I have a memory of the first letter I ever wrote to Santa Claus. I was probably 5 years old, and had not started school. I can’t remember all of the details, of course, but I think I asked my mother if I could write Santa, even though I hadn’t yet learned to write. She assured me that I could, as Santa would understand what I was asking him.
So I put marker to paper, and scribbled lines across the page, filling it with my five-year-old’s in imitation of what writing looked like.
I must have given the note to my mother, as it turned up years later in her collection of things saved from our childhoods (at enough of a remove that I was not angry that she had interfered with the duties of the U.S. Postal Service).
I can’t tell you what I was “asking” for, nor what I actually got from Santa that Christmas. What I’m remembering is that magical state of mind where I could believe that my secret intentions could be carried by a child’s remote approximation of written language to a special man who would somehow understand what no other could.
By now you may see where I’m going somewhere with this.
When I was thirteen I prayed the prayer shown in the back of a religious “tract” (the well-known “Bridge to Life” tract from The Navigators) and became a Christian. About a year later I found myself at a Charismatic home prayer meeting, kneeling on the floor, surrounded by fellow believers as I prayed to receive the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit”. (For those who don’t know, the “sure sign” of the “infilling” of the Holy Spirit is taken to be one’s new-found ability to “speak in tongues”. This “new” language is believed to be a “secret” language with which the believer can speak his or her innermost needs and desires directly to the Holy Spirit, who is able to interpret them.)
I remember the feeling of that moment, and the burble of the unfamiliar sound of “speaking in tongues” falling on my ear as those who surrounded me prayed to the Holy Spirit on my behalf. There was an intensity to the moment — a certain forcefulness to the voices so near my ears as they worked (I now understand) to will the Holy Spirit into me. And soon I began to babble as well, tentatively at first, but then with more confidence as my first attempts were greeted with a swelling of the volume of those whose hands rested on my back, head and shoulders. It all reached an electric crescendo as the act was completed — when my own “prayer language” came — and then quieted into whispered prayers and, finally, a sort of silent afterglow.
The other day — as I looked at some paintings on a coffee shop wall with a gallery director colleague– I mused on the idea that young artists can move through a phase where — lacking the maturity to make more confident marks — they may believe that any mark made on a canvas will somehow magically carry intention, even if the mark (or the collection of marks that make up the whole) lacks any accessible coherence. As I considered this I remembered my letter to Santa and the acquisition of my prayer language, and these three moments allowed me to triangulate an idea.
In each of these three cases of magical thinking, there is a childlike thrill to uncoupling the critical mind from the seat of pure desire and then (to use the examples I’ve presented) freely splashing paint across a canvas or scribbling lines across a page or babbling nonsense syllables to an invisible spirit. This is the joy and the appeal of magic — the kind of moments that make the skin tingle or give that widening in the base of the throat (which is where where I feel it) and offer, I think, a welcome departure from the watchful eye of our cool reason.
Little wonder, then, that they appeal to us so much as children and now — perhaps even more so for their rarity — as adults.
But a common thread to the experience of magic is this uncoupling of reason from desire — which is essentially the act of erecting a temporary barrier between two active levels of our consciousness. What we do, in effect, is put a blindfold on our frontal lobes so that we won’t be embarrassed by whatever irrational thing we’re about to do (or, more precisely: shamed by our reason for doing it).
I think we all do (or have done) this. And there is no shame in such pleasures (it’s why we love professional “magicians”, and a part of what we grieve for in the passing of childhood). But the part of it that interests me today is the uncoupling aspect, and the belief-motivated actions that follow. For when I wrote that letter to Santa (or when I first “prayed in tongues” to The Holy Spirit), I could not actually have told you what I was really asking for, because I had disengaged the part of my brain that can actually articulate anything I am thinking!
Now the teachers of these magical techniques would counter that this was exactly the point: to get my own “worldly” (read: critical, reasoning) mind out of the way and let spirit talk to spirit without interference.
The problem with that idea (and it’s a huge one) is that the “mind” and the “spirit” are not the separate entities we tend to conceptualize them as. Well, at least no more separate than one part of our brain is from another. The notion of a discrete trinity of mind/body/soul is a device to describe what are essentially different levels of the consciousness that are the product of the physical processes of our brain. That we often then externalize these parts of ourselves, assigning them a sort of cosmic autonomy, is much more a testament to our propensity for magical thought than a reflection of any verifiable reality.
But oh, the magical appeal of this idea, despite the fact that there is nothing to back it up! (Nothing, that is, except our seemingly inexhaustible craving for magic). And to many (if we’re honest about this) the craving alone is considered sufficient “evidence” for the object we so crave. Even the Bible offers our desire for God as proof of his existence. But this is proof only of our desire, and the roots of our desire are not so difficult to discern. To put it another way: would we think that a child’s belief in Santa Claus is evidence that Santa really exists and lives at the North Pole? I think not. And yet many adults use just this kind of “evidence” to support their belief in the divine.
Magic (and magical thinking) are curious and pleasing byproducts of this consciousness that we carry. This is the only thing we can say with any confidence about magic. This is the only notion of magic that reality offers us.
I realize that such a suggestion is nothing but a wet blanket to many, but I am not saying that our experience of magic is invalid. How can any of our cognitive experiences be called “invalid”, at least in the sense of not existing or occurring? Yet such experiences are always products of the way we perceive reality, and since we are clearly able to perceive things in ways that would never align with any physical reality (we can “see” things that are not there) such an experience alone is confirmatory evidence nothing other than the cognitive experience itself. This is how I view everything spiritual: I believe in the experience, I differ only in the explanation. So when someone tells me that God spoke to them, I do not for a second doubt their experience, I simply translate their God language into materialist terms: I credit their story to its actual source (their own consciousness) and not the supposed source (God).
For I know all too well that we carry in our skulls a brain that runs several (or many) levels of consciousness at one time (though there seem to be primarily three major levels: conscious, unconscious and involuntary). And I know from my own experience that the “voice” that we experience as god or spirit is an actual phenomenon of that level of our consciousness that talks back when we talk to it. (In this sense, I would have to say that god does, indeed, exist, insofar as the thing we experience as god exists. Where I would quibble is in the magical leap of making a natural cognitive event into evidence of an actual God in His Heaven).
I like coherence. I like to make sense of as much as I can reasonably make sense of in the world. Yet I expect I will always carry an ear for the siren song of magic as long as I live. The difference between me and a believer is that I have come to understand that the source of the magical experience is resident inside of me, and through understanding that a large part of the allure of the magical impulse has been removed (namely that it can actually mean something or be predictive or life-changing in some dramatic way).
To give in to magic is to give in to the incoherence of a child’s scribbled letter to Santa, or a mumbled gibberish prayer that is going not to heaven, but right back to its source. In each case we are playing with ourselves, really. And though there’s nothing wrong with that, we don’t generally like to be seen doing it in public.