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?