Yoga & Magical Thinking: A Defense

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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.”

Beauty

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.

goodluck

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.

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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?)

golfexperiment

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.)

quantumwavefunction

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?

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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

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12 Comments Add yours

  1. yogelisa says:

    Ah, you got me! By paragraph 5 I was seriously disagreeing . . . glad I read on!

  2. yogalurve says:

    Very intriguing! I think that much of art, science, and other accomplishments have come from “magical thinkers”. It’s those who believe is what others deem crazy or unbelievable who do make a difference in this world. As I have been developing my own yoga and Ayurveda practices, I find myself asking “what if” and I’m developing more “magical thinking” about myself and the world around me. I do feel compelled to try to get off my mat and help others, so maybe that is how my “magical thinking” will manifest itself into a positive change in the world.

  3. Barry Craig says:

    I have spent the last eight years observing in close proximity those in the yoga crowd, (not those for whom yoga helps live life but those for whom yoga is life) and I wish I could replay now for the record the majority of conversations and viewpoints expressed by those who live yoga and participate in what we might call :”magical thinking.”. They are easily the most self deceiving people I have ever met. I find nothing amusing except they are the butt end of many jokes and very deservedly so. If I want magic I can watch David Copperfield. At least we know (both entertainer and audience) that it is in reality magic, not life. Really now is this how we want to spend our lives?

    1. Sheria Brown says:

      Great Article! You go girl…

  4. Daniel says:

    Namaste, Danielle here is my reply on your “So yoga world, I ask you what magic might we be capable of – if we only believe?”
    This is what I wrote first of June
    “Today I dug deep, and went into myself. Went freediving in way to cold water (in a thin Shorty). We made a plan how to execute the dives.
    As my safetydiver (in warm fullbody wetsuit) and coach tested the line an gear, that we use for our safety. I went deeper into my mind and body, went over the plan as i focused my yoga-breathing. The fact that the surface water temp was only 12° Celsius (4 degrees below 3 meters), was not anything I wanted to enter my mind. I focus more on my breathing and calm and set my mind to stay in the zone.
    Went in the water and the sensation of the cold water got to my brain, but couldn’t shake my determined mind. Our plan was to have me do 4 dive, with a Max depth of 20 meter but given the watertemp, My Coach adjusted it to 18m. That way making it even safer, 4m less to strain my body.
    First dive planed to max 9m to make sure all working fine with eardrums and body, mainly lungs, went down a bit fast and a small tension on the “drums”. Second dive still a solid mindset, cold still not effecting my brain or mindset, was feeling “warm”. Keeping a slow and determined breathing, to help the body instead of getting it stressed. Dow down slower and clearing the drums better, plenty of oxygen but started to feel a slightly strange sensation of “intoxication”. Told my coach about it and that it could relate to the pre-dive breath up. Third dive was surprisingly good and not bothered by the cold or the intoxicated feeling. Got deeper and accent went slow and mostly by the buoyancy of the air in my lungs. Gave me a good feeling to know that my body floats to the surface from more than 7 meters depth. Last dive, using controlled calm yogabreaths, as I nod to confirm to coach that last dive was up, and to be deeper than 10 meters. That meant that my lung volume would be half of my normal, due to the water pressure.

    Breathing 7 slow and deep breaths, visualization image about the dive is going over and over in my mind. Brain register that legs and arms is cold and that they have two safe dives left in them. Last 2 breaths and dive mode entering strong, last breath in and I know that next one will be 60 seconds away. Folding forward so my body weight helps me get the momentum to get down 1 1/2 – 2 meters. So I can start my swim slow and consistent down, clearing my “drums” each second arm stroke. Pressure after 7 meter increasing more each stroke, I can see my coach in the corner of my eye as I take my 4 last controlled strokes down to 10 meter. Lungs feel softly stretched as my body slowly turns to head back to surface. Hangs with feet down to let the body adapt to the pressure on my lungs, 10 seconds passing as my mind calmly starts the process to swim calm and controlled back to my next breath of fresh air. Pressure gently releasing it’s grip on my body, and my warm blood is flowing back out to arms and legs, the return of the cold blood sends chills on my back. Controlled “magical thinking” makes me feel warm, yoga-breathing helps me to hold the heart rate slow and steady.

