The same principles used in magic tricks apply to how we unawake ourselves

How do we unawake ourselves?

The main principles are very similar to the principles of magic tricks.

Of the ones Penn & Teller demonstrate here, several are specific to sleight of hand, and a couple is more universal.


Misdirection means to direct attention away from where the real action is happening.

The magician may direct attention to another part of their body or stage, or use verbal misdirection (say something that’s not true), or some other form of misdiretion.

How does this apply to how we unawake ourselves?

Mainly, it happens through directing attention to the content of stories and away from noticing what we are. When attention is absorbed into stories, it’s difficult to (also) notice what we are. It’s difficult to notice our nature as capacity for our world, and ourselves as what any content of experience – including the stories – happen within and as.

Another misdirection is when attention goes to the content of stories and away from how our mind creates its own experience. Attention get caught up in the stories and we don’t notice how our mind associates particular sensations with certain stories, and how sensations allows the stories to seem more substantial and true, and how the thoughts give a sense of meaning to the sensations.

For many of us, these two forms of misdirection are so ingrained that we may never notice what our attention is drawn away from. In order to notice what we are and how our mind creates its own reality, we may need structured inquiry or some other form of disciplined practice.


Simulation means to make something appear a certain way, and often in a way we are familiar with, when something else is actually happening.

For instance, we see a head and feet sticking out of two ends of a long box, and assume the head and feet belong to the same person. In reality, they may belong to two different people, or the feet may be fake. The magician simulates a single whole person.

Similarly, our mind simulates a great deal. It takes a diverse range of sensory information and creates it into a simulation of a world. It adds thoughts to this to tie it together further and create another dimension to our experience.

Our mind simulates the world as it appears to us, and we tend to take it at face value. This is part of how we unawake ourselves. Sensory information happens in our sensory fields, and together with thought, our mind creates it into a mostly unified and coherent experience of a world.

If we examine each sensory field and how the mind combines them, the illusion is somewhat seen through. We may see that we cannot take any of it at face value. The world, as it appears to us, is constructed. And the world, as it appears to us, happens within our sense fields.

From here, we may also notice that our world and any content of experience happens within and as what we are.


Life sometimes takes itself – locally and temporarily – as ultimately something within content of experience, as a separate being. In order to do so, it has to play a magic trick on itself. And it does so through some of the same principles as conventional magic tricks, including misdirection and simulation.

The most impressive magic trick of them all may be that we often don’t even notice that these magic tricks occur.

Life tricks itself without even noticing, until it does.


For me, it adds to the experience to know how a magic trick is done.

I get the enjoyment of experiencing it without knowing. I get the enjoyment of figuring out or learning how it’s done. And I get to enjoy the skill of the performance.

It’s similar with life’s magic trick. We may first enjoy the illusion. Then the process of discovering how the trick is done. And we get to recognize how it’s done while it’s happening. We may also be in awe of both the simplicity and complexity of the illusion, and that it’s happening in the first place.


How do we explore life’s magic trick?

How do we investigate and learn about how our mind unawakes itself?

I mention this in most articles here, and will briefly list some of the approaches I find most effective and helpful:

The Work of Byron Katie to investage thoughts we hold as true.

Living Inquiries to explore how our mind combines sense fields (including thought) to create its experience of us and the world.

Headless experiments to find our nature and what the world is to us. (To find ourselves as capacity for the world as it appears to us, and that this world happens within and as what we are.)

The Big Mind process to do the same, and explore the interplay of the innumerable parts of us.

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Magic tricks & Awakening

I have written about this a few times before, but wanted to revisit it briefly.

Magic tricks take advantage of the mind’s ability to take shortcuts. We don’t process everything from scratch, and it wouldn’t even be possible. We operate from our biology and assumptions based on experience and what we learn from others.

Most of the time, this works very well. We see a head sticking out from behind a tree and legs poking out on the other side, assume there is a person behind the tree that the head and legs belong to, and it’s usually correct. We drop something, assume it will fall, and it almost always does.

And it’s what magicians take advantage of. They set up a situation that’s familiar to us, our mind automatically makes assumptions and takes shortcuts, and that’s how we are tricked. We imagine something happening that isn’t. We experience the dissonance between what we think happened, based on our assumptions, and knowing it couldn’t have possibly happened that way.

We see a woman in a box with the head and feet sticking out. The box is sawed in two. And we imagine there is half of a woman in each part of the box while knowing that’s impossible. (In reality, there is either one real woman in one section and artificial feet in the other, or one real woman in each part and half of their bodies hidden from view.)

Assumptions & shortcuts

How does this relate to awakening?

The same principles are what prevent us from noticing what we are. Life is the magician and tricks us into thinking that what we fundamentally are is this human being, and the way it happens is the same. Our mind operates from assumptions and shortcuts.

A central assumption is that we most fundamentally are this human being, so that’s how we perceive and live. We make it come true for ourselves, in our own experience. And we have many other assumptions that branch out from and support this assumption and make it seem even more solid and real.


