Friday, June 23, 2006

Sorcerers (Jacob NeedleMan)

This is an extremely absorbing tale involving visual magic, sleight of hand, and the psychology accompanying these visual phenomena. The central themes of this book revolve around the deep conflict between the compulsion to exercise power over others, and using one's personal power to master one's own nature. Of additional interest is the ingenious description of psycho-physical techniques for tapping into powerful states of mind that are usually outside the purview of the average person.

One of the more powerful ideas of the book is the idea of mental enslavement. Eliot has spuriously displayed the ability to know certain things about people that is conventionally believed to be beyond the limits of human ability. Wally asks Eliot if his abilities allow him to read his mind at will. Eliot pauses, and in that pause there is a world of possibility. Simply by saying yes, Eliot could have enslaved Wally to his whims and machinations. This notion of one believing another possesses the special ability to read their mind has the effect of that one giving away all their personal power, living in a state of perpetual fear or insecurity of the other, that the other knows everything about him or her—what he or she is feeling or thinking at every moment. It is like being bare, naked and vulnerable in front of someone fully clothed, protected and armoured.

     "Can I ask you something?" said Wally. "Do you know what I've been thinking? I mean, have you been sort of reading my mind while I've been sitting here? Does it work like that?"
     The answer, of course, was no, not in the slightest. But Wally's question produced an extraordinary picture in Eliot's mind. Without lifting a finger, he could make Wally Pound into his "slave," simply by letting him believe the answer was yes. Strangely enough, however, that prospect held absolutely no attraction for Eliot. And that fact interested him almost as much as everything else that was happening. He had never imagined himself as being an especially moral or truthful person. But, somehow, clearly seeing that impulse to "enslave" Wally made it powerless, as though such impulses could do harm only when they weren't fully seen.

This idea also seems to hint at more conventional areas of human endeavour, such as the application of charisma and persuasion, convincing others of one's point of view or beliefs, or simply using others to fulfill one's desires. If one can appear sufficiently confident, one can exercise control over one's fellow man. There is something of the actor or pretender in these endeavours, pretending to be what one is not. All towards an end of usurpation of power over our fellow man by means of deception and stratagem. "It's not what you do on stage that counts, it's what you are on the stage."

Another interesting idea is that surrounding the event of Eliot's first genuine telepathic experience. The way in which it manifested hints a great deal on the nature of mind, and the way of handling difficult situations through one's inner relationship with the situation. Just as things begin to go wrong with his magic trick, Eliot followed the advice of the seasoned and experienced Max Falkoner in such situations: "When something goes wrong, never apologize, never explain. When it goes wrong, make it really wrong." Eliot begins improvising in ways he has no idea how to resolve, digging himself deeper and deeper. The emotional turmoil that ensues is terrific, profound fear and anxiety of embarrassment, of being laughed at, of making a fool of oneself, but he prods on anyway. And this going forward in the face of such emotional turmoil, consciously and with full awareness, seems to act as a kind of key in opening a portal to another world—the world of mind communicating directly with mind. And lo! The answer appears suddenly before him, he reads the mind of his participant.

Yet another revealing idea in the book is the power of mind in what can be called psychic projection. There is the incident of Eliot in a store pining over a certain very attractive book. Behaving as if he had already bought the book, Eliot simply walks passed the cashier with the book under his arm. The implication is that his attitude creates the psychic field suggesting he is doing nothing wrong, and so the cashier does not suspect anything is wrong. Granted, this is aided with a bit of innocuous conversation that serves to win over the cashier and establish a certain rapport with her. These pieces come together in further hinting at the ways we can exercise control over our fellow man—not for encouraging such behaviour, but rather to alert us to the possibility of being the object of control and manipulation of the unscrupulous.

