This is a talk that I gave three years ago, at the first “Hive Mind” event in Baltimore, August 17 2013. It seems relevant to dust it off now. A low-quality YouTube video is embedded below if you’d rather listen than read — sorry for the lousy sound! It gets a little better after the first minute or so.
Magic, Imagination, and Political-Artistic Liberation
Or, A Crash Course in Defense Against The Dark Arts.
Friends, when I told Blue and Al that I’d like to give a talk here tonight, I gave them a title to put on the Facebook event page: “Magic, Imagination, and Political-Artistic Liberation”. I figured I’d take some bits I’ve written before and mash them up into something appropriate for this event. But as I was putting it together I realized that what I was coming up with, a good alternate title or subtitle for it might be, “A Crash Course in Defense Against the Dark Arts”.
Now the “Dark Arts” here aren’t anything as obvious as Death Eaters throwing around Unforgivable Curses. The magical opponents we face are a little more subtle.
So…when I talk about magic here, I’m not talking about zapping people with wands, or summoning and binding demons out of some medieval grimoire. I mean ritual magic.
A good definition of this sort of magic comes from Dion Fortune, who was a British occultist who was active in the first half of the 20th century. According to her, “Magic is the art of causing changes in consciousness at will.”
I’ll say that again: “Magic is the art of causing changes in consciousness at will.”
Now if we accept that definition, if when we’re doing magic we *deliberately* change our consciousness, that suggests that there are other ways that our consciousness could change.
Like, it could change in a way that’s not deliberate, that’s accidental or involuntary.
For example: I’m a little bit claustrophobic. It’s not a big thing, it doesn’t really affect my life much, but if I have to go into a tight space I get nervous. My mind gets a little agitated, I think about getting stuck. My consciousness changes in a way that I don’t really want. That is not magic. We could call it “anti-magic”.
Fortunately, as a magician I have ways I can fix that. I can change my brain to a better state with a few deep breaths, by consciously relaxing muscular tension, by visualizing the enormous amount of space that I really do have, with positive self talk about how I’ve done this before lots of times with no problem. When I do that, I am changing my consciousness in accordance with my will. That’s magic. No wand required.
* * * * *
The thing is, we can all do that. We are *all* magicians. We all have the keys to our own brains. It’s just that many of us don’t know it, or we forget it when push comes to shove…and so, very often, we don’t respond to these situations, we let that anti-magic happen to us.
So…we’ve got magic, where we deliberately change our consciousness, and we’ve got what I’m calling “anti-magic”, the sort of everyday mindlessness of quiet desperation that I think all of us deal with at least sometimes. (Even sages and saints have their bad days.)
The third alternative – this is the black magic – is for your consciousness to change in accordance with *someone* *else’s* will. We see examples of this every day. We’ve got a whole industry devoted to changing your consciousness. This industry is so pervasive that it’s possible for someone living in an American city to encounter it up to 5,000 times in a single day. And that’s not a number I made up, it’s from a New York Times story from 2007 – and it’s only getting worse. And most of the time, the way it’s trying to change your consciousness is not in your best interests.
What are these sorcerers putting in your brain? “Have a Coke and a smile!” “Make it a Bud Light!” “Put a tiger in your tank!”
And of course it’s not just advertisers. The whole power hierarchy is based around controlling consciousness in this way. “We had to go to war, Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction!” “Corporations are people!” “You don’t have to be able to protect yourself, the police will do that!” “We’re spying on you in order to protect you!” “Billionaires are job creators! We should have an economic system set up for their benefit. It’ll trickle down!”
The fact is, Authority — political authority, religious authority, artistic authority, Authority-with-a-capital-A — basically relies on us fooling ourselves into believing in it.
You see, Authority doesn’t have the resources to keep us all under control by force, or even just the threat of force. It doesn’t even have the resources to fool us, the sort of grand conspiracies some folks believe in. But it doesn’t have to fool us. We’re really good at fooling ourselves. So Authority just has give us a few hints.
With just a little encouragement, we will fool ourselves into believing in national boundaries, that people on this side of the line are different than people on that side. We’ll believe that things like laws and money and property are as real as rain and dirt and gravity and poems, that they’re just facts that can never be questioned and will never change.
With just a little help from their black magic, we will believe that That’s Just The Way Things Are.
