The rising interest in the occult, and in mystical practices generally, is a feminine resurgence of the marginalized. It is a post-truth recourse for failing cultural systems and ancestral abuses. These practices are an alternative to power in favor of presence. They embrace the complex, the elaborately specific, and the simultaneity of opposites.
There’s a lot of paranoia and skepticism around this interest. Esoteric, mystical, and spiritual practices are being teased from various cultures, providing fertile thematic territory for mass-market products and services. These ingredients, when combined, are caustic to the sensibilities of identity politics. To borrow a practice or concept from another culture or tradition can feel like the legacy of colonial theft, with cynical gatekeepers assuming all intercultural learning is symptomatic of the same disease.These traditional practices applied in a piecemeal, ad hoc manner are also an easy target for analytically minded children of the enlightenment, allergic to seemingly unreliable, or vague methodologies. The relationship between these practices and causality, linear thinking, and time is not the same and not valued in the same way as in scientific inquiry.
With these tensions in mind, I recall a recent opportunity to reflect on the marked difference between a spiritual perspective versus a more traditionally modern, Western approach. A few months ago, I attended several group coaching sessions. I was asked to analyze my life in terms of eight concepts and to depict the results using a wheel. It seemed a useful practice but as it turned out, it’s utility was mostly as prelude for a session of Monk Mojo with Ultracultural Others. There we discussed the Taoist Bagua, eight interrelated concepts seen as the fundamental principles of reality. The Bagua concepts can be used as a spatial map, this mapping, elaborate in the practice of Feng Shui, guides the strategic use of material objects in best accordance with spiritual and energetic principles. In Monk Mojo however, we used them as a lens for daily practices.
Interestingly, the coaching concepts were similar to those of the Bagua, calling to mind the same kinds of activity and accomplishment, making the differences, however, profound and effectively quite disparate.
The coaching language and assessment are situated around the ideas of goals, desired changes, and achievement. In this way, it has a linear relationship to time and to causality. The Bagua concepts, by contrast, speak to peace and presence. Coaching language encourages development and change-making and in these ways engages with power, which I would contrast with peace. These are fundamentally different modes of operating. I would characterize the Bagua’s anti-linear relationship to time as what defines it as a feminine modality. It’s grounding nature in this regard seduces one back into the flow, calling one away from sanitized versions like coaching, whose purported efficacy and measurable outcomes shellac life with a corporate gloss.
There are consequential differences between the approaches. In order to practice and learn the concepts of the Bagua, I hybridized the wheel visualization I’d learned from the coaching sessions with the Bagua concepts.
The category called “personal finance” from the coaching concepts was now replaced with the words ‘abundance,’ ‘constant,’ ‘gentle and penetrating.’ I realized that in the course of the day taking care of my baby, cleaning our home, cooking, making the bed, and shopping for food were just some of the activities that contributed to the true abundance in which we abide. A sense of peace and home, no longer an abstraction in a mutual fund. Replacing “spiritual awareness” with “stillness” and “meditation” removed the area from generalization. Pondering the simultaneously concrete and poetic Bagua words allowed me to return to myself rather than engaging any number of red herring schemes muddying the waters or delaying the holistic engagement requisite for the task. Even the notion of ‘development’ belies a capitalist-infused notion of productivity and an adherence to causality that damages the human ability for presence. Suddenly, through this slight shift in perspective, calling my mother, celebrating holidays, recounting family stories, creating photo albums, and wearing my grandmother’s jewelry became ways of connecting to ancestors. Of honoring connection to those before and after. Finally, my career and profession were transformed into a “way of life” expressing itself with the grace implicit in “go with the flow.” The nagging anxiety provoked by the analogous coaching concepts was replaced with a sense of faith and openness.
Finally, when I started practicing according to the Bagua concepts, the concept of “fun and enjoyment” turned into “Children, Creativity, and Joy.” “Fun and enjoyment” in the coaching language read to me as ‘entertainment’ or ‘diversion.’ They seemed cheap, consumer items and my ranking was low, but so were they on my internal list of priorities. This unsettled me as I considered the interconnectedness of the concepts. I worried about the effect of neglect on this area of my life if it bled into the other areas. The shift in language had a twofold effect: I realized I had a great deal of this energy in my life, which I could now feed through this new awareness. Secondly, with the awareness came a great sense of gratitude which fed the joy and creativity.
Each section of the wheel allows for personal and idiosyncratic self-assessment. For example, I once heard a nun say that she never gave a student an ‘A’ because those were reserved for God. While that seems problematic, I found my evaluations reflective of similar thinking: there would always be room to grow, room for the unknown. I prefer to imagine a state of becoming, of flux, implicit in the quantification, as if a scale from one to ten could in fact admit infinitude. Some numbers hold within them an innate pessimism and some are more optimistic. For example, the understanding that meditation is an activity of “stillness, wisdom, and inner knowledge” allowed me to evaluate myself a low 4, while knowing that I would create more time each day for my meditation practice. In that way, the number contains an optimism that “fame” on the other hand does not possess. The 2 evaluation in the “fame” category reflects a lack of clarity and no strong sense of actionable steps, hence a pessimistic attitude. Finally, the wheel depicts the interconnection of these concepts and with that comes the idea that each one can be broached indirectly or directly.
Now, each day, I make note of what I do to tend each concept, each energy. At first, I did it to generate an awareness of the structure of my activities, beyond the simple numerical assessment. Now, I can use it as a guide. I recognize my moods fluctuating in direct correspondence to how well each energy is nurtured and by keeping track, it is easy to see where I might focus to rebalance. Finally, keeping track of my activities is a powerful tool for both creativity and gratitude.
Yes, gratitude. I stop to reiterate the feeling because it is this and other signposts of the Bagua perspective that elevate and transform the bastardized ethos of the coaching perspective. The spiritual shift in language embodied in the Bagua allowed me to realize my presence in my own life.