There is one particularly illuminating scene where Max Falkoner encourages Eliot to take one ring in each hand and point his arms and hands diagonally upwards, simply holding them there. Minutes pass, and Eliot begins to swell with agony, thoughts, images, rush before his eyes, and with his waning attention his arms begin to sink. Max encourages Eliot to try and not give up—to find those "special muscles." Those muscles that need to be exercised if he wishes to grow out of being a boy. What is Max referring to? Perhaps a combination of will and surrender that together act as gateways towards the activation of an alternate dimension within oneself. The will to do outwardly, coupled to an inner sense of surrender—surrender to the pain, and doing anyway. Eventually, Eliot's arms come down, and after the deep sense of failure of not having found the "muscles" he is directed to remain very still with eyes closed. A sense of subtle vitality flows down his spine. He is instructed to use his power and point it at himself—and he sees himself. He enters a temporary state of pseudo-enlightened clarity, and senses two currents within his body—one of pleasure in the front half of his body, and the subtle vitality in the back. He feels divided in two. Finally, after some moments pass, he is instructed to return to the mundane tasks of working with the rings:

"As though from somewhere behind himself, he watched in shock at how poorly he performed. At every crucial point, he helplessly witnessed his attention repeatedly being drawn away from his hands and the rings. But what startled him most was observing the part of himself that was completely satisfied with how he performed, like a separate personality that offered very favourable judgement on everything he did."

Max hurls a barrage of insults at Eliot as he continues the routine. Here Eliot experiences his usual impulse to cry or run away. This impulse appears to come from the same side of himself as the personality he observes that judges the poor work favourably. But for some reason this impulse does not engulf him, and he persists with the routine, absorbing the stream of insults. And then suddenly, Eliot begins to feel filled with light. The light he senses seems to pour into his shoulders and arms, and down into his fingers.

     [...] It was true: there were different muscles—or something like that! It was amazing! He was making no mistakes! And yet he wasn't doing anything. Those muscles, or whatever they were, were doing the routine.
     But no sooner did he have that thought, than he lost contact with the sense of light, and the routine started going sour again. At that point, Max spoke again, but now his voice had become calm once more—calm and even.
     "Attention," said Max, "pay attention to the light."
Startled that Max knew about the sensation of light, Eliot obeyed, again and again withdrawing his attention from his thoughts and, under Max's guidance, placing it on the sensation of light. Each time he did so, his hands performed the move with precision and exact timing. And each time his attention was pulled away from the light, he made mistakes.
     "Stop trying to do the trick," said Max. "Let your muscles do it. Just keep your attention on the light. The light needs your attention, it needs you. Nothing else will work!"
     As Eliot continued the routine, Max went on side-coaching. Each time Eliot made a mistake, Max brought him back: "Choose, Eliot, choose! Pay with your attention!"
     But Eliot—something in him—soon began to grow weary and heavy. Each time he willed his attention back toward the sensation of light, his hands performed the moves perfectly, but he was growing tired of willing.
     "You want to dream," said Max. "Don't give way to it. Fight, Eliot! [...]"
     Again and again, Eliot brought his attention back—back from the thoughts and images that were so alluring. [...]

Finally, there is an insightful lesson regarding the role of teachers—in the case of Eliot—Max and Blake. Max seems rather ordinary, while Blake has the visual appearance of grace, sophistication, and culture. As Eliot visits each teacher more and more he realizes that he cannot hide anything from Max, but he can keep secrets from Blake. More importantly, however, "by exercising his power under Max's sometimes fierce but also gentle guidance he saw aspects of himself that shocked and dismayed him." With Max he saw that the only real thing he had was the attention he could give his work. Everything else wreaked of childishness and automatism. Conversely, with Blake he was practically treated as a god, as a great magician, as an initiate in some mysterious inner circle, and at the same time as the honoured disciple of an even greater magician: Blake himself.

The last dialogues between the much respected and revered Irene Angel, the founder of the Sorcerer's Apprentices, and Eliot are quoted at length, as they are especially revealing.

