Toxic Prayer: Be Careful What You Ask For…

From New Dawn 114 (May-June 2009)

You might be under the impression that authors choose the titles of their own books. That isn’t true – at least not always. If the publishers don’t like the title, they will change it.

Such was the fate of a book published in 1997 by the noted mind-body researcher Larry Dossey, M.D., author of Healing Words and Prayer Is Good Medicine. Dossey had written on a provocative subject: if thoughts and prayers have the power to heal, do they also have the power to harm? He called his book Toxic Prayer, but the publishers, Harper San Francisco (now Harper One), were extremely uncomfortable with this title. They feared a backlash from fundamentalist Christians, who, they imagined, would take up arms against the idea that any kind of prayer could ever be harmful. After an anxious discussion that went all the way to the top of the company’s hierarchy, another, safer, though more flavourless title was chosen: Be Careful What You Pray For…You Might Just Get It.

Whether the decision was a wise one or not (controversy sells books, after all), the whole story raises an awkward issue: is prayer a morally ambiguous force? Can it be used to curse as well as bless? If so, how?

Of course it depends upon what you mean by prayer. In the conventional monotheistic view, prayer is addressed to the one true God (or sometimes his subordinates, such as Mary or the saints or the angels). Since God is all-good, he will either grant this request if it is beneficial or ignore it if it isn’t.

This belief, although engagingly simple and clear, begins to erode if we also accept the idea that thoughts have power in and of themselves. By this view, a thought, whether positive or negative or neutral, has effects that can be felt in the psychic dimension and sometimes physically as well. This perspective, which takes us out of the sphere of religion per se and into that of magic, provides a far more equivocal picture of prayer.

Magic and Invocation

Magic, wrote the notorious twentieth-century occultist Aleister Crowley, is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” This definition, while correct up to a point, is too general to be entirely adequate. If I move a coffee cup around my table with my hand, I am effecting change in conformity with will, but no one would claim that that is magic as such. Magic has to do with effecting change by occult means – that is, by means invisible to ordinary sight and inadmissible by ordinary consciousness. If I were to move the same coffee cup around the table without touching it, this would start to look like magic, since the cause of the movement, whatever it is, cannot be seen.

There are many forms of magic, ranging from sleight-of-hand (that is, using the standard tricks of stage magicians) to suggestion to more genuinely paranormal means. The boundaries between these categories – like the boundary between prayer and magic – are fluid and permeable, but generally we can say that occult magic is believed to work through two principal methods.

The first has to do with spirits. Most occultists believe that there are unseen creatures inhabiting dimensions of reality that intersect with our own: these beings are variously known as spirits, elementals, angels, demons, devas – the lore has countless names for them. According to the magical world view, it’s possible to engage with these creatures. The magicians of the Renaissance, for example, evoked certain spirits using occult rites. If these spirits were approached the right way (through seals, signs, rituals, invocations, and so on), it was believed that they could be beseeched or, more often, forced to obey the magician’s will. The moral status of these spirits was ambiguous – they were often thought to be demons – but that could prove an advantage when there was dirty work to be done.

Here is one invocation, of a spirit called Mirael. Taken from a fifteenth-century manuscript of necromancy found in Munich, it is designed to make someone lose his mind: “May Mirael enter into your brain and dissolve and destroy all wisdom, sense, discretion, and thought. I conjure you, Mirael, by all the princes and elders, and by all that you wish to do, that for as long as it pleases me you will flow through the person I look upon and daze him, and that he lose everything that he does not recognise. Otherwise I shall cast you into the depths of the sea so that you shall not escape for eternity.”

As unsavoury as these practices may sound, they are universal or practically so. Here is another example, this one from the other end of the world. Max Freedom Long, the redoubtable investigator of the Hawaiian form of shamanism known as huna, discusses the death prayer as practiced by the shamans or kahunas: “To become able to use the ‘death prayer’ a kahuna had to inherit from another kahuna one or more ghostly subconscious spirits. (Or he might, if sufficiently psychic, locate subconscious spirit or ghosts, and use hypnotic suggestion to enslave or capture them.)”

Once a kahuna had some of these spirits under his will, he would offer them food and drink so as to imbue them with mana or vital force and then give them very specific instructions about what to do with this energy. They might, for example, be told to find a given person and enter his body or attach themselves to it. Once they had done this, they would suck up the victim’s vital force. When the victim died, the spirits would return to their master, further strengthened by having absorbed the dead person’s mana.

