A Thinking Witch’s Approach to Silence (and Quantum Physics)
Author: Ehsha Apple
Most of us who teach, concentrate on the theological approaches to Paganism. This makes sense – it’s religion, right? But what if your worldview imagines “Science” as part-and-parcel with “Theology”? That’s where I found myself. And then I found that there were a good number of Pagans just like me. I teach a very impressive assortment of students who were not finding “purely religious approaches” to spirituality fulfilling. They needed something to tickle the academic part of their brains. For them, I formulated a series of courses that combine both science and theology. If you are like us, and you enjoy a dose of science in your religion, come along.
The very first lesson that I share with my students is the importance of silence. (1) Unfortunately, we still live in a place and a time where Paganism – or anything outside of the American Christocentric imperative – is not welcome. Primarily, this is because of misunderstanding, but such misunderstanding is often based in jingoistic bias. (I recommend my students watch the documentary, The Burning Times. While there is some conjecture about the numbers presented in this film, the overall point remains valid.) Of course, we don’t literally burn witches anymore but I have known plenty of people who have been burned by the judgment or ridicule of others. So, there is a very “real world” reason for Pagans to maintain silence and anonymity. This doesn’t mean that I support hypocrisy. I would never recommend that you “pretend” to be something that you are not, but I recommend that you think about all aspects of your secular life before making your spiritual life common knowledge.
Some of you are fortunate to live in open-minded arenas; some of you live in less amenable atmosphere. Some of you have broadminded families; some of your families will be angry, hurt, upset, or even fearful about your decision to study Pagan spiritualities. This isn’t their fault. More than likely, they will base their comments (if you decide to tell them) on their feelings of love for you and their misguided belief that you are “dabbling” in something dark, dangerous, or even demonic. (If you are just now deciding to tell your family or your work/social circle that you are Pagan, there is some really practical advice on Patti Wigington’s “About.com” pages.) Aside from avoiding judgment, there are other reasons to maintain silence. Maybe not about being Pagan, but about conducting a Pagan ritual. Many practitioners will tell you that they maintain silence to protect a coven secret or rite. This is all very appropriate and should be respected.
Before I begin talking about silence in earnest, I would like to explore a very important phrase: “To Know, To Dare, To Will, To Keep Silent.” As we all know, this phrase comes from The Four Powers of the Sphinx, written about most extensively by French occultist, Eliphas Lévi. And an introduction to the The Four Powers of the Sphinx comes from Lévi’s most popular work: Transcendental Magic. He states:
To attain the SANCTUM REGNUM, in other words, the knowledge and power of the Magi, there are four indispensable conditions–an intelligence illuminated by study, an intrepidity which nothing can check, a will which cannot be broken, and a prudence which nothing can corrupt and nothing intoxicate. TO KNOW, TO DARE, TO WILL, TO KEEP SILENCE–such are the four words of the Magus, inscribed upon the four symbolical forms of the sphinx.
The Sphinx, a composite creature, has the head of a man, the torso and paws of a lion, the rear of a bull, and the wings of an eagle. In its design, it signifies the Four Powers of the four Elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water. He adds:
You are called to be king of air, water, earth and fire . . . the human head, in order to possess speech; his the eagle’s wings, in order to scale the heights; his the bull’s flanks, in order to furrow the depths; his the lion’s talons, to make a way on the right and the left, before and behind.
To attain such an achievement it is necessary to KNOW what has to be done, to WILL what is required, to DARE what must be attempted and to KEEP SILENT with discernment.
We must WILL to create change
In order to WILL, we must DARE
In order to DARE we must KNOW
And to maintain control we must BE SILENT (show discipline)
To Know refers to the idea that the spiritual journey is one of knowledge. And that’s why we are all here. We must recognize that the quest for knowledge is never-ending. We must constantly be learning, questioning, and expanding our experiences. Also, we must know ourselves before we can know our true paths. “Know thyself.” That’s what the spiritual journey is really about in the end. If you are on this path because you want material riches and worldly power, you will be very disappointed. And you are short-changing yourself. The riches and the power you will obtain by examining yourself and finding your place in the grand scheme of things far supersede any material goods or earthly authority.
