Words and Incantatory Magic

I am:

Star-studded midnight blue


Velvet worn down by rough fingers

Cicadas that sing for an eternal summer

Thick maroon wine

Clanging pipes distorted into melody by the welcoming receiver

The hollow of the chest belonging to the one you have named Home


I’ve always pondered what it could mean to live a beautiful life—a life that is the stuff of legend and gross hyperbole, that is shrouded in the kind of mystery that summons whispered murmurs and hypnotic fantasies. For me, creating the kind of persona whose life force could push myths into existence and haul boulders into place began with my words. Quite literally.

I recently experienced this with a friend of mine with whom I was engaged in a practice known as Inner Relationship Focusing. It’s all about getting in touch with the labyrinthine world of sensations and emotions that often escapes our notice and that we tend to relegate to little more than fleeting sensations. But this world is the birthplace of my words, imbued with its own uncanny gestalt.

In the beginning of the session, I told my partner that I wanted to investigate what I experienced as an ongoing obsession with security and certitude. Mysteriously, as my inquiry deepened, I received exactly what I had come for. Not some abstract tete-a-tete with the security that is in common parlance, but a literal experience of security that transcended my previous associations. I quickly recognized that my body felt like it weighed a ton; in fact, I had assumed a solidity, a rootedness, an impermeability and obduracy that made me question whether or not I was hallucinating or caught in some fortuitous mystical spiral that had temporarily given me leave of my body. As hard and enormous as I was, I also felt in myself a softness that was quite strange…almost as if I were a cool, chalky mass of limestone hulking in an airy but humid cave in the bowels of my earth. The certitude my human self had always sought seemed like a moot point. Here, in this unmarked cavern, I was certitude incarnate and there was no question whatsoever of my belonging.

In effect, I had managed to manufacture not just the generic idea of security but the sensation of what security really was, from its own point of view. It was a revelation: now, the experience I was having actually matched the word that I’d injected with so much fruitless longing. Security wasn’t a good job or a big house or a changeless community; it was an a priori state of being, a subjectivity in and of itself.

Words have power. We all know that.

Our intentions themselves have power when we speak them as words, especially to others—but beyond this, they contain an even greater power: the power to merge us with the experience we are verbally describing. Rather than vague metaphors and stand-ins for the real thing, they can actually be the real thing.

This is the power of incantation that poets and sorcerers alike have known. And I knew it in that moment of becoming the limestone boulder. In speaking the words of my longing, I became one with it. I would have no need for substitutes for security anymore.


But I want to speak of another way incantatory magic works: words themselves are not solid, so we can actually come to see the lies behind some of the words that abound in our culture: words like patriotism, nation, morality, loyalty, etc.

About a year ago, I was listening to a poem I’d never heard being recited by Chuck Berry on the radio, on a cold dark drive home from my partner’s grandmother’s 91st birthday party on Long Island. (The specificity of the occasion seems important to mention.) There was an ache in my heart as I listened to these words, plaintively stated by the man who was indisputably the predecessor of rock n’ roll and who perhaps never fully received such acknowledgement in his own lifetime.

I began to think about the tawdry details of his personal life, which then led me to consider the effects of respectability politics. People like Bill Cosby or practically any evangelical or senator who got caught with his pants down getting a blow job from a prostitute are common purveyors of respectability politics. Respectability politics is a system whereby people who may or may not belong to marginalized groups police the members of these groups by insisting their values be compatible with those of the mainstream—instead of challenging the mainstream for its failure to accommodate difference and dismantle the oppressive structures that are responsible for said community’s downtrodden status.

Then one thought led to another, and I contemplated the myth of “inherent goodness,” which is often exploited by our culture of domination to get us in lockstep with ideals that have nothing to do with goodness, but with compliance. This is how political leaders who are accountable for some of the world’s most egregious crimes can wax poetic about God, decency, and good old family values without any irony whatsoever. They have encountered another one of language’s superpowers: the magical spell that is cast by words that have been emptied of their meaning, that have become like trompe l’oeils on peeling wallpaper. There is no there there, and we know it, but still we seem to see what we see…a vision that has been orchestrated by design.

But it’s true that even empty words hold many of us captive. Through these words, many of us internalize the slogans of the powers that be and continue to do their bidding. Words create programs that are orchestrated by design. The legends and origin stories surrounding these words are usually pregnant with the malformed fetuses of power, corruption, heroism, and ascendancy over the natural world.

The well of words that rise up to meet our true values, not just our imagined ones, must emerge from new myths.

These new myths that I desire are connected to the experience of beauty, not as an objective reality dictated by hegemonic ideas—but as an experience of intersubjectivity, connection, and permeable boundaries. So permeable that a human sitting and pondering the whats and wherefores of security can actually become the epitome (not a mere signifier) of security. Of course, myths such as those surrounding nationalism and ideal citizenship deny us this very experience of permeability, as well as the capacity to cross borders unhindered.

To experience beauty is to touch the untouchable, to know the unknowable, and to encounter the core essence of something as opposed to our simple-minded concepts of that thing. As a woman in my late 30s, it took me a pathetically long time to determine that my core essence is not in makeup, a sexy outfit, the way I sway my hips, or the desire that another person feels for me. My ecstasy cannot be contained in stereotypes and manufactured desires. (It is helpful to know this, because it enables me to understand more clearly the deepest romantic disappointments of my life, wherein I sought beauty but never came close to experiencing it…because I was allowing myself to only go so far as tasting the imitation and pretending that it satisfied.)

We so often succumb to imitation, perhaps because we don’t believe the real thing is possible.

Something is demanding our full awareness, and it is not comfortable. It requires sacrifice. It requires giving up what we had once determined to be valuable, not out of self-punishment but because we have allowed the imitations to compromise our clarity and we understand that this is no longer sustainable.

