Magic is so, well, magical. We see, but we can't believe our eyes. A rabbit comes out of a hat. But I saw the hat was empty! And nothing could have been put into it!
Yet there's the rabbit, coming out of the hat. Go figure.
Which most of us can't, because magic tricks usually are closely guarded secrets – from non-magicians, at least.
Adam Gopnik wrote a fascinating piece for The New Yorker, "The Real Work," about the practice and philosophy of magic (the full story doesn't appear to be available online, just an abstract).
About all an outsider may say is that the surprising thing about most magical methods is not how ingeniously complex they are but how extremely stupid they are – stupid, that is, in the sense of being completely obvious once you grasp them.
…We will ourselves both to overlook the obvious chicanery and to overrate the apparent obstacles. Or we imagine that an elaborate bit of trickery couldn't be achieved by stupidly obvious means. People participate in their own illusions.
That is why a magician's technique must be invisible; if it became visible, we would be insulted by its obviousness. Magic is possible because magicians are smart. And what they're smart about is mainly how dumb we are, how limited in vision, how narrow in imagination, how resourceless in conjecture, how routinized in our theories of the world, how deadened to possibility.
Now, this may sound like the definition of a guru, someone who opens us up to a broader conception of reality, breaking down the barriers between mundane materiality and magical mystery.
However, few people (if any) believe that a magician is doing something truly magical. They know there's a trick involved. The magic lies in the invisibility of the magician's craft, much of which is founded on imperfection.
…the Too Perfect theory says, basically, that any trick that simply astounds will give itself away…What makes a trick work is not the inherent astoundingness of its effect but the magician's ability to suggest any number of possible explanations, none of them perfect, and none of them quite obvious.
…At the heart of the Too Perfect theory is the insight that magic works best when the illusions it creates are open-ended enough to invite the viewer into a credibly imperfect world. Magic is the dramatization of explanation more than it is the engineering of effects.
In every art, the Too Perfect theory helps explain why people are more convinced by an imperfect, "distressed" illusion than by a perfectly realized one…The magician teaches us that romance lies in an unstable contest of minds that leaves us knowing it's a trick but not which one it is, and being impressed by the other person's ability to let the trickery go on.
Frauds master our minds; magicians, like poets and lovers, engage them in a permanent maze of possibilities.
When you talk to people who have deep faith in a guru, which described me at one time, they won't admit that the guru is a magician. Rather, he or she is considered to be a miracle worker – someone who genuinely possesses supernatural powers.
Yet these powers are never displayed. At least, not in a fashion that would allow them to be scientifically assessed.
So the magician and the guru end up sharing the ambiguity spoken of above that keeps the onlooker enthralled. Illusion or reality? Fake or true? What's really going on here?
Disciples usually don't consciously think this way, of course. They're enthralled with the show, which, depending on how you look at it, consists either of spiritual sleight of hand or a display of genuine mystic realization.
I've been to India twice, in 1977 and 1998. Each time I saw an impressive presentation of the Radha Soami Satsang Beas guru. You have to see it to believe it. That's also the nature of magic.
During my first visit, I attended a bhandara (spiritual gathering) of maybe a hundred thousand people – I have no idea how many. (Some details are in my "God's here, but I've got to go" post.)
There's nothing like this in the West. A papal appearance doesn't come close to the fervent devotional atmosphere. Most Indians look upon the guru as god. Imagine Jesus giving a sermon in person to a gigantic throng of Christian believers, and you've got some idea of what a bhandara is like.
The energy is electric. The mystic magic palpable.
Yet here's the thing: with a skilled magician of the usual sort, the audience is led to believe that no trick is being performed, because the actions of the magician are so natural. Gopnik writes about a card trick:
The story, as usually told, emphasizes Vernon's search for "naturalness," for methods of card manipulation that would look entirely real, even under scrutiny. The deeper meaning of the myth, though, is that the magician is one of the few true artists left on earth, for whom the mastery of technique means more than anything that might be gained by it. He center-deals but makes no money – doesn't even win prestige points – because nobody knows he's doing it.
…We could watch Horowitz's fingers on the keyboard as we listened to the music; if we could admire Vernon's fingers on the deck as he did the trick, he wouldn't be doing it right.
But with a guru, the audience is being treated to a form of anti-magic. Onlookers are led to believe that a spiritual trick is being performed even though none is in evidence.
It's like an old joke that I remember from my high school days.
"Want to see a trick?"
"OK." (pause) "Want to see it again?"
"You didn't do anything!"
"So you think…want to see the trick again?"
On the school bus this got a laugh (the first couple of dozen times we told the joke to each other, at least). When people unreservedly embrace a guru's anti-magic, though, it isn't so funny, because the consequences of excessive guru worship can be serious.
Another blogger shared "Top Ten Myths About Gurus." Most involve magical thinking.
There's nothing wrong with magic. We just need to recognize what it is, and what it isn't; when we should look upon it as real, and when we shouldn't.