Thursday, 26 April 2012

Intention and Tolkien

This week I'm not going to bother explaining who the author is, if you don't know Tolkien then you're welcome to go and find out for yourself (and you should probably feel bad). However what precisely I mean by intention is, I think, going to be quite hard to pin down. The basis of the idea is that in any action the intention behind the action is, in the outcome, almost as important as the action itself. I should probably specify as quickly as possible that I don't think this is an absolute truth, obviously not that would be horrible, the number of wars with apparently good intentions alone should demonstrate that. Rather I think this is a personal truth, an idea which I find it ever more useful to take out and give a try whenever I'm struggling in life.
Let me try to clarify the idea, a good example is birthday gifts. We often hear that awful phrase “it's the thought that counts” well no, it isn't, reliably throughout my childhood the person who spent the most money on the thing I was most keen to own was rewarded with my biggest smile. On another level though, it is true, there are gifts that I've received which I didn't want or understand but which, over time, I came to understand were intended in a frankly, touching way, to improve or assist me. The level of thought and caring they display continues to impress me, to inspire me to my own, hopefully similar actions even.
The idea itself is bigger than this example, but in order to show that, I first want to look at where it originated.

This is where Tolkien comes in. You see I, like so many others, read his books over and over as a child, but it is only slowly, as an adult, that I'm seeing the effect they had in shaping my young mind. This idea of intention is a good example and for years I didn't even realise the source, but then, listening to the BBC radio version of the Lord of the Rings, it hit me.
It's about halfway through the first book (in Moria) and Frodo is complaining that it is a pity Bilbo didn't kill Gollum when he had a chance and Gandalf says:
Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many
Now bear in mind, it is Gollum, ultimately, who saves the world. It is only because he's there at mount doom that the ring gets destroyed. What Tolkien is saying with this passage, is that it is Bilbo's pity, that one small act of kindness so many years ago, that started the path which leads to the triumph of good over evil. That's a pretty big idea or, at least, it always has been in my thoughts.

There's a problem here though, one which I've been skirting around up until now. That is, the intentions* behind an action may be unknown. In the above example we know what Bilbo's reasons for sparing Gollum were, we know because Tolkien tells us, but if we hadn't well, there are all sorts of explanations we could give for Bilbo's actions. Perhaps he was fearful of what might happen, or maybe he simply felt distaste at killing something already so apparently damaged, or he might just not have wanted to get dirty. What I'm saying is that in real life, with no author to tell us for sure, the reasons behind actions are often unclear.
Take someone who works in the city for a big bank. Why do they work hard at their job? It could be that they are just reacting to their climate, working hard because everyone around them is. Alternatively, they could be stuck in a cycle where they feel they always need more money to impress people. It could be something simple, like, they want to make sure they provide for their family and if they work hard they will be the last to get laid off. I could keep listing reason, but the point is that if we ask them they would tell us, but we could never know if that was actually their intention. Equally, and scarily, I tend to be of the belief that it is actually quite difficult for them to know the reasons as well. That, although they may tell themselves a particular story, the truth will likely be much more complicated (and may be a combination of many different factors).
I could come up with ten different intentions I had for starting this blog (in fact, I did), and all of them are true to an extent. This is a messy subject, at least, it is for me.

What use is it then? If I can't actually figure what my intentions are then why bother thinking about them? The answer of course is that it's all about the question. That by searching for my true intentions I often learn a lot more about an action that I'm going to take and that in the process the action itself ends up being purer.
Let me give an example here, my desire to become a writer, this is something I've spent a good deal of time questioning. There are lots of reasons which, at various points, have occupied prime place in my understanding of this. As a teenager I definitely think I believed that writing was a way to show women how deep I was and thus, a way to get them to like me (a very teenage motivation for sure). Then, as I first entered the world of work, I thought perhaps I am doing this simply because I am lazy, because I don't want to have to go to work every day. More recently I sometimes think it is just a way to try and show the world how clever I am, or alternatively, that it is a deep founded desire to tell stories, to communicate with other people. As I said before, this is messy, what I really learned after looking back though, after studying the development of my reasoning, is that it is just something I do. That there is a child me, who used to spend whole days getting out every toy he had making up epic stories for them, and that person will always exist, will always be making up stories. That my desire to write is just an expression of that joy of uncovering a story, of being inside it experiencing it as it happens.
Realising this, it was obvious to me that I don't need to write any more than I need to draw (something I also used to love as a child), but that the writing is a way of expressing something in me which will be there anyway. If I didn't write, I would still be one of those people who makes up stories for all the people I pass on the street, but the writing is a way to take advantage of that, to take something which provides me joy and spend my life doing it.