As I listened to that Chuck Berry poem and felt the universe exploding somewhere in the vicinity of my heart, I understood that we are all aching for the real thing—and there are times, usually late at night or early in the morning, when we are searingly clear and capable of seeing beyond the curtain of confusion (another thing orchestrated by design). I understood that the fullness of spirit we experience when we say that it’s ALL beautiful, that all has meaning and purpose, is actually bullshit.

The confusion itself is not beautiful; it’s only the recognition of the essential form and shape behind the dissonant information that makes something like beauty in the midst of despair possible. And that essential form and shape—that elegant silence beyond the curtain before which the drama is constantly unfolding—is usually present, although we are not always aware of it.

This is where the well lives; it is here that we must draw up new, life-giving words to match and augur our potential.

On that night, on the cold drive home, I was so searingly clear. I knew that the divine didn’t want me to merely have my desires fulfilled, especially because what I deem my desires are mostly inextricable from my programming and what it means to be indoctrinated into this culture, with all its empty words. I want to feel less oppressed, naturally, so it makes sense to seek complicity or allyship with the system that oppresses me, because then life would be EASIER.

But I don’t want a life of ease. I want BEAUTY.

That word again, which for me, has become an incantation just as important as “security.” And now, I think I know the true meaning of both.

BEAUTY comes from touching one’s essence, I am sure of this. An essence that transcends ideas of inherent goodness or sinfulness. This is the part of the self that is untrammeled, that cannot be colonized or distorted or beaten into submission.

What happens when our words themselves come from this place?

Our essence can only be touched when the shape beyond the confusion is seen for what it is: egress beyond the door. Communion with the divine. We can only know this when we are not susceptible to the domination system’s programs and orchestral maneuverings such that they undercut our ESSENTIAL desire and subdue our sense of meaning and purpose.

I know that I have to be very careful about my desire for commodified creature comforts, from sisterhood to knowledge to access to rare spaces. I have to be careful that the essential desire isn’t being curtailed or ushered down other avenues that will not serve to feed me or grow my own inner radiance.

The divine doesn’t want me to sit idly by, online shopping or reality TV watching, as Rome burns. The divine wants me to dismantle systems of oppression that cause us to forget our own and each other’s essence and dignity—not by perpetuating destruction but via a direct engagement with BEAUTY.

This isn’t because I am supposed to save the world. Or even myself. Far from it. The divine wants for us only the end of this pointless self-imposed suffering, which keeps the foreground cluttered with systems and beliefs not of our making…and which keeps the background, luminous with the promise of communion and clarity, so far away and mysterious…something that we often talk about but scarcely experience directly.


Our words harbor our intentions, and intentions are often powerful. But although we think we know our own intentions, we often don’t, mainly because we’ve grown accustomed to being emotionally dishonest.

I find this to be true for myself in the denial of my own intentions. When I fail to admit to others, when they question the timbre and tone of a statement I make in passing, that I was, in fact, entertaining terrible thoughts about them—when I feign innocence although I was actually intending to harm them in some way, I become an agent of deceit. This damages relationships in that it impairs the ability to meaningfully decipher and interpret behavior based on energetic impact.

We can always hide behind the veneer of our "intentions," which we believe to be consonant with our words, although our intentions are likely to be seeded with emotional dishonesty. The dishonesty itself is a survival mechanism that enables us to maintain control (over our own messy emotions and other people's reactions to them). It creates the semblance of order, when in fact, it generates greater chaos and keeps us in a state of compliance and complicity with the domination system.

If you can willfully deny what you are feeling and thinking, this blind spot extends to giving everything else in your environment a similar free pass. It's like the internal adult chiding the internal child, "Shhhhh, you didn't see that," and training them to perpetuate the obvious lie. This is where words, ideas, and truths diverge. Hence, our forked realities.

Aside from beauty and security, what I most crave in my life is passionate resonance. But in order to have that, I must be willing to be in passionate resonance with myself, in a state of impassioned self-empathy. In the place where creation and destruction merge and I stand at the precipice of my own unknowing. This is where word magic begins. In the region of the void, where giving and receiving are one.

The well of words signals a new perceptual apparatus. Incantatory magic relies on receiving the vital information of the world beyond the words that have been mindlessly consumed and are now obese with black magic. In returning to something more primordial, we begin to see that our previous ways of seeing were short-sighted. Perhaps too reliant on our sense organs, which are more or less flawed to varying degrees.

There is something profound about interrogating your borrowed concepts, not with your intellect but with your entire presence. You will feel a space open up in what you believe to be your mind, heart, and body—until even those things are subsumed by another state of being. From that simple act of looking/seeing/being with, uninterrupted, without allowing other distractions to intervene.

The culture of domination and oppression plies people with a surfeit of information and stimulation, such that we become severed from our own senses (which, gratefully, number well beyond the five with which we’ve come to know our felt experience). Reconnecting with our own nature will require settling into our senses rather than allowing our lives to be run by traumatized inattention. It will require learning the language of your holiest longings, and writing them into fulfillment.

Incantatory magic will clarify your language so that there can be no mistakes or misgivings. You will speak words that are searingly honest and clear and imbued with beauty. In speaking those words, you will become the very thing from which your former language once separated you.

I’m Nirmala Nataraj, a New York–based writer, editor, book midwife, theater artist, and mythmaker.

As someone who has woven in and out of a number of different word realms—nonprofit communications, advertising, theatre, publishing, and community arts, to name a few—I know that liberation is possible through the stories we choose to tell. As a first-generation South Asian American, I myself exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, art forms, and languages—and it is this multiplicity of narratives that informs my personal and professional approach.

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