Magic doesn't work that way
For most of my life I had assumed that all the people that had lived before our modern times were dumb. Really dumb. Borderline braindead.
I mean these people didn’t know shit about science, wasted a ton of time on silly rituals, and believed in incredibly stupid stuff like dozens of gods that resembled humans and somehow live “up there”.
Well, then I visited Norway. Quite randomly I ended up in a museum that had a Viking ship on display.
Boy was I blown away by it.
Usually, when you visit a museum everything is kind of broken, so nothing is really that impressive. But that boat in Norway was incredibly well-preserved.
I can’t tell you what exactly caused the switch in my mind to flip. But in an instant I knew that whoever built this ship was at least as smart as anyone who lives today.
Yes, people might not have had access to all the data and psycho-technologies we have nowadays. But first and foremost it was me who was being dumb here. I had naively discarded the cumulative insights and ideas that billions of people accumulated over thousands of years.
Now that my frame “people in the past were dumb” was broken, suddenly hundreds of unanswered questions entered my mind.
Most importantly, I started to wonder “what’s up with all these gods people used to believe in?”
There’s of course no shortage of theories.
Maybe the gods really were ancient aliens.
Maybe Jesus was a mushroom.
Maybe the explanation is that our ancestors did a ton of drugs.
Or maybe people in the past really were hallucinating all the time since their mind worked fundamentally differently.
But there’s also another option if we don’t take it for granted that people in the past were really that different from us.
First and foremost, what really was their relationship to the gods? Did they take all the myths serious in a verbatim sense? Or was there something more pragmatic going on?
A great example of what I have in mind here is shamanic practices.
At a surface level, we’re dealing with a bunch of people dressing weirdly and going through clearly non-sensical rituals.
But if we dig a bit deeper it actually makes sense to consult shamans in certain situations. Bear with me, I’m serious.
What sense could it possibly make to base important decisions on a reading of entrails?
Well, sometimes building a consensus is more important than accuracy. A shaman’s random decision is better than a more optimal decision not everyone can get fully behind. This is especially true in war scenarios where conviction is key.
Sometimes it is better to believe that a decision is sanctioned by a higher authority than to know that it rests on mere conjecture, as it usually does in the real world where we’re always dealing with incomplete information.
And sometimes it is better to have a truly random decision than to continue to follow the predictable inclinations of one’s established prejudices. Surely, the enemy will not be able to predict a shaman’s completely random decision.
A great analogy in our modern world is management consultants. A lot of people are perfectly aware that these, often fresh-out-of-college, kids don’t know much about the problems they’re supposed to solve. They definitely do not know more than the people working in the weeds of the company they’re hired by and the tools and tricks they bring to the table are learned in 2-week crash courses.
Oh and of course, they too do dress weirdly (cufflinks, …) and have strange, seeming non-sensical rituals (flying first class, powerpoints,…).
The reason why the consulting business is striving nevertheless is that, just like shamans in the past, they are a useful tool to build consensus around a decision. It’s a lot easier to fire a lot of people if that decision was made through an “external evaluation process”.
So either people in the past were dumb and simply got lucky by using a tool that seems non-sensical (shamans) but turned out to be actually effective.
Or, and that’s what I do believe now, at least some people were aware that all that shamanic voodoo was not doing anything. Nevertheless, they decided to play along since it was clearly effective as a tool to make fast decisions people have to accept and to introduce an element of randomness into their thinking and strategy.
If that’s the case, what about all these other strange religious believes and practices of the past? Could there be similarly pragmatic benefits? And if yes, is it really us being dumb for discarding them without proper replacements?
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: the gods.
To get an alternative idea of what could be going on here, we don’t have to look further than the modern notion of creativity.
If you’re engaging in any kind of creative pursuit, it’s hard to not believe in Carl Jung’s mystic claim that “People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people.”
The two most popular modern books on the creative process, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, take this view.
Gilbert writes: “I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us – albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.”
Pressfield: “I had never taken [the idea of the Muses] seriously, but during those years when I was alone all day doing nothing but trying to learn to write, the idea of a mysterious force beyond the material plane began to make a lot of sense. That was all I was doing, day after day, week after week—trying to access the goddess.”
Kind of weird? Yes, certainly. But at the same time, I know exactly what they’re talking about.
Framing the topic of creativity this way is not only simple but also highly practical. It allows both, Elizabeth Gilbert and Steven Pressfield, to give specific prescriptions to become more creative that they otherwise simply couldn’t articulate.
So what if our ancestor’s relationship to the gods was just like that?
What if talking about certain elements of the human condition in terms of gods and supernatural forces was and possibly still is the only practical option?
Here’s another example.
One of the most important recent scientific discoveries is the concept of self-organized criticality. In short, there is a tendency in for system in nature to self-organize to the narrow window between order and chaos.
Both, a perfectly ordered and completely chaotic system, are simple since you only need very little information to describe them completely. It’s only at that fine line between order and chaos that things get really interesting. And somehow, systems in nature find a way to move towards this point.
