Magic

Some words are so emotive, so rich, you feel you can dissolve them on your tongue. They have a resonance which might lead you somewhere new – if you could only grasp it fully. For me, that word magic is one of them.

I like magic: the concept, the word and its roots. It seems to me that the skill of traditional healers and wise-women is historically related to the craft of the hypnotherapist. Trance, perceived as the ability to enter a metaphoric “spirit world” at will and recover the lost soul of a patient, is common to many ancient healing practices. And maybe trance plumbs the pre-nominal depths of the 150 million-year-old limbic system, where concepts evolve in a kind of organic, multisensory architecture.

We are all familiar with this level of our consciousness, since we all dream. You have also probably noticed the way a complicated, waking idea can first present itself to you as an image or metaphor. It can look like a subtly attractive design which invites curiosity. It takes practice and skill to get to the heart of it, like peeling an orange and laying out each segment. And then it takes delicacy to find the shades of meaning that convey your exact idea to another human mind. The metaphors arising from these mythic levels are not just figures of speech. Fresh and complex, they well up from a younger, imaginal mind.

I was listening to the blackbirds singing, early in the morning before the dawn began to lighten the sky. It was strange and lovely to hear a genuine exchange going on: one blackbird sang a phrase which its neighbour not only copied, but embellished. They say that human speech began with song: songtones, carrying across distance, echoed and answered by our earliest ancestors until the repetition of ages refined those sounds into words and common meaning.

Fascinating to speculate how the heard note was a signal for our 500 million-year-old reptilian brain; and then picked up emotional meaning and became an icon, interpretable in the limbic system; and finally those sounds become words and convey symbols analysable by the modern (2 or 3 million-year-old) neo-cortex. It isn’t surprising that a phrase of music can summarise an emotion more perfectly than words. But words have struggled out of song and every word we speak is a beautiful little relic of the remote past.

When we use the simple, worn-down relationship-names, such as daughter, brother, mother, father, a vista opens up, if you care to look. The first human group we glimpse designating those sounds to mean those personal relationships lived somewhere in the Caucasus, about 10,000 years ago. This is where we must go to search for the sound and concept of magic.

Our words imagine, image, magus, magic intertwine. Our words make, machine share a similar root. Does it tell us anything of the human psyche when we look at their history? If the words are traced back ( just a short walk through Middle English, Old French, Latin, Greek and Old Persian) we come to a prehistoric language called Proto-Indo-European: linguists have to guess at the form the words took. But we can glean from *magh- and *maghan- a number of meanings around the sense of contrive a device, make happen, form an image. 

What can this ancient connection be telling us? The word at the very root of our modern machine, make and the word at the root of magic, imagine, image spring up from somewhere even deeper: a remote time when making something happen, designing something and causing it to be, involved a kind of concrete magic. I’m not trying to depict an impossible world: I think ancient people were like modern people, with just as little – or as much – power to influence matter by thought. But there is evidence to suggest that our ancestors understood and utilised the creative processes of the unconscious with finesse and vigour.

Old cave paintings can take us back 30,000 years to the age of the Hunter. Impelled by the need to trap and kill for food, artists at over 300 surviving sites, such as those at Lascaux or Altamira, depicted their prey with skill and accuracy. Was it simply a desire to illustrate the correct beasts to kill that motivated the painters? Were they commissioned to celebrate a particularly good day at the hunt? The caves at Magura show women dancing, men and animals, stars and suns: complex, multi-layered images. Were they moved to paint these scenes in bat guano after a particularly enjoyable party?

Deep underground, right down in the belly of the earth, the artists painted by smoky torchlight. They might paint over pre-existing figures as they searched for the right space on the uneven surface. This indicates that the act of painting was of prime importance, not the finished composition. Maybe the painting was accompanied with ritual theatre, music and story telling. The entire procedure could have been an evocative act of sympathetic magic, designed to call up every sensory association, to involve the artists and possibly an audience in a trance-state in which they could rehearse the next hunt before it happened.

Hypnotherapy utilises this same age-old ability to ensure a successful outcome. Entering deep trance and rehearsing an event which has not yet taken place lays down a memory, a real one. It’s far more than the power of positive thinking. It slips past critical analysis. The immense complexity of the creative unconscious, where things always happen in the present, makes no differentiation between a real memory and a created one. In fact, only third party perspective can verify the truth of your recollections.

