14. There Is No “How” To Be Free

Q: I am not sure why we need a category called magical thinking? Why label?

A: Learning to distinguish between fantasy and reality is a developmental process. We can observe that process in young children. For instance, if a child is angry with a pet and the pet gets sick and dies, the child may believe that she or he caused the pet’s death, and in a child of five or six that kind of belief is expected. For a child of ten, that thought might arise, but most likely the child would not really believe it. If an adult seriously believed such a thing, most of us would view that person as deluded, possibly psychotic.

When people ask questions about how to awaken, I am likely to reply that there is no how to be free. Freedom is a natural condition that appears as soon as one stops resisting it. But freedom can be frightening, implicating, as it does, a “myself” who is in control neither of events nor of thoughts and feelings. So we fear freedom, and hold out against it in various ways.

“Step on a crack, you break your mother’s back,” a game children play as they traverse a sidewalk, is an example of magical thinking that serves to blunt the child’s fear that something bad could happen to mom. The adult ballplayer who crosses himself before stepping into the batter’s box is playing a similar kind of game with himself, as if a hand gesture could really forestall a fastball in the noggin.

So magical thinking is a way of denying the complete insecurity of here and now—of presuming and feigning control over this present moment in which we really know anything can happen, like it or not. That denial of the obvious fact of total vulnerability to events is a chief impediment to finding the freedom and peace of mind that seem to be the heart’s desire of us all, or at least most of us.

Vulnerability can be frightening, so we are attracted to magical thinking as a means of denial, as a way of sweeping anxieties under the carpet, but a mind engaged in denial will never notice that freedom is a natural quality of mind that does not have to be earned or deserved, but only noticed and appreciated.

Nevertheless, freedom is only free in this very moment, and offers no guarantees for the future. So one may embrace the fanciful future guarantees of religion and other kinds of magical thinking, or one may have freedom—but not both together, I say.

From that perspective, a so-called “spiritual path” is a means, however unconscious, of avoiding freedom, not finding it. Here and now, in this very moment, is where freedom exists, not in some imagined location farther along the imagined path.

This is not to say that followers of paths never find freedom. Some do, but only in awakening from the escapist dream of the quest, the path, and the method. When I say “awakening,” I mean understanding traditional teachings for what they are: yellow leaves given to children to stop them crying for gold. That gold is here and now, not after you practice anything.

So why reply to questions at all? If, as I say, there is no path, then what do I have to say? Why even mention magical thinking? As you asked, “Why label?”

We all want to imagine ourselves as open-minded, but our minds are not open; they are deeply conditioned, and most of us remain largely unaware, and some of us entirely unaware of that conditioning. Like a fish that having been born in water never even notices water, we humans, swimming in a sea of beliefs about who and what we are, never even notice those beliefs, much less submit them to full examination.

We are, I mean, so identified with the concepts with which we have been impregnated as to be rendered incapable of noticing the freedom and ease of not knowing answers to ultimate questions—of not believing in dogma of any stripe—unless that freedom comes right up and slaps us in the face.

No one can decide to be free. But if one desires freedom from the known, perhaps one can clear the decks of concepts by questioning everything one believes—all of it. Just make a list. If you believe that “only love is real,” then ask yourself how you account for the cruelty and violence we see all around us? If you believe that God protects you and awaits you in Heaven, ask yourself how you came to believe that. If you believe that staring at a wall for ten hours a day will bring you to “enlightenment,” ask yourself the same: how did I come to believe that?

I am not, however, suggesting making a “practice” of skepticism, which could easily become just another impediment to awakening right now: “I’m not done questioning my beliefs yet.” There may be comfort in methods, and a feeling of accomplishment, or even of identity: “Me: the ruthless skeptic,” but comfort is no substitute for the flash of sudden comprehension that can occur only right now.

In each moment, I see what I see, and that seeing is me. When I comprehend that — not just in words but moment by moment — I don’t have to believe in anything. And, since I don’t have to believe in anything, I am relieved of having to question anything. That is what I mean by freedom: just be.

Young children have a naïve belief in the permanence of care-givers. When, upon first learning about death, they begin to question that permanence, most are easily reassured by hearing, “Don’t worry, darling child. Mommy will be here for a long, long time.” That is, of course, an outright lie. Mommy does not know any such thing. Despite all her best intentions, she might be dead on the morrow.

I am not saying that one should never employ that kind of “white lie.” That’s a deep question, but it’s not the crux here. This conversation is not about childrearing, but about magical thinking which blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality, keeping the magical thinker in a naïve posture toward the world, incapable of seeing and embracing the impermanence of self and other. For some, such ignorance may seem blissful, but one’s own impermanence—not just mortality at the end, but the utter transiency of this very instant — is just what needs seeing and embracing if one is to awaken here and now. And if not now, when?

Afraid of illness, suffering, death, and dying, and troubled by our intuitions of the precariousness and emptiness of “myself,” so many of us enshroud those fears in a gauze of magical beliefs to which we cling as if beliefs were facts just because we want them to be.

Let’s go through the list a bit:

1 “Everything happens for a reason.” This is just blatant nonsense. How could anyone possibly know such a thing? Who has a vantage point somewhere outside of “everything,” so as to be able to say that? If you tell me that some ancient text says so, or that such and such venerable teacher says it and that is why you believe it, there is nothing further to discuss.

2 “People who do bad things only do them because they have been mistreated or misunderstood.” This is another lie people like to tell themselves, perhaps to help them avoid looking into their own shadows where they might actually notice some “badness.” Upbringing may have some influence, for better or worse, in how human tendencies are expressed, but that’s not the whole story, and upbringing does not cause tendencies. “Badness” is part of us all, and not all of it is cured by compassionate childcare. Psychologists, who have found psychopathy in every human community, agree almost universally that psychopaths are born, not made by mistreatment.

