One famous and dangerous blur

What is the difference between mysticism and a belief in magic?

1. Both the mystic and the believer in magic perform exercises that take them on an inwards journey: they learn how to focus the mind, to increase concentration and awareness of their inner states. Given some time and effort, this will lead to unusual types of experience. Thus they may find themselves in very intense emotional states, which may be pleasant, even blissful, or unpleasant, even terrifying. They may witness the appearance of dream-like characters, who speak with them and provide insights or creative inspiration. They may find their perception of the external world warped: having more acute awareness of what happens to them, and how other people behave; or perceiving a great unity and harmony in everything instead of mere diversity and fragmentation; conversely, the external world may look and feel suddenly distant and abstracted away from them.

But the mystic and the believer in magic differ in what they take such inner journeys, and the experiences they have on them, to mean. For the mystic, it all happens in a special realm, which is distinct and sharply separated from the external world in which we live. The mystic takes the notion of a ‘journey’ very seriously, often literally: the mental practices are a pathway to somewhere apart. You cannot get there by traveling in the external world: you have to go on a completely different sort of trip (namely, the path of inner practices). Mystics differ widely in what they take this separate realm to be: it may be the collective unconscious, or a parallel universe; but historically, it has typically been connected to divine or spiritual spheres, accounted for in terms of some theological or theosophical view.

Believers in magic, in contrast, are not primarily interested in separate realms: they think that the experiences on their inner journeys are connected in hidden, but effective ways with the workings of the ordinary external world. They believe that they can exploit such connections: that by mentally focusing, and by manipulating their ‘inner’ states, they can produce actual changes in what happens to them, or in how other people behave. Magic, seen this way, consists in the ability to influence the external world by using mental powers. Oftentimes they take the inner ‘journey’ to be metaphorical: it does not take you to another realm, it is just a helpful tool to guide you through the exercises, so that you get to employ these mental powers. The effects in the real world range from physically moving things (‘psychokinesis’, ‘levitation’, …), via contactless, remote action (say, ’spells’ that wound at a distance) to manipulating other people’s behaviors (‘mind control’, ‘telepathy’, …), and may of course equally run in the other direction, i.e. from the external world to their minds, e.g. gaining knowledge via occult pathways, without looking out or listening in the external world (‘extra-sensory perception’, ‘clairvoyance’, …).

The difference, then, is not so much in what they do, but in the goal: the mystic wants to create and explore a special kind of experience, wheras the magician wants to produce an effect in the external world.

2. That there is a distinction between mysticism and belief in magic, along the lines I have sketched above, does of course not entail that there is a clear-cut division between practitioners. On the contrary: historically, practitioners would often hold a combination of both kinds of view. Sometimes they were aware of mixing them up, sometimes less so; if they were aware of it, they may still not have seen it as problematic.

One famous mystic who understood the distinction well, and insisted on holding it up (although he was both a mystic and a believer in magic), was Abraham Abulafia.

Abulafia himself has decisively rejected magic and condemned […] all attempts to use the doctrine of the holy names for magical purposes. In countless polemics he condemns magic as a falsification of true mysticism; he does admit a magic directed towards one’s own self, a magic of inwardness […] but none which aims at bringing about external sensory results, even though the means may be inward, permissible, and even sacred. Such magic is possible, according to Abulafia, but he who practices it is accursed.

Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 144-145.

So mysticism and belief in magic are distinct, but not mutually exclusive. One can think that an inner journey takes us to a separate, spiritual realm and at the same time believe that such a journey may enable us to also influence the external world in magical ways. Thus Abulafia, according to Scholem, pursued his mystical practices with awareness of the distinction; he did not think of magical thinking as erroneous, but warned against it as a form of wrongdoing.

Then, as history took its course, the line got quickly blurred:

Although he [Abulafia] himself escaped the danger of sliding insensibly from the meditative contemplation of the holy names into magical practices aimed at external objects, many of his successors fell into confusion and tended to expect from the inward path the power to change the outer world. [They dreamed] the magician’s dream of power and lordship over nature by mere words and strained intention […]

Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 145.

3. That is not surprising, for even with the distinction clarified, things are really not so clear-cut.

First of all, mystics of all times have in fact manipulated their bodies, their senses, and their physical surroundings in order to produce or enhance their mystical experiences. Sensory deprivation and drug use fall in this category, too. And the key point here is that all these are of course actions in the outer world with an effect on the inner world.

Next, there is one large class of phenomena where the mind can clearly produce physical effects in the external world: namely, a subject’s moving their body at will. Thus the line does not exactly run between the ‘inner’ world of the mind and the ‘outer’ world of physical objects in space and time. At least in some respects, it rather runs between the mind-body complex and the rest of the physical world. Then there is a further, more indirect sense in which mental changes can produce effects in the larger external world: by changing your mentality, you may change your behavior and thus the perception of it by others, and that may in turn produce changes in the social world.

And there are other, less obvious questions. For example, where precisely is the difference between a magician trying to ‘mentally’ influence people in their social world to act in a desired way (e.g. when forming political views) and artists seeking ‘mystical’ inspiration from spiritual exercises or drugs and then transforming them into paintings (which they sell)? Both explore the inner realm in order to produce, as an end result, some changes in the outer world; both can be said to benefit personally from the result in some ways, although both might also cite a ‘higher purpose’ (one the good of larger society, the other the furthering of art). Both may construe their practice in an entirely altruistic way; and both may perhaps be criticised for some hypocrisy there. Both must also believe, at the very least, in some power or influence originating in the ‘inner’ world and its products to influence the ‘outer’ world. It is true that the magician would frequently model this influence on straightforward causation, but they don’t have to (there are other ways to interpret the ‘magical’ effect, typically based on a variation of the notion of ‘sympathies’). In the end, there seems to be no real difference, at least not one in principle.

Considering all these gray areas, the distinction between mysticism as purely a mental (or spiritual) exploration of an inner realm and magic as outward-focused action directed at influencing the external world seems highly theoretical: useful for classifying historical treatises, perhaps; but hardly relevant without explicit understanding of the intentions that motivate a particular practitioner.

4. Any study of synchronicities, too, will sooner or later end up in these gray areas. That is for two reasons.

First, any awareness of sychronicities involves both a perception of coincidences in the external world and a subjective impression of meaningfulness. Thus there is a blend between the “outer” world and the “inner” world in the structure of the phenomenon itself. Now when we talk about synchronicities, we often take recourse to language which reflects that blend, and that can lead to formulations such as “the unconscious arranges events in the external world”. Such language is deeply ambigous. If we understand it along the lines of the mystic, it would mean that the unconscious influences our awareness, perception, and interpretation of events the external world — which all are “inner” processes —, but not the external events themselves. If, in contrast, we understand it along the lines of a belief in magic, it would mean that there is a power in unconscious (mental) processes that can influence the external events themselves. (In an earlier post, I wrongly assigned that understanding to mystic views.)

Secondly, there is a fine line between noticing an impression of meaningfulness (i.e. an event seems meaningful to a subject) and the notion that an event “means something” for the subject’s life in the external world — if that is understood in a predictive sense, expressing a kind of foreshadowing or foreknowledge of what will happen to that person in the outer world. The former is a subjective phenomenon, something that happens, so to speak, in the “inner world” of the subject; the latter is something that is supposed to happen objectively “out there”, in the external world.

By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

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