Magical Thinking

In preparing for the upcoming sermon, I have found my thoughts swinging towards notions of magical thinking.  Is Magical Thinking something that we can avoid or is it something that is hardwired into our species? 

I have come to believe that it is something that is hardwired into our species.   In our development, magical thinking may have served as a means to survival.  The ancient Druids who burned yule logs to summon the return of the sun god during the winter solstice is an example of magical thinking as a tool for survival.  Having hope that warmer days are coming soon is a strong tool towards survival.  The notion that they had some part of  the sun’s returning gave them a sense of control over their lives.  Having a sense of control seems to be important to our basic ability to thrive as a species.  So while we can reduce magical thinkings prevalence in our lives, we are not going to be able to eliminate it entirely. 

I found two definitions online that I thought were good definitions with one being better than the other.   

The first definition was one posited by Tim Boucher with his nod to Psychologist James Alcock, Magical thinking is “the interpreting of two closely occurring events as though one caused the other.”    It is as Mr. Boucher points out the same definition we use for Cause and Effect.  The difference seems to be that the latter is provable through scientific method, the former is not. 

The second definition that I found was also located in a blog by a BuddhistThe conviction of the individual that his or her thoughts, words, and actions, may in some manner cause or prevent outcomes in a way that defies the normal laws of cause and effect. 

He was stating that in the 1980’s he was with the Nichiren Shoshu and was taught to chant of Nam-myo-renge-kyo.   He was taught that chanting this phrase would not only bring him to enlightenment but it would also change his Karma in this lifetime so that he could receive material things.  He came to see in time that there were other benefits to this chanting and that they were the ultimate goal of the chanting not the receiving of material gains. 

Many religions of all configurations have some form of magical thinking embedded into their make up.   And some folk have explanations as to why their faith construct is not magical thinking but everyone else’s is.  Todd Strandberg has a whole page devoted to what is and isn’t magical thinking and then states The Bible is the final authority and if it is in the Bible then it is trustworthy and true.  Moses raising the staff to part the Red Sea, not magical thinking nor coincidental hurricane force winds blowing across a shallow part of the sea to create momentary dry land.  Jesus commanding the demons to come out of a person.  Not magical thinking.  These he says are matters of faith. 

Matters of faith are not magical thinking?  If it is magical thinking for the voodoo priestess to cast out demons, why wouldn’t the same action by the pentecostal minister not be magical thinking?  Add that to the mysteries of faith, I suppose.

I am presenting a sermon on Sunday based on the book by Jinny Ditzler entitled, “Your Best Year Yet!”  In it she discusses changing our dominant paradigm of thought about ourselves. 

I write in the sermon regarding changing ones paradigm and magical thinking, “So the person who crosses their fingers to protect them from an unwanted outcome is practicing magical thinking.  A person who repeats a chant over and over again because that would result in their receiving a Porsche is practicing magical thinking.

A person who states they are undeserving of money because that is their lot in life is also practicing magical thinking. Their thought that having money will never be their lot in life defies the normal laws of cause and effect. What is not magical thinking is someone who states “Money is abundant and flows spontaneously in my life” and then begins to look for opportunities, those next logical steps that would allow money to flow towards them. I am not talking about her re-arranging the furniture according to energy flow patterns or burning sage that will supposedly attract money. Those actions are magical thinking actions. I am talking about actions that he or she takes as those next logical steps that do not defy the normal laws of cause and effect. Maybe she begins sending out resumes. Maybe she takes some courses to improve her marketable skills. Maybe she remembers that she has a talent that she could turn into a profitable business and begins taking steps towards that endeavor. Each of these steps could result in money being more abundant.

A person who truly believes that he is not worth earning more money will not be a person who will be looking for new opportunities to earn more money. He will have shut those windows and doors of opportunities to himself long before they could even appear on his radar.

Ms. Ditzler is challenging us to shift how we perceive our world and our opportunities. Shifting the dominant paradigm in what we believe to be true about ourselves is an important key to being able to reach for accomplishments that until now were outside our reach. The fact is what we believe about ourselves is only a perception that has been rehearsed over and over again by those around us and eventually by ourselves so many times that we feel there is no other truth about who we are.

The famous story of Pygmalion written by George Bernard Shaw based on the Greek Myth of the same name tells the tale of an English Gentlemen who seeks to transform a poor woman of the streets into a sophisticated lady of means. You might recognize the story as My Fair Lady, the musical and movie with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. It is the story of shifting the paradigm of personal belief.

When we meet Eliza Doolittle, she is destined to remain the class and education level she was born into. She has accepted her lot and believes she not deserve any better fare. Professor Higgins takes on a bet that he can pass her off as a learned lady of stature and class. The transformation does not happen until, Eliza herself begins to see herself as this lady.

Was it magical thinking? No. It was changing the story one tells themselves and then taking actions inspired by the new story, the new paradigm. Had Eliza been born into a family of means, this story would already have been told to her since childhood; that paradigm would already have been in place. Her actions chosen by herself and her family would have matched that paradigm.”

