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The Perils of Magical Thinking

I am slowly working my way through Ken Wilber’s Up From Eden, which follows on the heels of the The Atman Project. In keeping with my stubborn insistence on doing as much as possible ass-backwards, I am reading the former first and the latter second. I’m sure there’s a reason.

In Up from Eden, Wilber suggests that magic – which he calls “the cognitive pledge of allegience to emotional-sexual realms” (i.e., the body) – reflects a sort of self-sabotage, in which our base psycho-spiritual impulses actively seek to deter our inclination to seek union with God. Magical thinking that is not integrated and transformed impedes the evolution of consciousness towards Heaven.

Wilber cites E.B. Taylor, an early anthropologist, who said that early humans had a tendency to believe that “between the object and the image of it there is a real connexion . . . and that it is accordingly possible to communicate an impression to the original (object) through the copy (image).”

Taylor considered this magical thinking. It reflected a fundamental confusion between object and image. In the same way that the world “apple” is not an apple, much less one’s experience of an apple, magical thinking confuses reality with dreams. Effectively, it makes a substitute for reality.

Taylor’s work was premised on his study of primitive cultures. In that sense, I suspect he might have argued that magical thinking was largely a thing of the past. And if we think of magic in terms of, say, sticking pins in a doll fashioned to look like our enemy in hopes of maiming that enemy, well, he’s more right than not.

But the structure of magical thinking remains alive and well in our minds, even if it manifests more subtly – more unconsciously, say. Wilber also points to Geza Roheim’s insight that all our modern psychological symptoms and defense mechanisms are essentially magic but we repress them, whereas primitive peoples did not. In other words, for us, magical thinking is hidden. We cannot raise it to the light of reason because it would be revealed as a sham.

But if we look closely, we all see evidence of magical thinking in our lives. I hold on to certain family heirlooms because I feel doing so keeps the spirit of my grandparents close, thus ensuring some sort of harmony or bridge between the world of the living and the world of the dead. I collect rocks on my walks, many of which are on fire place mantle or my writing desk or various window sills. They are a way of keeping the natural landscape, which so energizes and nurtures me, near when I am not actually in or on it. I am partial to quartz for the same reason I keep a prism in every window of the house: the revelation of light’s rainbow composition has never not reminded me of the secret beauty that is God.

What is important is this: those stones are not my walks in the forest. My grandfather’s riding crop is not my grandfather. God is not a flickering image of light’s vivid spectrum. I am indulging a certain sleight of mind when I believe otherwise.

There are other examples, of course. You have your own. The most fundamental, however – the one that we all share who have accepted A Course in Miracles as our spiritual path – is the confusion that our body is our self. It is that particular bit of magic from which all the other bits flow. And it is that one that A Course in Miracles aims to undo.

Freedom must be impossible as long as you perceive a body as yourself. The body is a limit. Who would seek for freedom in a body looks for it where it cannot be found (W-pI.199.1:1-3).

Whenever we accept the body as real, we are also accepting –  tacitly, unconsciously but surely – that our will stands in opposition to God’s, and that reliance on our will rather than God’s is imperative. Rather than ask for help, we go it alone. The Manual for Teachers reminds us that even at an advanced stage of teaching and practice, we are apt to forget that true help is not of us.

Forget not that this is magic, and magic is a sorry substitute for true assistance. It is not good enough for God’s teacher, because it is not enough for God’s son (M-16.8:6-7).

Magic is a form of temptation: it is the suggestion that we can find a meaningful external substitute for God’s Will (M-16.9:1-2). Magic is always something outside of us – a crystal necklace, a Tarot card reading, wheat grass juice, Emily Dickinson poems, craniosacral massage, whatever. We render the external object a symbol for God – an image – and long to possess it, believing that the symbol is the thing itself.

What Jesus reminds us over and over is that we don’t want the image of peace: we want peace itself. We don’t want the image of love: we want love itself. We don’t want illusions: we want reality. Magic will not do this for us. Magic is by definition a movement away from reality. Under the guise of creation, it displaces the true power of Creation.

The whole distortion that made magic rests on the belief that there is a creative ability in matter which the mind cannot control. This error can take two forms; it can be believed that the mind can miscreate in the body, or that the body can miscreate in the mind. When it is understood that the mind, the only level of creation, cannot create beyond itself, neither type of confusion need occur (T-2.IV.2:8-10).

Remember my grandfather’s riding crop, my collection of stones, my diamond-shaped prisms? Their specialness rests in my belief that in and of themselves they are creative: channels through which my deceased relatives or trails in the forest or Beauty itself flows.

The fact that I am wrong about that does not make me a bad person or a poor ACIM student. There is no loss of divine favor. The only problem is that it keeps me anchored in time and space and thus postpones remembrance of my Oneness with God.

Say, for example, that I am trying to get to Boston. But rather than travel immediately to that city, I collect a bunch of maps. I look at pictures of the city. I talk to people who have visited the city. I keep a Boston journal.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of those things: but they are not going to get me to Boston. The more time I spend futzing around with them, the longer I put off my journey to and arrival in Boston.

Sooner or later, we have to forgo symbols of the journey in favor of the journey itself.

Thus, at some point in our practice, it is important that we realize that we cannot have our spiritual cake and eat it too. We cannot keep the body and remember God. We cannot practice magic (the confusion of reality with symbols of reality) and be healed. As Jesus points out in the text, “[A]ll magic is an attempt at reconciling the irreconcilable” (T-10.IV.1:1). It is doomed to fail.

What can we do?

Awareness is curative: it is the Holy Spirit. Thus, giving attention to our magical thinking is helpful. It raises those thoughts to awareness where – revealed as baseless lies  – they naturally dissolve.

I am certainly not going to stop going for long walks in the forest with my dog. Nor do I plan to stop reading Emily Dickinson any time soon. I am quite sure there is a piece of quartz on a river bank somewhere that I will tuck into my pocket, polish as the sun falls, and set next to the others on my writing desk.

However, more and more, before I do these things – and as I do them – I call to mind the simple truth that I am doing them because I prefer an image or symbol of God than God. I want a copy of reality: not Truth itself. Honesty in this regard is critical. When we accept that the body and its myriad adventures and its likes and dislikes and its friends and enemies and so on and so forth is the illusion by which we keep the memory of God at bay, then the body itself becomes the means by which we remember God.

The body is the means by which God’s Son returns to sanity. Through it was made to fence him into hell without escape, yet has the goal of Heaven been exchanged for the pursuit of hell. The Son of God extends his hand to reach his brother, and to help him walk along the road with him. Now is the body holy. Now it serves to heal the mind that it was made to kill (W-pII.5.4:1-5).

We only reach this stage – we only receive this blessing – when we refuse the ego’s interpretation of the body as “our” home. We have to be gently ruthless: to see at all times our inclination to rely on the external, to confuse reality with manufactured images of reality, and to constantly indulge magical thinking as the means of remembering God.

Seeing these tendencies – and accepting rather than denying them – is the means by which they are transformed into salvation. Magical thinking is transformed into healing when we no longer accept its premise: that the body is real and can offer anything of value. Only by releasing this belief can the peace of God move freely within us.

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