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June 24, 2011

2

on imaginal worlds and magical thinking…

by Repa Dorje Odzer

I’m not sure why, but I feel that as of late I have had a great number of conversations with people who have referenced magical thinking.  In most cases the particular reference to magical thinking has been tentative, unsure, as if evoking distrust.  I’ve encountered this with people who I have met a the hospital as well with friends and acquaintances.  It makes me curious about just what they mean; the tone of their comments seem to suggest that magical thinking isn’t the best thing, nor is it a reliable way of seeking context within our world. There is a fascinating article that was published in the New York Times about magical thinking that you can read here which helps to explain the “phenomena” of magical thinking.  Overall, I feel that magical thinking is important, if not key to a healthy spiritual life (in some form), but I’m not so sure what is so magical about it.

Wikipedia describes magical thinking as:

[A] causal reasoning that looks for correlation between acts or utterances and certain events. In religion, folk religion and superstition, the correlation posited is between religious ritual, such as prayer, sacrifice or the observance of a taboo, and an expected benefit or recompense. In clinical psychology, magical thinking is a condition that causes the patient to experience irrational fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because they assume a correlation with their acts and threatening calamities.

“Quasi-magical thinking” describes “cases in which people act as if they erroneously believe that their action influences the outcome, even though they do not really hold that belief”.

This description (the rest of the Wikipedia entry can be found here) seems to suggest that magical thinking may be more of a problem than a boon; more of a crutch than a clear vision of how reality unfolds; perhaps even a disturbance in “normal” mental functioning.  I get a little scared when I read this definition, it seems to re-affirm that perhaps I am not-all-here.  Maybe I/we are not…

I am particularly drawn to the use of the word correlation in this description, especially given what it means in relation to Buddhism.  Correlation points to relationship and dependence: interdependence.  If we look at this same statement with interdependence in mind then we find that magical thinking is:

a causal reasoning that looks for interdependence between acts or utterances and certain events. In religion, folk religion and superstition, the interdependence posited is between religious ritual, such as prayer, sacrifice or the observance of a taboo, and an expected benefit or recompense. In clinical psychology, magical thinking is a condition that causes the patient to experience irrational fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because they assume an interdependence with their acts and threatening calamities.

In looking at it from this perspective, magical thinking appears a vital and inseparable way of finding meaning as we experience life; it doesn’t seem strange, or even less dependable that some kind of rational objectivity (something we are generally taught to desire).  In fact, we engage in magical thinking so often that perhaps it should just be called ordinary thinking.  Be that as it may, I am curious as to why some people don’t seem to trust this magical thinking with all of the shifty mysterious individual meaning that it weaves throughout our lives.

The great sufi saint shaykh Ibn al ‘Arabi (1165-1240) is an inspiring figure when it comes to the realm of the imaginal.  Driven by a series of ecstatic visions, Ibn al ‘Arabi made his was from Andalusia through Morocco, and across the Maghreb towards Mecca.  Along the way he met many people, teachers and fellow seekers, some were real humans, locatable within the nexus of shared time and space, others were not.  One of the greatest visions he had was while sailing to Tunisia whereupon he encountered Mohammed, Jesus and Abraham simultaneously.  Other visions were equally “magical” and “unreal”, yet they acted as a great furnace through which al ‘Arabi’s spiritual passion was refined and tempered allowing him to not only experience the presence of Allah, but to write with great detail about his experiences as well as guide others to this end.  His monumental impact on mystical Islam is still felt today and I would argue he could have never lived the life he had lived if he conceived of life as fixed in nature, lacking the subtlety and mutability to which magical thinking alludes.

Much of the material that I have found on the topic of magical thinking, especially from the perspective of clinical psychology, offers reasons for abandoning and avoiding magical thinking. Such reasons involve improving impaired decision-making, not being able to achieve our goals, and in the case of people with mood disorders or people suffering from psychosis, experiencing a break from reality.  In extreme cases, I acknowledge how magical thinking and spirituality inform and can reinforce a person’s break with reality.  Having spent ten months chaplaining patients on a psychiatric unit of a hospital in New York, I can certainly say that I have come to see first hand how such thinking exacerbates a person’s suffering.  This form of suffering can be terrible; to live with a variant point of orientation, in the midst of near-complete subjectivity is the cause of great horror.

