Let’s learn about magical thinking, carefully tease it apart from deep psychological insight, and discuss how to healthily integrate it.
Know that we all pass through a Magical period in our early childhood, the Magic stage of development, and come out the other end at age 4 or 5.
From then, and all the way through adult life, our relationship to magical thinking can go one of two ways: we become completely allergic to it, unable to consciously integrate any of it, or we remain addicted to it, attributing magical explanations to everything and never being quite at ease with the basic, cut-and-dry facts of life that we all need to learn to operate as adults.
Thus, our goal as growing people is to skillfully integrate magic into our psyche. In spiritual communities and personal-development circles, I often see an addiction to magic and a basic inability to really understand what magical thinking is and why it’s fundamentally flawed in very mundane ways.
Let’s start by looking at the key traits of magical thinking.
Magical Thinking: Key Traits
To the magical mind, basic cause and effect are poorly understood. Thinking and symbolic acts are confused with real causality. This is the thinking behind voodoo dolls – I stick a pin in this doll, and the person experiences physical pain, literally. We also see it in children – I put a cape on and I can fly, literally.
These magical acts have an immediate flavour. My symbolic action now leads to the real action, right now. There is magical, instant interconnectedness that flouts the rules of linear time.
Gebser says that in the Magic structure, “each and every thing intertwines and is interchangeable.” All objects, all points in time, all events and actions magically interpenetrate, co-exist and influence one another. If X exists and Y exists, X is Y.
Magical thinking also underlies the ascribing of human characteristics and intentions to nature: “the sky is angry”, “the river loves and protects us”. Nature doesn’t have its own separate existence from us: it exists solely for us, and any changes to it reflect our own actions, nothing else.
This thinking leads to rituals and rites designed to influence external reality – rain dancing will lead to rain, performing rituals will bring a plentiful harvest. Superstitions become all-important as a means to control and influence future events.
In all of this, the self is the source of the magic power. I can walk on water, heal the sick, raise the dead, and turn water into wine. I clap my hands and the cup is filled with water. If I click my fingers, the house will be left clean.
These are the fundmental features of magical thinking as it shows up in children and tribal societies and lives on in modern humans. Let’s now talk about the magical thinking so we can better understand the magical perspective.
The Origin of Magical Thinking
Etymologically, magic means make. Historically, magical thinking came online with the appearance of tools, houses, boats, and art. This is when humans first discovered the power of intentionality.
It dominates in young children and tribal societies. There is only a rudimentary sense of a separate self, and it’s enmeshed with our surroundings and confused with it.
Seeing the world as somewhat separate from ourselves, we begin trying to understand it. We realise that events are sequential. As a result, we now perceive cause and effect for the first time.
In children it comes online with their ability to walk, talk, pick up objects, fulfil their intentions, make basic decisions, imagine things. They’re learning the cycle of intention and action, intention and action. This doesn’t exist when they’re entirely dependent on others.
Speaking of children, let’s look at magical thinking in children and the tell-tale signs a child is in the magic phase.
Magical Thinking in Children
Magic is actually a stage of human development. It’s present in Cook-Greuter’s model of ego development, the Spiral Dynamics model, Jean Gebser’s structures of consciousness, and more. As such, we should respect is as a crucial building block in the human self, while also realising that it has profound limitations.
After complete dependency in the “primordial matrix” experienced between birth and age one, children learn to walk, write, talk and interact with others.
This is the psychological birth of child. The physical and emotional self now become separated from the environment (physical at 4 months, emotional at 18 months).
In a cognitive sense, children can now access symbols and language, and they use it to name objects, which they now see as being somewhat separate from themselves. In a similar vein, they develop a sense of object permanence: even if mummy isn’t in the room, she still exists. If the teddy isn’t present, it’s probably just under the bed. This relies on memory and the formation of mental concepts.
They gain a measure of independence and want to explore their world using their radical new capacities. The world of imagination and desire opens up, and the infant is free to roam, putting its inner world to the test. It’s not a full adult self sense, but there is a rudimentary differentiation of self from environment. Their mental life is limited to the present and concrete symbols: “I want food”, “I want teddy”.