Spirits thus require an infusion of energy or life force. There are a number of ways of supplying it. In ancient times the method of choice was blood sacrifice; as the victim’s blood spilled, the vital force would, as it were, evaporate so that the spirits could consume it.

Homer’s Odysseus describes a sacrifice he has made: “When I had prayed sufficiently to the dead, I cut the throats of the two sheep and let the blood run into the trench, whereon the ghosts came trooping up from Erebus – brides, young bachelors, old men worn out with toil, maids who had been crossed in love, and brave men who had been killed in battle, with their armour still smirched with blood; they came from every quarter and flitted round the trench with a strange kind of screaming sound that made me turn pale with fear.”

How The Death Prayer Works

While blood sacrifice is much less common today than it was in antiquity, it is still used, for example, in Santería, Voudun, and other religions of African origin that are practiced in the Caribbean Islands and South America.

To show how the death prayer works, Long tells of a young Irishman who went to Honolulu and worked as a taxi driver. He became involved with a Hawaiian girl, who then ended her engagement with a Hawaiian boy. The girl’s grandmother, not trusting the young Irishman’s intentions, tried to break up the affair, but without success.

One day, writes Long, the Irishman’s feet “went to sleep.” The pricking numbness that afflicted his feet gradually crept up his body, making him unable to move. The young man did not believe in magic or death prayers or any such nonsense, so he called in conventional American doctors. They were unable to help him. The numbness had spread to his waist by the time an old doctor who had practiced in the islands for many years was summoned. He recognised the symptoms of the death prayer, and making inquiries of the patient, soon learned about the girl and her grandmother. The doctor paid a visit on the grandmother, who said, “Well, I know nothing about the matter and I am no kahuna – as you know. But I think that if the man would promise to take the next ship for America and never return or even write back, he might recover.”

The doctor tried to explain the situation to the still-unbelieving Irishman. Although he resisted at first, finally the patient was persuaded to take the grandmother’s advice. The same day he was able to walk again, and that evening he caught a Japanese ship headed for the West Coast of the US.

How do the kahunas themselves see this whole process? Kahana, a Hawaiian ana’ana priest (priest of the dark forces), explained in an interview: “You are releasing the spirit from this encasement so it can go and get cleansed and purified and come back. It’s time to take it out.”

One detail in Long’s story raises an issue that has long been disputed: does the victim have to believe in these powers in order to be susceptible to them? Dossey cites one researcher who contends that in such cases, “the victim, family members, and all acquaintances must accept the ability and power of the hexer to induce death. This belief must be commonly held with no exceptions.”

Long’s story contradicts this claim. The victim did not believe in such things and continued to scoff at them even as he was dying; moreover, nobody even told him that the death prayer had been aimed at him. Attempting to write off such effects purely as a matter of suggestion would then be inaccurate (although it is easier for scientists to accept, since they feel obliged to dismiss actual occult causes from the outset). Indeed Michael Harner, the noted scholar of shamanism, observed that the Jivaro shamans of South America prefer the victim to be unaware of the psychic attack, because then he would take no measures to counter it. “Distant hexing is a security measure,” he told Dossey in conversation.

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Creating Thought Forms

Working with spirits is one time-honoured way to cause harm; another way is closely related to it. This second approach involves sending not spirits but thought forms – mental images infused with vital energy that can thus make their effects felt in the physical world. The difference between the two methods is in the tools: a spirit is usually regarded as a living, more or less conscious entity, whereas a thought form is the creation of a human mind and has no independent existence.

Admittedly, the line between these two types of magic can be a thin and wavering one. In his Meditations on the Tarot, a contemporary classic of Christian esotericism, Valentin Tomberg writes that this method of creating a thought form is precisely how you create a demon.

As with all generation, that of demons is the result of the cooperation of the male principle and the female principle, i.e., the will and the imagination, in the case of generation through the psychic life of an individual. A desire that is perverse or contrary to nature, followed by the corresponding imagination, together constitute the act of generation of a demon.

