’t much of a phenomena at all; they mostly stand out through absence.
Now, whether these folks consciously decided to move into the margins of society to pick up their uncanny craft, or wether they ended up there due to their lack of social skills, is a question rarely explored. While some of them might have had a reputation as a healer - and thus actively contributed to the greater good of their communities - their contributions always carried the mark of the uncanny and outlawed.
Indeed, they are the human embodiment of the poisonous plant in the garden of society: Incredibly important as a resource in times of crisis, yet at the same time sinister enough to evoke the question if it wasn’t them who caused the crisis in the first place?
In the following article we will explore same basic questions on the role of empathy in magic. Of course, I will only be able to speak from the point of a practitioner myself - as I am neither a historian nor a clinical psychologist.
We will approach the subject focussed on two main aspects: Firstly, if magicians and other practitioners of the Western occult lore share similar experiences during their early years of training, does this impact how they relate to the concept of empathy? Secondly, how has the mainstream media's perspective on empathy evolved in recent years and thus potentially created a further divide between the uncanny folk and mainstream society?
Note: to explore more on the practical implications of the subject on ritual or visionary magic, feel free to also read this related blog post.
May the serpent bite its tail.
The mistrust and ostracism mainstream society shows towards these marginal figures has a plentitude of reasons. However, as always in life when things go wrong it takes at least two to tango. Blaming society for not embracing occult outlaws more would be as useless as blaming the latter for not integrating more into society from their end. Much more interestingly is the question if we are able to spot certain behavioural traits common to occult practitioners that might have contributed to their place in the outskirts of society? I suggest we start this exploration from a very practical point of view. Let me share a few observations I made during my own early magical training:
When I first picked up my magical training my teacher did a very smart thing. He didn’t do this only to me, but this was the way he approached magic in general. What he offered as a first step was to reduce noise. Well, it wasn’t so much of an offer, but more of a necessary requirement for everything that would come to follow. As always, the way he approached things was incredibly pragmatic: ‘Now, to start out with, here is what you will do. Go get your head around it and start practicing, or don’t bother me at all.’
All of the techniques and experiences I went through during the initial years of training where focussed on reducing noise - or detractions for another word. Especially noise flowing from the outside in: I would learn how to sit silently for long stretches of time and reduce the noise of my body. I would learn how to keep my eyes open without blinking (a technique called Tratak) and to disregard the tears streaming down my face and the blurred world behind it. I would learn how to create spaces and moments of complete isolation for myself; undisturbed daily practicing time that excluded any outside interventions. I would learn how to breathe and how to utilize my breath to wash out all detracting thoughts and emotions from my body and mind. I would also learn how to end social relationships that weren’t leading anywhere; that had become distractions from what I actually was trying to achieve.
Looking back today, most importantly of all, I learned to be composed with myself and others while going through all these internal and external processes. It helped me to reduce my emotional attachment to fleeting desires, short-lived dreams and momentary cravings - so to about 95% of the things that fill our daily normal lives. What it taught me essentially was this: A little bit of pain doesn’t need avoiding, a little bit of joy doesn’t need craving.
It taught me to be silent, free of the chatter surrounding us on the inside and outside. Once all these distractions are gone, faded into the background of our psyche and subjective worlds, our outlook on life is uncluttered and free to change in the most radical and essential terms. It is the moment when we are given the biggest gift: the ability to take responsibility for ourselves.
Now, I am not sharing these personal stories because what I went through was necessarily different from what you learn in many other magical traditions. In fact, I would argue exactly the opposite: What I am sharing is a very common experience for most people embarking to become a practicing priestess, magician or witch. It seems to be a necessary initiatory experience which happens in isolation and confrontation with oneself - which in turn opens the doors to all future progress and practice. I believe this is a central, yet often overlooked bridge which leads back in time to all of our ancestors.
Let's assume it was safe to make the above assumption: What would we learn from it about magic and empathy? Well, a person that has learned to be (more) self-sufficient has pretty different social needs than people who haven’t. Our society today just as medieval towns, ancient communities or whole kingdoms have been built on social needs expressed by people who have not gone through magical training. Therefore the very make up of society - its infrastructure, values, virtues and taboos - is optimized to satisfy needs that don’t necessarily relate to the needs of a magician, i.e. someone who has learned to live in higher degrees of peace with oneself.