They realise they have power and are beginning to experiment with it, but haven’t put it to the test in objective reality, and as yet don’t understand that that their power and autonomy are limited. The later-developing logical capacities are yet to come online here and the child doesn’t grasp cause and effect yet.
I also believe a similar thing happens with thought. Enchanted by their inner world yet poorly grasping action, they confuse thought with action. They overemphasise the power of their mental intentions, believing that these can actually manipulate the physical world. This is an inflation and misunderstanding of human power and intentionality.
In line with the magical dominance, the infant identifies with superhero, a kind of magical idol that can fly, walk on water, see through walls, or conquer all monsters and enemies.
Young children will dress up as animals and superheroes, believing a costume will imbue them with the powers of their chosen creature. When they imagine a monster, they believe it’s under the bed or in the cupboard, waiting to gobble them up. This shows both the magical perspective and early psychological repression – inner emotional gremlins are now projected outside the self-other boundary and seen as other.
The basic confusion of reality with imagination and symbols is also evident in the obsession with cartoon characters and magical beings, like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. It doesn’t matter that there are billions of children in the world and Santa must fly to every single house – he’s magic, after all! Spongebob really does live in a pineapple under the sea. Winnie the Pooh really does live in a wood and eat honey from a jar.
Magical Thinking in Tribes
Magical thinking also prevails in tribal societies. You can see this in their tendency to attribute events to the all-powerful spirits, and their attempts to appease them by means of superstition and rituals, which often include human sacrifice. They use dreams, omens and signs to understand reality, and magical ceremonies are a critical part of tribal culture.
Tribes tend to be concerned with their immediate environment and the survival of their small group. Outsiders are threatening. This reflects the limited perspective inherent to magical thinking.
Tribes revere nature, viewing it as enchanted, sacred and fearsome. They feel a magical interconnectedness with it, believing that their rituals and ceremonies can do anything from influencing the weather to guaranteeing a plentiful harvest.
We even see it in some Roman customs. The Romans used to carry chickens to battle and choose a small area of ground on which to scatter food. If the chickens ate, it was a good omen; if not, battle was postponed.
As we’ll discuss, many of the fundamental ideas in magical thinking are false. But it serves a purpose and does have some truth to it – otherwise it wouldn’t have prevailed for so long in historical human groups or now be a fundamental phase of early human development.
Though magical thinking is inadequate as a permanent mode of functioning for the modern adult, it lives on inside us and in our culture.
Magical Thinking in Adults
Magical thinking appears in many forms in modern adults. Have you ever worried about a black cat crossing your path, avoided walking under ladders or scaffolding, or avoided walking over double drains on the pavement? This is magical thinking.
It’s harder to find clearer examples of magical thinking in modern adults than in the realm of professional sport.
Teams and sportspeople have their favourite pre-match rituals that can include anything from the order they dress themselves to their game-day breakfast to their pre-match warm-up. They often carry lucky charms, like their child’s teddy or an old piece of equipment that supposedly brings luck. Failure to uphold these rituals means guaranteed disaster, supposedly.
And it lives on in other superstitions, astrology, our obsession with auspicious times, the feng shui movement, fortune cookies, our belief in serendipity, and so on.
Tarot can have flavours of magical thinking. If we do it while keeping a critical capacity, we’re likely to feel empowered, guided, supported. If we do it without our critical capacity, we’re likely to fall into childish magic: “everything will conspire to my intentions”, “the future is already written”, “the spirits and animals are caring for me”.
Yet, as my partner wonderfully pointed out, magical thinking is addictive. Do you remember when you finally realised and knew that Santa wasn’t a real person? That isn’t just a sad moment; it’s a moment of psychological and philosophical death that matches anything we’ll experience later in life. It marks the death of our dominant magical mode and induction into the solid, unmagical, cause-and-effect linear world of the adolescent and adult. Thus, like many other childhood realities, we don’t like letting go of magical thinking, and we yearn for it.
The Problems with Magical Thinking
So what are the problems and traps involved with magical thinking?
On a broad scale, the two biggest traps are either giving it too much validity or completely dispensing with it. To really differentiate the gifts from the gremlins, we need to be make fine distinctions here. As Ken Wilber says about all levels of development, we want to transcend (negate) and include it.