     Eliot strongly felt the presence of Blake and Max on either side of him. Irene spoke directly to him, but seemed also to be speaking to all the Sorcerers standing behind him. He felt he was at another initiation, only this time far more real and serious.
     "What do you want?" she asked him. [...] "In fairy tales, you have three wishes," she said. "But in life you get only one wish. So, tell us, what do you want? Think carefully about it. Be sure of what you ask for."
     More thoughts and questions came to him—about his own life, what he should do, what career to follow. But these things did not seem so important now, certainly not enough to waste his one wish on them. But then what was the most important thing in his life, really? He had seen that by using the power, under Blake, he had been able to get whatever he wanted—money, sex, honors—and that it still wasn't enough. Guided by Max, he had touched something entirely different, something he never could have imagined wanting, and it was enough, more than enough. Yet it always cost him so much. It was always bought with a price. And he knew that he had barely scratched the surface of what Max had to offer him.
     Irene then spoke again. "Turn on your power, Eliot."
     He did—or tried to—and experienced nothing. He waited, and still nothing came. He tried with renewed effort, but it simply wasn't there.
     After another pause, Irene said, "Your power is gone, Eliot. It will come back only when you know what it is you want most out of life. For that to happen, you must now live without the power."

After Eliot stammers through what he thinks he wants—truth, helping others, knowing about the universe, about God, wanting not to die, etc., Irene interrupts him gently. She says something that Eliot does not understand or remember until many years later. She speaks of another power within him, a power far stronger than anything he had yet experienced. She tells him that he would have to struggle for many years in the midst of his ordinary life to develop this power and that both Max and Blake could help him, if he wished.

     "In choosing Max," she went on, "you chose well. But remember, it was Stephen Blake who first sent you to Max. Both are necessary. When you feel the truth of that, you will be ready to enter the brotherhood of adult magicians. Until then, take this back."
     Irene handed him the skull ring, after cupping it in her hands for a few seconds.
     "The skull is death," she said. "But what must die? Think carefully about that. There are two kinds of death: the death of the ego and death by the ego. You must either destroy the ego by confronting it, or it will destroy you." [...]
     Finally, without taking her eyes from him she continued. "Of all that you have experienced with us," she asked, "what has meant the most to you?"
     There was no question about that in Eliot's mind. But ought he even to speak about it? It was when Max had watched him from behind the mirrored wall at the shop, when Eliot had stolen the secrets of the tricks; when he had then confessed his intention to rifle the files and had experienced such overwhelming shame that he felt himself unworthy to continue with the work that Max was giving him; and when Max then stunned him by accepting it all so quickly—as though Eliot had passed, rather than failed, some pre-established test; as though what he had experienced was the main purpose of all the work, all the struggle, all the practice with attention and the rings, and with Blake, and with everything else; as though, or almost as though, the experience of remorse in seeing himself was even the central aim of life itself. [...]
     Eliot tried but was unable to speak about it even to her. [...]
     "You understand," said Irene finally, "that what you feel is the sacredness of something. Sacred and secret are the same word. You must keep it secret from the part of you that profanes everything it touches—until you discover what true speech is." [...]
     "Can you understand," she continued, "that this remorse is what we have given to Stephen? He has seen the black magician in himself, the ego that is symbolized by the death's head on the ring you have been given. This death must die." [...]
     "A teacher of magic such as Max creates conditions so that the pupil can experience both the force of the spirit and the force of the ego within himself and bring them together in his own being. Only when you can bear to see good and evil struggling within you can the transforming fire of remorse appear. This brings the peace that passes understanding, the marriage of two mutually opposing forces. Only then can a human being strive to serve that which calls to us from Above. No power of mind or heart can exist for long except under the rule of conscience..."

Deeply insightful reading on the interior struggle of mankind. A struggle with one's lower nature which inclines one towards exerting power, control, and influence over our fellow man, rather than over our lower selves.

1 comment:

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