In the remote past, our minds would have perceived and stored all data in a metaphorical way. That way is alive and well in our creative unconscious minds now. It’s the pre-verbal imaginal world that we access and work with in trance. Do we over-value the ability to deconstruct, explain and analyse ourselves and our environment? Our modern world with its technological devices depends on reasoned knowledge, the logical and the linear; but without the synthesising comprehension which arises dream-like from the inner mind, logic and reason lack heart. In other words, they lack the harmony of true understanding – and magic depends on that.

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On being a ghost.

I see this girl. She is sitting in what looks like a potting shed, shelves on the walls with stuff like empty flowerpots on them. And there’s a hamster in a cage, and a bare table in the middle of the shed. And she’s sitting at the table. She is quite young, a teenager, and somehow I’m aware of the reason why she is there. She tried to communicate with a man via a letter. He was walking away from her and the letter dropped on the ground. I don’t know if he read it but she’s gone into the shed either to hide or as a punishment. And then the scene goes blank and I seem to be revisiting it a lot later. The girl is still there, but her head is down on her arms on the table. Maybe she’s lost hope or she’s nearly dead. And there’s one horrifying detail: big flies are buzzing round the hamster’s cage. I know that so much time has gone by that the hamster is dead. I don’t think the girl has communicated with anyone at all in all that time.

The dream described above was very meaningful for its recipient. Rich in symbolic detail, it enabled the dreamer to focus on her own history of incest and her current state; and with help, she was able to rescue the girl trapped in the potting shed. The story carried a strong charge of fear and horror. It was a ghost story.

There is something interesting that happens during a trauma or critical incident. Normal memories appear to be encoded in such a way that they are easily translated into language, verbalised and readily shared. Trauma memories, on the other hand, are experienced as emotions, sensations and physical states. They are not integrated into a verbal expressive framework – “speechless with terror” is not a metaphor, it’s an accurate description. Even during flashbacks, PET scans show reduced oxygen perfusion in the verbal centres of the brain. So the last thing a trauma survivor can do is “talk about it” – and thus the process normally available to all to put a boundary round our feelings or problems is denied to them.

As soon as you talk about a feeling, you have taken one step towards dissociating your core identity from its power over you. That’s why it helps to talk things over. You have a problem, but you are not the same as that problem. You have troublesome thoughts, but you are not the same as your thoughts. You are bigger than all of it – as long as you can step back and look at a mental process, you are choosing to observe it. You become the Witness Self.

So what happens when we can’t take that step back, when trauma keeps on replaying itself in our minds and bodies? First of all, it is helpful to realise that – even when you are coping daily with the after-effects of trauma (be it a one-off intense event or a series of low-intensity repetitions) – it is because your brain has done its work very efficiently. Far from there being “something wrong” with you, the original event sent a biochemical storm, originating in the amygdala, rushing through your brain. Its purpose was to ensure that the threat you were encountering was learnt forever – that you wouldn’t even have to make logical decisions about escaping or hiding or fighting if you came across anything which matched that threat in the future: your response would be hard-wired and bypass the higher functions of cognition altogether. You have to admit, that is an astonishingly efficient way to preserve you from future harm.

The characteristics of trauma memories are that they don’t shift or fade. They keep fresh. They are multi-sensory. They retain their emotional potency and they feel like they’re happening now. And, because the mind packages information in loose metaphoric bundles, as time goes by the original stimulus can broaden. The busy survival mechanism might find more and more pattern matches resembling the trauma-trigger so individuals can find themselves experiencing panic attacks and general anxiety as the trauma leaks into daily life. In other words, the locus ceruleus, which signalled the threat to the amygdala and regulates secretion of adrenaline and noradrenaline is now hyperreactive to even mild triggers which resemble the original threat.

And so we become ghosts in our own lives. There is a time-frozen aspect to every problem, big or small. Whether we are worrying about a relatively trivial matter or being hag-ridden by anxiety, the searchlight of our attention is focused on the past. Something that happened yesterday, last year or twenty years ago is taking great bites out of our daily lives. We are prevented from experiencing the moment as it is Now when all we can attend to is the bit of history playing in our head. It need hardly be mentioned that that “history” is merely an extract, a selection, extrapolated from a myriad factors and made to fit the templates pre-existing in our memory banks.

If you’ve lived through a sad period in your life (and who hasn’t?), perhaps a time of separation or bereavement, it is possible for that episode to keep re-playing itself just as troublingly as a full-blown trauma memory. Perhaps it doesn’t bring on a panic attack when you smell a certain soap or glimpse that shade of green, but it sure brings on a grief-attack: regret, yearning, guilt or maybe a need for restitution. We all have our own painful mixtures.  And again, we can find ourselves haunting our own life, always revisiting scenes from the past, seeking “the land of lost content”.

