The Unconscious Will

St. Louis Cemetery #2, New Orleans (1993)

IT WAS 1993, in that most magical of American cities, New Orleans, that I came to realize that magic is real. There was no Damascus Road conversion (or should that be Bourbon Street conversion?), just talking for the first time with an experienced witch who helped me to understand that those thoughts and feelings I had been denying were more than wishful thinking. A lot more.

And so being the good engineer, one of the first things I wanted to know was “how does magic work?” After some reading and some practice, I came to a three-fold understanding of magic that I have retained to this day.

First, magic involves the manipulation of unseen forces. We raise energy through chanting or dance, we draw it down from the Sky or up from the Earth, then we direct it toward our desired goals: casting a protective circle, healing ourselves or our loved ones, bringing something needed into our lives. Different people have different ideas about what those unseen forces are and I have my own opinions, but this simple, high-level explanation still works.

Second, magic involves Divine assistance. Our Christian friends call this intercessory prayer. Both believers and skeptics can point to studies supporting or refuting the effectiveness of intercessory prayer (and the structure of some of those studies seems to deal more with the first type of magic than the second), but I have seen it work for others and I have experienced it myself – that’s all the proof I need. Whether your chosen deities respond in the manner you prefer is another matter… and more motivation to maintain a close relationship with them in good times as well as bad.

Third, magic involves psychological programming. You plant an idea in your mind and reinforce it with symbols and ceremonies that speak to your subconscious. In doing so you change the way you feel and think and ultimately, the way you act. That this kind of magic exists should be obvious even to those who would cringe at calling it magic. But how best to do it isn’t exactly clear and is rarely straightforward; thus the wide variety of spells and rituals that work well at some times and poorly at others.

And that brings me to this article in TIME Magazine. It’s the summary of a study published in the journal Science (which is hidden behind a pay wall). Here’s a quote from researcher Ruud Custers of Utrecht University in the Netherlands:

People often act in order to realize desired outcomes, and they assume that consciousness drives that behavior. But the field now challenges the idea that there is only a conscious will. Our actions are very often initiated even though we are unaware of what we are seeking or why.

Custers and co-researcher Henk Aarts call this the “unconscious will” – what we want and attempt to actualize even though we don’t understand it and may not be aware of it. The unconscious will can be manipulated, as with subliminal advertising.

The research shows the truth in the occult maxim “as above, so below.” Here’s another quote:

[The] work has shown that people sitting in hard chairs are more likely to be more rigid in negotiating the sales price of a new car, they tend to judge others as more generous and caring after they hold a warm cup of coffee rather than a cold drink, and they evaluate job candidates as more serious when they review their résumés on a heavy clipboard rather than a light one.

And of course, if others can manipulate us, the we can manipulate ourselves, using the conscious to influence and change the unconscious.

It’s nice to see objective confirmation of my ideas about magic, but while I want to know how everything works, the main thing is that is does work. And magic most definitely works, even though it can be maddeningly difficult to get the exact results you want.

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About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.