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17. Magical Thinking

A special category of belief is called "magical thinking". There are many other forms of belief besides those of the "official" religions. These can range from superficialities such as throwing I Ching coins or the idea that stepping on the joints between paving stones brings bad luck, to fantasies that lead to serious hang-ups and neurotic behavior.

Underlying these kinds of beliefs is always some kind of fear and a desire to eliminate that fear. We call this "magical thinking": the idea that I know, can influence, control and manipulate the universe.

Magical thinking means that I as an individual think that I have influence over the universe and that the universe transmits signs and messages to me personally. One thinks one can bring about or avoid happiness and unhappiness for oneself and others. Or one thinks that doing "good" deeds will force the universe to give one a better life later, perhaps in ones next reincarnation. Doing "bad" deeds would do the opposite.

Magical thinking also means that I believe causal explanations for things and events, which in fact I do not know or cannot even know if that cause is related to what I think I am explaining.

"By 'magical thinking' I mean the habit of attributing causes to events, when it is impossible to know whether causal connections actually exist. We humans, whose minds evolved under pressure to identify threats, are greedy in our hunger for explanations, and thus prone to see false causality everywhere. This is why I have advised examining beliefs with the intention of weeding out premature cognitive commitments. As long as a person is weighed down by the weight of unexamined beliefs, there is no chance of seeing things clearly."

Robert Saltzman, The Ten Thousand Things

A few examples:

You may not really believe in astrology, yet can't resist reading the weekly horoscope in a magazine or newspaper.

You find or get a four-leaf clover and secretly hope for some "luck".

Surely most prefer not to walk under a ladder and worry a bit when today is Friday the 13th.

I, myself have had the strange thought for years that if I saw a license plate with the letter combination "BX" on the road, it would bring me "good luck". Where on earth I got that from I can't remember.

And who doesn't say a quick prayer when something bad threatens? "Oh, please, don't let that happen…"

We all know (hopefully) that such things are actually nonsense, yet we can't help it.

Another typical example of magical thinking is the child who thinks she is guilty of a pet's death after wishing it dead because the animal scratched her…

Thinking in terms of being "lucky" or "unlucky" is also a form of magical thinking. Things happen that you may find pleasant or unpleasant, nothing more. And maybe what brings you "bad luck" will bring you "happiness" the next day.

Alan Watts tells the following well-known story somewhere:

Once there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. All the neighbors came over that night to commemorate. "Such a pity that your horse ran away." And he said, "Maybe."

The next day the horse came back and brought seven wild horses with him. Everyone came over in the evening and said, "How fortunate, how lucky, you now have eight horses." And he said, "Maybe."

The next day his son tried to tame and free one of the horses, but he was thrown off and broke his leg. They all said, "Oh gosh that's too bad." And he said, "Maybe."

The next day the conscripts came to recruit, or force people into the army, but they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. All the people came over and said, "That's great." And he said, "Maybe."

Also fairly harmless is belief in so-called psychic phenomena such as telepathy and clairvoyance. The same goes for belief in auras, chakras and acupuncture. No evidence, as far as I know, has been found for the existence or operation of these things, any more than for astrology, palm reading and card reading.

And everyone has had the experience of thinking of someone and a short time later that person calls you or something happens to that person. There is no paranormal communication here, just coincidence. The countless times you were thinking of that person and nothing at all happened are forgotten.

We no longer live in caves or jungles and are no longer the prey of large predators and we no longer have to be alert to every shadow, every strange light or sound. But somewhere our mind still thinks it does and needs explanations and resources to protect itself. We are vulnerable and what we don't know can be dangerous. And we are in fact still vulnerable. There may be no more saber-toothed tigers (we made sure of that), but a car accident or a vein rupture can happen in an instant.

We prefer to think that as a Capricorn with ascendant Aries (I'm just saying) nothing bad will happen to us this week and if we just try to live healthy and take our Bach remedies daily that all will be well. We hope…

We think that "civilization" and "progress" are the engines of history. Slowly everything must be getting better.

We may think that somewhere our "soul mate" will be waiting for us. It has to happen; it is our "destiny".

We think we can "improve" ourselves to become a "better" or "more loving" person.

I also refer here to the phenomenon of Louise Hay, who claimed in her book "You Can Heal Your Life" that by doing certain affirmations we can remove the effect of bad thoughts, which would be the actual cause of the ailment, and thus get better. For every ailment or condition in our lives, she said, we are responsible ourselves. Apply this story to an animal that has cancer or a baby that gets sick, and this reasoning shows clearly as bullshit.

"The truth is no one wants reality. We all prefer our illusions."

Shiv Sengupta on Facebook 20-6-2023

Magical thinking is a way of denying the total uncertainty of the here and now, of life as it happens.

Robert Saltzman on Facebook:

"Every life, no matter how happy, includes struggles on countless levels: physical, spiritual, psychological, and so on. No wonder we seek answers. No wonder we look for meaning in our daily routines. No wonder we want reasons for hope. Many who say they seek spiritual truths actually mean, 'Give me hope, give me purpose, just don't let me fall into despair.'"