Can we influence reality through our actions? Absolutely. Just like all animals can.
Does our external life start to reflect our inner life, such that our inner life seems to create our external life? Absolutely.
Are we much more connected to reality we tend to perceive? Definitely. The spiritual traditions have known this for hundreds and thousands of years.
But, all that said, does that mean we have magical, instant, desire=outcome, instant-gratification dominion over reality? Can we just snap our fingers or wave our wand and build walls, change the weather, and make objects disappear? Any sober, honest, healthy adult would have to conclude that the answer is no.
Can we feel a deep interconnection to all of life? Yes.
Is life endlessly mysterious and crazy? Yes.
Can we be lit up by life’s beauty, like a young child seeing the world for the first time? Of course.
Do these facts validate all magical explanations? Do they mean we can forget about order or limitation? Does this imply that objects, people and events lack their own separate existence? Absolutely not, on all counts.
The key is to find the gem of truth hidden inside our magical ideas.
Magical Thinking in Personal Development Circles
Magical ideas are common in post-rational spirituality and self-help circles. We see this in the slogans “You create your reality”, “There is nothing outside of your mind”, “You created all of this”.
Though they do a good job of rehabiliting and reintegrating our Magic heritage, I’ve found they tend to overemphase its validity, fail to differentiate between its truths and falsities, and blow it up beyond all proportion, forgetting that in essence it’s a stage of child development, and is so for a reason.
The Law of Attraction and Manifestation
For example, the law of attraction is right when it says our mind plays an enormous role in our health, our behaviour patterns, and our success. There’s now good evidence for all of this, so much so that it’s influencing clincial medicine. And it has seeped into common knowledge.
This has a flavour of magical thinking. It’s incredible how our thoughts – essentially ghostly, transparent entities – can so dramatically influence our life for better or worse. They have remarkable power.
But it’s also post-magical. The Law of Attraction doesn’t mean our thoughts and actions influence reality in an instant, magical way, as the four-year-old would like to believe. If it were this way, the manifestation people would be right. You could – literally – imagine a £1M cheque, click your fingers and have it arrive through your door. Heck, we could all do it. We all just need to think about it often enough and believe it’s possible.
This is patently absurd, but it does offer a sexy, quasi-spiritual shortcut to wealth for gullable people who don’t want to work hard.
The deep grain of truth? We do bring about our future by how we think and act, in ways that are beyond the reach of the conscious mind. Though life and the world aren’t personalised exclusively to us, it’s true that our thoughts, emotions and interpretations do in many ways define what we perceive life and the world to be.
The nonsense? That this occurs because of a kind of magical interconnectedness, as though all of life willingly conformed to us and had no separate existence of its own. That every single thing that occurs to us, good and bad, is a result of our inner life.
There is a huge difference between influencing your future by your actions and thoughts, and doing so in a magical way.
External Events Showing You Something
Another common maxim is that external events show us something, that they were designed specifically for us, that we attracted them. I’ve heard this from everything about finding money in the street, to family difficulties, to our house being robbed, to illness, and more.
The thinking behind this is that if some objective event occurs, we brought it about in some way, perhaps unconsciously. The event itself is a reflection of our own actions and psychology, and it now shines our inner self back to us.
I both agree and disagree with this idea.
On one hand, I’ve seen many people sliding into magical interconnectedness here. “I do something, and immediately it comes back to me. Life is ‘listening’ and ‘responding’ to me.”
This is an over-inflation and over-emphasis on the power of the human self. Your own inner world clearly doesn’t render that of others unnecessary. For example, you can’t change the fact that there are thieves and criminals in the world simply by wishing it away. You are a part of the whole, a piece of the puzzle, not the centre around which everything is magically arranged.
Sure, your life does reflect your inner patterns, to a shocking degree. But this is not a magical occurrence. It’s simply because emotion and thought lead to action, which leads to our results, which then affect our future emotions and actions, leading to more results along the same line, and so on indefinitely. You attract it through thought, emotion and action, not through magical action at a distance.