Instead, the fundamental premise of Western ethics is built upon the unquestioned importance of social cohesion. If a society is made up of individuals who are unable to take care of their personal needs, ensuring these needs are fulfilled through others turns into its most essential reasons for being. From the perspective of someone who doesn’t share all of these needs - or at least not the sense of urgency behind them that normally comes with them - such a society could be perceived as highly constraining or even abusive? An extreme way of articulating this could sound like this: ‘Why do I need to be here to respond to your emotional, mental or even physical needs, to take care of your human wellbeing, when you can do all of this yourself - but chose not to?’ See where this could lead us in search of an answer for why so many of our ancestors had to spend their lives at the margins of society?
So here is my working hypothesis: Despite the actual craft, rituals, spells, potions or poisons any cunning-folk might be working on, it is this essential outlook on life and the ability to take better care of one's own needs that creates a divide between the uncanny folk and the center of society - a divide that stretches back in time through centuries, perhaps even millennia.
So did we just reinforce the age-old stereotype of the magician as an ego-manic splitting wedge to a functioning community? I don’t believe so. I actually believe, quite the opposite is true. The uncanny folk aren’t void of empathy or compassion - they simply approach these terms from a very different angle. They don’t fail to take care of others in need - they simple have different filters for what ‘being in need’ might mean and how an appropriate answer to this might look like.
In order to clarify these subtle, yet crucially important differences in perspective, let’s take a look at mainstream societies’ definition of the matter first. In particular, let’s look at the concept of empathy and how it is described and positioned as a central virtue (even though more often aspired than brought to life) in Western society.
The modern English word empathy originally stems from the Greek empatheia, which in turn is made up of the two words en = ‘in, at’ and pathos = ‘passion, suffering’. Before the English word was derived from the Greek root, however, the German translation was coined first in the 19th century as ‘Einfühlungsvermögen’. This typical German word can be translated as ‘one’s ability to sense another person’s emotions’. Fast forward two centuries and plenty of research on the matter, we can find a modern definition of the term empathy in Simon Baron-Cohen’s recent work ‘The Science of Evil - on Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty’:
“Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with appropriate emotion.” (Baron-Cohen, p.18)
What is new to this definition is that the ability called empathy now is made up of two sequential components - recognition and response. As Baron-Cohen explains in his book we know of several personality disorders that allow people to successfully process one of these two steps, but prevent the other. An example would be people with Asperger syndrome. These people often tend to lack the ability to recognize or read other people’s feelings adequately, i.e. the first step of the empathetic process. However, their affective empathy, i.e. their ability to respond to other people’s emotions once accurately recognized frequently is intact. If these people receive support and training on categorizing their observations of verbal and non-verbal clues, they are able to build up an internal system of logical rules which links certain observations to certain socially expected responses. Through such means - while bridging the broken intuitive process with logic - they can still participate in social everyday life.
Now, no one would want to argue against the benefits of such research - and the progress they allow in understanding social processes and supporting people who struggle to participate in them successfully. Further research will empower people affected by low levels of empathy in even easier ways to make a conscious choice: A choice on how deeply they want to integrate into society and - if affected by personality disorders such as Psychopathy or pathological levels of Narcissism - wether or not they want to extend their social skills to alleviate some of the pressure that often comes with their conditions.
However, it is exactly this notion of an individual’s choice between responding with empathy or choosing to show a less empathetic behavior that is left out in Baron-Cohen’s book - as well as in most of our current mainstream media conversation on the subject. The filter none of them seems to be willing to take out or even recognize is that they understand empathy as something universally desirable in itself. They turn empathy from a neuronal tool into a virtue, from one of many wonderful human skills into the essential premise of life.
