Wednesday, 5 January 2011

On Magic and Cognitive Dissonance

This short article started as a draft for a post on this page. I simply wanted to provide more context on how psychology and magic can walk side by side at times. A topic I have been deeply fascinated by since years and am still exploring... Since I started to write the article, it expanded and I finally decided to make it available as an Appendix to the Dweller on the Threshold article on Yet, as the inspiration for this text came from this blog I also feel it belongs here... So, in case you are prepared for a little longer read, I hope you'll enjoy.

In the paper on The Dweller on the Threshold I mentioned cognitive dissonance as a key concept in elementary rituals and overcoming the dweller. As this might be a new approach for some, let me share some further thoughts on this in an Appendix to the original article.

First things first: I have to admit I don't know a lot about the theory of 'cognitive dissonance'. A good friend of mine - the one with whom I am undertaking the Arbatel ritual cycle and who is the source of many of the ideas here and on my blog - just mentioned the term coming out of his ritual of Phul. What he said sounded so very convincing, so I looked up the term and it snapped... Thus, most of my entire theoretical background on the concept is summarized at Wikipedia and my biggest thanks goes out to my good friend for his wonderful inspiration! Being somewhat short on sociological theory on cognitive dissonance, I do think, however, I have learned some lessons about creating it in context of rituals and using it to change deeply rooted habits or negative assumptions about life. This is what I want to talk about, and mainly by sharing three examples on how to create and leverage deep states of cognitive dissonance.

First a brief attempt of a definition though:

  • "Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously." (link to source)
  • "Cognitive dissonance is a theory of human motivation that asserts that it is psychologically uncomfortable to hold contradictory cognitions. The theory is that dissonance, being unpleasant, motivates a person to change his cognition, attitude, or behavior." (link to source
Just to make sure we are all on the same page: cognitive dissonance itself is nothing more than an opportunity to break free from an established perspective by creating a contradicting or simply completely new type of related experience. However, it is our reaction to this experience that defines wether we can seize the opportunity. Cognitive Dissonance can be reduced by changing our attitudes, beliefs, and actions - just as well as it is reduced by rationalizing, justifying, blaming or denying. 

What I want to talk about in the following three examples is how a deep state of cognitive dissonance can be actively induced in our consciousness. It us and how we chose to react to the newly gained, yet initially unpleasant freedom of mind that make the real difference.
  • Zen Buddhism - The use of Kōans: This might be the best well known technique for creating cognitive dissonance. The teacher gives the student a Kōan to meditate on: that is a story, a saying or question that puzzles the rationale mind and cannot be solved by thinking, yet by an intuitive understanding only. One such example is the prompt: "Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born." One of my relatives is a Zen priest and I once asked him about his most puzzling and tricky Kōan experience. He told me that there was one Kōan he meditated about for almost an entire year. He would go and see his master several times per week and give his best attempt of an answer to the Kōan. The master refused each time. One day he visited the master again and gave the exact same answer he had given during many months before. That day the master smiled and accepted his answer. When I asked him how that could be, my relative simply said: because that morning it wasn't my mind giving the answer but my entire body, starting from the understanding of my heart. - The effect of cognitive dissonance doesn't get much better to me than that.  

  • Ancient Ritual Magic - The use of the magic act: For us as magicians this might be the most familiar way of experiencing cognitive dissonance; even though I would think we rarely call it that way. Many wonderful examples of this ritual technique can be found in the Sefer ha-Razim. Let's take a look at one of them to better understand the way this works: In SHR II §372 - § 374 the method is explained how to interpret and understand the content of this book given by the angel Raziel to Adam. It advises the reader to take two doves, kill them with a copper double-bladed knife, one dove with each side of the knife. Then take out the entrails and cleanse them with water. Next create an incense mixture of myrrh, curcuma, white blossom, 72 seeds of white pepper, old wine, olibanum and honey. Then fill the entrails of the doves with the incense, dissect them into smaller parts (i.e. little dove sausages I guess?) and put them on lit coals before sunrise. During the three following days he has to wear white garment, be barefoot and recite the angel names of the specific month during which he came to ask his question of understanding the book. On the third day he is to bring the ashes of the dove entrails which was created by the coals during this time and prepare a house for his solitary work. He then spreads out the incensed ashes on the entire floor of the house and sleep on the bare floor covered by these ashes and recite the names of the angels again. "Sleep and don't talk to anybody. Then during the night the angels will come to you in a vision and not in mysteries and will reveal all things without any fear" (p.187). - Well, if this process doesn't build up some pretty heavy contradictions to how you normally tend to treat food, use incense or simply rest at night, I don't know what could do... The intense magical (preparatory) act is a wonderful example of the art and science to create a new and different state of consciousness - by opening an unconfined space of experiences that is completely out of reach for any previously created attitudes, beliefs or actions.             

