Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Power of Luck

Why practice magick at all? Some of us, like me, have been fascinated by it from a young age. For most people, though, it remains a niche interest that they just find weird - if they even understand what it is.

The truth is that there's a really compelling reason to practice that has to do with the power and influence of luck in our society and for that matter the rest of the world. Vox has an article up that talks about just how pervasive luck really is, and how much it has to do with how our lives really turn out.

These recent controversies reminded me of the fuss around a book that came out a few years ago: Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, by economist Robert Frank. (Vox’s Sean Illing interviewed Frank in 2016.)

It argued that luck plays a large role in every human success and failure, which ought to be a rather banal and uncontroversial point, but the reaction of many commentators was gobsmacked outrage. On Fox Business, Stuart Varney sputtered at Frank: “Do you know how insulting that was, when I read that?”

It’s not difficult to see why many people take offense when reminded of their luck, especially those who have received the most. Allowing for luck can dent our self-conception. It can diminish our sense of control. It opens up all kinds of uncomfortable questions about obligations to other, less fortunate people.

Nonetheless, this is a battle that cannot be bypassed. There can be no ceasefire. Individually, coming to terms with luck is the secular equivalent of religious awakening, the first step in building any coherent universalist moral perspective. Socially, acknowledging the role of luck lays a moral foundation for humane economic, housing, and carceral policy.

Building a more compassionate society means reminding ourselves of luck, and of the gratitude and obligations it entails, against inevitable resistance.

Read the whole article - it's quite good, and makes a point that a lot of people, particularly those who happen to be conventionally successful, don't like to admit.


Vox is a political website, so the article frames the debate in those terms. But that's not the point I want to make here on Augoeides. While I am a political lefty and fully support building a more compassionate society, in terms of magick my takeaway is something else entirely. The reason that you should practice magick is that luck and chance really do rule the world, and magick is the one technology out there that lets you influence luck. It's not necessarily easy to learn, but once you learn it, it is generally applicable to all sorts of circumstances.

It is important to note that we're talking influence, not control. Mistaking the first for the second is the main error in New Thought techniques like the Law of Attraction. While it's true that you can (to a degree) "magnetize" things into your life by fixing your attention on them, it also is true that there's no deterministic control involved. The error that misunderstanding this leads to is the idea that any bad thing that happens to you is solely a product of your own thoughts, and therefore entirely your responsibility.

And that statement is so completely false it practically hurts. The other painful one that I come across in some strands of esotericism is that idea that you should never help anyone else because anybody who is struggling is "working out karma" in some moral sense. The fact that luck is as powerful as it is should shoot down that supposition right away, and honestly, it seems to me that any esotericist worth their salt should know better.

At any rate, it's not clear the degree to which people underestimate the role of luck, but it appears to be a pretty significant amount. Motivational speakers and would-be business gurus make tons of money trying to convince people that "one weird trick," however they explain it, will make them rich as long as they work hard enough. What they never tell is that while slacking off is no way to succeed, most of the people who work really hard fail too.

The real secret to becoming a success in business usually involves having enough money to start one business after another without going broke. Statistically you have to start something like 3-5 businesses before you get one that doesn't fail outright. Many of the business gurus consider themselves business gurus because they succeeded on their first or second try, but it's important to understand that luck plays an enormous role there too. A business guru can't teach you a "trick" to influence luck.

But a magician can, and that's really where I'm going with this. If you want to be successful, you should learn magick. Statistically speaking almost nobody does it, so in any mundane situation you will have an advantage over the competition. Odd are that you're using spells and they're not. I've built a very successful career doing exactly that, and magick really is generally applicable enough that you can do the same using similar methods.

This point from the article is also interesting, and has some overlap with magical practice.

How capable are we of altering our trajectories? How much can we change ourselves?

Here, a distinction made famous by psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his seminal Thinking, Fast and Slow is helpful. Kahneman argues that humans have two modes of thinking: “system one,” which is fast, instinctual, automatic, and often unconscious, and “system two,” which is slower, more deliberative, and emotionally “cooler” (generally traced to the prefrontal cortex).

Our system one reactions are largely hardwired by the time we become adults. But what about system two?

System One here is what is also called "passive frame" cognition. We magicians know that it can be difficult to change, but it's also not really hard-wired. It feels that way because conditioning tends to happen fast and extinction tends to happen slow. A lot of people also don't "get" that you can't reason your way around System One. You have to apply the rules of classical and operant conditioning if you want to make changes. These are simple, but often are counter-intuitive and not obvious.

