Devin Person doesn’t always wear head-to-toe wizard garb while working with a client, but when he opens the door to his small Greenpoint apartment for me, he looks a lot like Gandalf: lengthy robes, a tall, pointed hat, a long white beard. I can’t help but crack a smile. “You have to embrace silliness,” he says. “That’s really good for someone.”
Silliness makes a lot of sense here. Devin Person is the subway wizard, who has become known for offering magical services to New Yorkers for free on their commutes. He also does so for a price through his business, Person Is Awake, which has grown substantially in the 5 years since its founding (although not yet enough for him to quit his day job, where he builds onboarding software). He leads group workshops, officiates ceremonies, and even hosts a podcast, but his work often takes the form of one-on-one “wizard sessions,” in which he helps an individual client work through an individual problem.
As I sit with him over the course of nearly 90 minutes, I don’t get the sense that he is unserious, despite being quite silly. He seems to care deeply about, and believe wholeheartedly in, what he does. The wizard session we complete—for which he typically charges on a sliding scale, with the average around $150—feels like a strange mix of guided meditation, talk therapy, and old-fashioned friendly advice from an empathetic dude in a cloak.
“Magic,” in this context, is not about transfiguring objects, conjuring spirits, brewing potions, or even granting wishes, exactly (if you see him on the J train, don’t tell him you want a million dollars, or are trying to achieve world peace. That’s not his gig). The problems he helps his clients with are substantial, solvable, highly personal things—like, I’m unhappy with my body or I feel stuck in my career. That means no two of his sessions look the same.
He doesn’t stick to any particular sequence of events, and he doesn’t even abide by any one magical tradition. “I’m not Wiccan, or into Aleister Crowley, or following some sort of Victorian-era magic,” he clarifies. He’s more like a magical “magpie,” a modern practitioner who grabs a bit of this and that from different historical traditions, whatever catches his eye. He then prescribes the stuff in different doses: whatever feels relevant to the client before him, mixed with whatever the client is bringing to the table. He’s not interested in foisting inaccessible, ancient things on busy, 21st century New Yorkers—who, he emphasizes, all have modern mythologies of their own.
In 2013, Person wasn’t happy: he was dealing with sporadic flare-ups of PVNS, a joint condition that causes painful inflammation, and he had just dropped out of a graduate TV writing program, unsatisfied with the path he was on. He decided he needed to do some soul-searching. He always felt drawn to helping people with their problems, but he had only done so in non-professional settings, with friends and partners. He wanted to combine this desire with his broad interest in spirituality—something that began way back in Sunday school. The Unitarian Church his family attended embraced the study of diverse world religions, which meant he was exposed to everything from Buddhism to Quakerism at a young age.
“That was really where a lot of this interest started,” he recalls in his living room, which is filled with plants, old maps, tiny wizard figurines, and what looks like a mounted steer skull. “Not seeing one individual tradition, but seeing the whole spectrum, and what’s common among them.” By 2014, he had begun to cobble together a practice that’s a little bit Dumbledore (candles, spells), a little bit Eastern philosophy (chakras, mudras), and a little bit self-help—suggesting, in the process, that they all have something in common.
For my session, we work on the problem of my risk aversion, which I tell him I’d like to change. First, we talk extensively: about my history with taking risks, about people whose adventurousness and creativity I admire, about colors and symbols I associate with bravery. We write things down in a word association exercise. We identify the physical location of fearfulness. I try to be as open to the experience as I can—to go with the weird flow of things—but I’m way out of my element, which he notices right away.
“How are you feeling right now?,” he asks at one point, after I’ve fidgeted enough for him to pause. “Nervous, and weird,” I reply. “That’s ok,” he tells me, and I think he means it.
Towards the end of our session, Person offers a magical solution for me: it’s a take-home one, a simple ritual we come up with together, which involves lighting candles and meditating on some of the things we’ve talked about. It feels like good, thoughtful advice—keep checking in with yourself!—plus candles.
I do, at one point, ask him why wizardry—why not meditation, or prayer, or therapy with a trained professional? All of those seem somewhat related to what he’s doing, with more established foundations. He explains that “wizardry is just a container, where we play around with a lot of those tools”—that is, the tools of psychotherapy and organized religion—“but we’re not married to any of them.” He comes back to playfulness, the odd need to smile when you encounter Gandalf at the door. “It creates this safe space—all right, I’m trying this out, it’s a little bit silly,” he says. “It allows you to have some remove, and explore things in a different way.”
My skepticism doesn’t fade over our hour and a half, and I know he can tell. He’s extremely present: he responds to my non-verbal cues, picks up on small words I haven’t realized I’ve chosen, makes me feel comfortable talking openly with him. The wizardry itself remains pretty gentle—there’s no way my session was ever leading toward hypnosis, for example—and that’s because he’s following my lead. For someone more open to magical experimentation, Person would likely go further, so if you’re curious what a wizard session would look like for you, the only way is to go have one yourself. I can vouch for this, though: whatever you might think about magic, composite spiritual traditions, or running a wizarding business out of a Greenpoint apartment, if you sit down across from Devin Person, he’ll treat you seriously for every second of your time together. He’ll be paying attention.