  • Psychomagic - The use of the psychomagic act: The use of Psychomagic to create cognitive dissonance is least know to many of us as it is by far the youngest. Alejandro Jodorowsky developed this innovative technique and it is still to be proven wether it can be adapted by other magicians or simply is a beautiful account of one man's personal and highly creative way of healing. It involves aspects of both of the approaches explained before: Zen and ancient ritual magic. It uses the power of speaking to intuition rather than our minds, while also leveraging the contact to our subconsciousness by directly involving a concrete physical act to manifest our desire. Let me share just one example Jodorowsky gives in his book - but let me warn you as well - the quote is taken out of context and I can only recommend to read the full book to create some wonderful cognitive dissonances: "Beginning to understand the havoc, she came to ask me to prescribe an act that would allow her to forgive her father and thus overcome her hatred of men. I asked her to tell me at what moment her father had broken off relations with her. 'When I started menstruating,' she responded. It is common for a father to break relations with his daughter when she becomes a woman. He feels that he's lost his little girl who sat in his lap, and he has a hard time giving up that kind of intimacy, that contact. Right away I asked her where her father was buried; then I suggested that she go to his grave. 'There,' I told her, 'you bury, as close as possible to the body, cotton soaked in your mentrual blood, as well as a jar of honey. (...) The honey is there to breath in life with sweetness, to signify that it is not an aggressive act but rather a loving one, an attempt at communication. There! An example of a very simple psychomagic act that allowed the reactivation of a brutally broken relationship and at the same time the resumption of an emotional evolution interrupted by a shock." (from: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Psychomagic - Chapter Six: Examples of Psychomagic Acts)   

Now, what do we make of all this in our everyday lives? First, I guess we should feel the force of a huge wave of support behind us to break free from the limits that hold us confined. We are not alone in our struggle, but people in all cultures before and after us have been on the same journey towards liberation. Thus each culture has discovered its own authentic expression and technique of putting cognitive dissonance into the service of healing what has been bruised or incarcerated. It is us who have to chose.

Secondly, on every occasion we are confused, angry or simply lost we are facing an opportunity to break free. Each time we are thrown out of the comfort of our personality, life presents a chance to break free from the Guardian of the Threshold. Just like we are blessed with techniques for creating cognitive dissonances - we are also blessed with resources and material to work with. One day at a time.  

Finally, I guess one of the main problems in seizing these opportunities lies in the nature of how we perceive and engage with our emotions (Netzach), thoughts (Hod) or sensory impressions (Malkuth). All three of them take shape in our minds either unconsciously and therefore completely unquestioned or - if we are lucky - consciously but as an assumed part of 'truth' or 'reality'. The way we normally reflect on our emotions, thoughts and bodily perceptions is similar to a fish under water: our consciousness is completely involved and absorbed, we think we depend on them just like a fish on being enclosed by water. Thus we fear leaving what is dear and familiar to us and to raise our minds out of the water. Unfortunately that is the first thing we have to do in order to start surfing the waves...

May all of our Great Works start with our fears.

"It happens that I am sick of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
It so happens I am sick of being a man.
Still it would be marvelous
to terrify a law clerk with a cut lilly,
or kill a nun with a blow on the ear.
It would be great
to go through the streets with a green knife
letting out yells until I die of the cold."

(from Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems, translated by Robert Bly)

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