This is why cognitive-behavioral therapy is the only form of psychotherapy that clearly works better than "sham therapy," a placebo condition. The entire psychoanalytic system is built around the idea that all you have to do is become consciously aware of what is going on in System Two and problems stemming from conditioning will automatically resolve themselves. This is an incorrect conclusion because it is drawn from Freud's inaccurate model of the mind, in which thinking, feeling, and conditioning all get glommed together into a single process.

Furthermore, one "trick" that helps with re-imprinting System One is the cognitive dissonance created by the techology of mystery traditions. Walking into an initiation where you have no idea what is going to happen creates an "openness" in System Two. Mystery traditions

We do seem to have some control over it. We can use it, to some extent, to shape, channel, or even change our system one reactions over time — to change ourselves.

Everyone is familiar with that struggle; indeed, the battle between systems one and two tends to be the central drama in most human lives. When we step back and reflect, we know we need to exercise more and eat less, to be more generous and less grumpy, to manage time better and be more productive. System two recognizes those as the right decisions; they make sense; the numbers work out.

But then the moment comes and we’re sitting on the couch and system one feels very strongly that it doesn’t want to put on running shoes. It wants greasy takeout food. It wants to snap at the delivery guy for being late. Where is system two when it’s needed? It shows up later, full of regret and self-recrimination. Thanks a lot, system two.

In fact, one of the really big tricks you can do with magick is to re-condition yourself so that System Two and System One are in sync. This the "single-pointed consciousness" of dharana and the "fixed thought" of Liber Librae. Basically, getting the two systems to run together in the same "direction" as you go about your life is what doing your True Will means. When Thelemites talk about "want" versus "will," as I see it what they really are talking about is System One versus System Two.

To become a better person is, at least to some degree, to consciously decide what kind of person one wants to be, what kind of life one wants to lead, and to enforce that meta-decision through day-to-day smaller decisions. They say you are what you do repeatedly; our choices become habit and habit becomes character. So forming a good character, becoming a good person, means repeatedly choosing to do the right thing until it becomes habit.

And note - something becomes a habit once System One is conditioned to do it seemingly automatically. So this is a little at odds with the idea of System One being "basically hardwired." Any habit that we can cultivate does change the contents of System One - but to do this effectively, you have to keep in mind the rules of classical and operant conditioning and train it accordingly. You don't have a "subconscious mind" that "thinks" along some different track from your conscious mind. You have a conditioning system which has no more awareness than a complex machine.

The only way to change it is to use system-two thinking to override system one — to intervene in my own anger — again and again, until a different, better reaction becomes habitual and I become, in a literal sense, a different, better person. (That project is, uh, ongoing.)

The same is true for being a good parent, saving money, making more friends, or any other long-term life goal; it often involves overriding our own instincts — many of which are grossly maladaptive.

One thing I would say here is that the "only" up there isn't really correct. Spiritual practice depends on coherence, which at its base level means that the totality of your consciousness should ideally not be in conflict with itself. Conflict of that sort saps energy, awareness, and attention. The problem with constantly "overriding" your System One processing with System Two processing is that it makes spiritual awakening difficult if not impossible.

And you're not overriding instincts, for the most part. You're mostly overriding conditioning, which, granted, goes all the way back to early childhood and can be hard to change for that reason.

Working this sort of thing out is why some schools of magick recommend students undergo psychotherapy before they being to practice. The problem there is that outside of cognitive-behavioral methods, most forms of psychotherapy don't actually work that well in terms of resolving the conflict. Psychoanalysis is a complete waste of time and most of the other psychodynamic methods don't work any better than meeting with an objective third party on a weekly basis and just talking.

Thelema posits that our base instinct are not grossly maladaptive. A person is at their best when they are doing their will, which means expressing the totality of their being throughout their life. This includes everything from base instincts to abstract intellectual reasoning. The reason that instincts can seem maladaptive is to a great degree the amount of shame-based conditioning surrounding them. We work to recondition those associations - and let me tell you, once you make enough progress on that the results are remarkable.

Conditioning work represents much of the microcosmic work of magick, while the macrocosmic work involves directly manipulating the "forces" of luck and chance. Coherence doesn't just help with spiritual awakening, it helps with practical magick too - because mysticism and magick are two sides of the same coin, not discrete and separate paths or methods. They influence each other. Increasing your coherence means that you can create more powerful probability shifts, and shifting your life to match your will creates more opportunities for practice - which in turn make you more coherent. It's not a vicious circle, it's a virtuous one.

With all the ongoing research into consciousness and paranormal phenomena, the day is going to come when this more widely recognized and more people start doing it. My advice is to get in now while the getting is good. My Magical Instruction page is a great place to start.

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