Living as I do in a chemically avoidant “bubble” (meaning I stay home most of the time), I confess to some envy of those who move freely amongst the populace without gasping for air or succumbing to unpleasantly dizzy brainfogs, making a swift retreat and bedrest a necessity. However, the people I envy the most are not those who casually sashay through the detergent aisle of the supermarket (though it would be nice, as cat food is always across the aisle from the really awful smelly stuff), but those who are right out there making outrageous stuff happen–art, music, revolutions, burlesque, whatever!–without getting sick.
Life is not passing me by–I get stuff done. I write. I teach. I create. I sometimes help people from afar. Sometimes I see friends or my kids. And I am in life-long service to cats… But I confess to an occasional vicarious fascination with people who puncture the norms in the outside world. I like to watch them do it (yay for the internet) and I cheer them on, also from afar or in the comments section of a YouTube video. My all too active imagination performs a sort of recombinant conceptualization of a world that doesn’t exactly exist, but that I would like to join. My favorites are all there. I won’t name them here but their music, performances, art, and words remind me there is more to living than the interior of my house.
Sometimes I conjure, then cut and paste their attributes into characters in my books. For example, my “Ornamental Hermits” and their magic companions are partial composites of the outrageous “friends” I’d like to have over for tea and magic rituals. Since there’s no way to socialize in the real world, I set these characters in motion against real estate developers and supernatural bad guys. Sometimes these characters fall in love with each other, which is often a surprise! And on the real world stage, similar things are happening. We (the arty, the weird, the transgressive) stand opposed to the truly monstrous and cruel, but we haven’t yet morphed into a global fellowship, combining our powerful energies and visions into an unstoppable force for renewal and joy, for sex and life, for art and transformation. Perhaps we never will.
I can only sense the pulsations, observe from the sidelines, and stir my witchy “thought potions.” My “wicked fascinations” are ingredients added to the creative cauldron. I stir winks and shimmies, a puffy clown suit button, swear words and sass, tears of anguish, shouts of triumph, a blackened eye, the sweetheart who died, and a pair of sequined pasties, into my brew and serve it up hot–or cold–as the writing demands.
And then I exhale over the simmering stew and invite my spirit companions to do the same, charging the mixture, bringing it to life. Thought forms emerge, pledged to carry my vision into the places I cannot visit in the flesh. They go forth in books not yet read.
I’m getting some post-PantheaCon discussions coming through my social media feeds, with much said on the topics pertaining to inclusion–the need for great heaping gobs of it–for “everyone.” Reading these posts, I always have the pitiful question, “does that mean people like me too?” Generally, it doesn’t.
I ‘ve never gone to PantheaCon or any other neo-pagan convention because my disability is seldom accommodated. I didn’t go to this last PantheaCon either–the very last, ever, apparently–but some friends of mine just got back from it. These are people who have a long history with the event and with some of its founders. I’m talking “Old Guard Pagans” who have been active for a long time in Northern California. One of them brought back a stack of ephemera from the conference so I’m looking through the flyers and postcards, as well as the conference program, to see what I missed.
And, frankly I’m also looking to see if any one of these organizations, events, or teachers bother to put the magic words, “Come Fragrance Free,” on their ephemera. But before I get too curmudeonly and critique-ish about the program and ephemera, I need to say a few things first and ask a few questions.
Here’s the Pathos.
Please take a few moments to consider the following. Can you imagine:
Living like an “almost hermit” for a major portion of your life, simply because consumer toxins, including fragrances, are in wide use?
Becoming ill, asthmatic, or brain-fogged after ordinary outings such as trips to the grocery store, dental and medical appointments, buying new tires, meeting a friend for lunch at a restaurant, going to a concert or event, attending a class, filing out forms at government agencies such as DMV or Social Security, venturing outside when a neighbor is doing laundry, taking public transportation, using a public swimming facility, and pretty much any other activity that involves other people and poor indoor air quality?
Finding out that friends, family members, and lovers or spouses prefer their toxic products to spending time with you?
Finding that you’ve lost the love and concern of people you deeply love, because accommodating you is just too much work and they’ve grown tired of it?
Not having a job, as there are practically no fragrance free workplaces, and not being able to get disability benefits either?
Having your options for affordable housing severely limited due to toxins used in building products and home furnishings, as well as by people who could have been roommates?
Finding that most of your social contact takes place online, but then being shamed for it?
Being told that your sufferings are imagined or exaggerated, or the result of negative thinking? Being told you don’t “look” sick or disabled?
Seeing medical and mental health professionals who have little or no idea what you are talking about?
Being constantly exposed to substances that make you sick, tired, brainfogged and frustrated, just in order to have something that remotely resembles a normal life?
And finally, can you imagine all of the above and also being denied physical entry to spiritual communities, fellowship, and solace?
