When I first began practicing witchcraft and magic in a group context one of the common narratives and discussion points was the connection of the body and the mind. Your thoughts would affect your health, and if you had mental health issues, that could prove troublesome for your craft, and some groups would not even accept you if you were not neurotypical or had mental health struggles. I am not entirely sure where these concepts stemmed from, but I took on some of these beliefs even though I recognise today how problematic they were. There was also an idea that if you had some kind of physical ailment, it was often a ~message from the Gods~. Period cramps? You are not connected enough with the Goddess. Breast Cancer? You have unhealed trauma with your mother. Rolled ankle? You have difficulty with change. Big yikes all round. Unfortunately many of these views are still prevalent in spiritual communities. Once you begin unpacking the privilege backpack and attempting to decolonise one’s spiritual practice, a lot of the more pernicious and problematic beliefs often surround health and healing practices, and real harm can be done counter to the intentions of the individual or group.
Culturally Appropriative Healing Tools and Modalities
Some of my first trainings in the craft were almost entirely centred on healing skills. Often these skills would be distinctly new age in flavour and were appropriated practices entirely detatched from the cultures where the frameworks and skills stemmed from. As a result, I was under the mistaken (and still prevalent) impression that a lot of witchcraft and Wicca required tools stolen or appropriated from other cultures and places such as Reiki, chakras, crystals, animal totems or power animals, smudging with white sage or using palo santo to cleanse, shamanic soul retrievals, cacao ceremonies, and sweat lodges. While many of these tools and ideas are powerful, meaningful and transformative, they were completely detached from any context of the original cultures they were stolen from. The ‘intention’ may have been good but I recognise that the use of these practices without context were symptomatic of white women operating with their privilege in a way that was completely ignorant to the legacy and damage that stealing these tools has done to the original cultures who practiced them. This can be put down to the time that we were in, but there are many groups, covens and circles continuing to use these practices willy-nilly today, and the witchcraft section in book retailers emphasise that many authors who are most likely of the same generation as me have not educated themselves and move on. There is some change, but perhaps not enough. I have to admit, now that I have removed many of these practices from my own craft, it has left a gap that has not necessarily been filled. I do not think it is a matter of simply swapping out an ingredient, like substitutes in a cooking recipe, but to simply move in a different direction. Smudging is an interesting example. At first I moved to use different plants tied in a bundle, and call the practice of waving this bundle ‘smoke cleansing’ instead of smudging. This felt hollow, and I use this method less and less now. If I wish to cleanse a person or a space, I have found myself either burning herbs on a charcoal block, or sprinkling charged water. Or simply taking a intent-ful shower or bath, or vacuuming the shit out of a house.
In the case of other practices that I have retained, I ensure I make an effort to learn about the origins of the practice. Some diagnostic tools, such as running the Iron Pentacle, or aligning the Triple Souls, are syncretic, but the traditions they stem from still swim in a cultural soup which includes systemic racism and cultural appropriation. Something I appreciate from the Reclaiming tradition (whilst it is not perfect), is that I have experienced active efforts to decolonise and acknowledge where tools and knowledge stem from. Victor Anderson, who began the Feri tradition which influenced much of Reclaiming, claimed to have training in Hawaiian Kahuna and Haitian Vodou. Some of the practices I have encountered such as the ‘Kala Rite’ or Water Cleansing, I have found a lot of personal benefit from, but I do not actually know a lot about Huna. So I have more work to do here, and perhaps so does the Feri and Reclaiming traditions. Sometimes just changing the name of something and briefly mentioning where it came from, does not feel like enough.
Now, if I see a healing practitioner advertise using problematic terminology or culturally appropriative tools or adornments, I see red flags and run the other way. This has left me with very little options in the ‘community’ when it comes to accessing healing services – there has never been more available when it comes to healing practices for purchase, but I have never felt less of an inclination to procure them, and to simply seek healing within myself or within conventional medicine. Unfortunately due to the pandemic, a lot of natural and holsitic healing rhetoric is also enmeshed with conspiracy theory nonsense and antivax sentiments, which indicates to me a lack of education on behalf of the person offering healing, a gullibility of the practitioner who has fallen for alt-right talking points or multi-level marketing schemes, or a general lack of genuine care for the wider community. In the past year I accessed the services of a chiropractor for the first time, and whilst I was happy with their service and was curious about the practice, their ‘plandemic’ propaganda placed in the waiting room was too off-putting for me to continue seeing them.
The Coven’s Role, Boundaries and Communication
Generally speaking, I don’t believe it is the group responsibility of a group or coven to monitor or directly aid each other’s health journeys. I have been in toxic environments in the past where interventions were staged to ‘sort out’ someone’s life when they have become entangled with a combination of problems, when really the better practice for the group would have been to offer a supportive environment, and to give group members tools to empower themselves and take up those tools if they see fit. This can be difficult as a coven can feel like family and it is not always easy to see a loved one struggle. Your wish is to help them. I think the importance of boundary work cannot be overstated, and clear guidelines need to be set up around health and healing. I think there can be an unhealthy focus or even obsession with healing, that can perpetuate toxic group cycles that do not recognise the realities of chronic illness or long term medical issues that are beyond the scope of a coven.
The agents with the most power on healing is the individual, their direct family, and their medical team. I do not think coven members come within that inner circle nor should it. Interfering with someone’s life drains their sovereignty as well as the group mind of the coven. Of course each instance should be taken on a case by case basis, but an unsuccessful attempt at group healing or even just lending positive energy can have devastating effects on the egregore of a coven. What if, despite your deep interpersonal connections and energetic ties, all of your healing led to naught- or even seemed to make it worse? The energy can be better spent using different tactics. And sometimes, there are other, far more powerful factors in play. It is hard to feel or realise that your magic for a friend did not work. This has led to me feeling cynical towards efforts of group healing or sending positive energies. My experiences with it have been ineffective and disheartening at times. Support can be given in other ways. ‘Holding space’ is a bit of an overused term but it has merit. The ability to feel held by your community can provide passive, gentle healing. We do not always need to be shooting out healing light from our chests like Care Bears. And of course there is practical, simple mutual aid that is not too invasive, with permission of the receiver.
Everyone is on their own journey and having clear boundaries within the coven is important. I do think it is the responsibility for coven leaders to set these boundaries when it comes to the physical and mental health of their community members. What is the purpose or function of a coven? That is something that needs to be clearly defined, so that all expectations are on the same page. This should be part of an ongoing conversation with inclusivity in mind. You can keep someone in your thoughts, light a candle for them so that they feel held by their community, and at the same time strike a balance of each gathering allowing members to leave some things at the door when they enter. This needs to be done with grace and mindfulness when it comes to the individual needs; allowing for rest, ensuring accessibility has been considered, and giving members individual choice and the ability to feel comfortable. Not everyone has the ability or capacity to check everything at the door if they are suffering. So the balance needs to be right and space needs to be allowed for open communication and honesty. I also think leaders have a responsibility to educate themselves on the individual needs of group members. If they have particular physical or mental differences, these can be mindfully catered for, and this education should not be the responsibility of the person. If someone who has different needs and they can see that 9 out of 10 of their needs have been mindfully included or catered for, they are more likely to feel empowered to ask for the 10th thing. Some needs contraindicate those of others as well. There is not such thing as a 100% inclusive environment for every person. It is about striking a balance and being honest with each other, and creating that environment that encourages honesty.