Affirmations, another popular tool used by many, would be magical thinking if all the person ever did was repeat the affirmation and thougth by merely stating the affirmation that his life was going to change direction or receive what he wanted.  If the person actually believed the words being said and began making decisions and actions that were in conjunction with those affirmations, then it no longer is magical thinking.  The affirmations are then only a tool towards shifting the paradigm of belief the person was originally living and acting from. 

Here is Audrey Hepburn in her own voice not the dubbed version singing “Wouldn’t it be Loverly.”  Some dreaming and perhaps some magical thinking too…  Blessings,

Published in: on January 3, 2009 at 3:18 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. A thought provoking reflection, Fred.


    I would push this a bit, however.

    I believe first and foremost there needs to be further reflection on what magicial thinking is and is not.

    I don’t think that fallacies of false cause are in and of themselves magical thinking. And I think this is your point. Rather magical thinking takes a mistaken causal correlation and attempts to manipulate some aspect of the world through the application of that view. Magical in this usage meaning not connected to reality.

    The Wikipedia article “Magical thinking” presents an unblinking look at the phenomenon and where one is likely to run into it.

    Anyway, you posit the individual who believes “money is abundant and flows spontaneously in my life” and because of the attitude looks for possibilities in life. I agree by your narrow use this is not magical thinking. While I strongly suspect that money does not flow spontaneously in most people’s lives, in and of itself it is not magical thinking. Just to my thinking untrue.

    It’s what follows, however, that matters. And, I believe this is your point.

    If it is all about shifting one’s attitude, then great.

    Except when the reality on the ground puts a lie to the assertion – and I certainly can think of circumstances where shifting one’s attitude just isn’t going to do much good at all.

    Then we move on to the rough ground of denial or blaming the victim.

    It opens the question of what is a most useful path to shifting one’s attitude, and to what sort of shift.

    In addition to affirmations, I think about metta and its industrial strength cousin tonglen, and wonder if one is less helpful and another more so…

    I guess it depends on what one’s goals are…

    Well, again, very provocative.

    And, once again, thank you…

    James: Thank you for taking this a bit further. It was indeed the point I was hoping to make that it is what follows the affirmation that takes it out of the realm of magical thinking. The affirmation in and of itself is not going to cause any of the desired changes. BTW, the affirmation that I used in the post is in quotes because it is taken directly from Jinny Ditzler’s book. It was this quote that got me thinking about magical thinking.

    The only people that I know who have money flowing spontaneously are those who have grasped the concept of residual income and figured out a way to get into that stream. Not an exhaustive list but successful actors and musicians (Elvis Presley may be dead but he is still being paid big bucks on his residual income), best selling authors who make their books into franchises (think JK Rowling of “Harry Potter” fame), and those rare but extremely successful multi-level marketers (think Amway and MaryKay) are among those in that stream. So in order for this part of the affirmation to become a true statement that person has to begin looking for opportunities that would provide entry ways into legal residual income. Otherwise, as you state, it will be an untrue statement and probably not a very helpful one.

  2. I gather from what I have read in this sermon that the experience with “Nichiren Shoshu” is in fact with the “Soka Gakkai”. … the psuedo-buddhist boy scouts who historically have had a bad habit of mixing food (the actual teachings of Nichiren) with dung (the childish ‘value creation quasi philosophy)”Soka Kyoikugaku Taikei” (The Theory of Value-Creating Pedagogy) written by the founder of Soka Gakkai, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, completely un-impressive, and I’m not sure that he didn’t steal the concept from someone else. Over a century ago, an educator, writer, lecturer and medical doctor by the name of Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952) developed a new approach for educating and nurturing young children.

    According to the actual religion of Nichiren Shoshu, there are no ‘conspicuous’ benifits (KenYaku) to be had in this age of the law, only ‘inconspicuous’ benefits (myoyaku) which are the world around us reacting differently to us when we are (without consciously doing anything) moving with the world (the law of Causality … hardly ‘Magical’) by a right brain subliminal mental weeding process (chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo). A meditative form that we maintain is the best one. If you look at an EEG or EKG of someone chanting and doing Gongyo (the “assidious practice” you will notice a profound change in the wave forms … hardly evoking ‘magic’ I’ve done it myself with pulse oximeter.
    Nichiren’s presumption is that the chanting ‘triggers’ a purge of the mental white noise generated in one’s mind by an erronious perception of the nature of the universe.
    Anyone who claims to be chanting to get a girlfriend, a good job, money, ad infinitum, ad nauseum? is practicing some wierd amalgam of Tientai Buddhism and the Hindu practices. (Roll your own religion as they say)
    I live two doors from a Unitarian facility … they routinely have Zen metiative stuff going on there. A less than effective means to accomplish what we propose to do in our individual lives by following Nichiren’s teaching.

    [Thanks John for this additional information on the Buddhist piece noted within the post. I knew very little about this group and was going by the blogger’s description of it. Blessings, Fred]

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