Raven Digitalis's new book, Esoteric Empathy, begins with a quote from Albert Einstein pulled from a 1950 letter that the scientist wrote to Robert S. Marcus of the World Jewish Congress. "A human being is a part of the whole," writes Einstein, "called by us 'Universe', a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness."
On the surface, Esoteric Empathy looks like a rabbit hole into the metaphysical realm, especially since Digitalis, a local neopagan priest and cofounder of the Opus Aima Obscurae temple, has written other books for audiences interested in magick and the occult. But the Einstein quote foreshadows a more accurate accounting of the book as an exploration of empathy through the lenses of science and spirituality. Fresh off a West Coast book tour, the spiritual leader and longtime KBGA DJ spoke with the Indy about empathy as strength.
First of all, explain to me what an empath is.
Empaths are individuals who have a higher amount of empathy than is considered average. And empathy is the experience of absorbing and mirroring emotions from outside sources. People who self-identify as empaths often have trouble understanding where their emotions end and another's begin.
Albert Einstein seems like a good launchpad for people who might be more skeptical of the mystical aspect of empathy. Was that your intention?
I think that quote does appeal to those of a more scientific mind—and science is not something I dismiss in my book. I embrace it as a complement to metaphysics and spirituality. I don't like to get too deep into the realms of superstition. I like to back things up with evidence as much as possible, even if it's just experiential.
Western schools of medicine don't recognize the term "empath," but they do use the clinical term "highly sensitive person." Do you see a relationship between those things?
Most of the studies I looked at purposefully address empathy in psychotherapy, but they wouldn't use the term empath, because that term has more of a mystical connotation. An early portrayal of an empath was in Star Trek, and that's what jump-started the awareness of that term. But empathy itself is massively studied in science in many different fields. The term "highly sensitive person" is both scientific and metaphysical, but I think a lot of people have adopted the term empath at this point.
In what way did an empath appear in Star Trek?
With a character called Gem, and I talk about her in one of the chapters. It was really the first public exposure to an empath, and it happened in the original Star Trek series in an episode called "The Empath." That was one of the best kinds of research: sitting in the bathtub with a bottle of wine watching "The Empath" on Netflix, being like, "Oh yeah, this is all research."
You consider yourself an empath. How did you come to that conclusion?
When I was 16 years old at Sentinel High School, I was just getting involved in magick and mysticism and witchcraft and alternative spirituality. I had a series of emotional breakdowns, and I didn't know what was going on with me. When I consulted with spiritual elders, they informed me that I was an empath, which is like an emotional psychic, and ever since that moment, I've been researching empathy. I really dove in whole hog for this book, looking at every angle possible.
- photo courtesy of Forrest Hardin
- Raven Digitalis, neopagan priest and cofounder of the Opus Aima Obscurae temple, spent 7 years researching empathy for his new book.
In the book you talk about how you often have worn more alternative clothing that's made you stand out, and yet being an empath means you're more sensitive to judgment from others. Can you explain how that has created conflict for you?
In my younger days—and I'm only 33 now—I would wear a lot more makeup and spiky hair and artistic clothing. These days I've kind of toned it down, not because I want to blend in more, but because I'm feeling a little more mellow in my older age. But when I was dressing extremely differently I'd get a lot of emotion in my sphere, because people would look at me and judge me and I'd pick up on that energy. I did an experiment at one point about 10 years ago, while I was at the University of Montana, where I would wear totally normal clothing, covered my tattoos, took out my piercings, wore baseball caps and blazers. And I didn't absorb as much emotion. I blended right in.
Did that make you want to dress like that more to avoid being overwhelmed by other people's attention?
No, because it wasn't me. I wasn't being true to myself. That's the dilemma. But it was a great learning experience.
How does empathy play into the music you spin on KBGA?
I choose songs that mirror my emotions. Those emotions are then refracted out through the community for listeners to process and, hopefully, help somebody who is feeling the same way, whether positive or negative or somewhere in between. It becomes a cathartic act of magick. If I'm feeling chipper, I'll play more upbeat songs, and if I'm feeling morose, I'll play sad stuff—but not too sad. I used to play some really hopeless suicidal sad music, but I don't do that much anymore.
When most people think of magic, they think of tricks and spells, like with Harry Potter. But magick, with a "ck," has a different connotation. Can you explain it?
For me, all of reality is spiritual and magical. We all co-create reality with our minds and our intentions, so the act of magick is more of a lifestyle of attempting to live in tune with nature and with each other, socially. When people sit down to perform magick in the form of a ritual or a spell or a prayer, they take their mental and emotional and physical energy and focus their entire selves toward a goal or toward a mystical union with divinity in one of its innumerable forms. It really is something that permeates everything in human existence. It's a kind of focus.
Do you think political division in our country right now can be attributed partly to a lack of empathy?
I think politically we see so much division between the self and other—we're good, they're bad. And people buy into this drama and fabrication because they don't know any better, or don't care to look beneath the surface. Greed and the lust for power are what has always controlled politics, and the more we can encourage empathy there, the better.
One of your chapters is called "Approaching the Mundane World," which speaks to the idea that being creative—practicing magick—isn't often appreciated in a capitalistic society. Why do you think that is?
I think there's a sense of safety in compartmentalizing things. There's also a sense of safety in identifying the self as being different from the other, but empathy is what breaks down those boundaries. By evoking empathy we can identify, or at least attempt to identify, with anybody and everybody, and work from there. That's what psychologists are doing in their work, and so are spiritualists. And empathy is a force necessary for evolution.