”If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort, you will get neither comfort nor truth and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair”
C S Lewis
I have a confession to make. I am a magical thinker. I pray. I find serendipity and synchronicity in the ordinary things in life. I am mindful of fortuitous patterns. I seek God – Order – Spirit out of the Chaos.
But..for some reasons…I am ambivalent about magical thinking…..I have both positive and negative feelings about it.
Here is an extract from a book I’ve just read..It was written by a dear friend of mine..and deals with magical thinking………….here he is recounting being transported in a taxi through Mumbai.
”If there was a god or Buddha, or some divine creature behind the veil of the cosmos, he didn’t seem to have much interest in the wretched poor on the streets around us, but it felt like he was holding me in the palm of his hand. I was the one from all the billions on earth he was keeping his eye on, and he was manoeuvring objects in the the universe as if they were chess pieces so that the day went well just for little old me. And now my beloved had arrived…………
In the back of the taxi we gushed with amazement at the colours of India. The ocean of human suffering. The miles and miles of shanty town on the route in from the airport and the smell of ten thousand sewers…
No matter that the gods chose to ignore the suffering of children with bony stumps instead of hands who stuck their noses to the glass of the taxi at every traffic light. All that mattered was that God had chosen to ignore them all and pay me his full attention. And if there wasn’t a God, then my individual reading of Buddhism suggested that the chess pieces in the cosmos were moving themselves magically in orchestrated patterns to my advantage…”
Over the course of a year of severe depression my friend abandoned his magical thinking for a form of surrender to the moment, to the inexplicable void. This was his way of getting back to centre. I am not saying it is suitable for everyone. It is just interesting (to me anyways).
Magical thinking means believing that one’s thoughts and beliefs will somehow causally affect the manifested world.
Magical thinking looks for meaning in the world. If you believe in prayer, or visualisation, or ritual, or magical workings, or positive thinking, or the law of attraction, or the power of wish fulfillment, or if you have routines that you practice that you believe ward off illness or harm, if you look for connections in the bigger world such as the ‘doctrine of signatures’ which sees matching patterns between healing plants and the diseases they treat, if you believe you can generate good ”karma” by doing nice things, if you believe the universe is unfolding in auspicious patterns that are applicable especially to you, then you are practising magical thinking.
Considering objects or places to be sacred is magical thinking. Likewise, viewing objects or symbols as inherently evil and liable to cause harm is also magical thinking. If you believe the stones of certain places hold ancient memories then this is magical thinking. See! It’s everywhere!!
Crossing your fingers, kissing a relic, worshipping an icon, performing psychic activities, and so on and so forth are all forms of magical thinking.
Don’t get me wrong…….I am all for it. I am fully committed….but there is still this part of me that keeps watch.
Because I regularly witness people becoming unwell due to unleashed magical thinking.
(And……Because I have witnessed myself becoming unwell in the past due to unregulated magical thinking.)
Yes. Even the idea of the inter-connectedness of all things via pranic/etheric fields – the holographic universe – is a form of magical thinking. I told you. I am a magical thinker.
Magical thinking offers us the possibility of being in control. And who does not want to feel some semblance of autonomy and control in a vast and fathomless universe? Who does not want to feel sophisticated in response to the unknowable? We want to have our fingers on the pulse of the ”truth”. Who wants to go mutely into the void?
(But, is this not false? Can we ever be in control? Truly?)
Magical thinking is no harm per se. Especially when it reduces stress. Especially when it increases joy, and benevolence, and the beauty of our lives.
It becomes a problem when we develop taboos and rules within our own psyche, when there arises a set of parameters for behaviour or thought that we feel uncomfortable breaching. It causes difficulties when we stop filtering.
We have tended to associate it with so-called ”primitive” minds, those who link their sacrifices, sympathetic magic or rain dances to the weather and so on, but I actually believe magical thinking is an innate function of all minds, even the sophisticated, modern, urban, technologically-savvy mind. Inasmuch as we have been programmed with fight or flight mechanisms and instincts, I think we are also naturally inclined towards magical thinking. In fact the way a non-scientist accepts the work of a modern scientist without having understood the sophisticated mechanisms behind the theory is the same as the way a tribal person will be unquestionably swayed by the shaman’s doctrines. It is magical thinking….it is not based on personally proven rationale.
Survival requires that we recognise patterns. Otherwise we would amble through the world each day as unprotected as a new born. Jung’s syncronicity, Hahnemann’s homeopathy, animism, kinesiology – these are forms of magical thinking.
Generally, empirical science tries to rule out coincidence as the cause of connected events. It is therefore the antithesis of magical thinking. Science versus Superstition.
Can we be scientific mystics?
(I sure hope so!)
We all go through a period of intense magical thinking as children, up to the age of seven, which is the age I have always understood at which the child’s aura separates fully from that of the mother. Up to then we think we are fully controlling and manifesting the world about us.
Apophenia and Pareidolia are forms of magical thinking.
We naturally incline towards those confirmation biases which support our own particular forms of magical thinking. It is to be expected. We cluster with people who we like. We like them because they agree with us, or affirm us, or confirm us and our theories and opinions. We block out that which conflicts with our magical thinking.
Even the most skeptical person is inclined to look for the invisible strings in the universe, that perhaps they might tweak.
Dopmaine is said to possibly be at the root of magical thinking – it splurges in those with psychosis and trickles in those with depression. However pleasing magical thinking may be to we who experience it, psychiatry views it as a regression to childhood phases of development and it is often associated with delusion when overly emphasised.
Magical thinking becomes emphasised in certain mental disorders – in anxiety disorders, in obsessive compulsive disorders, in schizophrenia. Stress increases our tendency towards magical thinking – we begin to look for protection in a scary world. Seeing causality in coincidence begins to happen automatically, because we are too stressed to monitor our thought patterns, our biases.
Yes. Magical thinking runs the gamut from skeptic to schizophrenic, and it is up to us to be aware of our mind’s natural inclinations, and thus protect ourselves.
But even when we are wholly well we are inclined towards it. If asked to tear up a photograph of their loved ones, many are reluctant. We don’t like certain names – if someone we are introduced to is called Adolf or Stalin we would tend to feel influenced (as a result of magical thinking!). If someone pours sugar into a glass of water and puts the label poison on it, even though we might laughingly drink it, still our mind has registered and reacted to the language…to the magic of the word.
I think we have to learn to challenge some magical thinking. It is very much part and parcel of modern spirituality and world view theory. If anything, magical thinking is increasing as we become more interconnected technologically and wield energy from behind our personal technological interfaces. Magical thinking may well provide the empirical truths of tomorrow, but it may also be fallacious.
I am not saying rip out our souls, or become a grey automaton….but magical thinking pursued to its limit can result in psychosis. This is a proven fact. Scientifically 🙂 I am just thinking about this and trying to look at it from different points of view…Can unrestrained magical thinking be allowed to even subtly shape our new world without some careful questions?