Reality is a moving target

I couldn't think of any way to illustrate the topic of this post, so here's a puppy.
I couldn’t think of any way to illustrate the topic of this post, so here’s a puppy.

In his latest post on The Well of Galabes blog, John Michael Greer poses a question that, to judge from the comments, resonated with a lot of people–myself included.

“Abstract verbal thought…is a waste of time in operative magic. Don’t get me wrong, it’s of the highest importance when you’re outside the temple; a solid grasp of occult philosophy, which functions at a high degree of intellectual abstraction, is essential for success in ceremonial magic…but once you set foot inside the temple, raise your hands, and begin the opening ritual, how well you succeed will depend on how well you can set aside abstract thinking for the time being and participate fully, nonverbally, emotionally and sensuously in each moment of the work.

“That recognition leads into deep waters, which will have to wait for some other time. For the moment, though, I’d like to point out—as I’ve pointed out here before—that abstract concepts are further from reality than the experiences they attempt to describe and explain. In moving from thinking to experience, in magical practice or out of it, we’re moving closer to what’s real, and getting closer to what’s real seems to be essential to the effective practice of operative magic. I’ll close with a question: what does it imply about the universe if getting closer to reality makes reality more open to change?

(Emphasis mine.) I couldn’t resist replying to the post by comment but there are so many implications relevant to this here blog that I decided to expand that comment into a post.

For the purposes of this post, I am accepting a priori that it is accurate to say that reality is more open to change as we get closer to it. That requires that I define what I mean by reality. The only problem there is that I actually have no idea what reality is. Whatever it is, we interface with it through our physical senses (and through other, less well-understood senses) and then take the perceptual data, filter it through our expectations and preconceptions, and use whatever comes out the other end to construct scenarios (with our imagination?) that we think of as “real,” objective, and outside ourselves. Even when we know or suspect that this “reality” is more a subjective creation of our own mind, shadows on a cave wall are all most people will ever experience, so they’re real by consensus.

Of course, dear readers, we wouldn’t be drawn to magic, mysticism, and etc. if we were content to accept consensus reality. So we have to ask, what is causing those signals we perceive with our senses? Maybe it’s waves and particles. Or maybe the waves and particles are themselves phenomena of our perceptive apparatus. Who knows? I sure as hell don’t, and I don’t trust or respect anyone who says they do. So let us just accept for the sake of discussion that some kind of objective reality exists, which we are part of, but which we don’t fully experience or understand.

Now our starting premise is, (1) There is an objective reality. We don’t know what it is, but we get closer to it through fully-immersed, participatory, non-verbal experience; while we get further away from it when we try to name, describe, represent, or evaluate experience via abstraction and verbalization. (2) The closer we get to reality, the more it is open to change.

So indulge me as I wax loquacious on the possibilities…

(1) There is an objective reality. We don’t know what it is, but we get closer to it through fully-immersed, participatory, non-verbal experience.

If this is true, then we need better models of reality than the popular ones produced by scientistic-materialism. At first blush, our premise and those of scientistic-materialism might not seem mutually contradictory, but if you think about it, scientistic-materialist models of reality are actually extremely abstract. Which is totally ironic since materialists are convinced matter is the only thing that exists and that everything else is merely mental abstraction (though usually they don’t put it that politely). But I ask you, what is more abstract than the formal scientific method? I don’t mean the process of forming a hypothesis and seeing if it stands up to experience–that’s an ordinary part of human life, also known as trial and error. I mean the notions that an observer can stand outside of what they are observing, that what is real is measurable and what is measurable must be real, that subjectivity is a mark of either unreality or lack of utility/value, and that relevant variables can be controlled or independent. Those are all essentially metaphysical propositions, ones that, in my experience, do not stand up very well to real-world tests. The entire method depends on a central proposition, which is that objective reality exists independent of the observer and the more observer and observed can be separated, the more accurate observations of reality will be. That is basically like saying that you can best understand something by not directly experiencing it.

I mean…what? That doesn’t…I don’t even.

I don’t mean to throw science in the crapper, because if you accept its foundational principles as givens, from within the paradigm you can actually generate some interesting descriptions of our imagined “realities.” Things that work perfectly well for navigating entirely within the imagined “reality,” though obviously they begin to break down once you start to question the underlying assumptions. But I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you don’t fully buy into scientistic-materialism and its wacky epistemology. At least you don’t accept it as given. So what does our premise mean with regard to magic? In terms of practical action, Greer says:

“Everything that makes for effective magic serves to focus the mage’s awareness on the wordless. Physical actions do that, especially if they’re actions that have strong biological resonances; scents, colors, rhythms, chanted words that don’t instantly communicate meaning to the mind all do the same thing; so does the deliberate cultivation of emotional states—for example, the practice of love and devotion in religious ritual, or the generation of emotions corresponding to the seven traditional planets in planetary magic.”

