Magical thinking is the literal belief in a connection between a cause and an event that in fact have little or no connection. It’s superstition, and it mistakes magic for a rule system. Magical thinking happens in the head and tries to manipulate the universe. It’s fundamentally fearful.
Magical being, on the other hand, is an orientation, a consciously chosen mode of experience that opens to the creative capacities of the universe. Magical being cooperates with existence, collaborates with it, allows it to offer suggestions, opportunities, possibilities.
Magical being happens in the heart, along with the other great invisibilities such as love, wonder, and awe. These powers — so elusive when it comes to weights, measures, forecasts, and charts — are the ingredients of any spell worth casting.
Enchantment holds no investments in endings or outcomes. What’s an outcome, anyway? Nothing ever actually stops, and anything temporarily seen as an ending is also a beginning and middle, depending on your point of view.
Enchantment focuses on the flow, the moment. Enchantment attends to this sparkle, this stardust, this situation calling for an enchanted response.
Happy-Ever-After describes a feeling that happens outside clock time, literal time, mind time. It happens in soul time, metaphor time, magic time, heart time. It also isn’t happy, per se. It’s bigger than that. Enchantment feels the fathomless.
In the moments when love sings out — at births, deaths, fallings-in-love, breakings-up, every random waylay of wonder — a high note sounds that cannot stop. Enchantment listens, and hears, and listens, and hears, now and always, ever and after and ever again.
Before the recent election, the Dalai Lama took to the pages of the New York Times to address America’s political tumult in an article called Behind Our Anxiety, the Fear of Being Unneeded. We need to feel needed, he says. We need not to feel superfluous.
In other words, we need to feel like we matter.
When the article came out, I still floated like a dumb puppy on a cloud of complacent, liberal optimism. I thought it would be easy to accomplish what His Holiness suggests: treat people like they matter. And when you treat someone like they matter, that matters! Yay. Then the election happened, and too many people learned that they don’t matter enough to too many other people.
Mattering implies great value. The word “matter” comes from the same root as “mother,” the Latin mater. Many traditions see the earth as Mother — the nourishing womb from which we emerge, the source which sustains us through our lives.
Here’s what I believe: everything that mattered before the election matters even more now.
#BlackLivesMatter has it right. If you are treated like your life doesn’t matter, claim the truth of your mattering. If someone else is treated like they don’t matter, help them claim that same truth.
You matter. You are matter. You’re matter and energy. Einstein broke the astounding news that matter and energy are different forms of each other. Energy is super-duper active matter, and it’s exactly what the world needs. In other words, the world needs you.
Hear that clarion call, like bugles and bells? It says live like it matters, especially now, because it does.
Billions of years ago, in the early ages of the Universe, the atoms that make up the molecules that make up your cells that make up your body didn’t exist. None of that came into being until after stars formed — gargantuan cauldrons of fire-soup that cooked up the iron, nitrogen, and oxygen on which you live today.
Stars made those atoms, then they exploded, blasting their bits out into space. Some of it went on to form a warm, sunny planet with water to splash around in, and a protective-yet-oxygenated atmosphere to breathe. Before long, some of this stardust jostled into a sufficiently complex pattern that it could reproduce. Then it learned to swim, see, run, fly, laugh, create.
The stars are creative. They made the world, and they made you. You are stardust, and you inherit your cosmic creativity from your Godparent Stars. The dazzling night sky shows your origins and your birthright.
In the genre of literature called magical realism, stories are set in worlds that seem like everyday reality, except that amazing, seemingly unreal things happen. Magic erupts into the mundane.
Ever since I read fairy tales as a child, I’ve been convinced that this kind of story shows a view of reality more complete than realism alone. For instance, you can be plodding along, paying bills and going to work, when you fall in love and the world glows. Or someone dies and your heart bursts into a flower with deep purple petals. Or impossible coincidences pile up, and the birds sing their clamorous song: Awake! Awake! Awake!
On one level, magical realism is a metaphor for creativity — the surprise of it, the sense of the miraculous that accompanies an insight or breakthrough, the conviction that the world is in fact pregnant with as-yet unimagined possibilities.
On a deeper level, magical realism shows that life is real, and life is magical. Neither realism nor magic alone tells the whole story. Realism by itself tries to spread the half-truth, “Life sucks and then you die.” Magic by itself tells its own half-truth, “Everything is wonderful and amazing!” The whole truth is that they’re both true. Life is difficult and wonderful, and yes, then you die, but there’s always the possibility of amazement, all along the way.
A long, long time ago, a goddess-queen ruled a pantheon of gods and goddesses. This queen served as the divine sovereign over her land and her people. So when those people imagined rulership and divinity, they imagined a woman. Babies were born, crops grew, the moon waxed, waned, and waxed again for hundreds and then thousands of years. But one day a band of warlike invaders stormed the land, burning, killing, raping, taking, and bringing with them a stormy new king-god fond of throwing lightning around. Some say the invading king took the queen to wife by force. Others say she agreed to the marriage. No one claims the new god overthrew the goddess. She wielded too much power for that, and he knew he needed her to establish legitimacy. Maybe he found her fascinating, too. Challenging. But no one says they fell in love. King Zeus and Queen Hera simply assumed their thrones side by side, high in the thin, chilly air of Mount Olympus.