By questioning my intentions, I gain a greater understanding about the true reasoning behind my actions, I am forced to investigate myself, and it's only natural I learn as a result. So how does this relate to magik? Well my point is that in doing a 'spell', in trying to alter the world to make something happen, there are always reasons and I think they are of great importance to the outcome. Often, simply by asking the question, you will negate the need for any kind of change, but at the least I find it normally elucidates the change.
This all seems very psychological and probably quite reasonable to even those of you who cringe every time I use the word magik. Well brace yourselves because I want to finish on a bit of a metaphysical note. I am also of the belief that the intentions present when going into a project actually do alter the outcome. As a simple example if I had continued to want to write as a way to get women to like me, then probably the kind of writing which came out would be altered by that perception (and, I like to think, would have been worse). I like to believe (“choose to believe”, if you prefer) that this is true in all areas of life and in all actions which I, and others, take and it's for this reason that this has been, to me, such a hugely important concept.

*[This is a good place to explain exactly why I chose this word. Why 'intention' rather than 'reason' or 'cause' or 'purpose'? Obviously these are all quite interchangeable, but there are a few reasons I chose 'intention'. Specifically for clarity (it feels less polluted by other meanings or connotations), rarity (so it feels a little more powerful) and poetry (it just sounded the best).]

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Imagination and Robert Anton Wilson

Honestly, I could write an entire set of entries on either of these subjects. Robert Anton Wilson, as a writer and thinker, heavily influenced the direction of my adult life. As for imagination, well mine looms large in my daily life (as, I suspect, it does for most people) and I rely on it for everything I create. However today I will be talking about both of these subjects as they relate to the shape of the world we live in, specifically the choice which we have about that shape. I will also, hopefully, relate this all back to last week's entry on magik, explaining its significance in that context.

Before I really get into it, I should probably explain about this Mr Wilson (or RAW) person. I worry about this, because a lot of what he did, being involved in the psychedelic movement, being a voice of the counter culture, writing for playboy, are activities which are easy to pigeonhole. What ou really need to know is that most importantly to me and this entry, RAW was a thinker and practitioner of ideas, ideas possessed of a stunning clarity, energy and common sense. Through reading his, I suppose you would call them instructional, books, I found new ways to think and look at the world.

One of these ideas of his, which still clearly resonates with me, deals with the different perspectives which people have. That when it comes to seeing the world there is no absolute right or wrong, that every time you limit yourself to one particular point of view you make gains in understanding in some areas at the cost of losing large tracts of other possible understandings. For instance a pro-life advocate may see a woman getting an abortion as being evil and clearly wrong, but at the same time, they may find through this point of view, a deeper and more poignant appreciation of every baby.

The example which RAW gives is that, in the midst of various arguments with Catholics in his daily life, he decided to choose to believe like a Catholic for a week. That is, he took all the precedents and precepts of the faith (well known to him from his childhood) and as much as possible let himself trust in them. He talks about how great the comfort this offered him in some areas was, and how great the sense of resentment he felt against those who disagreed with him.*

The idea that leapt out at me from this was not how to better sympathise with and understand Catholics, but rather that it is possible to choose the beliefs which we carry with us in our daily life and that, in doing so, we can change how we feel about and react to the world.

There is a particular example where I applied this new knowledge, but in order to understand it, you first need to know that for a long time (and perhaps even today) the main metric against which I judged myself and other people was intelligence. The reasons sense behind this are unimportant except that I recognised, albeit vaguely, that this was a limiting perspective on the world and, with this in mind, I set out to change it.

The solution I created was called, fairly unimaginatively, 'the clever stupid game'. Every day I alternated between choosing to believe that everyone around me was so much smarter than I was that they could easily out think me, or that the opposite was true (and I was a genius among fools). Playing this game taught me a number of valuable lessons.