A term used in the occult literature for such entities is egregor or egregore, a term supposedly derived from the Greek gregoreuein (“to watch, to stay awake”). One famous instance of the creation of an egregor is related by Alexandra David-Neel, a Frenchwoman of the early twentieth century who penetrated the then-forbidden country of Tibet to learn its occult practices. By dint of intense meditation, she was able to generate the form of a monk that took on a quasi-autonomous existence and even made its presence felt to other people. When the entity started to make a nuisance of itself, David-Neel had to devote another several months of intense meditation to destroying it.

Harming by means of thought forms does not necessarily require the generation of quasi-autonomous psychic entities. Dossey mentions the case of a patient of his, a woman afflicted with chronic fatigue syndrome. The woman was domineering and manipulative while her husband was extremely unassertive. He had always resented his wife; after she fell ill, he started to hate her.

One night, after a bitter argument, the husband stormed out of the house; when he returned, he found his wife dead. The man was overcome with guilt, convinced that his hatred had killed his wife. He refused to enter psychotherapy and instead joined an extremely conservative fundamentalist church, where he was able to assuage his conscience by believing that her death was the will of a wrathful God.

Psychologists sometimes employ the term magical thinking. This involves the belief that an inner wish or emotion somehow caused an effect that later happened in reality. A four-year-old child, for example, may hate his brother and wishes he were dead. The brother then dies; the child then believes that somehow he was the cause of the death. It is a version of the old logical fallacy Post hoc, ergo propter hoc: “After this, therefore because of this.”

Clearly not every case of misfortune can be traced to someone else’s negative thoughts, even if that person really did have those thoughts. Nor is it absolutely clear what the determining factor might be, but it very likely includes the intensity of the desire. A passing irritation that leads a person to say, “I wish he were dead!” probably does not have much effect in most cases. But when the thought is fed and nurtured with intense emotional energy, even unintentionally, it can begin to gain power. The man who thought he had killed his wife had probably directed a huge amount of hatred at her.

I once had a curious experience in this regard myself. A number of years ago I lived next to neighbours who were causing me a great deal of disturbance with their noise. I had spoken to them about it, but it did no good except to change the source of the noise: their rock band practicing in the garage was supplanted by dogs who got on their roof and barked obnoxiously at everything. I felt the negative energy accumulating in myself, and although I intended no harm to them – I merely wanted them to stop disturbing me – a strange thing happened one day. I put a letter in their mailbox asking them yet again to deal with these issues; it was the only time I ever did that. Then I drove to work as usual and was gone for the rest of the day, only getting back late in the evening. The next morning I noticed something strange: a tall tree that had been directly next to their mailbox was gone. Neighbours later told me that a truck had hit the tree that day, and it had to be taken down.

There is, of course, no way that I could prove that my thoughts had this entirely unintended effect, but I had never put anything in their mailbox before and never did again. The coincidence was disturbing, and I had the uncanny feeling of being at psychic war with these neighbours; moreover I began to feel an intense psychic charge around my house. A few months later, not wanting the situation to escalate any further, I solved the problem by moving away.

Thus thought forms, in order to have power, need not have energy directed consciously at them; they can receive this force even when it arises spontaneously and unintentionally. But like spirits, these thought forms do require some energy or vital force in order to operate.

The Dangers Posed by Toxic Prayer

Having briefly surveyed some powerful though unsavoury occult practices, what practical lessons can we draw? In the first place, wishing for harm to someone else is remarkably common; one poll indicated that 5 percent of American surveyed had done it (and we have to assume that this is a low figure, since it only accounts for those who were willing to admit as much). In the second place, it is remarkably dangerous. Indeed magical practices of any kind are dangerous, even when one’s intention is reasonably pure; almost invariably something goes awry, producing results that are not exactly what you might have wanted. Occult magic is rather like trying to sculpt something out of nitroglycerin – a sloppy but also highly explosive material.

The problem is compounded when one is working with an intent to harm. It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to create a thought form or invoke a spirit and remain totally disconnected from it. Thus if you are creating something negative, you can be sure that it will return to you in some form or another, just as in huna the spirits return to the kahuna after they have consumed a victim’s energy. And they are not always easy to control when they are aroused, even by their supposed master.

To illustrate this point, Max Freedom Long tells another story, which happened to his mentor and informant about huna, an American scientist named William Tufts Brigham. During a trip to the Mauna Loa volcano to collect native plants, Brigham found that one of his servants, a twenty-year-old boy, started to fall ill. Although there was ostensibly nothing wrong with him, he began to waste away and, like the Irishman, lost feeling in his legs. The boy believed that he was being prayed to death, and Brigham’s servants, who regarded him as a great kahuna, begged him to send the spirits back to the one who had launched them.

