The 1933 Marx Brothers film Duck Soup is the first recorded expression of a phrase that’s funny but also deeply important: “who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” Decades later, comedian Richard Pryor used it when his wife caught him in bed with another woman: “who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”
This isn’t an essay on gaslighting, but it could be…
In the last post, I concluded by saying “the primacy of the written word must give way to the primacy of religious experience.” Now, I finished working through my issues with biblical literalism and inerrancy a long time ago. But that’s far from the only place where our mainstream culture tells us to ignore our own eyes and instead believe what the talking heads on television tell us must be true.
In the political world, we’ve seen how facts don’t seem to matter. Some of this is a question of interpretation: liberals and conservatives have different ideas about what’s important – different moral instincts. But beyond that, we’ve seen plenty of studies that show when people are presented with evidence against what they believe, they discount it or flat-out deny it, and then double down on their beliefs. Apparently, the human desire to feel like we’ve always been right is greater than our desire to actually be right.
And we have a President who says what he wants to be true whether it’s true or not and expects people to believe him – and many do, because they want it to be true too, or because they like him and want to believe him.
I don’t want to go any deeper down the rabbit hole of politics today – I want to use politics as an example and then get back to the spiritual and religious point of this post.
There has never been a greater need for clear, honest, independent thinking. There has never been a greater need to ignore what the mainstream culture tells you and to pay attention to what your senses – all your senses – tell you is happening.
Children believe in magic because they experience magic and they haven’t yet been taught “better.” They have far more and more powerful past life experiences than adults, possibly because they’re still partially connected to where ever we were before we came into this world.
They also play with other children regardless of color and appearance, because they haven’t yet been taught that some people are “better” than others.
But it isn’t long before those with a vested interest in keeping things the way they’ve always been start laughing at their silly ideas, teaching them the way the world really works (which can be a good thing, if it’s done right), and reprogramming them to become “productive members of society” (which is a very problematic thing). We’re taught to distrust our own observations and especially our feelings, and to instead trust in “consensus reality” – the vague and unreflective opinions of the collective majority, as shaped by those with power and wealth.
Magic? It’s just a coincidence. Gods? You’re giving human faces to natural phenomena. Ancestors? They’re all in your head. The Fair Folk? People may have believed in them once upon a time, but now we know they couldn’t possibly exist. Past life memories and reincarnation? You’re just trying to deny the inevitability of death. And on and on and on.
We’re told to grow up, to listen to the authorities, and to join the cool kids who are too sophisticated for such fantasies. Some of us are told it’s all “of the devil” – a deception designed to steal our immortal souls. Some of us are told both… which in my case had the interesting effect of helping me decide that since both of them couldn’t be right, they were both probably wrong and I’d be better off figuring it out on my own.
The best way to believe in magic is to do magic. Now, you have to put some work into learning what real magic is and isn’t and what real spells are and aren’t. If you think mumbling a few words of badly pronounced Latin while gesticulating like a baboon brandishing a stick is going to bring you anything, you’re going to be disappointed. But invest a little time learning sigil magic or traditional witchcraft and you’ll start seeing results in a hurry. My first spells were straight out of Scott Cunningham’s Earth Power. That’s a long way from “serious” magic, but it worked well enough to convince me this was real beyond any doubt.
The best way to believe in the Gods is to worship the Gods. Read their stories. Sing their songs and read their poetry aloud. Meditate on their values and virtues. Make offerings to them. Then listen for their presence. Listen for that voice that seems like it’s in your head, except it’s telling you things you didn’t know… and frequently, things you’d rather not hear even though your heart and your brain tell you they’re true. Be persistent, and be present in good times as well as bad – how would you respond if someone ignored you for years, then called you up out of the blue to bail them of a bad situation?
Vision problems and optical illusions are easy to recognize – your eyes aren’t lying. Neither are your ears, or your skin, or your innermost feelings.
But your ego will lie to you when it hears something that challenges what you’ve “always” believed. Your fears will lie to you when they see something that means you may have to change. Your insecurities will lie to you when they think you may have to step outside of what your friends and family and coworkers insist is real… conveniently ignoring the fact that they’re dealing with their own egos, fears, and insecurities at the same time.
Learning to trust your senses is an act of will. And like so many other parts of ourselves, the will is strengthened by exercise.
Being naïve and credulous is no virtue. Jumping to Otherworldly conclusions is just as bad as jumping to materialist conclusions. Evaluating and interpreting religious and magical experiences requires discernment to put them into context, figure out what they mean, and decide how to respond. But honest and helpful discernment begins by trusting your senses, accepting that what you experienced actually happened, and refusing to rationalize it away out of fear or embarrassment.
It is perhaps a coincidence (yeah, right) that this post comes only a few days past the one-year anniversary of the morning when I saw a green glowing bird. It was something that does not belong in this world, but there it was. One of the commenters did a good job of listing nine “rational explanations” for what I saw. I considered them all and then rejected them, because none of them described what I actually saw. It wasn’t a flying toy or a bird covered in green paint, it was a bird that was glowing green in a way animals of this world just don’t. I remain open to other explanations (including ordinary this-world explanations) but I saw what I saw.
Most religious and magical experiences aren’t this strong. Most are more subtle. That makes them easier to accept, but also easier to explain away. Don’t. Examine the evidence and if your best explanation is completely mundane, so be it. You’re after the truth, no matter where it leads you.
But when the truth leads you to magic, accept it. Your senses may sometimes confuse you, but they will not lie to you. Consensus reality lies to you every single day.
But don’t take my word for it – go see for yourself.