The first thing it taught me was just how easy it is to play. My every day interactions with people are so fluid and often unclear that I found it quite simple to think both “oh they did that because they wanted to manipulate me into doing something I cant even guess at” or “oh they did this because they just don't understand what I'm saying at the level I'm saying it”. Honestly one of the first things I learnt once I was looking for it, is that both of these things are quite often true. I was surprised how often other people misunderstood me and carried on blithely and, equally, how regularly the entire thread of a conversation was lost to me.

The second thing I learnt was quite how quickly taking a stance like this effects how you act. If I was considering myself as stupider than all those around me, then I would be a lot freer and less careful, figuring it was up to them to sort it out if I got confused. Equally when I was taking the other stance then I was quieter, attempting to take more of a guiding role in conversations, helping others out when they weren't understanding one another. Both of these points of view even at times carried over into other parts of my life affecting how I thought about myself even when I was on my own.

I also discovered that creating a lie like this, then forcing yourself to live it is quite fun, as I had to constantly find ways to sidestep or reinterpret any information which contradicted it. However this realisation actually led to me stopping, because I saw that, even when I was taking myself as the dumb one, the effort involved in maintaining this illusion allowed me to, at the back of my mind, still think of myself as being devilishly clever (who else could fool themselves so adeptly). In effect, the experiment which started to alter my intellect based world view, had ended up reinforcing it. **

That experiment is a good example of what was, in many ways, a more purely imagination based magik (though it is a bit of a stretch to call it that). However what I learnt was really the impermanence of the world around us. Firstly, in that, there are a huge number of perspectives on the world and, while some are more sensible than others, each of them serves a function and it's hard to say any of them are entirely right or entirely wrong. Secondly, that we are all capable of making an active choice about how we view the world around us. That, even without fully believing it, I found it surprisingly easy to tell myself a lie which carried effects in every area of my life. Finally, it gave me a greater understanding of all the people I disagree with and an awareness that really, I can argue with them about how I see them as wrong, or I can find the, still very large, areas of common ground which we share and try to meet them there instead (I'm not really advocating an end to arguments, those are fun, but perhaps an end to the kind of arguments which teach neither participant anything except how wrong the other is).

It should be clear then, how this whole idea shapes my approach to magik. If I accept that I have a full range of choices about what world I live in, that I can if I like see angels and demons on every corner, then the question becomes not: 'is it wrong to believe that?', but 'would it be fun to believe?' or perhaps, 'would it be helpful?'. I fully realise that things aren't quite a mutable as I am making out here, that some people's believes or feelings are too deeply rooted for them to just tell themselves that it is not so, however for me, that is really where the magik comes in.

*[Perhaps this is purely laziness, but for the purposes of this entry I chose not to check any of these details. This was actually a conscious choice, because what I'm talking about here is not specifically what RAW believed or did, but what I took from his ideas and how they fermented in my own head. I hope the educated reader will realise what I'm describing is only a small subset of his beliefs and be motivated to go and find their own interpretation of his point of view on this and other matters]

**[I'm sure you can see that, in many ways, this was inevitable. After all I set out to dispel the importance of a particular value with an experiment which specifically made that value the most significant thing in all my interactions. In later versions of this game I tried different tactics (choosing to value physical or emotional intelligence above all else, for instance)]

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Actual Real Magik

Let's be clear here, that title isn't a spelling mistake, I actually meant to put that 'k' there. What I'm going to be talking about isn't magic in the rabbits and top hats sense, but magik, of the spell casting variety. I realise that still doesn't really explain things for most of you, but for now that's fine, just imagine me as a witch and with a cauldron or a wizard surrounded by arcane symbols and, hopefully, as I explain the actual details it will clarify that image a bit.

I'm not sure that this is an advisable topic to be talking about, after all I don't think magik is something which features in most people's lives. However, the entry I did on magical experiences is probably one of my favourite on here and, after all, the intention of this place was to share some of those far flung corners of my mind which, because of their strangeness, tend not to get out quite as much as they should.

I think I have probably always done what I now call magik. I remember when I was really young, there was a particular cartoon about a family with suits which gave them special powers * and, although I don't think it was even my favourite, I had a matching top and trousers which looked almost identical to their special outfits. I chose to take the fact that I had this costume as a sign that I was also meant to have similar powers (even though I'm sure, if questioned, I would have easily admitted that it didn't really mean that), and just wearing it really enhanced the vividness of my imagined games and battles.

