I have seen folks here and there, for as long as I can remember, talk about the importance of avoiding ‘no’ and ‘not’ in magical workings. The reasons for this vary, but most often entail assertion about our psychology and the psychology of spirits that are patently false. While there are plenty of occasions when framing an operation in the affirmative rather than the negative is more functional than the alternative, this observation has turned into something of a cult of yes that corrupts magical practice.
Heck, it corrupts psychological practice, too, but that’s not what this blog is about.
The cult of yes doesn’t have that much historical depth. It seems to have entered into magical thought through the sub rosa influence of self-help thought on magical workers. That isn’t entirely surprising since more than a little of the self-help culture borders on magic. Through that sympathy, texts like The Power of Positive Thinking and techniques like NLP (neurolinguistic programming) have had a significant impact on the American magical scene.
When I think about the cult of yes, I tend to think of a few basic permutations of it, each of which tend to be premised on overgeneralizing the success of affirmations in specific contexts to the efficacy of affirmations in almost all contexts. The most basic of all those permutations rests on the idea that we give things power by thinking about them, so that even when we attempt to forbid ourselves to think about them, we are in fact still secretly giving them power by presenting them to our consciousness under the rubric of a negation.
The reasons given for this phenomenon vary. One (1) expression of this idea is that while we can consciously appreciate the value of negation, our unconscious is unable to do so. Under this logic, negation isn’t so much a matter of feeding a concept power, as of keeping that concept in our unconscious, where it can fester unseen and suddenly overwhelm us.
Another (2) expression, requiring no faith in the unconscious, is simply that negation doesn’t provide us with any positive opportunities to change our thinking, making us vulnerable to whatever habits or thoughts we are struggling to negate. By choosing to focus on affirmative thoughts and good behaviors, we can more effectively squeeze out bad thoughts and bad behaviors, leaving them little time to confront us.
In case (1), to affirm the primacy of affirmation in magic entails affirming the primacy of the unconscious in magic. While I do believe the unconscious plays a role in magic, I’m not sure it plays a determining role in it. Moreover, even if you do accept the primacy of the unconscious, you have to confront the clear evidence that the unconscious is perfectly capable of negotiating negation. Early in his work, Freud noted that it was impossible to come to terms with the unconscious without appreciating the way in which the unconscious exerted authority over our conscious awareness through negation, through a series of prohibitions.
If you are going to work magic through the unconscious (and, for what it is worth, I don’t think you have to), you best get used to using the whole unconscious, not just the grabby animal hunger of want-this-and-this-and-this. Learning to make use of prohibitions can have profound impacts on your life. Learning to communicate with spirits through those prohibitions is also beneficial, providing them with the means to actively ward off temptation.
Excluding the unconscious for a moment, case (2) provides us another opportunity to appreciate the function of negation and no in magical work. While it is true that it can be very beneficial to find positive habits that replace bad habits, that replacement usually begins under the banner of a negation. We cannot ask with what habit we should replace our procrastination until we affirm, for ourselves, that we don’t want to procrastinate.
Before we can invite a new habit or thought into our lives, we must decide that some habit or thought we presently have is not what we need. The act of saying no, of not this, opens the door toward other ways of thinking and being. One of the most powerful contemplative acts can be ‘neti, neti’ (not this, not this), which allows us to make space in our thinking and acting differently, even when we don’t exactly know with what that space will be filled.
It is no small thing to announce to the subtle world that there is some part of your life that you want carried away, that you want removed, that you want to say no to as fiercely and with as much determination as you can muster.
In some cases, yes, the negation does create a tension between what is negated and the affirmation of it. The injunction to avoid a thing can turn into a preoccupation with that thing, but even there the preoccupation can have positive influences in the magical operation in which it occurs. Around this phenomenon we have all of the force gathered and discharged through taboos and prohibitions.
This obsessive case is not the most common manifestation of no. In many cases, an injunction is just an injunction, like “don’t step on the scissors I left out in the middle of the floor.” That negation serves a useful purpose, because it serves as a guidepost. It isn’t enough to always have a good habit if you don’t know what the good habit is supposed to replace. You need to know that when you want a hit of your favorite weakness that you are going to say no, first, and then use that no as an occasion to deploy the good habit against the bad habit.
Beneath all of that lies the deeper relationship with limitation, a limitation unto death that we first encounter by coming to terms with no and negation. Often times it begins with a denial that we cannot overcome, but if worked we can discover within the limitation our voice, our agency, and our capacity to affirm our own negation, to say no and mean it, to say no to ourselves and to others. That no opens the way for the yes that is the manifestation of who we might be, and of all that we might accomplish.