I could go on.
Welcome to my life and the life of every other person I know who copes with “Toxicant Induced Loss of Tolerance,” also known as “multiple chemical sensitivity,” “chemical injury,” or “environmental illness.” We not only cope with “invisible disabilities” but are also invisible ourselves, as we “don’t get out much” and most dialogue about inclusion & disability and environmental health & justice take place without us. For most people, we do not exist. And there are no social programs to assist us with our special needs. There are no celebrities or major philanthropists championing our cause. As for allies–there are only a few.
Now For the Curmudgeonly Part
Back to my examination of the PantheaCon program and ephemera. In the program, I don’t see any of those magic words that address disability accommodation and indoor air quality, such as “please attend fragrance free to allow people with asthma and enviornmental illnesses to attend.” The program also does not have a section with disability access information. I do notice “no smoking” and “no incense, smudging or candles” policies are in place, and those are certainly helpful to preserving some semblance of breathable air. However, the lack of restriction pertaining to fragrance use in public spaces, workshops, and rituals makes the PantheaCon (and any conference) a dangerous place for someone like me.
I also skimmed through the “Event & Ritual Etiquette,” looking for some awareness of “share the air” manners, but there’s nothing. None of the hospitality suites, workshops, ads, or group events contain accommodation language either, EXCEPT for the following:
(1) Katrina Rasbold’s The Limpia: Cleansing the Mind, Body, Spirit workshop (p. 20) specifies that “no smoke, scents, or scented sprays are used in this workshop.” Reading this makes me want to adore her!
(2) Dree Amandi’s Aromatherapy Magick-Spellcraft warns that “we will be actively using essential oils, hydrosols, and carrier oils in this space.” Such warnings are also deeply appreciated, though use of such substances in a workshop may also affect my ability to attend adjoining workshops in that time frame, or workshops which take place in the same room or nearby afterwards.
Workshops that might be expected to use this inclusive accommodation language would include anything with a breath, “eco,” or healing theme, such as: Selena Fox’s Circle for Planet Earth and her Brigid Healing Ritual; EcoActivism & Climate Change, which was put on by Circle Sanctuary EcoActivists; The Power of Yoga–Energy and Healing with Lisa J. Hamlin; Chants for the Earth with Starhawk and Evelie Delfino Sales Posch; Eco-Magical Activism with Starhawk; possibly The Healing Isle with Christopher Penczak, though the talk of “potions” and “plant essence” makes me nervous; Theurgic Activism Panel; Tomorrow’s Pagan Panel: and Envisioning the Future of Paganism with Solstice.
Such compassionate and inclusive language would also be nice for Elysia Gallo’s Pagan Speed Friending, as I couldn’t risk being “speed friended” by a well-meaning person off-gassing toxic petrochemicals in the form of personal care products. And for anyone talking about inclusion and diversity as part of their program–likewise. Set an example of inclusive welcoming by asking people to be considerate on behalf of those who depend heavily on the “kindness of strangers.”
Of all the many pieces of ephemera gathered by my friend, only one is inclusive of people with multiple chemical sensitivities and respiratory ailments. This is the postcard advertising the “JeWitch Camp,” an event with “Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Starhawk, and Friends.” It has the magic words: “come fragrance free.” (And again, I want to adore them!)
I think you get the idea.
I won’t say I never go to conferences, ever, but the ones I attend are professional conferences which enable me to gain CE credits to update my professional certifications and/or may help boost my diminishing private practice–my only means of work. Still, I don’t go to more than one every few years, and I build in recovery time and escape routes and limit my attempts to socialize. It sucks, frankly. Read my Fragrance-Free FAQ on my professional site to know more.
Why Are Pagans OK with Polluting the Air-One of Our Four Essential and Sacred Elements?
Ea is a word in the Hawaiian language that first means “sovereignty, rule, independence.” Its second meaning is “life, air, breath, respiration, vapor, gas; fumes as of tobacco; breeze, spirit” (Pukui, M.K. & Elbert. S.H. (1986). Hawaiian Dictionary: Hawaiian-English, English-Hawaiian. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, p. 36). To me, the connections between these two categories of meaning are highly significant.
And I want to know why–when air is our sacred elemental symbol of mental powers and intelligence–we humans are short-circuiting our brains with deliberate inhalation of toxic, petrochemical fumes, via consumer products? And why are we so stupid as to deliberately pollute our air, INDOORS and out, along with our water and soil? As pagans, shouldn’t we be extra aware and respectful?
And why isn’t consensuality considered? Why is the physical violation of other people’s bodies with airborne toxic chemicals not a matter of discussion? We ban smoking in public places. Why not scents and fragrances and essential oils, which contain some of the same cancer-producing and respiratory irritant chemicals found in tobacco smoke and vaping?
