I enjoy watching Fool Us with Penn & Teller and also learning how the tricks may be done. (Often, there are several ways to do each trick.)
One thing I pay attention to is the audience reaction. Sometimes, the strongest audience reaction is to tricks with an amazing effect but disappointing method. (For instance, when the magician surreptitiously instructs an audience member in what to say or do.)
Other times, the method of the trick is as or even more amazing than the effect. These are typically tricks that take years to master like Kostya Kimlat’s third performance and The Evansons. They are both impressive although the first has a simple method and the second a complex method.
Life is full of magic tricks from the big magic trick of anything existing at all to the myriads of smaller magic tricks of how life expresses itself.
One of the magic tricks of our mind is of special interest to us. The effect is the mind creating a temporary experience for itself of ultimately being a small part of the world. And a related effect is the mind believing a thought (taking it as true), identifying with the viewpoint of thoughts, and creating emotional issues, hangups, and traumas. The method is the same for both, and the second creates the first, so it’s really one and the same trick.
We can discover how the mind does this trick. We can learn the theory of it, which is a starting point. And, more importantly, we can explore it in real-time, as it happens, in our own experience.
The best way to do this may be to mentally divide our experience into sense fields and then see how these combine to create our experience. It’s slightly arbitrary how we divide up the sense fields (e.g. taste, smell, sight, sound, sensation, thought), although the two important ones are sensation and thought (mental images and words).
I initially explored this through traditional Buddhist inquiry and more recently through the contemporary version called Living Inquiries.
When we explore this, often over and over, in our own experience, we learn to recognize the magic trick and how it is performed. Our mind gradually becomes less fascinated with the effect and less caught up in it. The charge that made the effect seem real gradually goes out of it.
(This is partly because we recognize that the charge comes from the mind associating certain sensations with certain thoughts, and the sensations lend a sense of reality and truth to the thoughts, and the thoughts lend a sense of meaning to the sensations. When we see that the connection is only an association, it’s easier to recognize sensations as sensations and thoughts as thoughts, and we are no longer so caught up in the effect of the magic trick.)
The effect of this trick is certainly amazing. It’s the One creating an experience for itself of being separate and one among many.
And what about the method? Is it disappointing or amazing? In my experience, it’s both. It can be almost laughably simple when we first discover it. And yet, it’s also impressive in its simplicity, elegance, and effectiveness.
P.S. The Evansons is an amazing act, and – as mentioned above – they use a complex method (system of verbal cues) which requires years of practice in order to appear smooth and effortless. They say they do mentalism, and we can see that as either a tongue-in-cheek white lie that’s part of the performance, as misdirection, or as a mostly innocent bordering-on-unethical form of deception. I am with P&T and prefer when the magicians/mentalists are more transparent and tell the audience what they are doing, or – in this case – what they are not doing, without necessarily revealing the method.
I have been interested in magic tricks since childhood. Like many kids, I had my own magic set and learned and performed the basic tricks for family and friends. In adulthood, I have enjoyed learning about the history of stage magic and how many of the tricks are done. (I have no interest in performing since that takes a lot of time, practice, stage presence, and showmanship.)
There are many great magicians, and the greatest is life itself. The greatest magic trick of all is that anything exists at all. Another is that the one appears as many, and even temporarily and locally takes itself to be separate from the whole. And the magic of life is, obviously, what allows our human lives and everything we are and do and experience. It’s also what allows our small stage versions of magic.
What does stage magic have to do with healing and awakening? Healing and awakening require us to see through some of the magic tricks of life. We need to go behind the scenes and see how emotional wounds are created, and how a sense of being (ultimately) a separate being is created.
How does stage magic work? It relies on a solid understanding of human psychology and especially how our mind uses shortcuts and fills in the gaps in our perception. The magician also makes use of misdirection, of distracting our attention away from where and how the trick is done.
The same principles are behind how our mind creates emotional wounds and a sense of being a fundamentally separate being.
How does the mind’s ability to fill in the gaps play a role in stage magic, healing, and awakening? I’ll write more about this below. In essence, the mind operates on limited information and assumptions.