Why? Why will we do this? It’s part of the primate dominance hierarchy wired into the brain. Follow the alphas. That’s a lot easier than thinking for yourself, right? Because when you follow, then you’re not responsible. You can’t be blamed. It’s the law. You were only following orders.
* * * * *
There’s some psychological research that shows how easily we fall in line with Authority. Back in the early 60s at Yale, Stanley Milgram set up a very famous experiment. He pretended to be doing a study on memory and negative re-enforcement, but what he was really doing was testing whether people were willing to deliver painful electrical shocks — up to 450 volts — to innocent people, just on the Authority of a scientific researcher who told them it was necessary.
Now, the shocks were fake, the person who was supposedly receiving them and screaming in pain was an actor…but the experimental subjects didn’t know that. Many of the subjects would complain about how it was wrong, how they didn’t want to do it, they’d get nervous and agitated…but most of them, about two-thirds, would keeping pressing that button, all the way up to the 450 volt mark.
Milgram interviewed the subjects afterward. Here’s what one of them said: “Well, when he first began to cry out in pain, and I realized this was hurting him. This got worse when he just blocked and refused to answer. There was I. I’m a nice person, I think, hurting somebody, and caught up in what seemed a mad situation . . . and in the interest of science, one goes through with it.”
If you think that’s just a lab finding that couldn’t possibly apply in the real world, think about this: between 1992 and 2004, on over 70 different occasions a wacko posing as a cop on the telephone — not in person, mind you, just over the phone — was able to use his aura of authority to get managers and workers at fast food joints and chain grocery stores to do strip searches of innocent people and even commit bizarre acts of sexual assault.
I’ll bet those folks would say the same thing as Milgram’s subject: “oh, it’s a mad situation, but in the interests of law and order — these things that I’ve been taught are more real than people — one goes through with it.”
Well. Gee, Tom, this is getting kind of depressing. Is there any good news here?
Well, we should say that sometimes when someone else is trying to change our consciousness, they have a good intention. Authority can sometimes be there to help, to help us get fear out of our minds, organize us to respond. Healers and shamans and teachers and the very best leaders, they align our consciousness for us, give us a brain tune up.
In fact, I’ll tell you a secret…that’s what I’m trying to do now. If I do this right, in a little while, you’ll have a little bit different state of consciousness than when we all came in here.
But this society of ours has a lot of black-magician sorcerers trying to put fear and greed into your brain. So we need to see how this black magic works, and have some counter-charms to free us.
* * * * *
What can free us from this sort of Authority, that wants to create a world where we’re good little consumers and cogs?
There’s a really nice quotation from The Illuminatus! Trilogy, one of the classic works of literature of the psychedelic culture. It’s by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, by the way, and if you haven’t read it you really oughta. The quotation is:
That’s a big heavy idea, so I want to say it again:
“Freedom won’t come through Love, and it won’t come through Force. It will come through the Imagination.”
Every bit of progress begins with an act of Imagination. Before slaves can fight for freedom, before a community can organize to kick out kings or capitalists or any other sorts of rulers, there has to be someone who imagines that thing to be possible.
But there’s a deeper aspect to it. I talked about how we trick ourselves into believing in Authority. But there’s a type of Imagination that always challenges belief, that always asks, “Are you kidding me? Am I kidding myself?” It does this because it’s always Imagining the different ways we could be fooled. People say, all the time, after they’ve been fooled: “Well, I never imagined that…” With a little more Imagination, they wouldn’t have been fooled.
We might call Imagination in this role, Skepticism. (And I mean real Skepticism, not like “climate change skeptics” who believe whatever the oil industry tells them.) A real Skeptic doesn’t lack imagination, they Imagine all the different explanations for what they see.
And this Skepticism, really, is the basis of science. The Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman talked about scientific integrity, and said that “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists.”
I’d say that’s also the first principal of artistic integrity and spiritual integrity and political integrity: don’t fool yourself.
And a big part of what you need to not fool yourself, is a healthy and strong Imagination. Creative thinking, to see many possibilities.
And I think that this event, here tonight, is an excellent chance to try to cultivate that a little bit.
* * * * *
So. What I’d like to invite you to do now, is join me in a little ritual. This is a little scale model of how magic works.
A magician clearly sets their intention about what sort of change they want to happen — remember, magic is about willed change. And they will raise power — which means getting your mind out of old ways of thinking, getting open to new ideas — and direct that power to effect change in accordance with that intention.
