crystal healing and the cult of american catholicism

Something from The Week called The profound sadness of crystal therapy is a good conversation-starter about religion. The author, Matthew Walther, is a conservative Catholic dude. I don’t believe crystals have magical healing powers, but I’m sure I understand them better than Walther. My point of view is that I’m into psychology, anthropology, and Asian religion stuff (zazen, tai chi). Just without the woo.

He begins:

I am staring at one of the most bizarre and complicated charts you are ever likely to see outside the pages of a late-medieval alchemy manual. Fourteen rows of named colors are divided upon into four columns: “Energy,” “Effect,” “Chakra,” and “Stone.” To me, it reads like something out of the Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. But for some people, this is a highly serious, indeed a quasi-religious document.

This is the chart he’s talking about.

I’ve never been into the chakra thing, honestly. I took a yoga class a long time ago, but I never got that deep into it. I thought about Buddhism and Hinduism, and Buddhism made more sense to me. I just kept doing some of the stretches as a prelude to sitting meditation, without thinking of it as “yoga.”

However, I recently special-interested in Tibetan Buddhism and Bon for a while, then I read the I Ching and started doing tai chi. I’ve read things by Alexander Shulgin and Terence McKenna, so I have Burning Man tendencies although I’m too autistic to actually want to go. And politics.

Anyway, that was not my reaction to the chart. It makes me wonder if the whole thing originates with the synesthesia of priests or shamans a long time ago.

The point is not to believe in crystals. The point is to understand why they would seem reasonable to someone else. You have to imagine what it would be like to believe in crystals and have all those associations internalized. Recently at Taco Bell, a crazy lady was explaining to a teenager that she was very confused about the colors. She knows red is stop and green is go, but what about the others? They’re everywhere, y’know? What does it all mean it’s all too much I can’t take it.

Imagine that she went into seclusion and meditated and figured out what the colors mean by getting in touch with her synesthesia. Then she wrote it down. It would be a religious sect. In fact, this is a Bon viewpoint (Wonders of the Natural Mind: The Essence of Dzogchen in the Native Bon Tradition of Tibet).

There are particular techniques to produce the experience of light such as by looking at the sun, gazing into the sky, or doing the dark retreat. An easier way is to close our eyes and press our eyeballs slightly with our fingers so that we see the natural, self-arising light. This is the inner light. There is an infinite number of different visions we can see in this way, such as five-colored circles of light, light beads, images, stupas, or mandalas. Whatever is present in the mind can manifest as vision. When we project the light outwards, it manifests as the visible forms (people, houses, etc.) that we see. They are produced by the gross elements but their true quality is the pure light of the primordial condition. Likewise, inner sound manifests externally as music, noise, and so forth.

If you’re really practicing that stuff, you’ll be tracking any changes in your entoptic stuff, with implications for how your practice is going.

When Walther sees the same chart, he doesn’t see much.

According to The New York Times, belief in the mystical healing properties of crystals is now “practically as common as drinking green juice and practicing yoga.” The fact that I have no idea what “green juice” is and am not acquainted with a single practitioner of yoga gives you a sense of how cut off some of us are from the interests and habits of wealthy educated Americans in major metropolitan areas.

I have a hard time believing that a conservative Catholic who writes for the National Review doesn’t have upper-class friends who like smoothies. Nobody at church is on a diet?

He says he doesn’t know anyone who practices yoga, but that’s because he’s a religious wingnut who thinks yoga is a form of Satanism. And so are his friends.

But I don’t think crystal therapy is amusing or especially sinister, though I would not willingly go within a mile of a shop that catered to it or any other occult practice. I would prefer to say that it’s pathetic — in the older sense of the word, neglected by our cruel age, meaning not risible or absurdly inadequate but “arousing pity, especially through vulnerability or sadness.”

Because let’s face it: There is something profoundly sad about people so cut off from the frightening — but also more than occasionally achingly beautiful — reality of what it means to be human that they manage to convince themselves that a little piece of fossilized tree sap can help them have better relationships or just feel calmer.

He’s shitting on people from the perch of Catholicism, which is a Real Religion. He means that in the sense that he thinks his magic is real, unlike their magic. His God is bigger than yours.