As a consequence empathy is put on a pedestal and cut off from the balance and counter-weights it needs like all other functions in nature - at least for practicing magicians that is. The hugely naive, yet central assumption of Baron-Cohen’s book and in much of the public debate is that if we all showed huge amounts of empathy any minute of the day, any type of conflict could be avoided and no one’s needs would go unnoticed. Thus empathy is turned into the latest version of the ancient alchemical Alkahest:
To proof his point Baron-Cohen introduces what he calls the Empathy Quotient, a survey that allows to measure one’s level of empathy. After careful research and studies he and his co-researchers came to the conclusion that on a collective level the total amount of empathy is distributed according to a bell-shaped curve across an entire population of a society. I.e. most of the people will score somewhere in the middle of the curve, with peaked ends to both sides of it.
Now, according to the researcher's moral bias the higher your score the better, the lower your score the more of an indicator it becomes for significant personality disorders. Even if one peaks and reaches the top of the score Baron-Cohen doesn’t see any need to tame empathy at times, but encourages readers to accept such individuals as role models. Let me share the real-life example of such a high-scoring person as Baron-Cohen paints it in his book:
“Hannah is a psychotherapist who has a natural gift for tuning into how others are feeling. As soon as you walk into her living room, she is already reading your face, your gait, your posture. The ﬁrst thing she asks you is “How are you?” but this is no perfunctory platitude. Her intonation—even before you have taken off your coat—suggests an invitation to conﬁde, to disclose, to share. Even if you just answer with a short phrase, your tone of voice reveals to her your inner emotional state, and she quickly follows up your answer with “You sound a bit sad. What’s happened to upset you?” Before you know it, you are opening up to this wonderful listener, who interjects only to offer sounds of comfort and concern, to mirror how you feel, occasionally offering soothing words to boost you and make you feel valued. Hannah is not doing this because it is her job to do so. She is like this with her clients, her friends, and even people she has only just met. Hannah’s friends feel cared for by her, and her friendships are built around sharing confidences and offering mutual support. She has an unstoppable drive to empathize.” (p.29)
Now, I don’t know about you - and maybe I am arguing here from side of the Psychopath camp? - but Hannah and I would have some problems right after I walked into her living room... Here would be just a few of the reservations I would hold:
I guess the point I am trying to make is quite straightforward: Empathy turned sacred, like anything else, will prevent it from being part of an organic compound. It will become isolated, imbalanced and ultimately deformed - over time equally deforming its devotees. A society driven by the ethical premise of ‘the more empathy the better’ will become blind-eyed for all experiences that contradict its fetish - and start demonizing them when forced to encounter.
The scientist Barbara Oakley with her research on Pathological Altruism is giving very specific, yet far ranging testament of such consequences - i.e. of the dark side of empathy.
“Pathological altruism can be conceived as behavior in which attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable. (...) The attempted altruism, in other words, results in objectively foreseeable and unreasonable harm to the self, to the target of the altruism, or to others beyond the target.” (Oakley, Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism, weblink, p.1-2)
Oakley continues to explain that incidents of pathological altruism are not - as one might assume - rare aberrations of human behavior or confined to people with classified personality disorders. Instead it is a behavior that “overwhelmingly occurs in human social intercourse.” (Oakley, p.2) Despite its widespread prevalence efforts to examine and study this phenomena have been incredibly slow - just as you would expect for any research that bears the risk of entering into the sacred shrine of society and tear down its idols?
“Part of the reason that pathologies of altruism have not been studied extensively or integrated into the public discourse appears to be fear that such knowledge might be used to discount the importance of altruism. Indeed, there has been a long history in science of avoiding paradigm-shifting approaches, such as Darwinian evolution and acknowledgment of the influence of biological factors on personality, arising in part from fears that such knowledge somehow would diminish human altruistic motivations. Such fears always have proven unfounded. However, these doubts have minimized scientists’ ability to see the widespread, vitally important nature of pathologies of altruism. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes, ‘Morality binds and blinds’.” (...) The thesis of pathological altruism emphasizes the value of true altruism, self-sacrifice, and other forms of prosociality in human life. At the same time, it acknowledges the potential harm from cognitive blindness that arises whenever groups treat a concept as sacred.” (Oakley, p.2)
Having explored the concept of empathy and Western societies' current fetish with it as well as the risks it might bear - which new insights does this give us on magicians, witches and cunning folks and their traditional place at society’s margins? Well, I believe it points to a distinct difference in what these social groups - mainstream society on the one hand and magicians, witches, etc. on the other - essentially expected from their communities: While the latter predominantly expected mutual care, personal security and wellbeing, the former expected freedom, mutual tolerance and respect. Of course in an ideal world these expectations aren’t mutually exclusive. However, history has proven that for whatever reasons they seem to be hard to combine?