The intent that we’re going to set, is that we’re going to make this place here tonight, not just this room but this whole event, a space where Imagination has free reign. We’re going to raise up some creative energy, not just for ourselves but for everyone here. We’re going to do a little body awareness, and some positive visualization, and say hail to the Creative Spirit by whatever name you know it: the Muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne; or Brighid, of the flame; or Saint Cecilia, patron of musicians; or Sarasvati (or as my Japanese friends know her, Benzaiten), goddess of all that flows; or Kvasir, whose blood is the mead of poets and magicians. Or, if you prefer, we could think about it as charging up parts of the brain, Broca’s area, the superior frontal gyrus, the right parietal lobe. Whatever conception works for you.
And then you’re invited to take that creative energy and direct it, put it to work at the Community Art table, or in your own journal or whatever, put it to work to create something that will encourage and remind you to ask, “Am I fooling myself?” (And by the way, it *is* ok to fool yourself if you know you’re doing it — to pull the wool over your own eyes, as the SubGeniuses say — but that is an advanced practice. Gotta master the basics first.)
So, do you want to do this little ritual?
Then I ask you again, my friends, is it your will, your intent, that we do this magical working, to raise the energy of creativity?
And I ask you a third time — because we have to sure about this stuff! — fellow magicians, is it your will that here and now we raise the energy of creation, to strengthen us all, hone our perceptions, that we may have the Imagination to see clearly?
Then I invite you to just stand comfortably for a minute, shake any tension out of your body. And to close your eyes and to take a deep breath, together. We’re going to literally conspire here, breathe together. And let it out. And again, in, out. And one more time, for that which we do three times is true. Deep breath in…and be aware, that right now molecules of air that were in the lungs of the person next to you a moment ago, are now in yours. We’re all in this together. And breathe out.
Feel the ground under your feet. Put down roots, reach down into the earth. See them, in you minds eye, connecting you to the Earth.
And now, connect to the sky. Know that right above you, a star shines, just for you. (You can move a little if you have to get right under it.) See that star, know that it’s gravity pulls every atom of your body, that even inside here, its starlight in the radio wavelenghts reaches you.
Know that you are a part of this universe, supported by the earth, made of starstuff.
And now, I invite you, as you continue to breathe fully, to imagine, to visualize, that as you breathe in you’re filling your body with light. And as you breathe out, you’re filling the space around you with that light. Generating light as we breathe in, sharing the light as we breathe out, getting brighter and brighter, all of us, with every breath.
So now, in what I’m going to ask you, I’ll suggest you keep in mind the rule “first thought, best thought.” Just for now, whatever comes into your mind, accept it, go with it.
I ask you and I invite you now, to think about something you have done that was creative, something you’ve written or drawn or played or made, something that brought you joy to make. It could be something very simple, something silly. First thought! Remember now how it felt, in your body. Where do you feel it? In your hand? Your head? Your heart? Your gut? No right or wrong answer, if you feel it in your left big toe then that’s where you feel it.
But focus for a moment on that part of your body. See it, in your mind’s eye, getting brighter, as we all raise energy here.
And now, with that still bright, I ask you to think about a time when you discovered a hidden truth. Maybe you realized something you’d been hiding from yourself, or that someone was trying to conceal from you, someone tried to fool you but couldn’t. It could be realizing that a politician was lying (shocking, I know), or that your boss was bullshitting you, or that your parents were lying about Santa Claus. Whatever. First thought! Maybe a little righteous anger in there, but also some pride about figuring it out. How did that feel in your body? Where in your body are those feelings? See those areas getting brighter too. Brighter and brighter, until those areas merge and connect in one bright light.
And now, in just a moment, you’re going to look into that light. And what you see there – first thought! – is going to become the basis of a work of art. It might not be a Big Important Work (or it might be!). But it will be a work that will always remind you of using imagination to see through to hidden truths, and not be fooled.
And when you’re ready, go ahead and look into that light. See what’s there, or hear it, or feel it.
And now I invite you to become aware of this world around you again. Become aware of your body, just in case you’ve lost track of it. Feel your breath. Feel your feet on the floor. Listen to what’s around you, not just the sound of my voice but all the sounds. Orient yourself in space and time, here and now, never anywhere else. And when you are ready, open your eyes.
What Does It Mean For The Gods To Exist? and other essays is now available as a free e-book! It collects my run on the Patheos Agora blog plus a few bonus pieces.