For the ancient Greeks, gods and goddesses didn’t just represent the energies of the observable world; they were those energies. Earth, ocean, sun, moon, hearth, love, law, marriage–the stories of these forces clashing, contending, consorting, and creating became what we now call a mythology. Because these figures are personified beings, their stories also illustrate personality dynamics. To the extent that these powers remain active today, Greek myth continues to open windows, onto worlds within and worlds outside. Myth taps into timelessness.
Hera’s name most likely comes from the same root as the word “hero.” She illustrates the aspect of experience whose inherent nature is rulership–a natural leader with ambition and intelligence who happens to be a woman. But soon after her marriage, Hera’s husband began chasing and raping other women all over the land. He arrogated to himself a despotic, entitled, physical dominion over her and all his subjects. In his view, a woman’s most private physical places–metaphorically her inner self, her soul–exist only to be seized by men. Naturally Hera became guarded, defensive. Not long after all this, patriarchal monotheism rose in the Hebrew and then Christian traditions and tried to depose and kill her outright. Christianity’s attacks grew particularly violent, with witch hunts, torture chambers, and burnings at stakes.
Hera embodies the aspect of experience that is a strong female subjugated, betrayed, and terrorized. She’s the aspect of experience with awareness of its own displacement and mistreatment. The aspect that has no choice but to go into hiding. The aspect that remembers her throne. The aspect that bides her time.
Hillary Rodham started out as an independent young woman–sharp, successful and full of zest, a leader at her women’s college. After law school, she married and accepted a role as a political wife, first to a governor, then to a president. But when she tried to take her place as a partner to her powerful husband, other politicians lost all composure, especially the conservative Christians. They fumed and foamed about a woman’s place and the inherent evil of healthcare for all. They whipped up their age-old witch hunt, this time using lies and conspiracy theories as pitchforks and torches. Meanwhile, Hillary’s husband proved powerless to resist his urge for nymphs and interns. Hera must have felt similar with Zeus as a husband: the public shame, the helpless rage, the isolation and loneliness, the societal judgment that she was somehow to blame for failing to make her man behave himself.
Hillary stayed married, but she distanced herself from her husband and started her own political career, as senator, as secretary of state. Now she finds herself facing off against another powerful man, this one even more like Zeus than her husband was: a thunderer who blusters about law and order, an assaulter of women, a self-promoter inordinately fond of marble palaces. Hillary’s opponent epitomizes the forces that have arrayed themselves against Hera through the ages.
It’s tempting to dismiss Donald Trump as the archetype of the pufferfish–inflated, cold-blooded, highly toxic even in small doses–but actually he draws his power from the darkest depths of the Zeus archetype. Listen to these lines from the “Homeric Hymn to Zeus,” written sometime around 600 BCE:
who is the best
and the greatest
I will sing…
who sees far
you’re the most
you’re the greatest
The best, the greatest, the most famous… It sounds exactly like recent political rallies. But the best, greatest, most famous what? Nothing. There is no substance there, not in the poem and not on reality tv. Donald and other Zeuses bring no skills to the table, only their hunger for glory, lust to dominate, bottomless greed for power and wealth. They have no access to wisdom or restraint. They rage. They hurl thunderbolts, verbal or otherwise. They serve themselves. This is why democracy rose, because everyone recognized the perils of kingship. And where did democracy first show up? Ancient Greece, in the time of Zeus.
It’s as though Hera stands behind Hillary and Zeus stands behind Donald. These two forces face off yet again. Hera is grim, determined, knowing what she’s up against. She knows the hatred of her opponents. She knows the bizarrely higher standard she’s held to than are the bozos around her. But she has prepared. She studied the law. She practiced the crafts of planning, organizing, governing. Her feet are planted for battle, but she also glows, newly beautiful in her maturity.
Myth changed with the arrival of Zeus. It changed with the rise of Christianity, the Enlightenment, the Internet. Myth taps into timelessness, but it also rides the currents of change. It shifts and shimmies to reflect what endures and what evolves.
When a goddess is wounded and closes her heart, that’s when blight happens. But when a goddess is glad and opens her heart, well, prepare for flourishing, blooming, blossoming. The psychological sequence goes: see her, love her, be loved in return.
Not that Hillary Clinton is a goddess. She is a mortal person with flaws, wounds, and complexities. But the image of a Hillary Clinton presidency is an archetypal upset, a tectonic shift in what American democracy believes to be possible. It means that thinking of leadership can mean thinking of a woman. Try saying it: Madam President. Now open up to the smallest bit of affection for her, the tiniest dram of liking, the same way you can like a man who has flaws, wounds, and complexities. Feel that ripple in the air at your back? That’s Hera standing straighter, stronger, more sure of herself, with a glint in her eye from the light held aloft by her young friend in the New York harbor.