Forty percent of Americans believe in extra-sensory perception. One in three espouse confidence in telepathy; a quarter accept the reality of clairvoyance and astrology. Together we spend some $34 billion a year on alternative medicine, from aromatherapy to chiropractic to tantra. Meanwhile not even half of American Catholics are aware of what the Church teaches about Christ’s Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. CEOs of luxury brands who cover their iPhones in shungite crystals are not the only sojourners in this confused and confusing age.

Those who without realizing it seek among the rocks and stones what others long ago found and some of us continue to find elsewhere deserve our sympathy — and our prayers.

What he’s saying is that he’s a condescending prick. He’s a bully who grew up and learned some writing skills.

He emphasizes Otherness throughout.

It’s not surprising that adherents of crystal therapy seem to be predominantly coastal and in demanding jobs in high-stress industries like fashion and show business. Material Girl, Mystical World: The Now Age Guide to a High-Vibe Life, Ruby Warrington’s recent crystal therapy memoir, is full of passages that almost brought me to tears. Most of these addressed what it’s like to live in a world where you have no family and are busy trying to work very hard in a spiritually unedifying business while living in “a $4K-a-month shoebox infested with roaches and vermin” and going on “an endless round of blind ‘friend dates’ with similarly rootless people” and trying really hard not to hate yourself.

This is a milieu that is totally alien to me. I have never felt overly pressured at work or worn out caring about my appearance or exhausted from trying to impress people. My bosses have been almost uniformly nice people; some former ones are great friends. When I am feeling anxious or sad, I usually just listen to music or have a beer or ask my 2-year-old for a hug. I also pray a lot. But for complicated personal and historical reasons this is not something that occurs to most 20-somethings working for tech startups. For Warrington, taking an evening off to giggle and soak up non-existent rock energy is what makes life bearable. (One of her chapters is actually titled “Healing is the New Nightlife,” which would be a great advertising slogan for the Archdiocese of New York pushing extra hours for confession in the evening during Lent.)

The thing is, he gets to write for The Week and now everybody knows how he looks down on New Age people. Any New Age reader would now be familiar with both perspectives. He managed to immerse himself in the other side enough to write a story about it, without learning anything. This is what it means to be closed-minded. Instead of confronting reality as an information-gathering exercise, neutrally, he can’t get over the gratification of performing a dominance display.

In one of the sources he links, Melissa Matthews tries it herself.

Askinosie said that most beginners connect to a tumbled stone before advancing to raw crystals or jewelry. She advises setting your intention with each rock before reconnecting with it throughout the day, which can be done by wearing jewelry, performing a ritual, or even just carrying it with you. Deciding to go the beginner route with tumbled stones, I found a store in my area and had a quick consultation with the associate. As he explained the best crystals for my purposes, I couldn’t help but wonder if he really bought into the whole thing. Having a serious discussion about how a rock could bring love into my life felt way too weird. I finally settled on three crystals based on what I was looking for: more energy, more love, and better productivity.

If you’ve associated the crystals with certain qualities you want to cultivate, and if playing with the crystals reminds you of those intentions, that’s an effective mindfulness exercise.

I got tattoos of some lines (I Ching 53) and a circle (enso) to remind myself of things, which is just as arbitrary. With simple practices like that, I don’t see what I’d gain by starting to drink wine and believe it literally becomes the Blood of Christ. Gross!

Wasn’t he the one making fun of alchemy?

I’m not Catholic, and will never be Catholic, but I’ve talked about Feyerabend on the Galileo trial. I’ve said favorable things about an unpopular thing the Catholic Church did. I think this guy talking about chivalry is at least a better alternative to joining the alt-right:

I went to Gonzaga debate camp in olden times, and I learned a lot there.

Isn’t the American right talking back to the Pope about global warming? You can’t tell American men nothin’.

Three major US studies have found that liberal Catholics were far more motivated and inspired by the encyclical than conservative Catholics. The most recent study, published last week in the International Journal of Cognitive Science, concluded that “encyclical messages were processed through the perceptual filter of political ideology”. We have no research on the response of Catholics outside the United States but can be reasonably confident, based on wider research on climate change attitudes, that these findings could extend to other developed countries.