The answers to the above questions have lots to do with capitalism, entitlement, and industry pressure on legislation and policy. And they also have a lot to do with who we feel is worthy of “accommodation” and assistance. There is something in the American psyche that despises the “snowflake”–those seen as weak are deemed unworthy. And people with significant adverse reactions to chemical toxins are among the “snowflakiest” of us all.
In 1998, Scientific American published a study that claimed that the air in the average American home is MORE polluted than the air around most outdoor Superfund Clean-Up sites. Here’s the PDF: SciAM-EverydayExposure-3 As for me, I’d love to have a study done on the air quality in the average pagan conference in an average hotel. And then I’d like something done by way of solving this problem, so that we may all breathe freely in fellowship with each other. Pagan conference organizers, I’ve thrown down the gauntlet. What say all of you? Or can you still not hear me and those who are like me? A 2018 study showed that one in four Americans suffer from environmentally caused illnesses (Ann Steinemann study–download here). So, with this increase in illness, how long can you ignore the effects on people in pagan communities? How long can you refrain from a proactive examination of this issue of indoor air pollution, and from creating policies that seek to diminish the health consequences of attending your events?
Spirits of the Air, I conjure thee–give us the awareness to do better, help us heal your sacred substance, and that of the earth, and of all living bodies–else we be doomed to choke on our hypocrisy and ignorance as all living things perish around us, through our selfishness.
Hey everyone! Thanks for everything you’re already doing AND here’s something else to put on your agenda! It’s the petrochemical “elephant in the room.” You need to know this. You’ll thank me–I promise.
I am hoping you will share information about the following two studies and findings with other climate change activists as well as policy-makers.
Almost 40% of Urban Air Pollution Caused by Personal Care Products and Other Volatile Chemical Products (VCPs)
Though the focus of 350.org and other organizations has to do with fuel and energy, an overlooked component of air pollution and climate change involves the production and use of Volatile Chemical Products (VCPs). It turns out that VCPs, including personal care products, comprise 4% of the mass but have 38% of the impact on urban air quality–almost equal to gasoline and diesel emissions! NOAA and air quality researchers at UC Davis. PDF of the study here:
[“A gap in emission inventories of urban volatile organic compound (VOC) sources, which contribute to regional ozone and aerosol burdens, has increased as transportation emissions in the United States and Europe have declined rapidly. A detailed mass balance demonstrates that the use of volatile chemical products (VCPs)—including pesticides, coatings, printing inks, adhesives, cleaning agents, and personal care products—now constitutes half of fossil fuel VOC emissions in industrialized cities. The high fraction of VCP emissions is consistent with observed urban outdoor and indoor air measurements. We show that human exposure to carbonaceous aerosols of fossil origin is transitioning away from transportation-related sources and toward VCPs. Existing U.S. regulations on VCPs emphasize mitigating ozone and air toxics, but they currently exempt many chemicals that lead to secondary organic aerosols.”]
So, with this kind of impact on outdoor air in cities, what do you think the impact of such products may be in buildings and indoor events? And in public transportation, which we are all asked to use in order to cut down on fossil fuel use? What happens when proposed solutions like public transportation ignore a substantial population of people who cannot access them?
So… if we connect the dots…our current rates of asthma and other respiratory ailments, plus environmental illnesses, are caused and exacerbated by VCPs as well as VOCs (petrochemicals all). And part of our climate catastrophe could be mitigated substantially by including public awareness of the huge impact of VCPs on climate and health (remember, this 4% mass of VCPs causes 38% of the effects on urban air quality–and presumably also a correspondingly large impact on human health). Such products must be boycotted wherever possible, and their use in public spaces, health care settings, workplaces, schools, and transportation should be regulated and/or prohibited, much like the use of tobacco smoke. Also, less toxic and non-toxic products already exist and should be promoted as alternatives.
Climate Justice is Intersectional
Recognition of the enormous but unacknowledged impact of VCPs can lead climate activists and others to a fruitful intersection of public health concerns, disability accommodation, changes in consumer buying habits, and rather substantial decrease in degraded air quality (both outdoor and indoor).
Why not listen, finally, to those of us–people with environmental illnesses–who have been “Canaries in the Coal Mine” for so many years? (I’ve been calling us “Cassandras in the Coal Mine” since no one listens to us…) We have deep, hard-won knowledge of the impacts of chemicals on human and environmental health. And now the NOAA/UC Davis study shows how what’s been hurting us is also an enormous factor in air pollution and climate change.
So why not welcome us into your activist meetings and spaces (by making them “fragrance-free” for a start) and why not include the above scientifically significant findings in your strategies and platforms? (350.org, Drawdown, are you listening?)