To Dare can be understand as “courage.” By daring to face the unknown, even the unknown within our Selves, we inevitably grow stronger.
To Will means more than determination and perseverance. The will is the ultimate tool of the practitioner (Magician, Witch, etc.) . Alistair Crowley, founder of Thelema, defines Magick as: “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.”
To Keep Silent seems obvious, but it’s more complex. Yes, being silent means that we do not share the teachings of our coven, that we do not “out” other members of the Pagan community, and that we do not discuss Magickal workings outside of the sacred circle. But it also means that we learn to maintain a level of stillness, inner silence.
This last point about silence brings me to another phrase: “In perfect love and in perfect trust.” Many Pagans use this phrase to indicate the sanctity of “trust” in our community. The safety provided by perfect love and perfect means that we are safe within our circle and that we avow to protect one another and to never harm one another. This is imperative. When working together (as a solitary, you may not face this) you must have complete trust in those working around you. The vulnerability that comes from functioning within a community – either physically or online – can make or break a magical work and a spiritual path.
But more importantly, I think, there are two reasons to keep silence. Both are very theoretical: one based in psycholinguistics and the other in quantum physics.
One major reason to keep silent involves the nature of Magick and of spoken language. For me, to speak is to conjure. Both Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan knew this. Power resides with those who control language. We can subvert language and we can evolve language, but we only do this because it is language that gives us such power. This is not only true in the cultural-linguistic realm, but this is true in the realm of Magick and Craftwork as well. Consider: most popular representations of “the magician” involves a “magic word”.
Think of Disney’s many magical characters and phrases, like: “Bippity-Boppity-Boo” of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, “Prestigigitotium” of The Merlin, Angela Landsbury’s “Treguna Mekoitis Tracorum Satis Dee” and any number of things that came out of Mary Poppins’ mouth. Think of the many magical-sounding terms in the Harry Potter series. Think of “Open Sesame” from “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”. Think of almost any TV show or movie involving witchcraft (I particularly remember “Shazam” from the 1970s) . It makes sense that popular culture should represent a “magic word” as the key to all magical working.
Consider Ancient Creation Myths where the universe is spoken into existence by a god/dess (typically one god and one goddess representing order and chaos, respectively) : Mesopotamian, Mesoamerican, and Middle Eastern Creation Myths all include a “speaking” into creation (“And God said, ‘Let there be light, ’ and there was light”) . Further, there is the presumably-antediluvian Enochian (or Angelic) Language, given to Victorian Magicians, John Dee and Edward Kelly by the Great Angel Ave, which suggests that all things, even the apocalypse, can be spoken into existence.
This last part, to me, seems reason enough to keep silent!
If quantum physics is your thing, another reason to keep silent is to refrain from collapsing the wave. Ly de Angeles explains that consciousness, “the pattern of thought” as she calls it, “moves as light moves and is, therefore instantly there and instantly not. It is both particle and wave, as is light, which, incidentally is why spells are told to no one. To speak a thing is to collapse the wave” (Witchcraft: Theory and Practice. 7) .
I won’t pretend to be a physicist, I will do my best to draw an analogy between Magick and two popular scientific ideas. The first is the “Quantum Double Slit Experiment” and the second is “The Copenhagen Paradox” otherwise known as “Schrödinger’s Cat.” (2) Quantum Physics is the physics of atomic and subatomic levels, and quite honestly, the rules of “normal” physics do not apply on these levels. Electrons, protons, and neutrons move about without passing through the space between. In essence, they are constantly vacillating between existing and not existing. They literally “pop” in and out of existence. We don’t know why. We don’t know where they go. We don’t know from whence they return. Not yet, anyway. There are all sorts of cutting-edge theories that suggest multiverses and parallel universes. (If these things are said in a religious context, we are scoffed; we say them in a scientific context and it’s deemed “cutting-edge.”) This is why I contend that there is nothing supernatural; I believe that we simply cannot account for all of the majesty of our strange and complicated universe – yet.