There is wisdom in the tenet that a grievous blow, if unacknowledged and therefore unhealed, will stop us from “growing up”.  And whatever our age, we all have a way to take  towards greater maturity. One way to help deal with distressing memory is to use one of the techniques of dissociation. The effectiveness of these is quite remarkable and they appear to work partly by stimulating the Rapid Eye Movement seen during the dreaming cycle. Hypnotherapists use variants on the Visual-Kinaesthetic Dissociative Technique to strip emotion from traumatic memories. After this procedure, it becomes possible to integrate the traumatic events into the individual’s life and thus move towards healing. And then it really is possible to lay ghosts to rest.

 

 

 

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Fairies, addictions and amnesia.

About 700 years ago in Berwickshire, Thomas Learmonth looked up and saw a beautiful white horse pacing towards him. Riding upon it was a woman of such beauty that Thomas was overwhelmed and addressed her as the Queen of Heaven. She warned him that she was in fact the Queen of Elfland: nonetheless, he kissed her and fell under an enchantment. Together they rode away into Elfland and Thomas was not seen in mortal lands for seven years. When he returned to his home town, with no idea how much time had passed, he began to foretell the future. He had received the gift of Prophecy as compensation for his exile. At the end of his life he vanished: it was said that he wandered back into Elfland, never to return.

The tale of Thomas the Rhymer could speak to us of many things: of the enrapturing qualities of the imagination, of the myth-making creative unconscious, of absorption in artistry . It might also illustrate a darker journey. In some versions of the old tale, the Queen of Elfland assumes the form of a terrifying hag once Thomas has kissed her:

For all that time I was addicted, nothing seemed to matter so much as the next chance to score. I was always worrying about it – how long would this bag last, how could I get the money for the next one. Whole days, weeks, passed and nothing would be achieved – not washing up, not cooking, not bills paid. It wasn’t that I didn’t worry about all that too, but it was a long way behind the one important thing in my life – heroin. When I finally got free of it, it was like waking up, coming back to the world. And there wasn’t anything to numb the pain. It felt like all the bad stuff had just frozen and was waiting to be dealt with.”

Almost all of us will know someone who’s been spirited away to their destruction. Rarely does something look so good from a distance as the Queen of Elfland. So how does a relationship – with a person or a substance – that’s really bad for you insinuate itself into your life? And how is it that you can wake up to its implications time and again – and apparently go back to sleep?

Of course, we all have addictions: we can be addicted to any behaviour which pays off with a reward. We have survived as a species because of our ability to “addict” ourselves to nourishing, life-enhancing or relaxing activities. On the other hand, there are self-destructive addictions which range from the obvious – such as heroin or gambling – to the less obvious, such as social media and computer games.  They are characterised by an all-consuming and distorting quality – like a magical hostage, the addict finds that time and energy and identity disappear under their influence. And without any doubt, at least from a third party perspective, the addict experiences their addiction as a love affair with the substance. They will protect that relationship, remain loyal to it and defend it.

An abusive relationship involves many of the same complex and contradictory patterns. Despite destroying their happiness, finances and massacring their friendships, the victim still finds him or herself protecting the link with the persecuting partner. It is typical  of this enchanted state that when a well-meaning friend or relative wishes to intervene with suggestions or insights, the victim or addict will not or cannot hear the advice, will almost definitely become defensive and deeply upset. “You might see your friend – or child – or spouse – drowning, and just out of reach. Nothing you say connects. Your words slide off them. You want to throw them a lifeline but everything you have breaks.”

So: how do we get hooked and how is it that we allow ourselves to carry on being hooked, against our better judgment? 

First of all, there is the attraction of the Exotic. A certain something draws us to practices which smack of danger. During that dangerous age – usually the teens – rebellion leads us to experimentation in a healthy attempt to establish our own identity. Later on, we might become entangled as we flatter ourselves that we alone understand and can handle a certain person or thing. We might still believe that we can free ourselves long after we have come under the influence – the spell is already at work. Part of the process involves a perspective shift. The dangerous, parasitic and costly habit or person which begins to consume us takes on the appearance of friend and sustainer. It’s a well-recognised fact that the bully in an abusive relationship undermines his or her partner’s friendships, casts doubt on outsiders’ judgments, working covertly and overtly to isolate the victim.

