I do a lot of magic. I also play a lot of Beat Saber. These two facts about me seem pretty thoroughly unrelated, but the more Beat Saber I play, the more I don’t think they really are. Magic is intense and personal, and it feels like being on the same wavelength as something primal in the universe. And—hear me out—Beat Saber is the same.

Content Warning: Contains a gif with flashing lights.

I bought an Oculus Quest during quarantine with my tax return money, which seemed like the right thing to do. It had been out of stock for months, so when I got the notification that it was available, I ordered one right away. I thought maybe it would be a good thing to keep me occupied and even help me get a little exercise. Beat Saber was the only game I had ever played on an Oculus before—on a visit to a friend’s house—and was the main reason I wanted my own.

For those who aren’t familiar, the premise is extremely simple. You’re given a colored saber in each hand and boxes fly towards you from the horizon in rhythm to a song. You’re meant to slice the boxes in half, Fruit Ninja style. The boxes are color-coded to tell you which saber you should hit them with, and they also have arrows, showing you which direction you need to slice them from.

A screenshot of boxes being sliced in Beat Saber. Beat Saber, Beat Games, Hyperbolic Magnetism, 2018.

Beat Saber takes place in its own dedicated virtual space

It did keep me occupied and it did help me get some exercise. It also did a third thing that I didn’t expect. I tend to have trouble with concentration and focus anyway, and during quarantine, it was particularly shot. This was especially frustrating because I was unemployed and stuck at home with a pile of unread books and a list of projects but was having trouble finding the motivation to do much of anything. I hoped it would be a good time to pour some serious energy into my magical practice. Magic is an important and very spiritual part of my life. It helps me cope with difficult times, such as the ones we happen to be living in right now. It also requires intense concentration and focus, and my struggle in that department has always limited my ability to do serious magic and ritual.

Beat Saber, it turns out, also requires intense concentration and focus. And it creates an environment that fosters that concentration and focus, because by nature of being a virtual reality game, it’s also immersive. When you step into the world of Beat Saber, you’re standing in a virtual space where nothing else exists except the music and these colored boxes flying at you. Even for someone who struggles to stay focused, it’s amazing what you can achieve after removing all potential interruptions.

In the distracting and distressing world of 2020, this felt great. So I started playing a lot of Beat Saber. And naturally, I started getting better and better at it. As I improved, I realized that the skills required to get better weren’t necessarily the ones I expected. At first, I focused very intentionally on looking at all of the boxes, anticipating the ones that were coming up next and planning for them. Logically, that seemed like the key, right? Being one step ahead, always knowing what my next move would need to be, in perfect control of my body? But I found I was doing a lot better when I just zoned out and let my body move, almost of its own accord. Boxes flew at me at intense speeds and some sort of instinct took over, like my arms knew where to go even without my brain telling them. The first few times this happened, it felt wild, like I was possessed by a ghost with an excellent sense of rhythm. I was like, “How did I do that?”

But it’s because there’s a real flow to Beat Saber. It’s the rhythm of the music, yes, but it’s also more than that. You don’t need to keep perfect track of which direction each box is facing because the direction that feels right is usually the correct one. The game always knows where your lightsaber is and puts the next box in a place that feels natural to hit from that position. When I’m in the zone, I feel that flow of energy as if it’s a force moving through me and guiding the movements of my body, and it feels effortless. When I lose that flow, I’m no longer in the right position to feel that natural progression. The way I feel the energy around me changes. Instead of moving effortlessly with the current, I’d be fighting against it. At that point, I almost never just mess up one box; I’ll flounder until I can find my place in the flow of energy again.

A gif of someone absolutely slaying it on one of the Green Day levels of Beat Saber. Beat Saber, Beat Games, Hyperbolic Magnetism, 2018.

Someone is absolutely slaying it here, not gonna lie

And that’s where magic comes in. Magic is all about the flow of energy too. There’s a whole category of altar tools, like wands and athames, with the purpose of tuning into and directing energy as part of ritual. When you try to accomplish something using magic, you’re focusing and rearranging that energy; manifestation is pulling energy towards you, and banishment is pushing it away. Magic—at least for me, since magic can be intensely personal—is predicated on the idea that everything in our world is connected. I’m already part of that complex web of connection, but when I do magic, I feel that energy. My goal is to temporarily let go of myself as an individual and focus on myself as a part of a greater whole, letting the universe work through me by accepting whatever energy flows in and allowing it to flow back out without resistance.

And silly as it might sound, that’s how I feel when I play Beat Saber too. Beat Saber is energy cascading to music and rhythm, and magic is energy cascading to the frequency of the universe. But ultimately, in a world where everything is connected, what’s really the difference between the two? Some practitioners may look down on modernizing magic in this way, but I find it natural—and inevitable. Magic isn’t something that’s owned by 19th century white men who called themselves occultists. As our world grows and shifts and changes, magic inherently does the same, incorporating new technology as the most recent piece of a very old puzzle.

There are other similarities too. Both things make me feel cool and powerful in a similar way. With songs like Jaroslav Beck’s “Origins” featuring lyrics like “breathe in and let it out; you want the energy, feel it all around,” it does feel like that’s by design.

A tea table covered in magical paraphernalia

My wand and athame, pictured in my dedicated environment for magic!

But it’s also hard to express that feeling of being cool and powerful to anyone else. I play Beat Saber on an Oculus Quest, which means my headset is truly wireless and I don’t have a way to cast it onto a screen, so there’s no way for anyone else to watch me hit all these arrows. They can watch me swinging my arms around, but they can’t really know how well I’m doing or not. Similarly, as I mentioned before, magic is highly personal and when I do it, it’s for me alone. I can try to tell people about what I’m doing—and it might even be really interesting!—but because so much of it is internal, they won’t really be able to experience what I’m experiencing or get a sense for how successful I am or not.

Most importantly, Beat Saber is a skill that you can practice and get better at, and magic is too. If nothing else, the way Beat Saber has gotten me to think introspectively about my magical practice has been making me better at it. I recognize the way it feels when I’m particularly receptive to the flow of energy. I’ve gotten a better understanding of how crucial it is to create an environment free of distractions, and it has given me the opportunity to practice getting my mind into a focused state. I’ve been more thoughtful about what I’m really doing when I say I’m doing magic, and being more critical about what that entails has made me more intentional about it.

It feels strange to count my Oculus as a tool in my magical arsenal, but why not? I already check my star charts on a phone app, so it’s not as if there wasn’t already modern technology present in my magical practice. The way a contemporary practitioner interacts with the concept of magic of course looks different than it did in the ancient world; the complex web of connection is more complex today than ever before. Acknowledging that and trying to glean new meaning from it is as authentic as any magic I’ve read about in old books and as real as you’re willing to devote the energy to believing in.

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