A stage magician may show a woman in a box with the head out one end and the feet out the other. The box is cut in half, and it looks like the woman was cut in half along with the box. We assume the head and the feet belong to the same body, so she has to be cut in half. And yet we know that can’t possibly be the case so we feel bewildered, amazed, and entertained.
A trauma or emotional issue is formed in a similar way. Something happened. We felt overwhelmed and couldn’t process it very well. And we told ourselves scary and stressful stories about the situation and what happened. When we examine those stories, we see that they created the emotional issue, they hold it in place, and they are not accurate. There are other ways of interpreting the situation that are more accurate and kinder and allows the emotional issue to heal. (That’s obviously very simplified.)
Similarly, the mind creates the appearance of being a fundamentally separate self through limited information and assumptions. We may notice the human self operating and that it’s always here. We may not notice that we are not that (but what which is space for it). We are told that we are this human self, and others take us as this human self. So the mind takes itself to fundamentally be this apparently separate human self. It’s innocent and understandable. It happens through assumptions and the mind making use of shortcuts. And stage magic makes use of the same processes of the mind.
Let’s look at misdirection. How does misdirection work in stage magic? With the example above, there is a subtle form of misdirection that allows the trick to be believable. The box often appears much more shallow than it is. For instance, there is a bright side on the box so the box appears as shallow as that bright area. Below, there is a black area that may be set in and appears as just part of the construction of the box. The bright section isn’t deep enough for anybody to curl up in and it distracts us from noticing that there is actually a lot more space in the box than it first looks like.
More common forms of misdirection are words – saying something that isn’t true but sounds plausible. And movement – bringing attention away from where the secret of the trick happens.
How does misdirection work with emotional issues? How does life – or the mind – use misdirection to hold an emotional issue in place?
In order to heal emotional issues, we often need a combination of investigating the thoughts holding it in place, and meeting, feeling, allowing and befriending the emotions and physical sensations connected with the issue. The mind applies misdirection in order to avoid this.
It may be uncomfortable to examine the thoughts, and it’s often uncomfortable to feel and befriend the emotions, so the mind brings attention somewhere else. This misdirection takes the form of reactivity (a reaction to the discomfort) and can come out as compulsive blame, shame, guilt, defensiveness, fueling stressful stories, attaching to ideologies, anger, addictions, and so on.
And how does misdirection work when it comes to awakening? How does life (temporarily and locally) use misdirection in order to take itself as a fundamentally separate being?
Life has to take attention away from what’s here and what’s pretty obvious when it’s noticed. We are that which all our experience happens within and as. We can say that we are consciousness, and to us everything happens within and as consciousness.
The misdirection happens as soon as our mind holds any thought as true, as saying something fundamentally true about life, the world, and ourselves. As soon as that happens, the mind identifies with the viewpoint of the thought and in the process takes itself to be a part of the content of experience (and not that which all experience happens within and as). It takes itself to be a separate being, someone in the wider world.
This becomes a habit. It’s reinforced by people around us who do the same. And it’s reinforced by a lot of different psychological processes.
How is the magic trick actually performed? The main trick has to do with our sense fields (sight, sound, sensations, taste, smell, thought) and how our mind combines them into our experience of the world. As we know from mainstream psychology, the mind is excellent at shortcuts and filling in “the gaps”, and that’s (roughly) how emotional issues are held in place, and it’s also how we come to take ourselves as fundamentally a separate being (and not consciousness all experience happens within and as).
There are many aspects to this. We can say it happens when the mind believes its own stories. When it identifies with or as viewpoints created by these stories. When the mind associates sensations with thoughts (images, words), and the sensations lend a sense of reality and solidity to the thoughts (so they seem true), and the thoughts lend a sense of meaning to the sensations.
These sensations are typically created by the mind through physical tension. This allows the sensations to either be chronically available or to become available as needed in order for the mind to perceive a thought as true. This is why emotional issues are associated with physical tension (sometimes chronic). And it’s why taking ourselves to fundamentally be a separate being inherently comes with tension and stress.