Let us help you create the education and messages necessary for public understanding and action on this point, thus adding substantially to the array of solutions to our current predicament. Seek out people involved with environmental health organizations and Facebook groups of people with chemical sensitivities.
Partner with the Canaries. Our “songs” are more helpful than you know. Here is the one I’m “singing” now…
Want to do something about climate catastrophe and pollution? This 2018 study puts consumer buying habits in the crosshairs. Turns out the shampoos, fragrances, and other toxic consumer products we buy and use so blithely emit enough volatile organic compounds to contribute a whopping 38% to the urban air pollution. This is almost as much as gas and diesel fumes, and much more than industrial sources. But these toxic consumer products comprise only 4% of the mass. This means your Axe body spray is probably doing more immediate and lasting harm to the air than a gallon of gasoline left uncapped. And that’s outdoors! Think about the effects of these chemicals on indoor air.
I’m ecstatic to hear of these findings, but as a person who is exquisitely attuned to symptoms of poisoning upon contact with thousands of consumer products, I could have told you this many years ago. I knew intuitively that consumer products made with volatile organic compounds (including fragrances and scented personal care products) were playing a much larger role in climate catastrophe–as well as dangers to public health–than most people would want to admit. And that what’s happening on our planet with pollution and climate change isn’t just due to the greed of corporations and governments (aka “those guys over there”), but also due to the gullibility and thoughtlessness of the average consumer. Every single freakin’ one of us.
But hey, I’m a “Cassandra in the Coal Mine” (people believe canaries and run for their lives–they don’t listen to human “canaries” at all). We were all talking about this 30, 20, 10, 5 years ago, and just yesterday too. You all don’t listen, at your peril.
Stop Buying That Shit
Think of the difference we could make if we all just stopped buying that stuff? We may not be able to do much about arson in the Amazon, but we COULD make a huge difference to our forests by not buying palm oil unless we’re sure it’s sustainably sourced.
In the same way, we have it in our power to substantially cut back on pollutants in our air, water, and soil (thus diminishing the chemicals which lodge in the bodies of your kids and all those cute forest animals and water mammals). Forget that bottle of fake strawberry body rub or “Juicy Lucy Mango-Citrus shampoo.” Save your cash instead for a nice evening out, perhaps at a restaurant with a “fragrance-free” policy so you can actually taste your food instead of another diner’s heavily applied “designer fragrance.” Or put it a college fund so your children won’t have to become indentured serfs at a One Percenter’s golf course or franchised BDSM dungeon in order to pay for their college education. (Not that I have anything against BDSM–it’s just that I don’t think sex workers are going to have many rights under such circumstances.)
And…because I’m now in the midst of my own thirty-year anniversary of multiple chemical sensitivity, which began during my pregnancy with my first child, I’ve finally simply had it. Up to here, in fact. I’m already socially isolated AF, with a declining career, and since my beautiful Trickster God is quite happy to support me in going all “Lokasenna” over this issue, I’m putting the rest of my sadly limited but bizarrely interesting life on the line. For this issue and a few others.
Someone just please take care of my cats when I’ve finally bit the dust after throwing myself repeatedly at windmills.
The fragrance industry, known to be irresponsible, has dared to name a toxic fragrance after Loki, a deity whose lore includes a horrific story of his sufferings from poison. Apparently independent perfumers on Etsy are following suit. Sigh… As a Lokean and as a person with environmental illness, I’m thoroughly appalled. My UPG? Loki, the arch foe of hypocrisy, would not be a fan of any of this.
[Quote from abstract] “Results: Among the population, 12.8% report medically diagnosed MCS and 25.9% report chemical sensitivity. Of those with MCS, 86.2% experience health problems, such as migraine headaches, when exposed to fragranced consumer products; 71.0% are asthmatic; 70.3% cannot access places that use fragranced products such as air fresheners; and 60.7% lost workdays or a job in the past year due to fragranced products in the workplace.”
[Quote from Abstract] “Fragranced consumer products—such as air fresheners, laundry supplies, personal care products, and cleaners—are widely used in homes, businesses, institutions, and public places. While prevalent, these products can contain chemicals that are not disclosed to the public through product labels or material safety data sheets (MSDSs). What are some of these chemicals and what limits their disclosure? This article investigates these questions, and brings new pieces of evidence to the science, health, and policy puzzle. Results from a regulatory analysis, coupled with a chemical analysis of six best-selling products (three air fresheners and three laundry supplies), provide several findings. First, no law in the U.S. requires disclosure of all chemical ingredients in consumer products or in fragrances. Second, in these six products, nearly 100 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were identified, but none of the VOCs were listed on any product label, and one was listed on one MSDS. Third, of these identified VOCs, ten are regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws, with three (acetaldehyde, chloromethane, and 1,4-dioxane) classified as Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs). Results point to a need for improved understanding of product constituents and mechanisms between exposures and effects.”
