By Ken Blackman
From Materialist to Magician
The world runs like a wind-up clock. It runs predictably according to deterministic laws, and (within the limits set by Quantum Mechanics) future events are completely predetermined by initial conditions. ‘Consciousness’ is a phenomenon that arises from the chemistry and physiology of the brain. We are easily fooled into thinking there’s something more, but there isn’t. Oh, and the only real pursuit worthy of our time is the pursuit of Truth (a.k.a. Science).
That is a very good description of… me. In my younger days. It’s a pretty accurate look into my head.
Incidentally, I wasn’t much fun to be around. I was uncomfortable in most social situations, terrified of girls, boring to engage with, generally disinterested in most activities, tended to choose function over aesthetics in all realms, lived more in my head than my body, and didn’t understand fun. Apathy and fear were the extent of my emotional range.
I never read fiction. Why on earth would I waste time reading about things that didn’t happen? Like, what was the point?
You get the picture.
These days I spend most of my time conjuring. I’m good at it. I know things I shouldn’t, shift the course of events by changing my internal state or someone else’s, and am prone to inexplicable (like seriously inexplicable) coincidences. I hear and trust messages where there wasn’t, technically speaking, a sentient corporeal creature to communicate with. I’ve coined names for experiences that are too hard to describe but too often shared not to talk about.
The me-that-was would be hard pressed to explain my activities or my success. But there’s a difference between explaining and explaining away, and my former self would have no problem dismissing anything he witnessed.
So I want to talk to that young man, with you as my witness. Because he longed for something more than the life he had. I want to introduce him to a few of the milestones, the gateway drugs, that would lead him to become the man I am now. I want to speak to the man who had no clue what it was he was looking for, or how it would end up.
And maybe you know someone who needs to read this. Even if they don’t know it yet.
The first crack in the armor took place shortly after my mom died. At the time I was a software engineer at Apple, and I had a good friend who was Christian. We got along well and were able to talk about our different beliefs with surprising respectfulness and tact.
My father, grandparents, aunts and uncles had all passed, but the passing of my mother was perhaps the hardest of all. I felt an aloneness I’d never experienced before. Not a lonely aloneness; a scary, left-to-fend-for-myself aloneness. My brother and sister and I were now the elders of the family. And that weighed hard on me at the age of 27. People much older than me, people I looked up to, they still had parents, elders they were deferential to, people who sometimes scolded them, who had valuable wisdom to impart to them. I did not.
When I described this feeling to my Christian friend, he told me that he would never have to experience the kind of suffering I felt. Because Jesus served that role of father figure in his life. And I knew he meant it. He would never feel like he didn’t have an elder, a guide.
In that moment I knew two things. First, I will never be a Christian.
Over and done, end of story.
…but for the first time in my life I could understand the allure. The value. To someone. Not me but someone. I could see that he had something I lacked. In the midst of my deep longing for guidance and the wisdom of an elder, I could totally get why someone would take up a paternal religion.
Around the same time my brother found religion as well. He’d been in gangs, become a drug addict, hurt people, done illegal things, gone bankrupt, fathered a child out of wedlock, borrowed big sums from family, gone bankrupt again, destroyed things, skirted jail. Becoming religious, he cleaned up, got out of a toxic marriage to a woman who refused to give up drugs, got a good-paying dependable job, and started really figuring out what it means to be a good dad. Finally. Today he is an amazing man with a beautiful, amazing family.
And again I thought, that isn’t ever going to be my religion — like, ever — but I can see how it was useful for him. I can genuinely say that I see the value it has had in his life.
And so here I am, a good scientific materialist nerdy successful Silicon Valley software engineer. But now with a slight difference; an interesting question bouncing around in my head.
Are there beliefs that,
were I to believe them,
would have my life get better?
I’d always assumed that Truth (as delivered by science) was, by definition, the best belief system. That believers in Truth automatically made out the best in the long run. Remember, I didn’t even read fiction. But now I was at least open to the possibility that there could exist a belief that was unprovable (perhaps even false) but still useful to hold.
Joseph Campbell “Power of Myth” kind of stuff.
It’s ok for an epic hero movie to inspire us to live differently.
Mythology serves an important purpose in our lives.
If you’re nervous onstage, imagine the audience naked.
Power of positive thinking, and placebo effects.
That kinda stuff.
I bookmarked it as a worthy line of inquiry for later. But now the door was cracked open a bit. I was open to some ideas that I had been closed to before. Truth and Utility are not synonymous.
Suspension of analysis
Sometime later, I decided that I’d had enough of this fear-of-women situation. I was successful by most measures and it was time to figure out this part of my life. Fortunately I didn’t go the route of NLP or PUA. I took a rather odd route. With the help of some instructors I started putting my finger on women’s clits.
I did this a lot. Like, a ton. (To give you a sense, since that time I’ve spent thousands of hours with my finger on a clit. I don’t mean that figuratively and I’m not exaggerating.)
That path of study transformed me profoundly, but I want to draw attention to one particular aspect. To become good at this it was important to pay attention to what I was experiencing. And there was a rule of thumb. If I experienced something, and someone else did too, then it happened.
Example: if I saw a mountain lion out the window, and you saw it too, then it was there. Totally makes sense. Right?
