What are the actual risks?

People sometimes worry they’re going to attract something horrible or take major risks by trying something out. That’s probably not true, but it’s definitely a good idea to think about what you’re doing and learn to evaluate the risks of trying something new. This article will help you do that.

Doing: spiral on a golden background

What are the risks?

One of the fascinating things about risks is that what people worry about and what the actual common risks are are sometimes quite different. (You should, however, check out my article on practical health and safety issues, too.)

I’ve found that risks fall into three broad categories:

  • More common risks
  • Things people worry about a lot
  • Things that affect energy

More common risks:

1) Making commitments to a deity or entity too quickly or not setting boundaries / limits.

Some people want to rush into making commitments to a deity right away. I think it’s better to take time to learn and build a relationship. When you’re ready to commit to something, start with a short term, tightly focused one (like “I’m committing to learning about you every day for a month” or making a simple offering every week).

If that goes well, then you can try it for three months next time, or add something else to the commitment.

2) Trying a brand new practice without understanding how it works, what might go wrong with it, and how to trouble shoot that or stop the practice safely if you need to.

I always recommend adding one new practice at a time, and getting familiar with it before you add other new things. Learn how your body, mind, and spirit respond first!

3) Practical safety issues (being outside too long in heat or cold without appropriate steps), using herbs without research (salves or incense), not taking precautions about candles, breakable objects, or other physical safety things like that.

Learn more about safety issues.

Fortunately, these are all pretty easy to avoid if you take your time, understand what you’re doing before you try a new thing, and think through safety precautions.

Avoid making long-term or large commitments until you’ve made shorter and smaller ones. Try one new thing at a time, rather than dive into the deep end. Check out appropriate precautions before you use a new tool.

What do people worry about?

Sometimes people worry more about other things. Sometimes this is because of things they’ve been told, or read about, or heard about. (Sometimes from unreliable sources, sometimes from reliable sources where the thing that happened does happen, just not that often.)

People often worry about:

  1. Affecting their energy in ways that might not be good.
  2. Attracting not-good entities (or ones that are scary or unwanted)
  3. Sensations or experiences you find uncomfortable or scary.
  4. Other types of risks (often labelled ‘doing something wrong’.)

Fortunately, these are also usually pretty easy to solve the same way : take things slowly, don’t do things you don’t understand, don’t try lots of new things all at once. Let’s look at some specifics.

Things that affect energy:

It is possible to do a ritual thing where you end up overloaded with too much energy (or sometimes, where you end up using so much energy you’re drained and need time to recover.) This can definitely be uncomfortable!

But if you think of it like drinking too much caffeine or having too much sugar (so you’re jittery and uncomfortable) or like doing too much while exercising or doing things you don’t normally do, you can probably see there are ways to both avoid it, and that rest and a little patience go a long way to fixing it.

I also tend to think that a little discomfort is a way we often learn and grow a lot. Not that we should do things way out of our comfort zone that scare us! But trying a thing that makes us feel a little uneasy for a few minutes, when we can stop any time usually will mean we learn more than if we stop the first time we feel something weird.

Some ways to avoid this problem

Keep a journal

It doesn’t need to be a big deal – just running notes of what you’ve been doing and what it’s making you feel or what’s working and what isn’t. This can help you track down patterns.

(Our bodies or the environment can affect how we feel, so knowing that my concentration goes to pieces about 2 days before a major storm front moves in helps me not blame myself when it happens. People who menstruate often notice some patterns in their energy that go with that cycle. Some people notice patterns with foods, or amount or quality of sleep.)

If you know that you have times things are easier or harder, or fine or scarier, you’re in a great place to track down what’s going on and figure out better options for yourself.

Build habits of self-awareness

A lot of magical practice around energy involves being aware of what you’re feeling and why. I was trained to take a moment or two to see how I felt before doing any ritual work or practice exercises.

How did I feel physically? Did I feel sick or have a headache or stiffness somewhere? Did I feel tired? Or did I feel good? How did I feel emotionally? Was I happy? Sad? Stressed? How did I feel energetically – did I feel like I could do lots of things, or was I tired and run down?

Then I’d do whatever I was doing, and check in with myself again after I was done. Pretty commonly, I’d feel different (and often better!) but I might be more tired but less stressed, or something else. I’d write this down, and over time I saw some useful patterns (and also, it was a lot easier to remind myself to do some practices regularly when I saw how much they helped.)

Begin with simple exercises, build over time

One example might be to start with simple counted breaths. Then you might try different breathing patterns thought to build energy or calm you down, and explore what those things feel like in your body when you’re not doing anything else and can stop as soon as you feel uncomfortable if you need to. You might try pore breathing (breathing in energy to fill your entire body) or focus on exhaling things you don’t want anymore.

Once you know how breathing affects you, you could then try other common exercises like centering, then centering and grounding. Each time, starting with a basic approach, trying a couple of different ways until you find one or more that work for you and seeing how they’re different. (This is a place where you might need to ask for help: different things work for different people.)

You probably want to try a given exercise several times with minor variations (time of day, how you feel). You might find it easier to do something when you’re very awake or tired, or excited about something or relaxed. You may find changes if you’re getting over a cold or a headache or had a bad day at work. A lot of exercises feel different once they stop feeling quite so new and awkward.

Build up ritual practices step by step

You can think about this like learning to cook. Probably you’d start with a simple recipe that only has a few steps, and where it’s easy to tell if you did it right or not (or at least didn’t do it wrong). When you felt more confident with that, you might try a new technique. You wouldn’t start by trying to make a five course menu for a dinner party all at once. Ritual practice is very like that.