    The outdoor diving seasons first dive, completed safe and as planed, but in colder water than we wished for. The response from the body fills me with comfort that all my yogasessions has not only given my body a good “off divingseason” training. It has strengthen my mind, given my mind the tools to stay focused and relaxed regardless the atmosphere I’m in. As I now 5hrs after my last dive writing this, I can feel the muscles telling me that they been given a straining workout. My lungs feeling good, but their buddys the diaphragm and abs, telling me that tomorrows Sat Kriya will be a good complement to today’s diving.
    Namaste and stay committed and safe.”

  5. tamara says:

    As a yoga practitioner, I have of course entertained the thought that the material world is thinly veiled, that matter as we perceive it is an illusion, and we limit possibilities by taking the phenomenal world at face value. I’m a reasonably well educated person and I can wrap my head around basic principles of quantum reality. If I accept it as a workable theory, I cannot really find any reason the descriptions of the ‘powers’ to be impossible. Though I had not really considered, as you pointed out, that quantum principles may fizzle out by the time they get to the scale of our consciousness, applicable for particles, not so much for people. Anyway, I work at a psychiatric hospital and daily find myself treating patients labelled “delusional.” If I believe in my heart of hearts that supposed ‘magical thinking’ can in fact alter the fabric of reality, what do I say to a person that is dabbling in yoga and quantum theory and can’t keep their feet on the ground? I met such a person recently and I had a moment’s impulse to lean forward and whisper, “you are actually on to something,” but instead encouraged setting aside these concepts for a safer, more concrete version of reality, one that begets being able to function at work and in relationships. It was the right thing to do as a clinician, felt like a little bit of a betrayal of my own musings but I didn’t have to say “these things aren’t real,” only “they aren’t healthy for you.” So even seeing the extreme magical thinking, I don’t understand why people would so vehemently insist on something they themselves don’t have even the ‘power’ or capacity to disprove. You know, if you want to be all science-y about it. People: “Strong opinions, weakly held.” That is good critical thinking. Anyway, LOVE your blog!

    1. Barry Craig says:

      Magical thinking is to the unstable what fire is to a pyromaniac.

      Determinism is to magic what a bucket of water is to a spark.

      Sometimes I tend to think this is an issue of predetermined genetics coupled mysteriously with personal magic.

      We are all on the inside of the same aquarium. Some of us try to look outside of it to see if there is something or someone that gives a meaning to life in the aquarium. Some of us look only inside the aquarium to make sense of it all. Some of us vacillate looking inside and outside. Whether we think magically, materialistically or some degree of both, none of us has a point of reference greater than our own experience. Observing (magically or materialistically or to any degree proportionately) does not decode meaning regardless of how sophisticated we choose to categorize our data.

      If we were to compare the above to baking we could say we have dry ingredients (say materialism) and wet ingredients (say magic) as a given in all recipes (cultures). Beyond that it is game on and we either wind up with a chapatti (Indian kitchen), a bagel (Jewish kitchen), Wonder Bread (American capitalistic agra-industrial tradition) or a tortilla (Mexican kitchen). Of course, there is of late, the gluten free culture, which still uses a combination of wet and dry ingredients.

      Unfortunately with those ingredients none of us winds up with chocolate. Now if the whole world believed in chocolate then we might all be happy because if half the world were making chocolate and the other half were eating chocolate, there would be peace.

      Anyway, as Anna Forrest says: “We are here to participate in the great mysterious.”

      Why not join me for a snack of chocolate (raw, organic, non-irradiated, fair traded, eco whatever that is,.. of course!?

  6. Bernadette Pragnya Pieber says:

    The question whether to think rationally or magically (and the latter is surely more fun) is one thing. The other thing is that Yoga at its best helps to transcend thinking, every kind of. Yogas citta vritti nirodha … 🙂

  7. Valerie says:

    You are, will be and have been whatever you believe!

  8. Bryan says:

    I don’t think it should be labeled “magical” thinking at all – real adepts and yogis have access to a subtle realm that does influence the physical. These things are sciences, whether you want to accept that or not, and don’t need western science to validate anything. How do you explain a yogi being able to change the nostril dominance of an entire room of people (i.e. opening the sushumna) by mere intention? Or inducing intensive body movements and various altered psychological states ( kriyas) in multiple people that cleanse the subtle channels through placing subtle energy (i.e. shakti) into a piece of fruit while in samadhi that was later eaten? This isn’t out of a book ,but real life experience, and definitely not “magical thinking” since there was no expectation or intention on the receiving end here. Time to seek out some real teachers if you want real answers to the “weird” stuff in yoga and not just some westerner who wrote a book.

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