I have gone more into these mechanics in other articles. Mainly the ones related to Living Inquiries (a modern form of traditional Buddhist inquiry).
Finally, what’s the purpose of stage magic? The purpose of stage magic is to amaze, bewilder, and entertain.
And what’s the purpose of life’s magic? It may not be so different. It’s the play of life. Or the play of the divine – Lila. Existence expressing, exploring, and experiencing itself in always new ways. Existence amazing itself. Existence temporarily bewildering itself. Existence entertaining itself.
Off and on since childhood, I have been fascinated by magic tricks and how they are done.
First, there is the enjoyment of being baffled. Then, of learning how it’s done. And with the best performances, the enjoyment of recognizing the skill with which it is done.
In addition to this, magic tricks tells us something about the mind.
Good magicians are experts on certain ways the mind works and they use this to entertain and fool us. And when the secrets behind the tricks are revealed, we also get some insights into how the mind works. (See, for instance, Teller’s Seven Ways to Fool the Brain.)
Mainly, the world of magic tricks shows us how our minds operates on expectations and assumptions about the world, and that these are not always accurate. Most of the time, they are accurate enough and very helpful to us, but sometimes these assumptions break down. Assumptions won’t always be accurate, and magicians take advantage of this and – if we allow it – reminds us the fallibility of our assumptions.
Some even think that magic tricks are “real” magic, and that too shows us something about the mind. It shows us how our hopes and fears can hijack a more rational and down-to-earth view, and what happens when we don’t do sufficient research and lack knowledge about a topic.
The world is full of potential analogies to how the mind works.
Misdirection in magic is one.
The magician invites the audience’s attention to go somewhere, while the real action – and the answer to the magic trick – is happening somewhere else.
The mind does the same when it believes a thought. Attention goes “out there” to what the story seems to say something about: another person, a situation, the world, myself. And attention is misdirected away from where the real action is happening, which is the belief itself. The story held as true. The sensations apparently glued together with certain images and thoughts.
Often we are the audience watching a magic trick while being mesmerized by the illusion.
But we can also be the more discerning audience member who keeps attention where the real action is happening, and we can see through the magic trick. That’s what inquiry helps us do.
Misdirection is one of the many wonderful analogies from the world of magic.
Any belief is misdirection.
I experience the world as if it is true. Any story filters the world and experience, and this experience – which naturally conforms with the belief – is taken as support for the belief. And since the filtering story is taken as true, I don’t even notice that and how it filters experience. I take the filtered experience as real, substantial, true and as support for my initial belief.
I believe the world is made up of objects. (Including however I see myself, as a human being, a doer, an observer). I filter experience as objects. I take that experience, those boundaries, as real, substantial and true. I experience myself as an object in a world full of objects. And that experience is taken as support for my initial belief. (Which most of the time is not even brought to awareness. It operates at the level of images, the first imaginary overlay on pure perception.)
Just about anything can be used as an analogy for the process of waking and growing up. It is, after all, as rich as life itself.
So how can magic tricks work as an analogy for waking up?
I can find a few different things….
Misdirection. One of the main tools in the magician’s toolbox is misdirection. He or she brings the attention of the audience to something, while something else is happening somewhere else, and it is done in a very convincing way.
Illusions. Something appears as what it is not. There is the appearance of something that is not there.
And when the tricks are revealed, we cannot be fooled by the same trick again. We may still be impressed and amazed by it, but not fooled.
And the same happens in the dynamics of waking up.
One of the reasons I enjoy the magician Tommy Cooper is that he seems to be completely baffled by what is happening. (See Too many bottles.)
And that is how it is for me as well. Whatever happens is completely baffling.
Fingers move. Letters appear on the screen. They reflect thoughts. Others can read them and understand. There is awareness. This human self funcitons in the world. Choices are made. There is a sense of a separate I here or not. There is something rather than nothing.
I am every bit as baffled as Tommy Cooper.
And all of it is a play… Pretending to be baffled. Being baffled. Covering it up and pretending to not be baffled. The tricks themselves.
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