Magical Living in Times of Debilitating Anxiety and Turmoil


ell, well, well. 2016 is certainly going down in the history books as an interesting year, isn’t it? I know many of us feel like the Fool in the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot, naively hoping for the best while taking a giant step toward a yawning precipice.


Speaking of tarot and precipices, I did a tarot reading the night before the election, asking, “What will be the result?” I used the Golden Tarot of the Renaissance, which is based on the 15th century Estensi deck. It was uncannily accurate at divining the results of the Democratic primary, so seemed appropriate to consult for this portentous day.


I drew the three cards above. My reaction as I laid out the cards was visceral and instantaneous—a rush of recognition, anxiety, and vertigo. Hillary, the presumed/pre-coronated Empress, sits on her throne on the right, clutching the rod of rulership and a globe as if playing a game of keep-away.

The Devil trump (sic), with his fiendish crotch and trident, flashes the sign of the horns to ward off her evil/nasty eye and looks down at her as if saying “Oh, no you don’t.” He clearly owns this reading.

It was Judgment, however, that sealed my belief that Trump would win. As the trump(ets) blow, announcing his reign, all of his people come climbing out of the darkness to heed their savior’s call.

And that’s just what they did.

The failure of the cult of Nate Silver, the punditocracy, and all the major networks to predict the uncounted and invisible and the ascension of Donald Trump was no surprise to a number of mages (including my friend the (former) Archdruid and Rune Soup’s Gordon White in The All Red Line newsletter). Many of us saw this coming or, rather, felt it coming.

Yet I was told by more than a few smart people that I was nuts, that Trump couldn’t possibly win, because, well, numbers and science don’t lie, dumbass.

Poor Nate Silver

Maybe listen to more magicians and fewer pundits and pollsters next time?

I’m sure many of you, probably most of you, are feeling more than a little disturbed by the election and its aftermath. No matter what your political persuasion, the global rise of neo-fascist strongmen and -women politicians, and the emboldening of the cultural/racial supremacists yapping at their boot heels, is deeply regressive and worrisome. Yes, the electorate’s rejection of neoliberalism and unrestrained globalism is the silver lining in this dark cloud, but it’s still a huge, dark fucking cloud. I’ve seen people melting down into black puddles of despair, lashing out in irrational fear and anger, and otherwise losing their collective shit.

Trump Tower, Ancient Italian Tarot.

Tower Trump, Ancient Italian Tarot. Lo Scarabeo.

The profound failure of the high priests of sociopolitical Materialism—FiveThirtyEight-ers and the elite commentariat—has delivered an important lesson: there are other ways of knowing. And although I’m preaching to the choir here, the path of magic and imagination is enormously useful not just for sussing out what lies ahead, but for keeping your head screwed on straight, especially in times of turbulence and chaos.

Magic can save you. (Magic defined here as a series of rituals, behaviors, and patterns of thought, independent of any particular set of spiritual beliefs). Learn the basics and you always have a spiritual first-aid kit on hand to plug up messy soul leakages. When properly applied, magical living breaks the chains enslaving you to the paralyzing belief you are powerless, broken, and insignificant. It’s a key way to get your mojo back.


LE DIABLE from the Tarot of Jean Noblet (Jean-Claude Flornoy).

So here is a very basic, non-dogmatic practice for magical living in times of debilitating anxiety, fear, and turmoil. It’s deceptively simple and straightforward, but please don’t underestimate its utility. This activity requires no adherence to any codified spiritual system, although adding that layer doesn’t hurt (in fact, it often helps). Experienced magical thinkers/practitioners and crusty old mages will find nothing new here, but I hope these suggestions are as helpful for others as they have been for me over the years I have employed them.

So—what’s the first thing you do when you’re lost in metaphorical darkness? You light a flame.

St. Cyprian devotional candle.

St. Cyprian devotional candle.

So do it. Get yourself one or more unscented candles—doesn’t matter how many or what color (that will come later). If you have the opportunity, visit a botanica and see if a devotional candle calls for your attention from the shelves. Arrange your candles in a pleasing pattern in a quiet place where you can be alone and uninterrupted, light them, then turn out the lights. Take a deep breath. See how that instantly changes everything?

Now put on some sacred music, i.e., music specifically designed to transport you from the monkey-mind into the realm of the spirit. Not the music you listen to solely for pleasure, but music that tunes the frequency of your environment. This is a matter of taste, of course. I’m not a fan of anything that you’d hear coming from a boombox while getting your chakras adjusted* at a holistic healing expo—in fact, I’m allergic to most music that falls into the new age category, especially Native American flutes played by non-natives and backed with incongruous tinkly chimes, tablas, and synth swirls. Blecch.

As with tarot decks, I advise going back in time for the biggest aesthetic bang for the buck. Chants (esp. Gregorian and Tibetan) take me deep instantly, but try to get the straight-up vocal recordings and avoid those layered with synthesizers and other superfluous aural junk. Indian classical ragas and devotional chants are also powerful trance inducers. If you’re into classical music, Chopin’s Nocturnes are exquisitely calming. And you can’t go wrong pulling from the playlist my friend Bill Richards put together for the lucky volunteers undergoing psilocybin sessions at Johns Hopkins.