I do believe that every event in our lives is like a looking glass in which to see our own reflection. A robbery is an event, one we can interpret in many ways. Our psychology largely defines what the event will look like to us. I can choose to see a robbery as terrible and to be avoided at all costs, or I can choose to see it as a learning experience that I can use to grow. Both are legitimate, and neither mean that we magically attracted the robbery.
Another nuanced phenomenon is serendipity. Merriam-Webster gives a good defintion: “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for”.
I’ve definitely had serendipity experiences. It’s a feeling that something has been unexpected gifted to you, as though it had been arranged somehow. There’s no doubt that strong serendipity experiences are powerful and convincing.
But there’s also a big danger with serendipity, which is that you begin looking for serendipity in the tiniest events to bolster your belief in it. You also deny adverse or challenging events because they don’t fit with your ideas.
I fell into this trap in 2018 after reading M. Scott Peck’s classic The Road Less Travelled. “This is all happening for a reason, it’s all happening for ME!”, I thought. I used to keep a “serendipity diary”. A few weeks ago, I looked back on this diary and realised I thought certain events were serendipitous simply because I was predisposed to. They were fairly unremarkable and universal, and others took no notice of them. Yet there I was, drunk on the idea that everything was magically conspiring in my favour, from what was on TV to the places I visited to my social life.
Again, we have the problem of interpretation. Events can look serendipitous because we perceive them that way, at that time. We might look back later and realise that while there was a hint of mystery and uncanniness, they weren’t entirely unlikely. Mundane factors beyond our control also played their part.
To not realise this is to hyperinflate the human ego, and I think that though serendipity is a comforting idea, we should hold it quite lightly.
At the same time, we can see that we are part of a whole – the whole of life. We’re a kind of character in the cosmic dance, and playing this character is magical. Everything we perceive undoubtedly involves us to some degree, and the world is not separate from us. Our lives seem to take a general direction, and we can feel held in this bigger flow. Different aspects of life inspire and resonate with us according to the setting of our psychological dials.
From this state of humility, we can realise that serendipity is a kind of constant in our lives. But it’s a humble, realistic serendipity. It’s more that we conform to life and dance with it, not that life conforms to us.
The Beauty of Magical Thinking
Now that we’ve picked apart the problems with magical thinking, let’s talk about its beauty and necessity.
Remember: magical thinking is a stage of human development that we all go through. In modern countries, it dominates from about age 18 months to age 4. It has a raison d’etre, otherwise it wouldn’t exist in the human developmental blueprint.
As adults, we should appreciate the capacities that this phase affords us. Among them are the emergence of language, imagination, desire, intentionality, our first sense of individuality, and an awakening to the wonder of the physical world. How can we skillfully integrate all this without falling back into magical interconnectedness?
First, we can integrate Magic as modern adults by realising that nothing really is separate from us.
Sure, we can’t turn instantaneously turn any desire into reality as Magic would like to. But the internal world of emotions, thoughts, beliefs, intentions and desire is not really inside; the outer world of sight, sound, objects, people and places is not really outside. They form an interconnected, interactive, multi-coloured, multi-dimensional mesh.
We might also realise that our intentions are very powerful. The current Manifest-Your-Reality movement, if exaggerated and exploited by the self-help gurus, is based on a fundamental human truth. That is the truth of the self-fulfilling prophecy, of thought becoming emotion becoming action, becoming reality.
This doesn’t happen through instant magical action, but by slow accumulation over time. Thoughts translate into real causal actions, which bring real causal results. This is an inescapable truth, and recontextualises the basic premise of magical thinking.
And I think we can integrate magical thinking by looking at life with the eyes of a child. Everything truly is a miracle when we can see it from a transpersonal, unitive perspective. Why does life exist at all? Where is the intelligence behind this life? Why am I here?
Life truly is uncanny, and I believe that if we’re all very honest with ourselves, we understand very little. We humans are unrivalled in knowing how to manage life, how to rearrange the building blocks of life, but when it comes to the why, the what, the how, the very fabric, the very principles behind existence itself, we must be honest and conclude we have no idea what is going on here. That is the ultimate realisation and reintegration of magic.
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