12. Magical Thinking


Q: Robert, when you said that magical beliefs can be “encoded in the body,” were you saying there is a genetic component that may make one prone to magical thinking?

A: By “magical thinking” I mean the habit of attributing causes to events when one cannot possibly know that causal relations actually exist. We humans, whose minds evolved under pressure to identify threats, are voracious in our appetite for explanations, and thus prone to seeing false causality everywhere. That is why I have been recommending investigating one’s beliefs with a view toward weeding out premature cognitive commitments. As long as one is burdened by the weight of unexamined beliefs, there is no chance at all of seeing things clearly.

The “law of karma” provides a case in point. That so-called “law” is not a law at all, but a belief based upon hearsay, not evidence. This is classic magical thinking because, beyond traditional dogma, no one has the slightest idea if some kind of “justice” is embedded in the human situation or not. Hearing and believing does not make what is heard true.

Based on studies of twins and their families, the majority of psychologists, geneticists, and other investigators view human personality as the outcome of the combined influences of heredity and environment— nature and nurture—often in roughly equal proportions. So, it is quite likely that the propensity to think magically does have a genetic component. But that is not what I meant when I said “encoded in the body.” I wanted to point out that the pain of awakening—of coming to a sense of being that is free of beliefs, paths, destinations, and “final answers” — is not always just emotional pain, but could involve an ordeal on the physical level as well. In my case, it did.

Q: When you used the word “structure” and “structures”, were you referring to the defense mechanisms used to protect ego or to ego itself?

A: Ego does not exist as a discrete object. There is not actually an ego. When I said “structure” that was only a metaphor for the entire habitual, repetitive point of view with which one may identify and name “myself.” I called that point of view a “structure,” because long ago I was visited by an unusually potent dream in which the habitual point of view I had been justifying and defending as “myself” appeared to me as a structure—a decaying mansion from which I was sailing away.

Q: I can’t figure this out. Who is it that is feeling compassion?

A: That’s right. You can’t.

Q: What remains when there is a sailing away? Does sailing away mean separation from the ego or subjugation of it?

A: Trying to subjugate ego is like trying to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. You can talk about it endlessly, but no one can actually do it. The wouldbe vanquisher of ego is ego. What else could it be? The “myself” who desires salvation or enlightenment is ego. The “myself” who wants to be permanent and “deathless” is ego. That “myself” desires to be saved from itself, but it doesn’t work that way.

One often hears that ego is the problem, and that ego must be “transcended.” I disagree. Ego is a point of view, that’s all. Everyone has a point of view. Point of view is unavoidable. If one’s point of view is fraught, problems arise routinely. If the point of view is more comprehensive and better rooted in understanding, it’s usually easier going.

I used the term “sailing away” because that imagery was part of the dream I mentioned. A decaying mansion stood on the edge of a cliff, and I was in a dinghy rowing away from the shoreline below. In the dream, I understood that I had been adding to that structure constantly, compulsively tending to it, maintaining it hammer and tongs, and now, as I rowed away into the unknown, I saw that the work of expansion, tending, and maintenance was coming to a close.

Q: I am very taken by the imagery of your dream, Robert. Have you written about it elsewhere?

A: I wrote this some years ago:

“Often, the beginning of spiritual awareness is compared to waking from a dream, but in my case the first signs of awakening happened in a dream.

“One night, after having spent the entire day in the dark printing photographs, I dreamt that I was rowing a small boat on a vast ocean. The sky and the sea appeared almost the same shade of grey so that I saw no definite horizon line. It was like being inside a vast, featureless, infinite globe. In the paradoxical, figurative dream language I was looking not backwards the way one normally rows, but looking out to sea, looking into infinity. Suddenly, I felt compelled to turn my head to see what was behind me. “There, not far away, but rapidly receding, was a headland, a tall, crumbling cliff with an old building standing on the edge of it. That structure was vast, enormous, and it was moldering away. The floor, walls, and roofs were in a state of collapse, and the building was still standing at all only due to a complex system of buttresses and supports that had been arranged all over it and which extended onto the eroding cliffs.

“Still in the dream, I knew immediately that I was looking at ‘ego,’ a structure always in imminent danger of collapse, and that I was leaving ego behind. No more maintenance work—just let it go, and row away into the vastness. I awoke absolutely stupefied. The whole experience had been so graphic, so unmistakably both a message and a statement of my actual situation. I’d never had a that before, and never again since.

“Later that day my wife, Catanya, returned home to find me sitting naked on the kitchen floor, eyes closed, laughing uncontrollably.”