“We keep hearing about the revolution around us all the time: the revolution, the revolution, the revolution. Revolution doesn’t have to do with smashing something; it has to do with bringing something forth…. You have to find the zeal in yourself and bring that out.”
A bunch of years ago, when I was twenty, I left the church I’d grown up in, where I’d been trained to think of God as God-the-Father: a literal, corporeal, male parent. I couldn’t reconcile that mythic system with the complexity of the rest of the world. So I bowed out, and I started rebuilding my thoughts about religion from scratch. Two ideas had strength for me. The first was, Follow your bliss because no one’s going to do it for you (thank you, Joe Campbell). The second was, You’re always allowed to change your mind.
But what was that supposed to mean — follow your bliss? I wasn’t sure what my bliss was, much less how to follow it. I decided to substitute a different word: fascination. I knew what it meant to feel the fizz of interest, and to attend closely to the people-places-parties that elicited that electricity, so I went with that.
Then I encountered complexity theory, a branch of science that studies how complicated, increasingly ordered systems emerge in the universe. These phenomena seem to thumb their collective nose at the second law of thermodynamics, which states that disorder, or entropy, always increases. Complexity theory describes the magic that happens at the edges of order and disorder, when organization gets a little chaotic, and chaos gets a little organized, and all of a sudden newness bursts forth: new planets, species, organisms, art. In his book Reinventing the Sacred, the complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman writes that “a wondrous radical creativity without a supernatural Creator” is an attribute of the universe. “God,” he says, “is our chosen name for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe, biosphere, and human cultures.”
When I read that, my whole body seemed to ring. I rose up off the sofa, book in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. The tea began flying out of the mug, but time slowed down so much that I was able to circle the cup around the moving liquid and gather it back, still thrilling to this idea: creativity inheres in the universe. Not just in Mozart, not just in Shakespeare. In the universe, meaning everything, meaning all of us. God is that which creates, whenever creation occurs.
But God isn’t just a name for creativity. God is an image of it, too. Gods and goddesses give metaphorical form to particular inflections of the universe’s creativity. Mythic narratives illustrate these great powers at play — how they collide, contend, collaborate, commingle. For instance, the edges of order and disorder sounds like an encounter of, say, Apollo’s logic and the wildness of Dionysus, a union which Nietzsche says gave rise to Greek tragedy. Or, order could be the controlled, virginal wisdom of Athena; disorder the passion and sensuality of Aphrodite. That word, passion, sounds a lot like bliss, like fascination. When forces like those meet, newness happens, on the scale of galaxies, cells, and the individual psyche.
I was thinking about all this, and I asked my bbf (beloved boyfriend) what he thought God was. Without missing a beat, Michael said, “The zingy-zangy around everything.” See why I love him so much? He gets it.
And doesn’t “zingy-zangy” sound like bliss, like the sizzle and spark of fascination, like the fire and fuel of passion? Following bliss is the same as following the zingy-zangy, which is God, which means your bliss is God is fascination is passion is the creativity which gives rise to the emergence of new complexity.
The times I’ve experienced the zingy-zangy most profoundly have had a bodily sensation of vastness and openness, with feelings of awe, wonder, and love that extend past all horizons in all directions. These moments happen at the edges of order and disorder, in psychological places outside judgments of good and bad, right and wrong — places I experience as amazing. Or heartbreaking. Or beautiful. Places defined by intensity.
A felt sense of vast possibility pulses in the infinite space at the invisible edge, outside and all around the ordered systems of our lives. Our complex material bodies and complex, seemingly immaterial consciousness cooperate in even more complex ways that still elude understanding. Who knows what could happen when our ordered selves encounter the disorder of death? Complexity theory suggests that it could be something new, meaning we can’t predict it and it could be different for everyone. It could feel like what religions sometimes refer to as heaven.
Last month my graduate coursework ended, a three-year marathon with no breaks between quarters. The day after my last class, I woke up late and lay in bed for an hour, feeling leaden and empty, drained of emotion and motivation. I hovered at the edge of the ordered system of the previous three years, and the disorder of the unstructured future. Then ideas about this blog post started rolling around in my mind like billiard balls. Two of them connected with a satisfying thwack, and I felt the first stirrings of vitality return, a small spring of interest, energy, enthusiasm — a word whose root means “God within,” which therefore also means bliss – fascination – creativity – passion. The great zingy-zangy.
Another phenomenon that emerges in this zingy-zangy universe is agency. In other words, you get to choose how to engage with the world, with bliss, with creativity, with the same zingy-zangy that gave rise to agency in the first place. And you’re always allowed to change your mind.
As expressions of the zingy-zangy — children of it, so to speak — we are invited to play with it. All it takes is the merest time-out, a tiny break in the hypnosis of thought, a sliver of silence to listen for tingle, to feel for the fizz, to savor the sparkle that infuses your being.
Shh… there it is. Do you feel it? Open to it. Sink into it. Let it have you. Now smile. Feel the shimmer strengthen? Feel it twinkle? That’s your bliss. That’s creativity. It’s the great zingy-zangy smiling back.