Around 1991 I took a trip to Bombay, Bangalore, and Uti in India. My mission was to have a closer look at Sai Baba, an Indian guru considered a holy man, said to be capable of performing miracles. Apart from his alleged ability to cause paralyzed people to walk again, his signature routine miracle was the materialization of ash called ‘vibuti’.One ‘paralyzed’ woman appeared once a week on his ‘show’ as she would be wheeled in a wheelchair onto the stage and after a few of Sai Baba’s hand gestures, she would ‘miraculously’ be able to walk. During my time there, I satisfied myself that he was a clever magician, who used his magic for the purpose of activating positive healing beliefs in his followers. In his research on the healing and toxic effects of positive and negative beliefs, also called the placebo and nocebo effects, Herbert Benson had long ago scientifically established what humans have intuitively known for thousands of years, namely, our psyche’s powerfully regulating effect on the organism’s energy flow. Beliefs can heal or break us.
Remembering my Sai Baba experience, I also remembered a part of me who at the time was secretly hoping to find evidence that the laws of physics are not always applicable. Many years and quite a few wrinkles later, I remember the power of the human imagination to want to transcend the shackles of physical embodiment by trying to find corners in the universe that suspend the laws of physics. The hope is that disembodied existence is free of pain, suffering, and death, and that we may be able to gain access to some mysterious corners of the universe where anything goes. Barring that possibility, what is left is the power of the imagination to disidentify us from the narrow self-definition as an individual sense of self imprisoned in a mortal body. For eons, humans have achieved that through art, religion, and meditation.
Coming back to magic, apart from being entertaining and delightful, I also have a curiosity and fascination about its deeper significance within the context of trying to elucidate consciousness and shed some light on what we are really doing in mindfulness meditation. Magic is powerfully awe-inspiring, and for a good reason. But to understand that reason we need a closer look at what it really is. I became particularly interested in the work of Penn and Teller, juggler and magician extraordinaire, and the whole body of knowledge around this art. Before I continue, let’s set the stage by taking a short break and watch this almost 4-minutes long video.
I suppose there are a few factors worth considering in trying to understand our fascination with magic. In magic, we watch something we know is impossible occur in front of our very own eyes. That in itself can inspire us to ponder the seemingly impossible in our lives as a way of broadening our horizons, examine our conditioned limitations, and fulfill our dreams. Magic activates our energetic potential in the form of beliefs that can challenge our narrowly constructed prisons about reality and inspire a transcendence of our limitations.
After a magic trick, we are left amazed, puzzled, curious, restless, almost like having a pebble in one’s shoe, wondering how what we saw is possible. The knowledge of impossibility is mixed with the experience of actual occurrence, and that tension between the two cannot be resolved unless one becomes a magician. Our minds can reach in different directions: As with Sai Baba, we may attribute to the person performing magic miraculous, superhuman, metaphysical, and transcendent powers, in which case we may also identify with the possibility of having such potential ourselves we could perhaps tap into. We may also marvel at the magician’s skill and simply enjoy the magic’s entertainment value.
Would miracles be as cool as we imagine? Somewhat, maybe, but not really as much as we may expect. Whenever people claim evidence of miracles, they occur like lottery wins – completely randomly without rhyme or reason. Besides, I have also never seen any credible reports of a reputable scientist’s presence, which could confirm or refute the miracle. Finally, when unexplainable things occur, and they do so routinely, we tend to loosely call them ‘miracles’, when in fact we are not able to grasp nature’s and the universe’s full potential. We tend to see the physical world as far too restricted in its enormous potential for creating the most amazing phenomena, and we also tend to misunderstand science as a knowledge discipline, when in fact it is a doubt and question discipline. Just because we cannot explain something does not mean it is potentially not explainable. Nature and the universe are simply so vastly more complex than we can ever imagine, that science can only grasp a sliver of its reality.
Just to make sure we understand each other: I assume that the laws of science constantly evolve with our growing knowledge, that they are inescapable, and that phenomena science cannot explain are either not yet explainable but eventually can be, or they are outside the method and purview of scientific inquiry altogether. For example, the meaning of Hamlet cannot be found through scientific means. By the same token, when events seem to defy the laws of physics, it is all too easy to dismiss them as miracles and thereby impeding our quest for truth.
Miracles can be defined as the unexplainable defiance of the laws of physics as we know them, and by assuming the notion of miracles as an explanation, one relegates the unknowable to the realm of the pseudo-knowable: “Oh I ‘understand’ now … it is a miracle!”, which means of course that one doesn’t understand anything more than before the miracle. One maintains the illusion of knowing while projecting it onto the screen of the unknowable, which gives only short-lived comfort and even mitigates the power of reality to generate states of deep insight and awe. At best, assuming supernatural powers from an external source can help us let go of narrow identification with a limited sense of self, open up and become receptive to unexpected influences that may be of benefit. Beyond that, by farming the magic of the unexplainable out into a miracle, we deprive reality of its real power to inspire, and ourselves of the opportunity to find truth, thereby allowing the unexplainable phenomenon to amount to no more than an unlikely moment of grace we have no control over anyway. To explain magic away as some kind of metaphysical occurrence is a form of intellectual laziness.