As I went through my teenage years, magik became one of my favourite subjects to read about. I think this was primarily because it represented a bridge between the imaginary worlds in the books I loved, and the actual world. It was only in those writings that anyone ever seriously talked about spanning that divide and, even though I always took it with a large pinch of salt, I still loved it for that. However, in this time I also stumbled across various texts which suggested rather practical techniques which I really couldn't keep myself from tinkering with a bit (pop magic is a great example).

I suppose that's how, over time, my feelings on the subject slowly crystallized, as I tried various methods, finding what worked for me and what didn't. I think here (as with religion) it is particularly important to find a personal approach, something which makes sense for you and which doesn't seem too silly. I've read a lot about robes and chanting and daggers and honestly, that just never felt right to me.

My point is, this is something which fills a hole in my psyche which was always there waiting to be filled (and which, if left open, I think might have led to me abandoning a lot of the things which I hold dear), specifically allowing me to keep my fictional and real lives hand in hand, coexisting much more closely than they otherwise could.

It is important now to point out that, rather than just existing in the rather spurious land of my imagination, the magik which I do also has an undeniably real component. Specifically I see it as a psychological tool. When I do a spell to give me more confidence, for instance, then whether or not there's some magikal, spiritual effect, it's easy to see that there will be an effect on me the person. That is, by setting aside time and effort to convince myself that I am going to become more confident, I can actually expect to see some effect.

Of course there is the other, less rational, side of the equation. That if I ask some deity or spirit, whatever it may be, to grant me something, then perhaps that deity will intervene and have some effect (providing little day to day events which help boost my confidence, for instance). I honestly don't think that there is a good argument to show that this happens, I don't even think there should be, after all it exists in the ethereal realm of the imagination. Some of you may be a lot happier to imagine that all that exists is the psychological side of things and that's fine. However, personally I've found I need both of these elements in order to actually keep the entire delicate balance alive and well. That believing either one wholly above the other would be quite destructive to either my ability to reason and seek solutions besides the magik, or my feeling of control and action over my own life. In a way, this balance goes right back to the childhood me having gigantic battles with all of my toys. I knew they were just toys and that none of it was actually real, but somehow those imagined battles were just as important to me and my personal happiness, they were still a vital, real part of my day.

I feel one of the obvious critiques here is 'well what if you do magic on something outside yourself, how can that be psychological?' for instance, if I do magic to make myself taller or richer. Well, all I can say is the way these fit into my experience is that, firstly, I don't tend to do those kinds of spells (I don't really want to have much more money or be taller) and secondly, that if I ever do, what tends to come out of it is that I end up learning why I can live without/don't really want those things. Of course that's a cop out, I'm dodging the question, but understand I'm not saying here 'this is the way things are', rather this is just one of the lenses through which I tend to see the world, one of the tools which I use in trying to change and better myself. As such, I'm quite happy with it existing in a slightly precarious place, logically speaking.

What do I use this magik for then, if it's so important to me? Well, I've been thinking about this a lot in the run up to this entry (and, as often happens with these things, readjusting my priorities as I do). I think honestly the main occasions where I use it are when there is some area of my life which I feel powerless about, some area where I ought to be able to have an effect, but have been left feeling that I can't. As an example, most of my recent spells have been in the area of productivity. That is, trying to spend less time surfing the internet and more time working on the things which, at least in the long term, I see as important. So, I created a sigil for will/productivity (basically a symbol of these things, see the pop magic link for a longer explanation) and put it in a significant place in my flat, near where it would be needed (a tactic which I've found more helpful than many others suggested). Since then, I've forgotten about it, leaving it to have the desired effect. I also recently, to the same end, performed a banishing on the internet, which was a strange ceremony to say the least (what counts as salt to the world wide web?).

If all of this sounds rather silly to you, then you're quite right, it is, very, but I hope you are also able to see it through the other context, which is that this is me indicating to myself that I am taking control over areas of my life where I currently feel that I have none.

I hope that all made a reasonable amount of sense, if not then what I'm about to say may be bad news. I am planning, over the coming three weeks, to write entries on what I have come to see as the three fundamental aspects of magik (and which I am slowly finding are significant in most other areas of my life). Specifically these are: imagination, will and intention. The entry on imagination will deal with one of my favourite writers, Robert Anton Wilson, and how we can choose what kind of world we live in (honestly, I probably have three or four entries I could write on imagination). The will entry is about how those imagined changes are actually enacted, with some examples of what I see as particularly powerful people in this area. In talking about intention I'm really going to be talking about how one of my early sources of imagination, J.R.R. Tolkien, had a huge impact on how I think about actions and their resulting effects. Finally, if it seems necessary, I may sum up the three areas, talking about how they fit together and how vital they all are to my process.