“This is perhaps the easiest thing an amateur magician could be called upon to do,” said Brigham. “The spell had been initiated and the trained spirits sent out. All I had to do was to put up the usual big arguments to talk the brainless things over to my side…. I stood over the boy and began to advance arguments to the spirits. I was smoother than a politician. I praised them and told them what fine fellows they were…. Little by little I worked around to tell them how sad it was that they had been made slaves by a kahuna instead of being allowed to go on to the beautiful heaven that awaited.”

Finally, mustering a supreme concentration of power and will, Brigham let out a tremendous roar. Soon the suffering boy felt better, and in an hour he was up and eating. Later Brigham learned that the kahuna who had sent the curse had neglected to cover himself with the usual occult protection, and by the next morning he was dead.

Much the same is true with thought forms of the more impersonal variety. To begin with, the thought form, in order to have any effect upon the recipient, must find some resonance in him or her.

The Theosophists Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater write: “In cases in which good or evil thoughts are projected at individuals, those thoughts, if they are to fulfil directly their mission, must find, in the aura of the object to whom they are sent, materials capable of responding sympathetically to their vibrations.” Otherwise the thought form will bounce off. “That is why it is said that a pure heart and mind are the best protectors against inimical assaults…. If an evil thought, projected with malefic intent, strikes such a body, it can only rebound from it, and it is flung back with all its own energy; it then flies backward along the magnetic line of least resistance, that which it has just traversed, and strikes its projector; he… suffers the destructive effects he had intended to cause to another.”

The Best Protection

These observations go far toward answering the final and perhaps most pressing question connected with toxic prayer: how do you protect yourself against it? A positive mindset is a good start, so purging thoughts of hatred, judgment and violence from your mind is a necessity. It’s also helpful to clear away negative thoughts that are aimed at yourself: recognise that thoughts of your own weakness, inferiority, vulnerability and sickness are poisons and rid yourself of them. If this kind of thinking has been a lifetime habit, it may prove difficult to break, but even the smallest efforts can bring results and will also create a momentum that gradually builds.

For those with some ability at visualisation, some of the standard forms of occult protection can be useful. The most common is probably envisaging yourself as surrounded by a sphere or ovoid form of white light. But the exact technique you use is probably less important than the clarity and power you bring to the thought, so you will probably do best by experimenting which methods work for you. Conventional prayers can also be employed, such as the Lord’s Prayer, which after all includes the petition “Deliver us from evil.” Again, the specific form of the prayer is not as important as whether it arouses a powerful and positive emotional response in yourself.

Perhaps the chief thing to remember is not to fear. Fear is a negative emotion and weakens you far more than it strengthens you, and it is probably no coincidence that the cultures in which psychic attack is most common are those pervaded by fears of black magic. For this reason, a healthy, grounded, common-sense mindset may be the best protection of all.

This article was published in New Dawn 114.
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Anonymous [Valentin Tomberg], Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, Translated by Robert A. Powell, Warwick, N.Y.: Amity House, 1985

Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, Thought Forms, Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1978 [1901]

Aleister Crowley, Magick in Theory and Practice, New York: Castle, n.d.

Alexandra David-Neel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet, New York: Dover, 1971

Larry Dossey, Be Careful What You Pray For…You Might Just Get It, San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1997

S.E. Hertel, “Kahuna Ana’Ana: The One Who Walks in Darkness”, Gnosis 14 (winter 1990), 30-33

Homer, The Odyssey, Translated by Samuel Butler,; March 10, 2009.

Richard Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century, University Park, Pa.: Penn State Press, 1997

Max Freedom Long, The Secret Science Behind Miracles, Santa Monica, Calif.: DeVorss, 1948

Richard Smoley, “Man as God and Creator”, Gnosis 28 (summer 1993), 56-60

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About the Author

RICHARD SMOLEY is the author of Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition; The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe; Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity; The Essential Nostradamus; Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism; Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History; The Deal: A Guide to Radical and Complete Forgiveness; How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible; and Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (with Jay Kinney). A frequent contributor to New Dawn, he is editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America. Visit his blog at

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