As is the case with most things, when taken to an extreme magical thinking can be a great danger. But to eliminate it altogether?  That also sounds like a form of killing our natural tendency to be creative, to imagine and to experience inspiration.

Indeed in it’s most elevated forms magical thinking breaths vitality and meaning into the experiences found within sufism, the teachings of pure view (especially as it relates to yidam practice) within tantric Buddhism, as well as Jung’s notion of synchronicity and the collective unconscious, to name just a few jewels in the long garland of human experience.  In the face of death, and the suffering caused by illness, as a chaplain, I have found that magical thinking arises with such commonplace frequency that I regard it as a natural and important way though which we find connection and meaning in ways that can not often be explained rationally- and that’s okay.

In extending the Zen Buddhist approach of not knowing, to the larger Buddhist conception of the six realms of existence, we are in essence throwing open the doors towards direct relationship with hell realms, god realms, demi-god realms, buddha realms, ghost realms, animal realms and all various permutations of these.  We open oureslve up to the magical. We allow for varied relationship with appearance.   We develop the seed potential for a rich and layered experience of life.  Of course a great many western Buddhists may not believe in the six realms as “real” but as internal dimensions of our own behavioral habitual tendencies; while I appreciate and find great wealth in this view, I for one find great meaning in feeling that the immediacy of direct interface with Buddha-realms, lamas, yidams, dakas and dakinis, and protectors charges the moment with the potential for great insight and awakening.

It seems that as we tread our paths only we can really know how much we want to, or can, open ourselves up to the visionary realm of the imaginal.  While this is very individual, perhaps something we can all do is remain mindful of how we shut the magic out and why?  As well as, whether we use it as a crutch to avoid realizing where we need to change and grow?

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jul 31 2011

    I think you are missing an important point about magical thinking. Thinking about causality in general rests on one’s understanding of reality. You (and I too) as a Vajrayana practitioner, have a view of reality that includes, as normal, types of causality that go beyond the purely material dimension. This sort of causality is very well worked out philosophically – it isn’t simply instinctive reaction or based on ignorance or faulty logic. In contrast, what western psychologists refer to as magical thinking seems to be problematic because it occurs in people whose comprehension of reality is rooted in the western materialistic view. There is little room in our western view for non-material causality, so to speak. People with deeply held religious beliefs are exceptions here – but I think you can see what I mean.

    In general, when people whose understanding of the world around them is rooted in a very materialistic worldview begin to talk in terms of non-physical causality, that can be the result of some pathology, physical or mental.

    A lot of what you and I do and think, again, as Vajrayana practitioners, is based on our understanding of reality – which in turn comes from a combination of study, contemplation, and experience. It’s not pathological – except to someone who takes the position that only physical matter has any reality. Unfortunately, many westerners assume this view – and it is the unexamined foundation of much of their thinking. One of the major efforts in many spiritual paths is precisely an examination of this basis.

    The bottom line, I think, is that when the so-called magical thinking arises out of and is consistent with a person’s understanding of reality itself, then whether or not it is a good thing must rest on an analysis of that view of reality,

    Reply
    • Thanks for your insightful response. Generally, I agree with you. I am curious, however, as to why we as humans tend towards the magical in the first place. Whether our view is firmly grounded in any theological or philosophical grounding that aides us in “magical” thinking doesn’t address the simple fact that we all do it (let alone remain prone to see some “other” order or causal significance for what arises). Perhaps it isn’t even about knowing why or how this happens but is about resting in it and appreciating the varieties of such experiences. My central learning from chaplaining patients on a psychiatric floor has been just how varied the experience of reality actually can be. This has left me feeling humbled around knowing, and of course not knowing, if there is any distinct “true course”; the range of the pyscho-physical matrix of any given person may be wider than most psychologists and psychiatrists are aware of.

      Warm wishes,

      Justin

      Reply

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