This pattern unfolds everywhere, from earthquakes, to economics, to the evolution of proteins, to the human brain, to the Higgs mechanism, to the way insights emerge.
Now what’s really interesting is that it’s not entirely crazy to suggest that the exact same dynamic is encoded in mythological narratives from around the world.
“Meta-mythological processes are the relevance realization of collective intelligence working in distributed cognition”, to quote John Vervaeke.
The appropriate mathematics hadn’t been invented yet. So people did what they could to describe how nature works. And to some extent, narratives are still the only appropriate form of explanation for phase changes in complex systems. To quote from Alicia Juarrero’s book Dynamics in Action:
“Phase changes embody essentially incompressible information. That is, there exists no law or algorithm more concise than the process itself that can capture and describe what happened. That is why fiction and drama, Bible stories, fairy tales, epics, novels, and plays will always be better than deductions or formulas for explaining personal transformations of this sort.”
So again, the point I’m trying to make is that our ancestors were far from dumb. They had already figured out a ton of stuff that we’re only slowly rediscovering in parts.
With this in mind, it’s natural to wonder, what ideas and practices that were common in previous times would provide tremendous benefits if only we gave them a fair shot?
An example that immediately comes to mind here is meditation. It was practiced in many forms by civilizations all around the world and only in modern times was discarded as nonsense. But then science started to catch up and rediscovered the tremendous benefits of meditating regularly.
Now millions of people are meditating again. But instead of being motivated by stories of deities and enlightenment, people are motivated by scientific stories related to the modern gods of health and productivity.
A problematic aspect of this development is that science, due to its nature, moves extremely slowly. Any kind of controlled study with humans is intrinsically difficult. It’s often impossible to completely isolate certain factors or to truly investigate the combined effects of certain interventions.
For example, the kind of meditation most people practice nowadays (Vipassana) is really just one part of a much larger story. This is well known by anyone studying meditation in the context of old religious traditions.
Only practicing Vipassana-style meditation is like only doing bicep curls at the gym. So it’s hardly surprising that negative side effects are a lot more common than people are usually willing to admit.
But if you learn meditation in a proper traditional context, you will become aware that, for example, Vipassana and Metta (or some variation of it) are like the two feet by which you walk the path.
And these are of course just two out of thousands of religious practices most people discard right out of the box.
What about, for example, reading scriptures, prayers, or, say, rune casting?
I remember listening to a podcast with Clickfunnels founder Russel Brunson where he explained why he’s a Mormon. You can say a lot of things about Russel but he’s not a braindead idiot. And what he said actually made a ton of sense.
Now I have no doubts that Joseph Smith was a charlatan. But listening to Russel I was able to understand the very practical benefits he was getting out of Mormonism.
One example he talked about is reading the book of Mormon. Russel described that many times in his life when he was unsure what to do and struggling with a decision he found the answer in the book of Mormon.
He starts reading at some random page with a specific question in mind. Then after a while, his mind starts picking up patterns that hint towards an answer until it becomes crystal clear.
I personally don’t think there’s anything special about the book of Mormon. Any sufficiently long and cryptic book like, say Moby Dick, will work just as well. The cryptic nature of these books leaves enough gaps for your mind to fill in.
I can now see how cryptic books are a useful tool to break your current frame by introducing an element of randomness. This is exactly what, according to modern science, you need to generate new insights.
And unfortunately most people nowadays have absolutely no practice they can turn to when they’re struggling to make a decision that could replace the reading of scriptures people in the past engaged in. TikTok, Twitter, Podcasts, and Netflix are no replacements since they make too much sense and hence leave zero gaps for your mind to fill in.
There’s a similar argument to be made about prayers. Very silly at a surface level. I mean, c’mon! You’re seriously trying to talk to some old, bearded guy up there?
But then again, science is slowly catching up.
Studies found that a breathing pattern of 5.5‑second inhales followed by 5.5‑second exhales is effective in treating patients with anxiety and depression. At the same time, scientists discovered that this is the exact breathing pattern of people reciting traditional Hindu, Taoist, Native American prayers, or the rosary, the Catholic prayer cycle of the Ave Maria.
This leaves us with the final example I wanted to talk about: rune casting. Hopefully at this point, this no longer seems as crazy as it otherwise would.
Maybe rune casting is a psycho-technology as powerful as meditation?
Or rather, my amateurish understanding is that the benefits it provides are kind of similar to the ones provided to people by reading scriptures. You start with a question, a decision you’re struggling to make. Then you randomly choose three runes. Each rune has a certain cryptic meaning and the order in which you pick them up also matters. The first one is related to the past, the second to the present, and the third to the future. Taken together, they hopefully hint towards an answer in the same way a parable in the bible or book of Mormon might do.
So am I saying you should start rune casting or reading the bible?
I’m definitely convinced that there is a ton of wisdom and powerful psycho-technologies embedded in the traditions of our ancestors that are worth experimenting with.
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