Another central principle of magic tricks is misdirection. Our attention is led away from where the magic is happening. A magician holds a ball in one hand, appears to put it in the other, holds up the closed hand we now think is holding the ball to bring our attention there, while the first hand – which is still holding the ball – drops it in the pocket.

How does misdirection play a role in the context of awakening?

Our mind is fascinated by stories it holds as true. That’s the misdirection. This distracts us from the actual magic, which is how our mind creates its perception of reality. And it distracts us from what we really are, which is capacity for our world.

Learning how the magic tricks are done

For me, there is a double enjoyment of good magic tricks. First, from the initial and often baffling performance, and then from learning how it’s done.

Sometimes, the effect may be good while the method – if based in gimmicks more than skill – is a bit disappointing. Other times, the method makes me appreciate, admire, and enjoy the trick even more.

When we examine and see how our mind performs its magic tricks, both apply. In one sense, it’s almost laughably simple and it seems baffling that we are able to trick ourselves that way. In another sense, it’s very impressive.

How can we see through the main magic trick of the mind?

The main magic trick of the mind is to create a sense of us, most fundamentally, as this human being.

So how can we see through it?

To notice what we are, our assumptions need to be set aside for a moment.

This can happen through a long practice and investigation process. We can do basic meditation and notice and allow what’s here, which allows our identification with our thoughts to soften so it’s easier to notice what we are. We can also chip away at one assumption and belief at a time, through inquiry. (The Work of Byron Katie, Living Inquiry.)

And we can notice what we are relatively quickly through guided inquiry. (Headless experiments and the Big Mind process.) We can find ourselves as Big Mind, or as capacity for our world.

In most cases, these slow and fast approaches work very well together. The slow can create a more solid basis, and the fast gives us an immediate taste of what it’s about.

The real magician & lila

So who is really the magician? We can say it’s life, Spirit, or our mind.

And who is the audience that’s temporarily tricked? Again, it’s life, Spirit, or our mind.

Another word for these magic tricks is lila – the play of Spirit, existence, or our mind. It’s how this awake capacity can experience time, space, multitudes, taking itself as ultimately a being, and everything that comes from all of this.

It’s how…. the timeless can take itself as time and being within time, the spaceless as space and happening within space, the no-thing can appear as a thing, the one as many, the seamless whole as separate, the void as substantial, and so on.

A few more details

I’ll add a few things for clarification.

When I say “capacity for our world”, it means capacity for all the content of our experiences – thoughts, feelings, sensations, sights, sounds, smell, and so on. We are capacity for this human self and the wider world. It’s all happening within and as what we are. To ourselves, this is our fundamental nature.

When our mental field (mental images and words) combines with sensations, it’s because our mind associated certain thoughts with certain bodily sensations, and these thoughts give meaning to the sensations and the sensations give a sense of solidity and substance (reality, truth) to the thoughts. This is how a thought or assumption appears true to us. And when we explore this, the “glue” or associations tend to weaken and we may even recognize what’s happening as it’s happening.

Knowing how one of the magic tricks of life is done

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.

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Magic tricks, healing, and awakening

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.

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Magic tricks

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.

A few sources I have enjoyed:

Hiding the Elephant by Jim Stenmeyer.

Penn and Teller: Fool Us – in addition to some googling.

A range of YouTube videos explaining certain tricks.

And there is also an increase in psychology articles on the topic these days.


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.

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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.)

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Asking helpful questions

The right questions can lead us to a great deal of insight.

For instance, if we assume the woman in this illusion is not actually cut in half….

Where must her real legs be?

If the legs sticking out at the other end are not her real legs, what may they be instead?

Why is her head moving at times when there is no apparent reason for it? Why is her neck in an awkward position while the sections are separated?

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Seven basic principles of magic

Penn & Teller‘s seven basic principles of magic and how they apply to the topics of this blog.

Palm: to hide an object.

Attention is absorbed into content of stories, and what we are does not notice itself. It is hidden in plain view.

Also, when stories are taken as true they are not recognized as stories. For instance, as soon as there is identification with the image of a separate I, it becomes the eyeball that cannot see itself.

Ditch: secretly dispose of an object.

Everything self-liberates. Something happens in experience, and it is gone before it has even manifested.

Steal: secretly obtain an object.

Whatever happens arrives out of thin air, out of nowhere.

Load: remove an object to where it is needed.

Identification moves into a sense of a separate I.

Also, the sense of a separate I sometimes move around, especially when attention is brought to it. (It moves to another location, as the “new” observer of where it just was.)

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I keep coming back to the same topics here…

Anything can be an analogy to some aspects of the awakening process, and so also magic.

In magic, there is an illusion. Something appears to happen that doesn’t really.

There is misdirection. Attention goes elsewhere, not to the mechanics of what is happening.

The trick may be revealed. There is insight into what is really happening.

And we still enjoy the trick. The appearances, and the skills and showmanship that goes into it.

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Magic tricks

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.

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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.

It is all play.