The article above references the 1991 L. Wallace/EPA study. The 1995 Julia Kendall handout based on the Wallace/EPA study names the narcotic chemicals commonly added to fragrance ingredients:
(1) ETHYL ACETATE (in: after shave, cologne, perfume, shampoo, nail color, nail enamel remover, fabric softener, dishwashing liquid) – Narcotic. On EPA Hazardous Waste list; “…irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract” …”may cause headache and narcosis (stupor)” …”defatting effect on skin and may cause drying and cracking” …”may cause anemia with leukocytosis and damage to liver and kidneys” “Wash thoroughly after handling.”
(in: perfume, cologne, bar soap, shampoo, hand lotion, nail enamel remover, hairspray, laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid, Vaseline lotion, air fresheners, bleach powder, fabric softener, shaving cream, after shave, solid deodorant) – Narcotic. …”respiratory disturbances” … “Attracts bees.” “In animal tests: ataxic gait, reduced spontaneous motor activity and depression … development of respiratory disturbances leading to death.” …”depressed frog-heart activity.” Causes CNS disorder.
So many estoteric traditions and magical practices make use of the power of breath. But what to do when even your normal ability to breathe is hampered by indoor and outdoor pollutants?
The ability to breathe is fundamental to most life on this planet. For almost thirty years, almost half my life, I have struggled to breathe freely, to breathe clean air. Now I know that billions of human beings (plus our animals and plants) are also struggling with this simple, necessary action in this astoundingly polluted world. However, as someone who experiences many kinds of health problems when exposed to even small amounts of common consumer toxins, my condition still seems exotic or even foolishly “special” or deluded to most people. However, soon people like me will the mainstream, not just outliers, and there is nothing in place to handle that public health disaster (Anne Steinemann’s 2018 study estimates one in four Americans already suffer some form of environmental illness). Medical practices and public policies in the United States have not kept pace with the impact of toxic chemicals on human and environmental health. Unlike many other countries, we have no precautionary principle to guide our decision-making.
Pollution, like climate change and war, is one of the apocalyptic challenges of our time. We will not survive if we don’t address them. These three challenges are interelated and are also deeply emeshed in capitalism and consumerism.
The Impact of Indoor Air Pollution is Seldom Addressed
In 1998, Wayne R. Ott and John W. Roberts published the results of their studies in “Everyday Exposure to Toxic Pollutants” in Scientific American. You can download the PDF here. Quote:
“…most citizens were very likely to have the greatest contact with potentially toxic pollutants not outside but inside the places they usually consider to be essentially unpolluted, such as homes, offices and automobiles. The exposure arising from the sources normally targeted by environmental laws–Superfund sites, factories, local industry–was negligible in comparison. Even in the New Jersey cities of Bayonne and Elizabeth, both of which have an abundance of chemical processing plants, the levels of 11 volatile organic compounds proved much higher indoors than out. (Concentrations of the other volatile compounds tested were found to be insignificant in both settings.) The chief sources appeared to be ordinary consumer products, such as air fresheners and cleaning compounds, and various building materials.”
Nothing has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse. MUCH worse.
Those Who Are Aleady Ill and Know the Cause
Do you have friends, relatives, co-workers, or patients who are afflicted by exposure to toxic chemicals? Are you seeking a way to understand this complex and derided condition? For an excellent discussion of the impact of environmental illness and chemical injuries on everyday people, please see these links to Linda Sepp’s Seriously Sensitive to Pollution blog. Note: “MCS” stands for “multiple chemical sensitivity” and “ES” stands for “environmental sensitivity.”
“Fragranced consumer products have been associated with adverse effects on human health. Babies are exposed to a variety of fragranced consumer products, which can emit numerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some considered potentially hazardous. However, fragranced baby products are exempt from disclosure of all ingredients. Consequently, parents and the public have little information on product emissions. This study investigates VOCs emitted from a range of fragranced baby products, including baby hair shampoos, body washes, lotions, creams, ointments, oils, hair sprays, and fragrance.”
As for animals, it is a shame what we’re doing to them. Even people who adore their pets have no problem subjecting them to toxic personal care products, essential oils, “air fresheners,” scented candles, and scented animal washes and even toe nail polish on dogs. Here’s a quote from an article by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker, which outlines some of the reasons pets are at great risk:
“Most pets are even smaller than kids. They tend to spend a lot of time near the floor where all indoor air pollutants eventually wind up. They groom themselves and each other, which means they’re ingesting the pollutant particles that have accumulated on their fur and in the environment. Many pets spend up to 100 percent of their time indoors, and are living with very high levels of airborne toxins. These factors combine to put pets at the highest risk of anyone in the household for health conditions related to indoor air pollution. Even if neither you nor your pets are having symptoms, it’s still possible the air fresheners in your home are harming your health. Most of the effects of these products aren’t immediately obvious and may not even manifest as respiratory issues. Some people say, “If I was having a problem, my pets or I would have watery eyes. We’d be coughing or wheezing.” But that’s not always the case.”