To my mind, the real power of magic is to be found in a very different movement of consciousness – in one’s grounding in the fact that it is skilled trickery. The implication is that our brains are skilled tricksters in the way they manage to fool us into believing what’s untrue and not seeing what’s true. We are so fascinated by magic because we know that what we see is impossible, and yet we experience it directly. In other words, we experience the impossible, which inspires our internal sense of empowerment. We know that the laws of physics are inviolable, yet at the same time, we are unable to see through the elaborate trickery, which in the end is always penetrable, predictable, learnable, and applicable.
The core idea here is that fascination with trickery, with how easily we can be so profoundly fooled, is in fact a fascination with our human nature and the nature of mind. Through magic we are directly confronted with how on a daily basis we unconsciously lie, cheat, swindle, deceive, distort, delude and create illusions – in short, magic forces us to examine our relationship to truth. More often than we usually suspect, our experience of mind is like the unexamined smoking routine Teller performs. Have you noticed how after having seen a magic trick, your mind keeps obsessing about how such trickery is possible? In other words, magic puts a pebble into our shoe of consciousness, making it impossible to ignore that ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’, and we haven’t as yet been able to figure out what that is. It is crucial to avail ourselves of this impulse to investigate when we begin to realize how much of what we experience is magic performed by the brain and the mind.
Human nature at its very core is ‘the Denmark’ we are talking about. On a daily, moment-by-moment basis we willy-nilly create both illusions and delusions we are unaware of, and then, both fortunately and tragically act upon them. Such is the nature of human consciousness and the way our brain wires us. When we act on delusion, things don’t turn out that well. As I have written elsewhere, we are far less the authors of our lives than we imagine. To a large extent, by the time we believe we are making a decision to act, that decision was already unconsciously taken beforehand by our organism. This is in part good news and ensures survival as we don’t need to think about increasing our heart rate when we run, the fortunate aspect of algorithmic automaticity. The less fortunate aspect is the ‘magic’ by which our bodies experience some kind of pain and we then completely convince ourselves of an utterly deluded reality such as having cancer for example. The way we can spin the most incredible stories that have no base in reality, and then be completely convinced of their truthfulness, is ‘magic’ at its best. Getting to see through our mind’s trickeries is magical in the sense that it liberates us from many self-imposed prisons of our own construction.
Meditation may sound superficially simple, but like Penn and Teller’s video on the analysis of the smoking routine, so often what we see is not what we see. A closer look at the art of meditating or the ‘meditation routine’, if you so will, reveals complexity, skill, and wisdom not visible through cursory glances. True, honest mindfulness, the kind of dedicated, serious, and skilled examination of mind that reveals the ways we create our life’s reality, is like magic – an elaborate awareness skill that leads directly to the core of human existence in an unfathomable universe.
We will never suspect someone of lying if we didn’t know about our own capacity for lying. Mindfulness requires advanced skill training in catching our own lies, and when like a scent hound we ‘follow the money’ to the crime scene of delusion, things get messy as we enter the regions of doubt, ignorance, and unknowing. Lying has no respect for any rules of honesty, decency, morality, and justice, neither does our brain in its function of ensuring survival at all cost. When it comes to debunking the way we routinely fool ourselves, we need to know how to meet our internal fooler. Fundamentally, to unfool our own fooler is impossible unless we know how we lie, cheat, and swindle. The last time I personally checked, for example, something like 90% of my thoughts was simply unsubstantiated, even wrong, if not blatantly and shamelessly distorting the truth. This may appear depressing at first, but I know that this is part of our human condition, and when we manage to separate the wheat from the chaff and actually see the 10% truth within us, we have likely touched the holy grail of a worthy human existence.
Mindfulness can then be seen as the very difficult art of learning to hold in our hearts and awareness the experience of what it is like to be cheated. The basic question of mindfulness is to ask ourselves how we know what we know, what is true? As we sit on our cushion, are we really meditating? Who is meditating? When we concentrate, are we really stabilizing attention? Are we really embodying kindness? Are we really settling in direct experience? Are we really working with awareness? Is what we do really what we intend to do? Are we really … ?
By exploring the mind through mindfulness as students of reality, we are like scientists: We stand at the boundary between the forest of what we know and the vast frontier of the unknown. At that boundary, we don’t know what is true, nor what question to ask. We are completely in the dark and cognizant of how easily we can be fooled. It is imperative that we do whatever it takes to not fool ourselves into thinking that something that is not true is, and something that is true isn’t. This means being keenly aware of how much of a trickster our mind is. The process of mindful inquiry is like a sloppy meandering full of wrong turns, doubts, mistakes, and dead ends. You never know which path is going to get you to the right place, and tolerating mistakes is a central tenet of creating safety on the uncertain journey into the unknown. This is called experimentation. No guru, teacher, textbook, or tradition can ever be the ultimate arbiter of whether you are on the right track or not – nature is. Nature is the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner. If nature does not agree with you, you are wrong! In your inquiry, you have to make sure that your methods and tools allow nature to manifest in whatever way it can to give you the guidance to where the truth lays.
The magic of mindfulness teaches us about storytelling, assumptions, deceptions, constructions, the way we perceive the world, and truth – that is, if there is truth to be found at all! Once we reach the far shores of uncertainty and the unknowable, is there truth, or do we just find life manifesting itself?
Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.