In my last blog, I said that magicians needed training—non-fictional human ones, anyway. That training involves what I call “inner sense cultivation,” the deliberate practice of imagined perception, in which someone sets out to see, hear, feel and even to smell and taste that which is in the mind and not in the world. It is a honing of the mind’s senses to know God.
Anthropologists have long observed that inner sense cultivation is common in spiritual practice. The best documented example is shamanism. Shamans are religious experts found primarily in small, face-to-face societies in which they are presumed to mediate between the earthly world and the spiritual one. In shamanic societies, the shamans learn to “see” and “hear” the objects of the spirit world in their minds. When a member of the Amazonian Bororo falls ill, a shaman may go into a trance to “find” the ill person in the other world, and “return” them to their human body on earth. That takes work and it takes practice The good ethnographies are rich in stories of the young, stumbling apprentice who struggles to see the right animals and hear the right sounds, to do so clearly, and the patient older mentor who sits by his side guiding, interpreting, suggesting.
Tibetan Buddhism is another example. In the hillstation of Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh, in India, where the remnants of the great Tibetan monasteries had gathered in the 1960s, a young scholar, Stephen Beyer, set out to document the way the monks summoned the divine. They did so through practiced visualizations in which the mind was meant to became the vehicle for the non-material to manifest. The aim was to form a picture in the mind’s eye so vivid that one could not see it better with one’s actual eyes. The ability to do this, the scholar wrote, is the result of long and “really rather frustrating” practice.
And inner sense cultivation is at the heart of Christian prayer. The most famous practices are the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. In 1521 Loyola rode into Pamplona in the service of his duke, to fight the French, and a cannonball shattered his legs. It was as he recovered that the Spiritual Exercises were born. Loyola was given the Life of Christ to read, and rereading it again and again, he found that he would put the text aside and continue the story in his own mind. He began to take notes on what worked for him: what enabled him to retain his focus on these daydreams, and what did not. He turned the notes into a system. What remains to us of the Spiritual Exercises are jottings, not much better than early cookbooks by Apicius or Mrs. Beeton, with their lists of ingredients and vague instructions. But the structure is clear. It has two features: interweaving and sensory enhancement.
First, the Ignatian exercises repeatedly interlace scripted prayers (like the Our Father) with private, personal reflection. You recite the Our Father, and then examine your feelings of the moment. You think about the scripture, and then about yourself in relation to the scripture, and then about the scripture in relation to yourself, until the scripture feels dense with remembered feeling.
Second, the Ignatian exercises use sensory detail to intensify the experience. The most explicit example of this “application of the senses,” as it is called, is in the contemplation of Hell, scheduled for an early segment of the practice. This is the version in Loyola’s text:
I imagine that I see with my own eyes the length, breadth and depth of Hell. I beg God for what I want. Here I ask for an intimate sense of the punishment suffered by the damned, so that if my failures ever make me grow forgetful of the love of my eternal Lord, at least my fear of these punishments will keep me from falling into sin.
First heading: to see in imagination those enormous fires and the souls, as it were with bodies of fire.
Second heading: to hear in imagination the shrieks and groans and the blasphemous shouts against Christ our Lord and all the saints.
Third heading: to smell in imagination the fumes of sulphur and the stench of filth and corruptions.
Fourth heading: to taste in imagination all the bitterness of tears and melancholy and a gnawing conscience.
Fifth heading: to feel in imagination the heat of the flames that play on and burn the souls.
The Spiritual Exercises are known for their great ability to convert, to make God real.
These techniques—inner sense cultivation, together with the interweaving of the inwardly personal and the outwardly structured–have always been part of magic, but nowhere more explicitly than in the Renaissance magic which some scholars believe to have ushered in the scientific revolution. Scholars created complex symbolic systems—alchemy, astrology, kabbalah, not yet parceled out from astronomy and physics—which mapped earth and heaven, and they used inner sense cultivation as the means to manipulate the symbols to act upon the world. In 1564 John Dee, advisor to Elizabeth, owner of the greatest library in England, introducer of Euclid’s Geometry, one of the most learned men of his time, published the Monas Hieroglyphica. It is a strange, moving treatise, thick with arcane scholarship. Dee thought he had discovered, through long, careful study, a symbol that could change the world—a sorcerer’s stone that would really work. It was a sun and moon interlocked and set atop the cross of the elements, with the sign of Aries at its side. Dee wrote that if this symbol were visualized by a magus in the right emotional state, with the skill to know and understand the meaning of the form, reality itself would change. The magus would become invisible, and a new and better era would be born. Dee seems to have believed that it could really happen: that a trained man who bent his mind with pure intention upon this image could with the intensity of his focus bring a new world into being. “Oh my god, how great are these mysteries!” he wrote.