Magic 101

Do you believe in God? A lot of people consider this a meaningful question.

But how you choose to answer it, I’m thinking, tells me much less about your general worldview than your response to another, more basic question: Do you believe in magic?

I do.

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Oh, not the Gandalf and Harry Potter kind where you wave a wand or utter a spell and achieve measurable, verifiable results. If that kind of magic could be shown to exist, it would become indistinguishable from any other science-based technology – and thus it would become boring. To me, at least. In any case, it would forfeit all claims to magic. Magic must be mysterious, or it’s nothing.

The kind of magic I believe in is, I suppose, virtually indistinguishable from so-called ordinary life on a good day. It’s the way things appear if they can be seen without some of the myriad barriers, veils and filters we use to project the illusion of a separate self. It’s the way things look under the influence of a bit of cannabis or a stretch of meditation: wonderfully strange, a little eldritch, perhaps, but beautiful in their profusion of possible meanings, their lack of clear boundaries.

Things that can’t be spoken of without in some way diminishing them would all be examples of what I’m calling magic. You know what I’m talking about.

I like to maintain that there are two basic kinds of thinking necessary to sane and healthy living: analytical thinking and magical thinking. The first is reductive, and partakes of the logic of discrimination, based on what Aristotle called the Law of the Excluded Middle: x can’t be both x and not-x. The second is dialogic and intersubjective, and involves one in a logic of participation.

One way of thinking doesn’t need to be wrong in order for the other way to be right, though seeing any given problem or phenomenon both ways at once will likely give rise to paradox, due to the inherent limitations of language. The urge to persist in creating symbolic representations uniting the two has given rise to myths and rituals, through which – as Levi-Strauss once noted – one tries to grasp the world as a synchronic totality. Thus, for someone with a religious mindset, like me, magical thinking ultimately prevails.

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But I think it’s important to remember that minds come in many different varieties; a fundamentally analytic worldview can just as easily lead one to perceive beauty, order, and goodness. At root, the distinction between magical and analytical thinking may be an artificial one – who knows? I suspect that each may be the best antidote to too much of the other. To be human is to inhabit that paradox so succinctly voiced in the opening chapter of the Daodejing: “Free of desires, one observes secrets; having desires, one observes boundaries.

“These two are ultimately the same,” Laozi proclaimed. See what I mean?

Or is that just so much mumbo-jumbo?

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