Return to de Angeles’s reference to consciousness and thought as “both particle and wave.” To make any use of this, we first must try to grasp the difference between a particle and a wave. A particle, quite simply, is perceivable matter – something with mass; a wave is a transfer of energy within some substance – i.e. a disturbance in the water or in the air. Subatomic – quantum – particles are not particles – they have no mass (i.e., they don’t exist) – until they are observed. No fooling. This gives a whole new meaning to the tree falling in the woods paradox.
The answer is “no” – it makes no sound, because there is no tree if it is not observed. (It’s like when the little boy on The Matrix tells Neo, “There is no spoon.”) For some mysterious reason – a reason that keeps scientists banging their heads against their Bunsen burners – everything in existence is nothing more than a wave of information (or possibilities) until we observe it in some way. Until we actually observe the not-yet-a- particle, it’s nothing more than a wave. Sounds nuts, right? Wait, there’s more. That wave is “pure potential” itself. In other words, the wave exists in every possibility at the same time. It’s doing everything that is potentially possible – all at once. Once we observe the wave, it “solidifies” into a material reality. Therefore, we create reality just by observing it.
Need proof? OK. The Double Slit Experiment is a quantum experiment that shows us that subatomic material will take every possible path at the same time as a wave when not observed. When observed, the particle collapses down to one point as a particle. Likewise, The Copenhagen Paradox argues that all potential outcomes are in existence until one of them is observed. The paradox continues: who observes the observer? Some use this as a “proof” of deity; “god” is watching us all. But, then, who is watching “god”? That is a question to be puzzled out later. The universe is full of incongruities; all of our natural laws have exceptions. This too is a Mystery. (3)
But what has this to do with Magick? Much like the collapsed wave or the observed cat, some practitioners believe that speaking a thing changes it. Many believe that confining the meaning of a Great Mystery to the limits of spoken language can “ruin” a spell. This is like taking “potential everything-ness” and reducing it to an observable/hearable singularity.
This is not to say that language is not used for spell-crafting. But in the instance of casting, language is used in conjunction with the will. This makes the words carry the will rather than the literal meaning of the word. Yes, this is a Mystery. But there seems to be something to the argument that banal or causal conversation without the power of will weakens the power of the spell.
Further, some practitioners believe that speaking a thing makes it so. For this reason, they will never talk of magical affairs without first casting a protective circle. Whenever two or more witches are together and start talking about magic, for fear of “drive by” casting, you are likely to find one who will insist on some witchy prophylaxis. If, as many believe, words are thoughts and thoughts are things, we create every time we speak.
I believe all of these things – and then some. For these, and so many other reasons, I encourage you to keep your silence. Protect it. Nurture it. Enshroud it. It is always possible to reveal a thing – it is almost impossible to re-conceal it.
As they say, you can’t un-ring a bell.
1. This information first published on my teaching blog, with some revision. (Apple, Ehsha. Open Path Sanctuary Training Program. “On Secrecy (and a bit of Quantum Physics) : Phase 1, Lesson 2 (Practice) .” 20 September 2011. Web.)
2. This has been met with criticism. Most of the criticism (firstly with Godel and Einstein) about the Copenhagen Paradox revolves around the superposition state and the specialty of observation.
3. There are mysteries and then there are Mysteries, or Great Mysteries. The kind that involve a sort of “initiation.” The word “Mystery” translates to “secret rite or doctrine.” Therefore, one who practiced “Mysteries” is referred to as a “mystic.” The specifics of these religions are kept “behind closed doors, ” or “secret.”