*[I have spent a powerfully nostalgic half hour searching for this particular cartoon, all sadly in vain. I remember very little about the show, except the suit (which was blue, with coloured patches over the elbows and knees)]

Thursday, 5 April 2012

You're over thinking it

I should probably start right out by warning you that this is going to be a rant, a diatribe, a polemic. This expression is one of my least favourite ever and, for too long, I've let my anger simmer. Now finally I'm going to try and collate all the different reasons why you should never ever say it and why, if someone should have the bad taste to say it to you, you should just walk away.

The first thing is that it reeks of anti-intellectualism. There is a sort of implicit assumption in the expression that too much thinking is bad for you. Lots of situations warrant deep complex and involved thought and, while naturally it's possible to overthink even these problems, I feel it should go without saying that it is far better to overthink than to underthink something*. In one situation you risk offending, upsetting or hurting someone, in the other you risk sitting and being in your own head for longer than necessary.

I think the anti-intellectual bent can be seen more clearly when you notice that there is no equivalent opposite expression. Naturally you could tell someone that they weren't thinking enough, but there is no single expression to that effect. This despite the fact that I think there are definitely situations where people underthink. In fact, I'm going to take a little time out to try and show that this skewed perspective is the cultural norm in our society.

So, by way of making that point, let's look at Hollywood. Obviously in some ways that is a lowest common denominator cultural example, but I think it shows the trend fairly well. It is depressingly common that the entire arc of a film follows a straight laced individual, who overthinks, as they are taught how to be more impulsive (often a man being shown by a, frankly insulting, ditzy carefree girl stereotype). Then obviously they can finally enjoy life (as though life, if any thought is involved, cannot possibly be enjoyed). Again we can see there is no equivalent opposite movie, no one ever learns that they should think about things before they do them. In fact there are even several examples about unthinking individuals who have hardships but, eventually, come out on top because deep down they're such good people and they're “acting from the heart” (unlike all the poor people around them disabled by thought). **

Sure, you could say I'm overreacting here. There is an argument that the reason for this disparity is that impulsive actions are fun to watch, that having the film this way around makes for good scenes where the hero finally lets themselves go (though honestly I think this is unimaginative). My personal interpretation is that Hollywood has simply learned that people love being told they should 'be themselves' (an almost equivalently meaningless piece of advice) and don't want to hear that they should try being smarter and more considered.

The final criticism I have is that this is awful awful advice. If someone is overthinking something (and god knows, I do accept that this can happen) then probably they know that, but even if they don't, it is still equivalent to telling a depressed person that they are 'getting too sad', that is, it describes the problem in a completely advice-less manner. This is particularly hateful when we realise that almost the only time this expression can be used is when someone is describing their thoughts about a problem. That is, specifically when they are looking for advice.

In the case when someone is actually overthinking something there is plenty that can be said of use, most of it along the lines of 'I think you should do this' or even 'you've thought enough about this, you should just act now'. The fact that this expression seems so ubiquitous and accepted is starting to feel more offensive to me the more I think about it.

I feel in summing up I should point out that this wasn't triggered by any particular incident. I have had this said to me, certainly, but not on any notable occasions in the past few months. Honestly I would really like to see the opposite expression coming into effect. After all a lot of the time, it is specifically through thinking about and running over my problems in my head that I start to find solutions and become happier about them. I may well start telling people that they're underthinking it, if only to see how they react.

*[That's right, I just made up the words 'overthink' and 'underthink', it was just too easy a possibility to ignore. Besides, I quite like them, they sound like the opposing sides in a bad 70s science fiction film]

**[I thought I should back up these tropes with some examples. The first type (overthinker learns to underthink) is really well defined here tvtropes (with a list of examples at the bottom, under 'films'). The second type (underthinker succeeds) can be seen in almost any comedy film with a stupid main character, but examples are: Our Idiot Brother, Forest Gump, Dumb and Dumber, and almost any film with Adam Sandler.]