As connections are cut, a bubble is created, inside which another kind of magical reality flourishes. At first that bubble might even be a safe and inviting place, but after a while, as verbal and physical abuse escalate, it rapidly turns into a trap. The victim finds themself living in a tyranny, a kind of micro-fascist state, starved of adequate sources of love, attention and fulfilment. As with any dictatorship, the people who may mistakenly have voted “the leader” in will be obliged to stand by their choice. They have invested in him on every level. In the domestic mini-Reich, not only do spouses almost invariably hide the full extent of the abuse they suffer, they will often go to great lengths to make excuses for the perpetrator. It’s not just misplaced loyalty: it is a need to justify the original emotional choice which put them in the bully’s power.

There is an oft-noted parallel with the development of an addiction. The substance of choice laps you round in a kindly, understanding glow. Troubles and irritations are magically transformed. Even major problems shrink and disappear. The substance, be it Class A or no class at all, quickly rewards and satisfies the user in a way that no human relationship ever could. Remember the Stranglers’ song: Never a frown, Golden Brown … the perfect, faithful partner. And as the addiction becomes harder to break, the addict will find ways of blaming the harsh, uncaring world outside the warm drug-bubble for forcing him to return to it again and again. It will be the fault of family, society, bad luck, your fault – but never within the choice of the addict.

A cult, an abusive relationship and an addiction all manipulate the mind of their victim in a similar way. That first, emotional choice – often made in the spirit of rebellion – firms up into a belief : a belief made more potent because it is held in the face of opposition. The victim becomes further identified with the oppressor, maintaining the oppressor’s hold over them as they are duped and coerced into shoring up the system which imprisons them. And how to wake up, when beliefs are not rational things? The results of psychological tests clearly show that the nature of a core belief cannot be changed by logic or exposure to contradictory fact: the subjects would prefer to distort facts rather than change their beliefs.

What kind of beliefs might be holding us in thrall to our bullies?

I’ve got an addictive personality.

I just can’t relax without a fag.

My husband could never cope without me. I know he can be difficult, but he really needs me. 

If I don’t have a drink, I just can’t talk to the opposite sex.

And so on. And trying to deal with those beliefs head-on is usually counter-productive. Each and every one has a function and is useful to hide behind. Obviously, if the husband could be proved to be able to cope alone, the abused partner might have to acknowledge her own terror of confronting him in order to leave the toxic relationship. And there might be real physical danger involved. Or if you faced the opposite sex without a drink or a spliff, you might discover in the cold light of day that you need to take action to improve your mind and health in order to improve your chances. Or treat the opposite sex as a real person with a mind and heart.

And so we come to the subject of Denial. In hypnotherapy it can sometimes be given its more powerful name of Amnesia and is seen as one of the primary forces maintaining our “problem trances”. It isn’t that the victim is simply putting off looking at their problem or choosing to ignore that there is a problem. When you are trapped in a destructive addiction or relationship, you develop a genuine blindness for the truth. People do not remember what happens for the very good reason that to do so would set up an unbearable conflict. It is perfectly possible for a crack addict to justify use of the drug on the grounds that it makes him “feel huge energy and really focused” for about 5 minutes whilst completely blanking out the hours of misery ahead of him before he can afford his next hit. It is equally possible for an abused partner to talk warmly of her/his spouse’s “wonderful way with the kids” whilst completely blanking out all memory of the bullying and humiliations which constitute eighty percent of home life. Amnesia or denial: the first mechanism to dismantle in order to wake up from the cold enchanted sleep.

There is another potent weapon which becomes available as soon as the invisibility cloak of amnesia starts to wear thin. The power of Prophecy was Thomas’ compensation for his loss of magic. You can look into the future too and use your own prophetic vision: what’s going to happen to you if you don’t stop drinking? What exactly will you look like after 40 years of alcohol abuse? What will happen to your children if you keep tolerating violence towards yourself at home? What will happen to your lungs if you keep making them process smoke every half hour or so? Taking time to examine the consequences of our addictions, without blurring the truth or “falling asleep” again, lets the plain light of day shine on habits we maintain by keeping them secret even to ourselves. And at that point, you are ready to make informed choices: the spell, to continue the metaphor, is breaking.

The journey back is famously hard. Wherever our Right Mind has been stolen away to, when we get it back, we have to deal with the consequences of not having had logic, choice and reason at our disposal for so long. But an amazing thing happens, after that initial shivery awakening: new forces and energies can be accessed which had been all bound up in the maintenance of the addictive relationship. That’s when you can start creating the means to make your new, nourishing and expanded wishes come true.

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