The Fear of Magical Thinking

“Do You Believe In Magic?”
–Lovin’ Spoonful

A little magic never hurt anyone. I don’t mean the delusional “spiritual therapy” practiced by Lynn, one of the first women I met after moving to L.A. 25 years ago. She claimed to have removed a client’s malignant tumor during a phone session in which she got to the “embedded physical roots” of her client’s “issues.” (Lynn was far from the wackiest New Age crazy I ran into in those days; At least her work didn’t involve time travel or breast enlargement through hypnosis.)

Veteran progressive activist/author Barbara Ehrenreich shows the consequences of such Pollyanna-ish thinking in her new book, Bright-Sided (How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America). A breast cancer survivor, Ehrenreich calls on her experience among pink teddy bears and healing prayers to skewer the notion that traumas are blessings to be embraced rather than tragedies spawning legitimate rage and grief. She’s appropriately outraged that many women don’t get the medical care they need because they believe magical thinking– a term psychologists use to describe irrational thought-patterns — will defy the laws of physics and pull them through.

When Ehrenreich observes, “It’s a mistake to try to turn your anger and resentment and sadness or grief into something else,” I’m with her all the way. But her next sentence — the glib, “It’s very bad to try to just plaster on a smiley face” — throws the spiritual baby out with the delusional bathwater.

I recently spent some time talking with a woman in her 70s who, several years ago, suffered permanent nerve damage from a terrible car crash. Traditional and alternative medical treatments produced little relief; she sank into despair, fearing that constant, near-intolerable pain in her hands and neck would plague her every minute for the rest of her life.

Never a religious or spiritual person, she turned, as a last resort, to Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation, which asks practitioners to sit still and observe their moment-to-moment bare sensations, trying not to attach judgments or add distracting story-lines about the past or future. With regular practice she soon began to notice tiny nuances of impermanence in her pain: Burning turned to itching turned to sharp stabs turned to rare moments of relief. The result: she’s now able to see herself as separate from her still-awful physical pain and lead a full life. Further, she’s found so many side benefits to this practice — greater alertness, better sleep — that, while she would never put on a smiley face about the accident, she no longer sees herself as a victim. (As opposed to the perhaps apocryphal 95-year-old woman my mom told me about who, when she learned she had cancer, asked, “Why me?”)

I asked Ehrenreich about this and her playful response — “I have nothing against meditation! Don’t do it myself but I zone out a lot, if that counts” — is also instructive. Zoning out — read escapism — is the opposite of mindfulness, which might be described as “zoning in” to dwell in the present moment, however pleasurable or painful it may feel.

Magical thinking can provide real benefits. My erstwhile piano teacher, the late Sheldon “Teddy” Steinberg, was a pedagogical as well as a musical genius. He’d inspire his students to tackle wondrous compositions that were often far above our technical pay grades. When we played for him — and for each other — he told us we were brilliant when we were competent, terrific when we hadn’t practiced much and good when we were pathetic. There’s no doubt that this manifestation of “positive thinking” made us better pianists than we otherwise would have been.

Teddy’s magic didn’t stop there. My dream had always been to own a Steinway, and, after depositing a nice check from a fortunate business deal 15 years ago, I was ready to head to the piano store and bring one home. I called Teddy for a recommendation, but he stopped me in my tracks with a typically oracular pronouncement: “Do nothing. You don’t find a Steinway; A Steinway finds you.”

I sat tight, and not too many weeks later, Teddy directed me to the home of a friend who’d just inherited three Steinways. He told me exactly how much to pay for “the one in the kitchen,” and, as always in matters pianistic, I followed his lead.

Playing my beautiful Steinway now, I’m often horrified by my inconsistent tempi, over-pedaling and frequent clinkers. Think Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata played with actual hammers. Then I imagine Teddy’s voice booming from the next room, “That’s recordable,” and I not only feel better, I play better.

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