Cleansing is a concept that comes up a lot around magic practice. I think there’s much mileage in thinking about what we might want to cleanse, and why, and how that relates to your world view. In witchcraft it tends to be about the removal of negative influences or unwanted energy that might conflict with your intentions. In spiritual practices, cleansing is often about the idea of purifying body and spirit to be more acceptable to the gods, and to help you transcend dirty, earthly things for the life of spirit.
Before you can cleanse anything then, you have to figure out in what way you consider it to be dirty, and what ‘clean’ would mean. Now, I have to say that in nature based religion, cleansing, cleanness and purity are all tricky words. Nature is dirt, and shit, and decay just as much as it is pretty flowers and nice birds. Some of it I’m more inclined to get close to than other bits, but if I start from the premise that nature is sacred, I want to be careful around ideas of cleansing in case it turns into a rejection of some part of life and the natural world.
What about cleansing myself? I make some effort to be sure the outside of my body is passably groomed and not unpleasant smelling. I also consider what I’m putting into my body in food and drink so I’m not dirtying myself with pollutants any more than I can avoid. I have a lot of mess and pain in my history, and dubious mental health as a consequence. Do I want to try and cleanse that away? Well, it’s part of my journey, it has been a great teacher, there’s a balance to strike between what to take with me and what to let go of. It’s not simple.
Might I want to purify my thoughts to be more spiritual? Yes, but I don’t believe I can do that in single acts of ritual cleansing. What I have to do is look at and work with my thinking over time to make sure I am not carrying about ideas I don’t believe or perpetrating ideas I don’t like, or inflicting on myself attitudes I would find unbearable if inflicted on anyone else.
When it comes to cleansing other things, there’s also the issue of free will. I have an animist perspective, give or take. I see the potential for not just spirit, but also intention and autonomy in things around me. I can’t assume that anything else has no opinions and won’t mind me waltzing in, and imposing my idea of spiritual cleanliness on it. This means if I want to do a ritual and my chosen space has picked up a bad atmosphere, I need to take time finding out what’s going on there, what the problem is, what would help. Sweeping out the negative influences may well not solve the problem, and might cause bigger issues in the longer term.
Traditional magic seems to me to be very much about imposing your will. If you’re looking at a largely unaware reality then this may feel comfortable. If you think everything else might have will and preferences too, forcing your will onto anything becomes ethically problematic. When that will expresses my understanding of purity, cleanliness spiritual acceptability, usefulness, there are a lot of value judgements involved, and a value judgement is not the same as being right.
On the whole, I would rather be open to experiences that might change me, than seek any means of ‘purifying’ myself.