In other words, the use of products which create airborne toxins is chemical abuse of children and animals (not to mention adult humans).
Some Products Used in Magic Rituals Can Impact Indoor Air Quality
From that same article by Dr. Becker, there’s also a caution for those of us who love our animals and children, but who also engage in magic and devotional rituals indoors:
“A 2001 EPA study concluded that candles containing fragrance produce more soot. It’s possible organic compounds in poor-quality candle wax may increase cancer risk.(2) A 2009 study warns that the chemicals emitted into the air by burning candles can have a harmful effect on human health.(3) Paraffin candles produce potentially toxic chemicals, including alkanes, alkenes and toluene.
Like air fresheners, scented candles can also contain dangerous chemicals such as formaldehyde and VOCs. Cheaply made candles can contain toxic levels of heavy metals in the wicks. When one of these candles burns, the lead particles are released into the air. Frequent use of these candles could contribute to the development of health conditions such as asthma, allergies and cancer.
Research shows that burning incense can be dangerous to human health, and a 2015 study even suggested it’s much worse that inhaling cigarette smoke.(4) Incense smoke is mutagenic, meaning it can cause mutations in DNA that can lead to cancer. In the 2015 study, incense was found to be more toxic to cells and DNA than cigarette smoke. Of the 65 compounds identified in incense smoke, two were determined to be highly toxic.”
The Magic of Interdependence?
Switching now from science to metaphysics, I’ve touched before on the spiritual and esoteric quandries posed by artificial substances and toxins, those substances that result from what I call “unwise alchemies.” And I am personally desperate for anything–ANYTHING–that can ease my remaining years on this planet and provide a semblance of better health. I am frankly weary of fleeing fragrant products in particular, which are everywhere I go. And I am tired of living as a hermit (though I fancy myself “ornamental”).
And I’ve used various breath techniques for years–tantric breathing, HA breath for ho’oponopono rituals, the “six healing sounds” (Taoist) practice, and so on–though I often forget to resort to these techniques in times of crisis (like when the stove repair man comes into my home offgassing a scented deodorant).
But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the uses of language, sounds, breath, and how to put these together to help myself. Obsessing, really. I don’t use the word “desperate” lightly.
The link was to the Perfumed Skull (I know, not a completely auspicious name from my perspective), a blog written by Ben Joffe, “a cultural anthropology Ph.D. candidate” as of 2016. (He’s probably received his doctorate by now.) His June 19, 2016 post is titled “The Magic of Interdependence: A General Description of the View of How Mantras Produce Results.” It concerns a book on mantra healing called The Science of Interdependent Connection Mantra Healing (rten ‘brel sngags bcos thabs kyi rig pa) by Dr Nida Chenagtsang and Yeshe Drolma, Beijing People’s Press, December 2015. The post includes a translation (his translation?) of “Chapter Four: A Rough Explanation of How Mantras Work.” Though there are all kinds of compelling implications for Western magic practitioners in this chapter, here is the part that grabbed my attention, because it may be of practical value to me:
“As an example of how the way in which breath flows generates results, if, taking the mantra-syllables OM AH HUNG, one intones OM when one inhales, AH as one abides (or holds the breath), and HUNG as one exhales, the three-fold arising, entering and abiding of the rlung flows in the proper way, and as a result this is greatly beneficial for the body. Through the good qualities of the proper movement of the constitutive elements, five winds, as well as life-bearing and upward-flowing (winds), bodily illness is cured (and) the constitutive elements are balanced. It (also) endows one with the good quality of mental happiness. These are the reasons that what are called the three Vajra seed-syllables are extolled by all mantra-holders or ngakpa as the highest of mantras. Moreover, intoning ‘HA’ and expelling HA! with a strong sigh for diseases of the vital and heart-winds, for mental discomfort, memory loss, mental agitation or anxiety directly expels stale rlung in the life-force channel(s) from out the body and thereby cures disease.”
[The above also credited by Ben Joffe as from ‘The Science of Dependent-Origination Mantra Healing’ (rten ‘brel sngags bcos rig pa), written by Nyida Heruka and Yeshe Drolma, 2015, mi rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 36-52.]
I am particularly struck by the instructions to inhale, hold, and exhale each syllable. In all the neotantric workshops and pujas I’ve ever attended, not once we were we ever instructed to OM on an inhale. (So, is a little–neotantric–knowledge a dangerous or an ineffective thing?)