That is pretty consistent with opinions I have seen expressed by other occult practitioners–namely, that you have to find some way to blast past your abstracting mind in order for magic to work optimally. I mean, that’s the whole theory behind sigils. (And it actually adds another interesting dimension to my last post with regard to “named deities” vs. spirits or gods that are immanent in a place.) Interestingly though, there is another school of thought within the magical community, to wit that magic works because of intention. Check out this article on self-proclaimed witches in Seattle; assuming it isn’t just selection bias on the part of the author (which frankly I rather doubt), magic is all about “intentionality.”I’m not even sure what is mean by intention, nor am I convinced the witches in the article know either, but what I do understand is that intention comes from the abstracting mind.

Now if magic really were all/only about intention, I would say stop reading this blog right now and go out and buy yourself a copy of The Secret and get to wishing your way to a richer, thinner, sexier you. (Please don’t do that.)

Nevertheless, the issue of intention brings up some questions. It seems that our functional magical guidelines predicate that we select some goal (or if you must, intention) with our abstracting minds, then some activity is undertaken in order to get away from that abstraction in order to make it happen. It seems a little…overcomplicated? Perhaps more importantly, we know the (abstract) map is not the (real) territory; so why are we letting the abstracting mind steer the ship?

I don’t have a ready answer but it would seem that the first order of business is to cultivate the ability to more effectively silence the abstracting mind, which is why our elders are always nagging us to meditate more. (Sigh.) The second order of business would be to spend as much time in direct experience mode as possible in order to make a map that better approximates where the real shoals and islands and sea monsters are.

Could it be that our spells and rituals are just tawdry baubles that lure us toward a greater prize, rapprochement with reality? Not to put words in anyone’s mouth, but just as a thought experiment, read this passage from one of Io’s recent posts on Disrupt & Repair, but imagine he is talking about ceremonial instead of science, and that “practice” here specifically refers to magical practice:

“The ability to interface with those systems of practice easily is one of the key features of expertise in any field, but it is important to highlight that…with that expertise comes a certain kind of blindness. Behind each of those techniques are decisions as to what is valuable and important for the practice.

“Those [abstract] value decisions start to become invisible, too, in ways that alienate the expert from a more complex network of experiential possibility. It is amazing what we can do technically, but it can sometimes strand us in dead ends, where the technique and its habits become less and less suited to a concrete situation. The application of such abstracted techniques can quickly turn into a sort of mutilation, as when a doctor subjects a patient to extreme medical procedures with little hope of success because it’s just what a doctor does, or when well-meaning scientists ‘modernize’ traditional agriculture in entirely unsustainable, resource-intensive, ways.”

(My emphasis.) I am beginning to think that direct experience–of whatever–may have a transcendent aspect that all too often goes unrecognized. And that it’s during our moments of direct experience, the physicality or the powerful emotion, the altered state of consciousness, that the magic happens–not in the intention. Though that then begs the question of how we get what we enchant for (in letter, if not in spirit sometimes). Whatever the case may be, I have to say that from where I’m sitting, it looks like magical-mystic-philosophical models better approximate reality than anything on offer in today’s mainstream culture. They’re certainly more parsimonious than the many-worlds interpretation.

(2) The closer we get to reality, the more it is open to change.

But what about the other part of our premise, that getting closer to reality actually changes reality, or at least creates the potential to change it? Why might that be? Here again, I like where Io’s mind is at (and I’m not just saying that because he gave me a shout-out, I actually quoted him before I even saw that):

“Spiritual practices don’t just make certain experiences possible, they generate certain experiences by transforming the world into which the practice projects itself.”

Of course we have all the anecdotal evidence of magic that works, and our own gnosis, telling us that change occurs. Even if it remains subjective and can’t ever be completely communicated to someone else, we know it worked. It’s late and I’m tired, so maybe I’m missing something really obvious, but at the moment I only see two ways for reality to change as we approach it. Either there truly is no objective reality, and it’s all inside our heads–in which case I’d be tempted to doubt even your existence, dear readers, and think that all of us, including me, are just figments of my own imagination, which is so recursive that I don’t even want to try to follow that line of thought; or reality is meeting our efforts halfway. As in any relationship, one changes and is changed in return, simply through knowing an Other.

It suggests that reality has its own consciousness, its own will. Now that’s not a novel idea in magical or philosophical circles, and I admit this has been my opinion of the matter for years. I just never came at the problem from this direction before. As I mentioned in my comment to Greer, I used to think that Dion Fortune was weaseling out when she added “in consciousness” to Crowley’s maxim that magic effects change in accordance to will. I thought she was just psychologizing, which isn’t an unreasonable assumption given her interest in Freudian psychoanalysis. But from within a conscious-universe framework, her statement is actually much more radical and comprehensive than Crowley’s. Of course, the will must inevitably also change. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.


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