3 “If my faith in God is strong enough, I will have eternal life in Heaven.” This is classic magical thinking, eschewing reality-testing entirely in favor of all-out credulity. If all-out credulity is your thing, fine by me. But, as Gershwin wrote in Porgy and Bess, “The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so.” And if, like Tertullian, you “believe because it is absurd,” OK. You have every right to such nonsense.

4 “The position of the planets at the time of my birth provides useful guidance.” This common misconception needs a bit of unpacking. If you already believe in astrology, this is a tough nut to crack, possibly as hard or even harder than the “God in heaven” bit. Unlike religious dogma, however, the assertions of astrology can be tested.

We must begin with an essential fact of human psychology. I call it a fact, and not an hypothesis, opinion or belief, because it is observable, not just by any one particular person, but by anyone who makes a good faith effort to observe it. Facts are facts whether you in particular believe them or disbelieve them. Articles of faith, on the other hand, are never facts, even if you and millions of others believe in them.

This psychological fact, the confirmation bias, is the tendency to look for and interpret experiences in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs, while giving less consideration, or even none at all, to alternative possibilities. Confirmation bias also means tending to remember instances that might be used to support pre-existing beliefs, while tending to forget instances that do not support them.

Now a correspondent of mine called Tammy wrote to me about her love for astrology. Tammy has a mantra that goes, “Life is not a matter of chance; but a matter of choice.”

“I choose”, she wrote, “to believe in astrology because it is a matter of experience! I have experienced just way too much, way too many times for this to be purely coincidental. Astrology? I am a firm believer. From experience!”

Tammy is not alone there. Astrology has countless adherents, including people assumed to be intelligent and well-informed. Ronald Reagan famously never made a decision without consulting the stars — Nancy insisted on it — and both Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were also “gung-ho” on astrology, according to the Wall Street Journal. Nevertheless, astrology is total and complete nonsense—all of it. “So, Tammy,” I replied to her letter, “you have chosen to believe in nonsense.”

Tammy also wrote, “Anyway, to each his own.” Yes, Tammy. Of course. Believe whatever you like or need to believe. Fine by me. You have every right to believe in astrology if that floats your boat. Just know that belief does not make something true, nor disbelief falsify it.

The usual critique of astrology focuses on the details of how astrology, a pseudoscience, masquerades as science. When, for example, an astrologer points to positions of planets in the zodiac, the debunker will argue that because the zodiac has shifted since ancient days, the constellations are not found in the same positions as they were back then. Therefore, goes this argument, even if astrology once had predictive power, certainly today it cannot yield true results. But that approach leads only to debating ever finer fine points, for the astrologer is certain to have an answer for any such objection. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

So debunking astrology by calling it pseudoscience is like chopping down a tree and then arguing with the stump. Fortunately, there is a better way. Astrology has been fairly tested, and has failed completely. Perhaps the best experiment was “A Double-blind Test of Astrology,” conducted by Shawn Carlson, which was peer-reviewed and published in Nature, in 1985.

One artful aspect of Shawn’s study is that the 28 astrologers involved were hand-picked, not by Shawn, but by The National Council For Geocosmic Research, a “non-profit organization dedicated to raising the standards of astrological education and research.” So we know they had plenty of skin in the game.

Even better, Shawn had the astrologers collaborate with him on designing the test, and they got to decide what would constitute a positive result, not Shawn.

Now even if, like Tammy, you are a “firm believer” in astrology, and even though you suspect what’s coming next, at least take a moment to see if you agree that the protocol seems fair.

Two tests were performed:

Test #1: Astrological charts were prepared for 83 subjects, based on natal data — date, time and place of birth — provided by the subjects. The subjects were given three charts: one chart based on their own natal data, and two charts derived from natal data of other people. Each subject was asked to identify the chart that most correctly described him or her. In only 28 of the 83 cases, did the subjects select their own chart. This is the exact success rate expected for random chance. The astrologers had predicted that the subjects would select their own chart more than half the time.

Test #2: 116 subjects completed California Personality Index surveys and provided natal data. One set of natal data and the results of three personality surveys, only one of which was for the same person as the natal data, were given to an astrologer who was to interpret the natal data and determine which of the three CPI results belonged to the same subject as the natal data. In only 40 of the 116 cases, the astrologers chose the correct CPI. As with test #1, this is the success rate expected for random chance. The astrologers had predicted that they would select the correct CPI profiles in more than half of the trials.

So the predictions were no better than for random chance. All that expert astrology demonstrated no predictive or analytic value whatever — absolute zero. And it’s not just Shawn’s work that shows these results. There are at least 36 other studies that corroborate them. Regardless of what you may believe, astrology has nothing to say about you depending on the time and place of your birth. Nothing. Zero.

Will that convince Tammy? I would wager no. “Firm belief,” such as hers, is not about facts. It’s not about “experience” either, although Tammy says it is. The firmer one’s beliefs, the more those beliefs serve to distort experience, and to impede clear seeing. That is why, when someone asks how to “awaken,” I suggest examining one’s beliefs with “reverse confirmation bias.” I mean that the more some idea appeals to you as true, the more vigorously it should be questioned, not the less. This begins with setting aside everything you think you know, disabusing yourself of all belief, including every notion of so-called “spirituality.” Then see where you are. I understand that this is not for everybody.

Tammy may imagine that she has choices to make, and if she does, I say choose well, Tammy. You have every right to star in the role of chooser, decider, and firm believer — it’s your movie after all. But that’s not the way the world appears to me. Not at all. We may have the feeling of free will and choice, but the actual powers, we do not. No one, I say, is choosing anything.