Reflections: Magical Thinking – A Psychological vs. Shamanic Perspective

Thanks to my friend Joan for inspiring this topic.

I first heard the term magical thinking in 1980 at a one-day workshop on schizophrenia.  Magical thinking was described as a symptom of schizophrenia.  The following example was offered: “A man in South Dakota has dark thoughts about his mother, and then hears about the explosion at Mount St. Helens. Magical thinking is the condition in which he believes his thoughts caused the explosion.”  There is often a pattern of lose associations, irrational causation, and bizarre thinking in schizophrenia.

Right away I had a problem with the term, and later decided that lose associations, irrational causation, and bizarre thinking provided a more apt description.  But the fact is, in my career in Human Services I’ve seen enough examples of magical thinking to recognize that it exists as pathology. Here’s an example:

CLIENT:  My mother called me on the telephone.
ME:  Why did she call?
CLIENT:  Because I made her call.
ME:  Did she call because she wanted to speak with you?
CLIENT:  No, she called because I made her call.
ME:  How does that work?
CLIENT:  I make her call.
ME:  Right away?
CLIENT:  No, but she does call eventually.
ME:  And she only calls because you make her – you caused it in your mind?
Client:  Yes.

Looks like, and probably is, magical thinking.  But an insightful counselor may not quit there.

ME:  Have you spoken with your mother on arranging the best time to call?
CLIENT: Yes.
ME:  How does that work?
CLIENT:  I decided that Friday was the best night for her to call me.
ME: So the way you make your mother call is that you have an arrangement in which you decided she should call on Friday evenings.
CLIENT:  Yes.

Now I have been seen it both ways, where of the label of magical thinking is too quickly applied and becomes an unnecessary label.  And I’ve seen the real thing – egotistic reality projection, or an irrational fear of thoughts causing actions – situations that really are pathological.  I still don’t like the term magical thinking. I understand the rationale of labeling the irrational.  But I believe there is a potential error in logic that has been let loose.  Because the irrational can display as magical thinking does not mean that all magical thinking is irrational.

One of the problems in the field of psychology is that, outside of the humanists, the focus is primarily on pathology.  The “science” of psychology is generally focused on how to understand and treat pathological symptoms and diseases. Obviously, the world of mental health is not my only worldview.

I think Plato (or Socrates) saw the problem in his day – the tendency to overgeneralize madness. Thus the distinction between madness and divine madness.  Divine madness may look a little crazy sometimes to an outsider (have you ever seen a video of Jane Roberts channeling Seth – if the sight was new and surprising, you might falsely conclude she was crazy).  But Plato maintains we should listen before we decide what’s crazy and what’s divine, because the process may appear similar on the outside (to the non-discriminating mind), but is worlds apart when it comes to source and outcomes. The reason madness and divine madness may look similar to the uninitiated is because divine trance can be vigorous.

I think we can improve on Plato.  Mental illness is an ongoing state that results in maladaptive behavior and an inability to cope.  They can’t easily turn it off when circumstances require everyday mind.  Their states of “trance” are generally chaotic.  Seekers of transcendence and non-ordinary states of consciousness generally intend their experience, and their experience is generally creative and/or ecstatic.  Granted, there are cases of divine madness that appear to be an uninvited journey of the soul.  For example, Carl Jung did not ask for his confrontation with the unconscious (though he was able to function with everyday mind).  It appears he was chosen.

Divine madness provides the opportunity for new inspirations, divination, and a rebirth in rigid thinking and frozen views.  Divine magical thinking provides the opportunity (through a process of engagement) to connect with the world beyond the veil, to see and reinforce potential connections that are otherwise hidden, and to engage in the rich and expanded world of Spirit.

There is another way to look at this word magic.  A world with potential for magic is a world that is more alive with possibility – literally a living world.  Magical thinking may be the connection to the more subtle aspects of the mind-world.  Magical thinking may be the cousin (or another kinship metaphor) of creative imagination.  Magical thinking may be our ticket out of the ordinary, without the need for the deep trance of divine madness.

There is a caveat with all “magical thinking”: we need to guard against inflation and keep the ego in check.  We need to understand that our thoughts do not rule the world – that magic is not a personal accomplishment.  Our “God” is not on call awaiting our instructions and conforming to our notions of “IT.”  We also need to keep our ego integrated and secure.  Deep dreams and journeys can take us a long way from the human form.  We need to have a safe home, a healthy mind, to return to.

My bottom line conclusion: the word “magical” often carries unfortunate association. As a result, I’m a little shy to use it. The word has been co-opted by mental health professionals. The word has been polluted by professional magicians and mentalists (example: the Amazing Kreskin eventually admitted to using other skills while claiming to employ mind reading).  But before that, stage performers had already corrupted the word magic.  There is a time-honored tradition worldwide to impress the public with displays of false magic (as a means to money or authority).  At the time of the British occupation, Indian miracle workers impressed the British with tricks, such as levitation and the Indian rope trick, which were claimed to be real.  There is a tradition in India of false miracles that helps to establish the authority of a particular Holy person (that doesn’t preclude the possibility of genuine miracles, but it certainly muddies the waters).  In short, the word has become synonymous with hocus-pocus.  Wouldn’t it be magical if we could turn that around?

How we choose to redefine or develop alternative use of language is, as always, up to us.  How many magicians does it take to change a light bulb?  It depends on what you want to change it into.

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