On the India travel forum I occasionally read, someone recently posted about a disappointing experience. He’d found information about an ashram on the Internet, and when he got there, he found bad conditions and an irritable swami, not the peaceful conditions he’d hoped for. I recognized some of myself in his experience, both from traveling India and from experience with spiritual retreats. Sometimes the search for enlightenment takes you to really uncomfortable places. Sometimes you have to recognize it’s not enlightenment at all.
When I read his story, the phrase “magical thinking” came to mind. I recently read a great book called Seven Laws of Magical Thinking by Matthew Hutson. Rational people, Hutson explains, often act by irrational principles. We have expectations of the way the world will work, and choose our actions based on these superstitions. Some of these superstitions are finely distinguished from sentimentality or style. If I like drinking tea out of the mug my grandmother gave me, and would be unhappy if that mug were replaced–even by an identical mug–is it because of some magical connection, that I believe Grandma’s spirit is present in the mug, or simply that it’s pleasant? Should I be a little sad that the shoes I wore through India got left behind in the hotel trash?
At a temple in Rishikesh, to thank me for a small donation, a priest gave me a jar of blessed Ganges water. That led me to some trouble considering the jar would have to make it through a trans-Atlantic flight in my checked luggage, but I managed. I thought about my aunt who visited Florida and picked up, as a souvenir, a little bit of beach sand. I wondered if that happened over the years in India–that thousands of years ago, some visitor to the Ganges thought, hey, wouldn’t it be cool to take some of this water with me? And over the years people started adding their own magical thoughts to it, saying that Ganges water would bless their homes, that the spirit of Ma Ganga would watch over this water forever.
There’s a deeper kind of magical thinking we deal with in Zen as well, in dealing with the problem called dukkha, also called dissatisfaction or suffering. We think that someone out there has the magical power to change us, to make our lives complete, to drive away all our dukkha. Whether this “someone” is a guru, a lover, a billionaire, a publisher, or a genie, we keep looking for the magic lamp. People traveling in India often have this kind of magical thinking, and India itself has a fascinating way of dispelling that magical thinking. If you think India will be blissfully spiritual, you’ll find alarming materialism. If you think the spiritual teachings of India make people generous and kind, you’ll find shocking examples of unfairness and even cruelty.
But to explain this to the guy in the disappointing ashram, I found myself falling back into Hutson’s seventh principle of magical thinking: Everything Happens for a Reason. Maybe it was the master plan that there were important lessons to learn from negative example. He learned that inner peace does not come from running away to India; he learned that gurus don’t always help other people. And I went out on a limb with the magical thinking and said, this was the lesson he was supposed to learn. (I’m reminded of the time that, by coincidence, one week I kept running into references to Nietzsche in things I read and overheard. I wondered… is the Universe coming together to tell me I should read some Nietzsche?)
But as Hutson argues at the end of the book, a little magical thinking isn’t a crime, and it’s sometimes helpful for getting through our days. I’ll keep being a little superstitious, just because it’s fun to be in a magical world.