What was more surprising, though, was that the encyclical actually increased polarisation. Research by Yale University found that following the publication of the encyclical the number of Catholics who strongly trusted the Pope as a source of information about global warming increased by a quarter. The number who strongly distrusted him doubled.

Scanning the language of Laudato Si reveals one of the fundamental problems: in every way it speaks to and embodies left-wing values and frames. Growth and affluence are condemned at every turn and the transformative opportunity of renewable energy (indeed, the word “opportunity” itself) are mentioned only once. The framing of “justice”, which research by Climate Outreach and University of Wales has found to among the most politically polarising, is used throughout.

Maybe this is understandable: after all “social justice” is one of the key terms in Catholic social teaching. Less explicable is the abstruse focus on what Pope Francis calls “integral ecology” – the word “ecology” is used over 80 times. The canticle of St Francis of Assisi, with its praise for Sir Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Mother Earth, inspired his papal namesake so much that it is enshrined in the text. It might be well-suited to an eco-activist circle but it hardly speaks well to the values of urban conservatives.

Thankfully few people will get that far. Donald Trump is notoriously uninterested in reading anything at all but even dedicated readers will find it hard to wade through this dense and verbose text. As with any church teaching, it is only through simplification and then diffusion through sermons and church publications that it will become salient to ordinary Catholics.

But this is where we can see the greatest disappointment. In a survey by Yale University only 18% of Catholics said that the Pope’s views on global warming had been discussed in their church after publication. The encyclical evidently failed to break through the barriers of collective silence that remove climate change from the domain of public awareness.

The implication is that right wing Catholicism is a primitive folk religion. It’s not preliterate, but it’s not very literate. It’s a cult where they removed everything about being nice.

Because they’ll hate this comparison: it’s a legitimate religion in the sense that ebonics is a legitimate language.

This is what happens when that sort of guy does get into crystals:

San Spirituality has more interesting thoughts on where crystal healing comes from:

Such, then, is the worldwide importance of glistening stones, crystals, and gold. Shamans see in them the light that they experience in altered states, and they therefore ascribe special properties to them. Those properties vary from culture to culture, but a common thread is their association with altered states of consciousness. We suggest that it may be a visual parallel between glistening, reflecting eyes and shiny crystals that often leads people to associate crystals with shamanistic sight and experience. Sight and visions are both intimately associated with light. This association was powerfully expressed by a San shaman: “The light knocks me out.”

…Because the people of the southern African Middle Stone Age were anatomically modern, their brains too must have had the potential to be triggered in the same ways as those of people today. In certain circumstances, the refraction of light produced by crystals and shiny stones sets in train a neurological event that, if encouraged by the subject, leads to some sort of altered state of consciousness. That encouragement is developed by training and by concentration–by shutting out other sensory inputs. It is the technique used by a hypnotist when he or she asks a subject to concentrate on a sparkling ornament or a swinging pendulum.

We emphasize two points. First, the effects of the sorts of stones we are discussing are not automatic. Although every brain has the potential to be affected and to move into an altered state, the desire that this should happen is conditioned by social circumstances. For whatever reasons, the subjects’ society must value altered states. Second, our argument is not a simple analogy between people of today and those who lived in the Middle Stone Age; rather, we work from a link that is built into the human brain.

Walther is emotionally cut off from the possibility of religious experience, so he has the Catholicism of a conquistador.


This stuff was cool in the 1990s! It was on MTV and everything! Not only harmless to the corporate bottom line, but marketable! Today it’s thoughtcrime. Back then, it was understood that people weren’t actually going to do anything. They were going to do what I did, which is grow up and get a job securing corporations’ websites. I’m responsible for making sure they have a good customer experience, and I even succeed at this. Essentially, I help corporate America with its overcaffeinated anxiety problem.

They felt more secure in their power in the 1990s. Today, I had to wonder whether embedding that Rage Against the Machine video had ominous legal implications because the person who posted it appended the address of an organization I’m not familiar with to the end of the video. Then I realized I have nothing to worry about because the government hates political correctness and supports free speech.

The white men came and reformed that genre of music.

That’s the kinda diversity I’m talkin’ about, if you know what I mean.