Magic has once been described as ‘techniques for freedom’. Freedom in turn can be described as the ability to take care of one’s own needs - or simply independency. Much of what our Western and Eastern magical traditions have to offer are exactly this: techniques that empower people to realize and take care of their own needs. Rather than being driven by cravings, emotions and desires these techniques allow to change the hierarchy of power within ourselves - and turn the mount into the rider and vice versa.
This doesn’t not mean at all that Western magicians should be misunderstood as control freaks, people with an anal focus on regulating their inner states or outer reactions; equally they certainly aren’t people who are shy to ask for help or to offer it if asked for. However, I would hope they are people who have less trouble to let go. To let go of their own desires and fears, their egos and dreams, as well as their shadows and demons.
The point is that we can only learn to let go if we aren’t constantly asked to take more. What we need as magicians - just as essentially as people with different life paths might need the opposite - are moments in time when we are isolated, on our own, exposed to ourselves, vulnerable, in pain, suffering and scared. Magicians learn from patience, composure and silence and from using their own bodies and minds as laboratories of spirit and life.
If we constantly keep all of our needs satisfied, will never learn to tame them. If we constantly fear our circle of comfort might shrink, we will never dare to test it’s boundaries. What magicians need more than anything else to grow, is a world that isn’t encroaching upon them, a world that allows for personal freedom of choice - even to suffer or to walk away with all consequences. In other words: a world that doesn’t patronize them.
To me, this is the reason why cunning folks, witches and magicians for centuries dwelled at the margins of society. Not because they weren’t willing to offer help, to support others in need or to empathize and show compassion. But because the nature of their work required a magical circle of silence and stillness - that wasn't intruded by others trying to help them. If you score so high on empathy that enduring certain levels of suffering or exposure to fear seems inhuman or cruel to you, then magic simply isn’t your path. Such realisation is neither good nor bad; it just is. The truth is, Hannah would have made a horrible witch - which is why she became a therapist.
What I would hope to be able to expect from Hannah and researchers such as Baron-Cohen is a world in which both of us have space and mutual respect to follow our own paths. The premises of the way of the mage certainly aren't universal; most likely they are flawed and deformed in their own way. However, after two millenial of demonisation of people who chose to life differently, I was hoping for an end of stigmatisation or evangelisation - not another wave.
I am conscious that my attitude on empathy as laid out here could easily be misread as disrespectful to people in need or severe life-circumstances. I genuinely hope this won't be the case. In fact, it is one of the most challenging and hardest things to learn in life - that other people need different things than you do. Once you have grown the ability to respectfully handle your own needs, emotions and desires, it’s easy to forget how it was before? Whoever we are, no matter how flawed, deformed and equally brilliant, it is so easy to take ourselves for granted - and to model the world in our own image.
Strangely enough, what magicians need to function well in society can be described as a different kind of empathy: They need the ability to NOT conclude from their own inner states on other people. As magicians we need the skill to NOT project our own feelings and emotions onto other people. Furthermore we need strong roots in the soil, in humbleness and living in service. For it is living in service that teaches us that different isn’t better or worse; it simply is.
To conclude, let me share an alternative idea on what life could look like: Life with a more conscious choice around when and how to utilise the gift of empathy. A life not mistaking empathy as the all-solvent Alkahest, but allowing it to rest within its own organic ecosystem. I guess, such a view would need to start with a very simple thing - with embracing life in all its forms and shades. We would need to re-invite all the forces and shades that had to be contained under the rule of empathy...