The authors say “reciting the three Vajra seed-syllables (OM AH HUNG) balances the breath and resolves sickness.” I have tried this now a few times, in the recommended manner, and it will definitely take practice. To generate the mantra syllable “Ah” while holding my breath is no easy feat! And I have to take gulps of air between each series of syllables. I am going to practice this a lot and see what happens.
I am also staring hard at the chapter’s reference to “mantras for poisoning,” because poisoning is exactly what we are all experiencing at this time, on this planet. Do I sense a practice that might be useful for transforming the toxic effect of the unwise alchemies? What would happen if many practitioners gathered together to ease the poisoning of a place, with such a mantra? I want very badly to understand this.
Finally I am happy to find this sentence as well: “One’s own mind and the minds of others are made sick through harsh words, and conversely, expressing pleasant words can gladden others’ hearts.” I was attempting to address this very topic earlier this week in my blog post, “Try a Little Tenderness.”
I notice that toxic and uncivil words and harsh sounds are as ubiquitous as toxic chemicals in modern American culture. There are so many ways to make and keep us sick. But perhaps somewhere in a skillful use of our breath, and mantras of seed syllables, and the weilding of pleasant words, there may lie a little more healing for me and for all of you too.
As always, comments are very welcome. Thank you, readers!
Animism is the belief and/or experience of all forms of matter as being somewhat conscious and “alive,” potentially able (but not always willing) to respond to an invitation to “connect.” This may not be a complete definition of animism, but it’s good enough to include in my personal working (and witchy) hypothesis of how the cosmos works. The other part of my working hypothesis is “not everything that is conscious is visible to my eyes.” That naturally includes itty bitty things like microbes (which we do recognize as “alive”) as well as what we call spirits and deities, attached to humanly detectable matter or not.
Search the words “is matter conscious” and you’ll find many intriguing results, including the scientific term “panpsychism,” defined in this article as “the entire universe is inhabited by consciousness.” Rather than using what’s implied by the word “inhabit” I’ve come to view the entire cosmos as being informed by consciousness, feeling that consciousness is an intrinsic property of matter, though it may be organized in many different ways. It just seems like common sense. Otherwise how could it exist at all, in us or in anything else?
“Philosophers and neuroscientists often assume that consciousness is like software, whereas the brain is like hardware. This suggestion turns this completely around. When we look at what physics tells us about the brain, we actually just find software—purely a set of relations—all the way down. And consciousness is in fact more like hardware, because of its distinctly qualitative, non-structural properties. For this reason, conscious experiences are just the kind of things that physical structure could be the structure of.
Given this solution to the hard problem of matter, the hard problem of consciousness all but dissolves. There is no longer any question of how consciousness arises from non-conscious matter, because all matter is intrinsically conscious. There is no longer a question of how consciousness depends on matter, because it is matter that depends on consciousness—as relations depend on relata, structure depends on realizer, or software on hardware.”
This is a frankly speculative blog. However, let’s agree (just for the moment) that matter is intrinsically conscious. We can also assume that the consciousness of various material substances may be organized in ways which may be “invisible” or undetectable for us in ordinary circumstances, with our ordinary senses. This is going to be true of the consciousness of most or all non-biological substances, including those organized into objects.
What are the ways that we could detect or experience a non-biological consciousness? Well, someone could invent a “consciousness detection device” (which would expand our sense perceptions). Someone might use a mathematical formula or perform scientific experiments (like those performed by quantum physicists). Or there may be intuitive, spiritual, or magical actions capable of creating such perception.
Just for fun, let’s assume that we have a way to perceive the consciousness experienced by artificial substances, such as plastics. Plastics are created from petrochemicals which are refined from crude oil (petroleum). To quote Wikipedia, “A fossil fuel, petroleum is formed when large quantities of dead organisms, mostly zooplankton and algae, are buried underneath sedimentary rock and subjected to both intense heat and pressure.”
So, transformed fossil remains may be found in food containers, cell phones, cars (and what fuels them), toothbrushes, clothing, medical instruments, etc.–not to mention in human and animal bodies and in our oceans and landfills. The crazy thing is, many of these plastic materials are biologically active. They contain endocrine disruptors which affect human and animal reproduction and sexual health.
Here’s some material concerning the impact of endocrine disruptors in plastics:
Okay, perhaps the above explains my use of the term “unwise alchemies” to describe pretty much everything done by the petrochemical and chemistry industries since World War I. Just for irony’s sake, watch this scene from The Graduate.
