Magical Consciousness

Our whole history as humans is a progressive process of drawing away from undifferentiated oneness toward separateness. This is also a drawing away from Being and the experience of being embedded in It, so the process brings ever-increasing despair and desolation as development progresses and separation increases. In our pre-human, animal phase, we did not take the world apart or divide it in any way. Consciousness was oceanic. The self and the environment were totally fused, an undifferentiated oneness. Reality was a totality. Consciousness was something dim, like dreaming. The starting point, the point at which we began to become human, was a consciousness of wholeness. All of our subsequent history is a movement away from this wholeness into separateness. Our long journey into separateness was apparently necessary to our evolution. Now, however, it has become destructive, and we need to move ourselves back toward wholeness and unity.

The evolution of the human species tracks the development of a child’s mind, as described by the object-relations theorists. The baby, and the species, begins with an experience of merged unity. Everything in the world, including the self, all flows together. As the brain develops, the capacity develops to distinguish the self from the environment. Then, the capacity is formed to separate one thing in the environment from another. Finally, the self and the environment stabilize in consciousness in a development called object constancy. The organism is now ready to be fully functional in the world. This same process describes the evolution of man from archaic, animal consciousness into human, magical consciousness.

In terms of a time frame, magical consciousness is synonymous with our time in the caves. It describes the experience of primitive peoples in history. Most of our knowledge of primitive consciousness comes from present-day study of tribes that have somehow survived into the modern age. People in this stage are primarily hunters and gatherers, living in small groups of 10 to 40 individuals, and tightly organized for survival into family and clan groups. It is an incredibly difficult life. For the ancient primitives, danger lurked everywhere. Unseen and incomprehensible forces were abroad, constantly threatening life and limb. Consciousness was still dim. There was still fusion with the environment, but the process of separating from it had begun and progressed a bit. Planning had become possible. There was beginning to be an awareness of time, but it was embryonic. Past, present and future had begun to separate themselves. Memory was beginning to be stable and available.

Magical consciousness was characterized by having the part stand for the whole. It was a world without values. Everything had equal value and significance. There was not yet a clear sense of self, but rather the functioning of a group ego, a consciousness of membership in the group as a whole. Thinking by analogy was central in the mind’s process, and connections between things were not based on cause and effect but rather some deep, mysterious, energetic bonding process. The world was still a one-dimensional unity. The ego was dispersed over the whole world of phenomena, but the group and the self were coalescing into something distinguishable from the environment. It was a world of meaningful accident, primarily fueled by emotion. It was a world where all things were interrelated and intertwined, which is a pre-condition for the use of magic. The soul was engaged over millennia in trying to become conscious of itself. Man was merged with the event, and his fusion with events gave them a decided direction.

It was in this context that the impulse toward magic emerged. Magic is the use of rite, incantation and ritual, in an attempt to gain some control over the natural forces abroad in the world. It was the earliest attempt to create control of life and events, an impulse that is still very much with us today in the form of our intellectual disciplines, science, and technology. It was the earliest dim realization of cause and effect, an attempt to intervene in life, to become the cause of the effect desired. It is not an over-statement to say that man’s history is one of the human trying continually to create some semblance of control over the environment.

In order for magic to be effective, there must be connection with the natural forces, or else they would not respond. This pattern of activity shows an emerging polarity of self and nature, with the self at one pole trying to influence the world of nature at the other pole. Magic is not only a recognizable feature of this phase of human consciousness, it is an apt metaphor for the whole phase. The magical consciousness was our mental home for eons, and it is still with us today. The earlier phases of evolution did not disappear entirely from man’s experience. They were subsumed into later developments. The earlier levels are still with us, and in us, and occasionally they erupt into our lives. Though we are very different today, we occasionally return to our former incarnations.


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