Lets face it, when it comes to magical thinking, yoga people are some of the worst perpetrators around. Author and yogi Matthew Remski is right on the money when he observes “the facebook status updates that define yoga culture can be summed in one line. As I think so I shall be”.
And while this idea is often attributed to no greater mind than the Buddha – we’ve got to get a grip. Wishing for something does not make it so. Because according to scientific arbiters of reality, treating the physical world as though it had mental properties and treating the mental world as though it had physical properties – is to be guilty of “cognitive dysfunction.”
To believe in the “powers of intention” is to have fallen victim to the fallacy that consciousness extends beyond the brain. And no matter how much we may want to believe it, we will not create world peace by holding a sun salutation marathon on the legislature lawn.
The idea we can alter matter with our thoughts may have been a self-evident truth for ancient yogic sages like Patanjali – but today, we know better.
And we must be saved from false hopes. Magical thinking leaves us out of touch with reality. It lures us into believing that our minds are all we need to make change in the world. It leaves us mumbling mantras, lost in navel gazing, as the world falls apart around us.
But wait – am I the only one who finds this view a bit short-sighted? Because whether it falls in line with consensual reality or not, loads of evidence demonstrates that magical thinking is real, it works.
And far from disconnecting us from reality, magical thinking has been shown to give us confidence, the feeling of “ I can do this”, that actually supports our participation in the world.
And whatever skeptics want to say about it, countless studies have shown believing in a sugar pill or a prayer can heal your body, and that bringing along that lucky charm will statistically increase your chances of winning.
That’s why I’m puzzled by the intellectual hostility directed towards magical thinking. Because really, where’s the harm in indulging in a few positive affirmations? Besides, maybe we are meant to? As growing research suggests, magical thinking is not a cognitive dysfunction at all.
The Psychology of Magical Thinking
It looks like mother nature may have actually intended for us to think magically. Today studies in the fields of neuroscience, evolutionary biology and psychology demonstrate that we are biologically and psychologically hard-wired to seek out magical possibilities in the world.
Materialists concede that magical thinking may be innate, but they view this as outdated wiring of our primitive brains. But author Matthew Huston doesn’t agree. In his book The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy and Sane Hutson ask us to consider that magical thinking “provides a sense of control, of purpose, of connection and meaning” that “exemplifies many of the habits of mind that have made humans so evolutionary successful”.
Hutson asks us to consider a recent experiment in which the mere suggestion that a golf ball was lucky significantly influenced performance, causing participants to make almost two more putts on average. The explanation? “Participants in the charm-present conditions reported setting higher goals and demonstrated increased perseverance on the task”. Doesn’t that say it all?
And I find it most telling, as Hutson explores in his book, that the materialist view of reality (in which one’s mind is powerless in the face of an oblivious mechanical universe) has been psychologically demonstrated to promote a state of depression and “’learned helplessness” . This manifests in an inability to take action – after all what is the point?( I ask you, what betters describes the disconnected ennui of post modern culture?)
According to Peter Brugger, head of neuro-psychology at University Hospital Zurich “to be totally ‘unmagical ‘ is unhealthy. “ Brugger’s research strongly links the lack of magical thinking to “anhedonia”, the inability to experience pleasure. “ Non-magical thinkers were more likely to be depressed and have lower levels of Dopamine (a neurotransmitter ability allows us to see patterns, make connections, and tag experiences as meaningful) than magical thinkers.
Could it be that by donning rose-colored glasses and believing our mantras are manifesting abundance” – we do in fact, help ourselves thrive? Because lighting that candle for the obstacle busting Elephant God will in fact, increase your chances for happiness and success.
But really, in the last analysis, is the belief that our consciousness has the capacity to affect matter – really so magical? Isn’t this, in fact, what some of the greatest scientific findings of the 20th century have already demonstrated?
The Physics of Magical Thinking
The scientific materialist definition of reality tells us there’s the inside-world of the mind, defined by our thoughts, and the outside world of reality,defined by matter and deterministic forces. And never the twain shall meet. (In other words, Good bye Law of Attraction. Good-bye The Secret.)
But isn’t this, well, a little outdated? Haven’t we known ever since the first quantum physicists peered into the heart of matter that materiality is the emperor with no clothes? At the subatomic level, matter it isn’t even a “thing” at all – but a shape shifting infinite energy field that has no dimension, no ‘here’ no ‘now.’
And haven’t countless experiments confirmed, it is our act of observing which collapses this quantum energy field of all possibilities into a particle, a precise object in time and space? In fact, haven’t we known for over a century, as distinguished quantum physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Henry Stapp reminds us, that observation is not only necessary to observe the properties of phenomena but to bring them into being.
According to Stapp, we drive the quantum process because quantum waves collapse only when they interact with consciousness. In other words, our consciousness, is built into the system. It is an integral part of the manifestation of reality. And doesn’t this also suggest that the ancient mystics were right – consciousness matters? And while it’s really “consensual reality” bending to contemplate, maybe their belief in the power of mind to alter reality -was more than just magical thinking?
The Magic of Magical Thinking
Dean Radin is Director of Research at the Institute of Noetics (IONS), and he believes that Patanjali’s yogic tales of magical powers (Siddhis) offer us a glimpse into our very real superhuman potential.
In his upcoming book Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities Radin presents voluminous evidence that yoga and meditation enhance supernatural powers, such as telepathy, precognition and psychokinesis (affecting the world with the mind).
And if it sounds a little to woo-woo just take a peek at some of the peer-reviewed studies that Radin refers to here.
Radin asks, is it possible that some of the superpowers described by yogi mystics are actually real, and patiently waiting for us behind the scenes? “Are we now poised for an evolutionary trigger to pull the switch and release our full potentials?”
And is magical thinking the key?
So to conclude, I say lets put the weight of our materialist assumptions aside for a moment – to imagine. What if magical thinking is not regressive at all, but part of our inherent wisdom (instinct?) about the true nature of reality?
Because, as fantastical it might seem, the internal world is indeed inextricably linked to the external world. I worry that labeling this idea (which we hold so dear in contemporary yoga) as magical thinking or “quantum quackery” we are clinging to outdated paradigms that lock us into a limiting, dis-empowering not to mention, demoralizing view of the universe.
Because what expert can say with true finality, what we are or are not capable of manifesting?
So yoga world, I ask you what magic might we be capable of – if we only believe? Lets just do ourselves a favour. However it happens, whether it’s through saying mantras, chanting or doing twelve sun salutes for world peace, lets choose to believe in a reality in which consciousness matters, a world in which as we think, so it shall be.
In the end, I agree with Matthew Hutson that whether magical thinking adheres to consensual reality or not “We could no sooner escape it that we could escape consciousness. We think, therefore we think magically.”
For more on this topic go to: Skeptics Versus Believers: The Grip of Magical Thinking