In my training, we started by finding a space in our homes for a shrine, then cleaning that space energetically of unwanted energy (banishing) regularly for a week or two. Then we’d move on to putting wanted energy into that space. We’d then do a simpler version of this periodically for a while, while taking care of the shrine, until it became habit.

These are two of the early steps in circle casting, so it also built experience with different feels of energy in a space, but without moving on to try anything more involved.

Once we had that down, we would move to doing a larger space (like a room), trying some different methods (sound, broom, chants, etc.) and then to scribing the circle. We’d practice just doing the scribing and opening of the circle regularly for a month or two at least before we added anything new, then we’d work on calling the quarters and thanking them.

You’ll notice these most recent steps all have two parts: inviting a thing, or creating an energy, and then thanking them and telling them we’re done, or undoing the energetic construction. This is an important practice for anything you’re doing that has a lasting effect.

The other part about this is that up until you start calling the quarters, the energies involved aren’t terribly likely to attract other entities. (It’s possible, just not that interesting, y’know? It’s sort of like a car driving by on a fairly busy street: a little blip in the noise and movement that doesn’t really affect you 99% of the time if you’re sitting in your home.)

So by the time you get to inviting specific entities (guardians or ancestors or deities), you already have a solid way to have a line between you and other things that might be curious. (And then, of course, you can be very specific about what’s welcome in your circle and what isn’t.)

Entities and curiosity

I already touched on this above, but basically, taking your time, doing one new thing each time, helps a lot. It’ll stop you getting in over your head. If something doesn’t feel good, you’ll be pretty sure what it was, and can figure out alternatives.

The other big part is being aware that just because an entity expresses an interest doesn’t mean you have to do anything about it. As humans, we run into other humans a lot: a few might become friends or chosen family, but most of the time we see someone grocery shopping or at an event, or on our street, and we don’t have a lot of interaction. Or we might choose to avoid someone we don’t care for.

While there are occasional nasties out there (just like there are humans out there who might hurt us), most of the time entities are like people we see in public. A few will be curious about us, but most are just going along doing their thing.

Usually someone runs into the nasties only if they’re really unlucky (wrong place, wrong time), or if they are doing things that make them very attractive energetically to an unusual degree without the ability to protect themselves.

Note: the steps above won’t do that. I’m talking things like doing a circle where you deliberately invite stuff to come see you that you don’t specify, or are deliberately looking for power and to mess with other people, or very very strong emotions that are out of control and backed by ritual energy.

Sensations and experiences

I have a long list of useful safety precautions, which I recommend to anyone’s attention. It covers a lot of the physical safety things (and again, this is where I’ve seen a lot more people have problems.) It also covers a lot of topics where our bodies can feel weird, but there’s a good physical explanation.

In most other cases, taking things slowly, building one new thing in at a time, and understanding what you want to do, how you’re going to do it, and how to undo it will go a long way.

If you do over-reach yourself somehow, resting and doing something you find calming and relaxing is a good move. Just like our physical bodies will heal if we get out of their way after doing something stupid, our energetic selves will figure out how to get better if we pause and let ourselves recover. Practicing centering and grounding will also help, but mostly getting out of our own way, eating and sleeping and resting will do most of it.

When I was regularly doing new magical and ritual things, I tried to make sure the day after trying a new significant technique was an easy day for me, so I could curl up with a book or have a long bath, or do something else low-key and soothing if I needed to. I didn’t usually need to, but there have been a couple of times I was really glad I’d made those plans.

Know your body

Finally, some kinds of ritual work can have an effect on chronic health issues. People doing intensive ritual work can have blood sugar or blood pressure or other reactions, but that’s usually true if it’s a big new thing, or an intense new experience.

For example, a simple circle to celebrate the summer solstice, probably won’t be a problem unless heat or not eating for a while causes them a problem, but a long emotionally intense ritual for Samhain that includes dancing, waiting to eat until a particular part of the ritual, more incense than usual, and a lot of different energies might be more of a problem for some people or at some times.

Personally, I find I tend to feel better in circle (asthma is less of an issue for me, even for activities where my lungs would usually complain, I am less sensitive to migraine triggers while in circle, etc.) but that sometimes goes away rapidly when we finish ritual.

This is part of why a lot of ritual magic advises you to sit down, have something to eat (eating is grounding and lets your body begin to rebalance itself) and rest for a bit before attempting to drive or do anything else complicated.

Ways to avoid problems

Develop resources to check out concerns. This might be a series of blogs you read about topics, an online forum where you can ask questions, or trusted friends. It will help if some of them are interested in the same kinds of magical or religious practices you are, but you can learn a lot from people with common sense with different practices. Trusted non-Pagan friends can still tell you if you’re reacting from a place that isn’t like you, or doesn’t seem good for you.

Know what you’re doing and how you’re planning to do it. If you’re not sure of specifics, sort those out before you start. (Think of this like reading the instructions on how to put something together or reading a recipe before you start making the thing. It avoids you realising suddenly you desperately need something you can’t reach.)

If you are using a ritual circle, understand what it does and does not do. This means both generally, and specifically for your ritual circle. If you are learning about circle casting, take it in smaller pieces.

Don’t invite any being who wants to show up. (Anymore than you’d invite anyone who walked by your house to a party). Start with specific invitations, either by name or by a thoughtful well-considered epithet or description (if you want to honour a being, but don’t know what name is best.)

Be cautious if you are upset, furious, or otherwise coming from a place of strong emotions. Strong emotions are real things, and important, but we don’t always make our best choices when we’re feeling them. This is a great time to ask other people for feedback or advice.

Title card: (Actual) risks in witchcraft and how to avoid them.

Last updated December 24, 2016. Reformatted November 2020.

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