The difficulty came from the most unexpected of places. I now noticed that my ability to experience was running circles around my capacity to explain. And in this arena where experience had supremacy… well, my brain had a problem with that.
So I had to learn to turn my analytical brain off.
And I started to notice how often people dismiss experiences they can’t explain. Like, it didn’t happen. And I’m talking about their own experiences. The analytical brain is literally blocking out, editing, and censoring conscious experience.
And the better I got at taking my experiences purely at face value, rather than trying to explain them (or explain them away), the more I was able to experience the inexplicable.
The corroboration really cinched it. If I experienced it, and she experienced it, then it happened. But — and this is important — my willingness to take it at face value had to come first. Otherwise I wouldn’t have access to it. Because my brain would rewrite it.
So first the suspension of skepticism, then the evidence that would convince the skeptic.
If I felt intense heat in my finger, and she felt intense heat in her clit, I wouldn’t ponder whether it was more plausible that the temperature actually rose, or something else caused our heat-sensing nerves to fire, or we’d entered a mental state where the signals were interpreted as heat, or whatever.
Because it didn’t matter.
It was enough that we had a word that we both agreed accurately described what we’d felt. Human connection is experiential — hell, the clit is designed for nothing other than sensation — and we’d found common ground and a common language. (No easy feat.)
If we wrote down our experiences, and then compared, and saw that we’d both written “electricity at minute 17”, we didn’t stop to ponder the nature or reality of the spark. Because at the level of experience, it didn’t matter.
If, out of the blue, I felt something that caused me to feel insanely jealous in the middle of my day at the office, for no apparent reason…. and then later found out what she’d been doing that corresponded to what I’d felt… then by golly with all my might I would resist the urge to try and explain it away. Because I knew that the instant I gave weight to the explanation I’d lose access to this precious, new, developing superpower.
And oh what an amazing superpower it has turned out to be.
And so it was that I would go on to have a number of entirely inexplicable experiences. The real finesse was in allowing rather than causing them to happen. Turning off the narrative mind and letting the experiential mind run the show.
There are scores more turning-point moments, all worth mentioning. But you get the picture.
My life is very different now. Better. Immeasurably.
I know more about the person I’m speaking to than what they’ve told me. Often more than they’ve told anyone.
When I’m not doing well my business dries up. Then I go to a trusted advisor and have him debug my head, and the calls start rolling in that day — sometimes while I’m still in the session.
My girlfriend and I regularly text each other at exactly the same time. Several times per week this happens. Sometimes I text her about the very thing she was in the process of asking me about.
I have premonitions.
And get oddly synchronistic phone calls. Or make them.
And while I don’t, with authoritative conviction, tell others where to stand on the topic of spirits or angels or God, or their nature… when I get a message from I-don’t-know-where, I listen to it and act on it. (And I do tell others to do that.)
Because in my life, doing so is consistently a better choice than ignoring it.
And if that ever stopped being the case, I would switch to something different.
A final invitation
I want you to experience magic. If you’re a materialist, all the more so. It’s your birthright and it’s yours to claim or reject.
But if at this point if you’re sitting there thinking, what a bunch of hogwash… if you’re a no to the implicit “see for yourself” invitation of my story… If you’re sticking to your materialist ways… I’m ok with that. As a recovering materialist myself, believe me, I understand.
And I want to leave you with one final thought. Which I will give to you in your language.
(If you are already a witch, please stop reading here. This will hurt your ears. I’m not even kidding.)
I’ve come to understand that magical thinking is a necessary part of having a rich, full, well-rounded life. Because to completely exclude or discount it is to exclude a big part of the way humans think, feel, and experience the world. To cultivate it is to tap into a very real and significant portion of the human experience.
I no longer analyze people. My ostensible ESP comes from having given myself full permission to think like a Hyu-mahn. I’m in it with them, and deeply connected to them. In the same way that intractable quantum calculations become trivially easy with a true quantum computer, people make sense to me in a way that would not have been possible by any other route. I could not possibly analyze my way to understanding life or people the way I do. When I have an intuitive hit on someone, the extra layer of knowing-how-I-know is not only irrelevant, it turns out to be heavily counter-productive.
As for my spooky-action-at-a-distance experiences… I could discount them all as not meeting the bar of explainability, or conflicting with my understanding of physics, but I don’t because as experiences they have meaning and value and bring me closer to people. Giving them legitimacy makes my life richer and my relationships better.
As Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung would both agree, mythology is important and valuable precisely because people think in myths. Myths describe you — and those around you, and the world — from the inside.
(You know who else? Skeptic magazine’s founding publisher Michael Shermer. This great article about a time his mind was totally blown will blow your mind.)
If this makes sense to you, then I’m glad. I should tell you up front though, you are not going to have magic. Sorry. Magic is unavailable to you and this viewpoint I just gave you will not help. But it is, I think, important to your humanity in its own right. It may allow you to feel more broadly, to experience the world more richly, to connect with others more intimately, and to live in the world with a bit more empathy.
And who knows, perhaps it will serve as your gateway drug.
I run programs especially for materialists
whose skepticism and disbelief are exceeded only by
a hunger for something better than what they have.
If that’s you, contact me.
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