Seeing Magic

Who doesn’t like a good story?  Some facts remain constant in this changeable and unpredictable world.  Among them is the wish to be loved, to be safe, to be free from physical and mental suffering, to be free and at ease in this world, to know life and be known as we really are.  What makes great novels great is the way they embody and convey this constant wish among humans and other beings.   We root for Jane Eyre and for Harry Potter as they rise to the challenge of overcoming the ever increasing obstacles that stand in the way of the fulfillment of this wish.  One reason people love those characters in particular is this wish to love and be loved—to really unfold–comes blazing out of a truly oppressed little kid who proves capable of discovering unknown powers and strengths.  Both characters are stimulated into extraordinary growth.   Their respective authors convey the sense we all have (at least unconsciously):  that we have magic in us.

What exactly is this magic supposed to consist of?   It is our capacity to drop whatever mental rock we happen to be holding, to open the grasping hand of the self and receive life just as it is.  “Bronte’s sense of human personality is that it is pliant, fluid, living, in immediate (and often defiant) response to its surroundings,” writes Joyce Carol Oates. “Not that it is stable and determined.”   We thrill as Jane and Harry are stimulated by circumstances to discover remarkable strengths and capacities.  Our innate story sense tells us there is a way to be heroic in life that does not involve bashing our way through obstacles like a human fist—that involves being open to change.

The chief obstacle seems to be ourselves–literally, our attachment to a fixed notion of self.  Looking at everything that meets us from this fixed vantage point creates a sense of separation and opposition.  We label and judge everything instantaneously, scrolling through the files of memory to place things, separating our “selves” from what we see.   This is a primal tendency and there is nothing wrong with it: what would happen if our cells lost the ability to distinguish between self and other?  What if atoms lost their inherent sense of structure? Everything would be all shapeless and formless and void.  The grand story of life as we know it would cease.

Still, we have to find a way not to be enslaved by the tendency—not to live our lives in a cupboard under the stairs, forever at a remove at a direct experience of life by what we believe we know, by what we believe ourselves to be.  Our relish for books like Jane Eyre and Harry Potter reveal that we believe that we know deep down that there is something wondrous about life waiting for us—and that we ourselves may have extraordinary capacities.  I just don’t feel it because I am lost in thoughts, images, desires, disappointments, physical impressions—lost in old knowledge.   A famous Buddhist teacher once described the great predicament of human race in three words:  “Lost in thought.”

Yet there is another way of being attentive, and we have all experienced it—at least for fleeting moments.  There are moments when we are so astonished by life that we can just stand there are receive it without naming, without judging.  Sometimes, this seems to come spontaneously in the wake of earth-shaking news—sometimes in the midst of a meditation retreat when we allow ourselves to be very still, yet very sensitive and alive inside. This is that rare state when we make no distinctions, when one thing is not more than another—everything is equally astonishing, equally evidence of the wild, strange miracle of life.  In such a moment, there is no separation between the life inside us and outside.  We are seamlessly connected and we have a role to play.  We are to stand there and be astonished (as that wonderful poet and Parabola contributor Mary Oliver has written).  We are to see, to receive, what is taking place.   In such a moment, we realize that the brave and creative and magical act that so many of us aspire to is just this act: seeing what is taking place.

Most of us know this experience, and then we forget, and this is perfectly natural.  We have to get on with the business of living.   Yet a feeling lingers, a longing to know ourselves and know life in a more complete way.  What to do?  I think we may need to acknowledge that longing in an honest and straightforward way, like Jane Eyre yearning for the moon and the stars and adventure, and then hearing the clock strike and going in to do her job, letting” little things recall us to earth.”

3 thoughts on “Seeing Magic

  1. Hi Tracy

    You write of being lost in thought. I’m curious as to how you distinguish between being lost in thought and lost in negative emotions.

    Is it possible for a person to refuse to think but instead justify their negative emotions? Could we ever be able to lessen their effect without our capacity for reason?

    1. Hi Nick,

      Being lost in thought is being in a passive state, passively carried along by thoughts, memories, negative reactions. There is a way of thinking that is active, arising from the active state of awareness–or even the search for awareness. What do you think?

  2. Hi Tracy

    As you know I’m involved with the war against loveliness. As such, I’ve become more keenly aware of when it begins to intrude on the human psych in its unique manner.

    It is fashionable in New Age circles to condemn thought in favor of lovely emotions. I see one as potentially denying ones aim as the other.

    The question becomes what is ones aim. If it is only to experience pleasant emotions then by all means pursue pleasant emotions and loveliness.

    I’m at a time in my life that leads me to question the human condition not only in the world but within me as well. This direction has made me more aware of the inhibiting quality of loveliness and sentimentality. So rather than further it as is typical of New Age expression. I’ve come to appreciate the minority aware of the scope of negative emotion which includes not only obvious hostility but escapism into loveliness.

    But again it is a question of ones aim. Most would not want what Simone Weil suggests:

    “A test of what is real is that it is hard and rough. Joys are found in it, not pleasure. What is pleasant belongs to dreams.” — Gravity and Grace

    I know it isn’t a wonderful thought but still I have the highest regard for someone like her that lived this truth.

    Jacob Needleman writes in his book “Lost Christianity” about his conversation with Metropolitan Anthony:

    “He gently waved aside what I was saying and I stopped in mid sentence. “There was a pause, then he said: “No. Emotion must be destroyed.”

    He stopped, reflected, and started again, speaking in his husky Russian accent: “We have to get rid of emotions….in order to reach…..feeling.”

    It seems reasonable to me that dependence upon passive thought denies attentive thought and passive emotions deny feelings. The trouble IMO is the modern tendency to refer to passive thought as denying the legitimacy and dominance of passive emotions.

    If that is what a person wants then just pursue passive emotional expression. But at this time I’ve come to question detachment.

    “Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be attained only by someone who is detached.” Simone Weil

    So it is back to the question of aim. If one wants to feel justified it is best to think wonderful thoughts and seek to feel good. If a person is concerned with the human condition and its limiting effects on human “being,” a person has to be open to thought and emotion of a quality that is not the norm and doesn’t justify the human condition so is not all that pleasant but sometimes inspires joy.

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