You might want to try environmental recordings, particularly of ocean, woodland, and jungle settings. The Tintinnabulation CD from the classic Environments series is more of a deeply felt soundscape, and is composed of layered, computer-modulated bells. It is useful for all sorts of meditations and magical workings when melodic music would be a distraction.


Next, burn some incense. Not junk joss sticks from a gas station, if you can help it. Burn pure resins and woods on charcoal. Copal (my favorite) and frankincense cleanse your environment on a number of levels as, of course, does old stalwart sage. Frankincense is even being studied for its antidepressant effects. Be careful—a little goes a long way. You might want to temporarily pop the battery out of your smoke alarm. Wash yourself with the rising smoke by pulling it to your head and down over your body. You should feel an unambiguous shift in energy.

Now that you’ve set the proper atmosphere, it’s time to close your eyes and go inward. Sit comfortably with your back straight. Breathe slowly and deeply. The next step may shock many of my readers because it seems so . . . well, corny. Decidedly anti-modern, with a whiff of mothballs and the feel of uncomfortable Sunday shoes. But try to shake off your associations with the subject, please, and just do it.


No, you don’t have to grovel to the spiteful sky god, open your heart to Jesus, or supplicate yourself to whatever godform your parents pounded into your innocent head. You can do those things, of course, if they feel right. Pray to or for or with whatever floats your spiritual boat. Yahweh, Jesus, Krsna, Ganesh, Buddha, Hermes, Hecate, the Universe as the Ultimate Ground of Being, the Void, your deepest Self—whatevs. The key is to open yourself, in humble gratitude, to whatever exists in the vastness within you and outside of you. Don’t ask for anything. Be quiet, and listen.

As the patron saint of nervousness, anxiety, and mental illness, Saint Dymphna might be happy to bestow some soothing vibes if you can handle a bit of folk/Christian tradition in your mix (pro tip: syncretism is a beautiful thing).

As the patron saint of nervousness, anxiety, and mental illness, Saint Dymphna might be happy to bestow some soothing vibes if you can handle a bit of folk/Christian tradition in your toolbox (pro tip: syncretism is a beautiful thing).

This form of prayer, if you can do it earnestly, can work wonders for your mental and physical health, as attested by numerous controlled studies. If the P word freaks you out and you want to call it meditation, that’s okay, too. But your goal should be to open up to contact with something bigger than yourself—whatever that might be. Don’t force it, just allow space for it to occur. Welcome it without intellectualizing. You can always name it later.

Sit, breathe, and experience the connection for as long as you feel comfortable.

Then blow out the candle(s). Shake your body and stomp on the floor to bring yourself back down. Thank whatever you connected to and tell He/She/It you’ll be back.

Repeat this simple magical practice a few times during your week. Make time for it. Soon, it will become indispensable.

Sounds awfully basic, doesn’t it? It is, and that’s its beauty. This is where you start, the foundation upon which the rest of your magic is built. This is multi-sensorial, inner-focused technology that humans have used to align and calibrate themselves since prehistory. It’s becoming a lost art because we’ve unplugged from the ancient, nourishing spiritual practices of our ancestors and allowed ourselves to be sucked into handheld black mirrors, wall-sized TVs, and the incessantly buzzing wasp’s nests of (anti)social networks.



So pull your head out of those virtual hells full of hungry ghosts, close your eyes, and plug back into the timeless, always-on current that never needs recharging. It all begins with a a candle flame.

Next time, we’ll talk about some more essential magical practices to stay aligned, flexible, and creative. Sign up for my newsletter and get the next installment delivered straight to your inbox on a very irregular, muse-inspired basis.

*There are always exceptions. This music by Kay Gardner was designed to get your chakras spinning like pinwheels, and it has been known to pull overwhelmed psychonauts out of toxic hell trips. Highly recommended.

Michael Hughes
Written by Michael Hughes

Michael M. Hughes is a writer and performer. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

4 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    November 17, 2016

    Great article. Some of us find praying to deities and entities difficult or impossible. May I suggest praying to abstract concepts such as Love, Justice, Peace, etc…Though they do not carry the same anthropomorphic forms, typical to the identity laden traditional constructs, that most people are familiar with, they are just as tangible and powerful, perhaps more so, as they are more specific. Prayer is personal, so to each their own, but I feel for myself the typical form is appropriate, as a straight forward invocation, praise, entreaty, proclamation of faith, etc….. is most effective. This taps into these concepts using familiar and effective techniques. I think this, paired with the authors approach, will suit and benefit the even most non-religious among us.

  2. Avatar
    November 17, 2016

    I gather my own mugwort and make my smudge sticks. Anytime there is any tension in my home I smudge it. I smudge to prevent tension as well. I smudge almost everyday.

  3. Avatar
    November 18, 2016

    That works, too! Thanks for your suggestion. I definitely wrote this to suggest a framework. It works just as well for Jesus or Hecate as it does for something abstract like Love, Peace, etc.

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