However, perhaps the term “unwise necromancy” is more to the point. As Aidan Wachter points out in a 2015 blog, we’re all dealing with dead stuff all the time, including “the petrochemical plastics in your shoes…derived from way old dead things.” My impression is, instead of an inexperienced “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” spawning an army of animate brooms carrying buckets and causing floods (remember the Mickey Mouse segment in the 1940 movie, Fantasia?) we’ve got the humungous flood of plastics in every corner–and presumably every creature–of the globe caused by an industry chock full of inexperienced necromancers (uh, aka “scientists”). These feckless neophytes, oathed to the gods of capitalism and armed with a little knowledge but no sense of balance or consequence, summon the remains of ancient beings, subject them to unnatural forces and alchemies, degrade them by shoving them into “bodies” shaped like toilet brushes and Barbies, thereby causing misery for all sentient beings (and for animists, “all sentient beings” includes purty much everything).
Many years ago, when I was in my Anthroposophical phase, I had a conversation with a man who was involved in the founding of a Northern California Waldorf School and who also served as a Christian Community (Steiner spin-off church) priest. We were talking about environmental illness and he asked me to consider the state of health of the “beings” who had such a toxic impact on me. The impression he left me with was one of beings formed outside of “lawful” creation (lacking a “protocol” for their existence?), who were tortured, unwelcome and/or disoriented. All they could do was cause sickness and distress because that was their experience, how they came into being. I’ve never forgotten that conversation and it took me a long time to wrap my mind around it. It was also the first conversation I ever had where I “saw” a person with a spirit eye. Very strange indeed.
Further along in Aidan Wachter’s blog post, I find this key paragraph:
“All manifestations in the field of experienceable existence come about by fluctuations of energy. This energy for the most part changes continuously. However, ‘strong’ events & disturbances cause ‘energy swirls’ that I perceived like a storm going cyclonic (like a tornado), they keep themselves together for awhile and have notable effects. If this ‘swirl’ lasts for awhile, it in essence becomes its own continuous cause. If it persists for a longish time (say moving from moments to hours to days and into weeks or months or years) it becomes a ‘persistent presence’. All persistent presences behave ‘as if’ sentient. For whatever fucked up reason (it’s quite unfair, really!) the Bad Nasties tend to persist more than the good shit. I expect this is because being hurt really horribly produces an inward turning motion where the cyclonic action is a tightening spiral, which, like twisting fibers together to make cord, gets stronger and more durable as it gets more tightly wound. Happiness and joy tend to be expansive and so tend to dissipate fairly quickly.”
So I am reading this and thinking on the one hand of the swirling currents of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and other oceanic plastic patches and also of the chemistries used to force the ancestral remains into all the consumer products we’re addicted to today. Do these chemistries “hurt” these ancestors “really horribly,” causing them to spiral inward, as Wachter says? And are we humans “charmed” by the machinations of marketing and consumerism to continue to inflict such hurt for our own immediate notions of convenience and to the detriment of all life on this planet?
It’s both an intriguing and a tragic train of thought…deeply, mind-numbingly tragic. Is there any hope at all of reversing this situation, even as we deal with other massive challenges such as climate change and the die-off of millions of species?
What Would Witches Do?
As a person with almost thirty years of multiple chemical sensitivity behind me (almost half my life now), I shudder at the next, logical step. I’m going way off the deep end here, because I believe that aside from doing all the right environmental activist things, such as advocating for the precautionary principle in public policy and and weaning ourselves of plastics…there’s something we can do on esoteric and spiritual levels.
Capitalist science has failed us. I am not anti-science, but I am anti-thoughtless, consumer-driven, money-hungering science divorced from common sense. And it’s not just science. Cultures and counter-cultures have failed us. Politics and politicians have failed us. Our knowledge and clever technologies fail us. Even as neo-pagans, we have failed us. That’s because we haven’t thought our situation through. What follows is not yet a part of neopagan thinking.
We the witches, magicians, sorcerers, shamans, and all mystic ritualists who work with spirits, deities, thoughtforms, wights, and ancestors, have an interesting skill set which might be useful here.
We could attempt to correct this situation. We could create the new animist or panpsychic protocols for encountering artificial substances, even those that are most toxic and problematic. If we are truly living our animism, we must welcome, bless, and ritually engage with these beings which are also conscious, though artificially and painfully so. We must offer healing, love, acceptance (wow, “unconditional positive regard” to a designer fragrance!) and ask what we can do to help ease this situation for them. It would be a kindness.
It seems to be one of the few acts of grace and generosity we haven’t tried yet, we witches. Instead of casting out these substances, we could acknowledge the hurt of these far distant ancestors of ours and ask how we can comfort them instead. I find it interesting that even as we make more of “them,” they have the capacity to prevent us from making more of “us” (via endocrine disruption of our reproductive systems). Is that their only way of managing this situation? Could we collaborate in some other way?
Let’s get to work on some rituals and magic actions, some “rules of engagement.” Anyone got any ideas about this? Welcoming all suggestions here.