Illustration: Angelo Monne.
We all live inside our own bag of skin, experiencing and filtering the external world through our "reality tunnels". These "constructs" allow our Ego-complex to function and navigate in our day-to-day life; but, at the same time, such maps limit our perspectives, keeping our doors of perception mostly shut.
Since time immemorial, Man devised a wide array of technologies to hack reality tunnels, in order to perceive more of that "Something infinitely greater and more comprehensive" – whatever it might be.
Much before Science extended our vision onto the material world, it's been the Arts that helped man reach out beyond the mundane and the ordinary. The mission of the artist has always been to delve into the immaterial ineffable mysteries and bring back tangible forms that could stretch people's vision beyond its default limited mode. Beautifully put by Paul Klee: "Art does not reproduce the visible; it makes visible." So, in this sense, all of the Arts are technologies to hack our reality tunnel, intentionally affecting the consciousness of the onlookers, attuning them to wider realities.
Among the many Arts, it's the Performing Arts that have inherently transcendent and mystical qualities. Being well established their shamanic origin, performing arts were technologies to dissolve ego boundaries, reach collective ecstasy, a sense of oneness, during sacred rituals and prayers.
And among the performing arts, the one unabashedly concerned with the existence of transpersonal and numinous realms is the Art of Magic: conjuring, illusionism, prestidigitation, secular stage magic, sleight-of-hand artistry – these are different names for the mind-blowing performing art form par excellence. According to magician and philosopher Eugene Burger:
"Conjuring, at its best, functions symbolically to awaken us to another realm of experience: the magical dimension that points us towards the Mystery that lies behind and beyond all experience." 2
A Magician hacks one's "reality tunnel": through tricks-of-the-trade, shenanigans and tomfoolery the audience is provided a direct and dramatic experience (hopefully amusing as well as entertaining) that everyone's reality model is flawed and skewed, and there is "something" (read "the trick") that just slips through its cracks, unnoticed.
What now is showbusiness and pop entertainment was, once upon a time, something sacred, imbued with potentially spiritual undertones:
"The magic trick is such a powerful and effective teaching about the nature of our experience of the world that very few of the great religious teachers have been able to resist it as a parabolic way of presenting their mystery. Even in the Western traditions, Jesus spontaneously magicked water into wine. On the inside of the traditions which fostered these performances, the magic trick could be used to directly stimulate the mysterious experience to which it referred. (…). The trick, in its most powerful revelation, is just like a Zen Buddhist koan. It smashes the ordinary perception of the apprentice to pieces, leaving him nothing to intellectualize about at all. It leaves him knowing only the mystery of perception itself, by forcing him to the extremity of his efforts to understand it. (…). The magic trick can provide just such an opportunity to experience what lies outside the boundaries of ordinary knowledge." 3
Still today, along with its face value entertainment, we can consider a magic trick (what magicians call "effect"), as a tool to induce a potentially fertile cognitive dissonance, able to elict wonder and foster a temporarily exit from one's reality tunnel.
During the transition from shamanism to showbusiness, many of the magician's tricks have lost their mojo, becaming hyperreal and worn-out symbols. Detached from a meaningful context, noone understands anymore the need to make a rabbit appear from a top hat, or the sawing of a woman in half.4 The progressive emptying of meaning of (most) magic tricks turned them into pathetic and goofy evocations of past scenarios, forever severed from anything people can relate to.
"Showbusiness appears as the orphaned child of a divorce between art and ecstacy. (…) The emerging showbusiness is clearly "a degeneration of a once proud and powerful form of magical activity. The tricks are slowly losing their raison d'etre (…) the audience is beginning to lose touch with the ecstatic mystery toward which all the tricks really point." 5
This state of affair provides abundant material for withering showbiz satire, like the movie "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone". Along with the more degenerate incarnations, today's most successful magicians (and performers in general) are aware of the powerful shamanic forces at play, and are able to harness them to create mind-bending theatrical experiences. Clearly, some famous TV stunts have a precise shamanic flavour: flying, walking on water, being buried alive or standing still on a pole for days, catching a bullet with the teeth. However, even making a simple coin vanish and reappear from behind a kid's ear is, to some degree, the reenactment of an ancient magic ritual.
In his underground classic The Death and Resurrection Show, anthropologist Rogan Taylor tracks the origins of showbiz, offering one of his most suggestive and compelling hypotesis:
"It is only when there is a permanent breakdown of this ecstatic unity between performer and onlooker, that what we call "show business" comes into being… It is only when the onlookers no longer know the mystery which lies behind the performance, and to which it constantly refers, that they become an audience. In certain contexts, it might be true to say that the audience only comes into existence when it stops taking the same drugs as the performers." 6
And here takes the stage another ancient "reality hacking technology", straight from the shaman's bag: psychedelics. Mind altering substances are one of the most radical tools to access the transpersonal domain, a "gratuitous grace", fast track to direct encounters with high weirdness, to catch a glimpse of the "peacock angel".
Author Richard Doyle proposes a noteworthy neologism to indicate psychedelics: Ecodelics. Using this word Doyle wants to stress the peculiar feature of such compounds to provide the experience of being "involved in a densely interconnected ecosystem for which contemporary tactics of human identity are insufficient." 7 "Ecodelics seem to draw our attention to the whole. They dwindle the broadcast of the ego - which is not very good at perceiving the whole, just as we can't, unlike a butterfly, taste with our feet. With the ego dwindled, we can become aware of the noosphere - the message of the whole." 8 "While egoic perception insists on the radical discontinuity between self and other, material and divine, psychedelics oftern enable the apprehension of these categories as a continuum, a differential (often holographic) whole." 9
This is what ecodelics can help facilitate: making the separate whole again, lifting the veil of Maya and witnessing the cosmic connectedness of all things, in that constant flux physicist David Bohm called "the unbroken wholeness of the implicate order."
I do believe that, when contemporary stage magic reaches the status of a real Art form, it can offer the participants to the ritual (read "the show") a peak experience, a taste of the ecodelic state, where a moment of socially acceptable liminality is created, with the potential of unleashing the primal forces of wonder and astonishment.
One of my favorite examples of ecodelic effect, the play of re-uniting what once was broken, to finally perceive the whole, is told with a simple piece of thread, as in this video:
This essay was based on a Lecture/Show presented at Breaking Convention, Greenwich University, London, July 13th, 2013.
1. Holger Kalweit, Dreamtime and Inner Space (Shambhala, 1988), p.9
2. Eugene Burger and Robert Neale, Magic & Meaning (Hermetic Press, 1995), p.24
3. Taylor, in Burger&McBride Mystery School Book (The Miracle Factory, 2003), p.420
4. Donne a metà (Women in half) by Mariano Tomatis is the definitive documentary exploring the history and symbology of such a well know stage illusion, along with its abusive physical and psychological underpinning. [with English Subtitles]
5. R.Taylor, The Death and Resurrection Show (Anthony Blond, 1985), pp.46-50
6. Ibidem, p.40
7. Richard Doyle, Darwin's Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere (University of Washington Press, 2011), p. 20
8. Psychedelics Make Us Human: An Interview with Techno-Ecologist Richard Doyle, conversation with Jason Silva
9. Richard Doyle, Darwin's Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere (University of Washington Press, 2011), p. 131-132