During my transpersonal training course, I vividly remember one evening when my favourite lecturer quipped that he hoped we all enjoyed attending the “Harry Potter school for psychotherapy.” Everyone laughed (some nervously), because we implicitly understood the spirit of his remark. At its best, and when done exceptionally well, therapy is full of magic.
It was years ago, but my lecturer’s remark has stayed with me ever since, prompting me to seriously consider the role of magic within the field of psychotherapy. It’s easier said than done. Talking it over with a friend recently, he asked, “do you want to be taken seriously?”
And that’s just it. Magic gets a bad name in today’s world. It’s a vastly misunderstood concept that’s been denigrated by the widespread elevation of all things rational, evidence based, and scientific. I cringe when I hear people equating magic with cheap parlour tricks, cosplay, nubile teenage girl witchery, and Disney films. That’s not magic, that’s fantasy. Illusion and sleight of hand are also assumed to be magic, but these are superficial entertainments, with no real substance underlying the acts. Amusing yes, but ultimately empty tricks intrinsically devoid of meaning. People often mistake magic for fantasy. They really aren’t the same things.
The psychological concept of ‘magical thinking’ is another example of this kind of confusion. The term is defined as believing that one event happens as a result of another without a plausible link of causation. It’s used to suggest that a person is using faulty logic and covertly implies that they may be delusional in doing so. Magical thinking is therefore more akin to fantasy, which is the activity of imagining impossible or improbable things.
Magic is something entirely different. Quite simply, it is the ability to transform and create in life. This ability is all around us and within us, pervading the world we live in. Magic occurs when we work consciously in concert with forces greater than ourselves. The aim is always to produce lasting change. It requires intention, willpower and emotion/desire to achieve its desired ends. The types of forces worked with in magic vary, but the key is understanding that we work in relationship with these powers, and that we are not really the ones in control when we do so. Magic stipulates that there must always be an act of personal surrender in order for transformation and creation to occur. By surrendering, or stepping aside, we allow the forces do their work.
Historically, these powers were described as divine energies, spirit, or as forces of nature, such as the elemental powers of earth, air, fire and water. Alchemy, the precursor to chemistry, is the perfect example of a system of magic. The alchemists contacted, experimented, studied, and worked with the forces of nature in an attempt to turn lead into gold. The word alchemy, as the practice itself, has interesting origins that can be traced back all the way back to the magical arts of Egypt. The ‘al’ is the Arabic definite article for ‘the,’ and one of the precursors of ‘chemy’ is Khemia, which, according to Plutarch, was an early name for Egypt meaning ‘the black land.’ A Byzantine text states that the Roman emperor Diocletian ordered the destruction of all Egyptian books on khymeia, or the fusion and transmutation of metals. Alchemy has deep philosophical roots, too. Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras, Galen: all these men were alchemists and are mentioned extensively in Greek, Latin and Arabic texts on the subject. Being alchemists, they were also magicians.
Jung – certainly an alchemist if ever there was one – re-discovered, adapted, and re-introduced the power of alchemy to a wider audience. He transformed the world of psychology and therapy through his efforts, and depicted a way of working psychological magic when engaging with forces of a human and universal nature. Archetypes, the anima/animus, the Self, daemons, the collective and personal unconscious – these are all names of forces greater than our day-to-day egoic selves that we can contact and consciously work with to transform ourselves, and our reality. For me, the genius of Jung was that he set and defined the framework for a modern day system of magic, worked through what we now call the psyche.
The practice of magic has rich historical precedence. Ancient Egyptian culture, for example, was steeped in heka, or magic. Everything and everyone in creation was said to possess it. The god Heka was their deification of magic, and was said to be older and greater than any other god or goddess, existing before anything else came into being. As such, Heka was thought to be the very source of life. Another translation of heka is ‘art of the mouth,’ which points to the ancient Egyptian conviction that all acts of magic and creation were mediated through the heart and the tongue.
The Egyptians believed it went something like this. A thought, need, dream or desire is born in a person’s heart. Then the heart opens, raises its consciousness to meet the divine, and the tongue utters the words of power that are suffused with the divine forces. Transformation and creation are now underway.
There are parallels between Egyptian notions of magic and psychotherapy. Just as the priests and priestesses of Ancient Egypt did thousands of years ago, therapists today also ply their trade by the heart and the tongue. These are the means by which we help others change and heal. Therapists know the power of words, and understand that meaningful speech matters. We aim to practice the ‘art of the mouth,’ speaking words with intention and attention. Ancient Egyptians believed that if you knew the name of something, you gained power over it. Therapists help people recover their personal power through speaking words of meaning.
Words of meaning occur all the time in the therapy room. Think of a person who divulges for the first time that they were abused. Think of someone who voices the words “I feel ashamed,” or “I regret this decision,” or I’ve never felt good enough,” or “I’m an alcoholic” aloud. Think of a person who recognises, claims, and voices their positive qualities, who says “I am good enough,” or “I deserve better.” These words are living in the heart, and spoken with the tongue. There is great potential in this. By giving these things their true name, and voicing them to the world (via the therapy room), a person may gain power over them, and through them. Their life will no longer be controlled or swayed by these forces in the same way as before. These things are conscious now, and begin to take on a life of their own. Therapist and client can begin to work consciously in concert with these powers for further transformation. A therapist’s role is to skilfully and compassionately facilitate, guide, and amplify this process.
The use of the creative imagination in the therapy room is another conduit for magical work. Visualisations have an uncanny way of taking on a life of their own when we tap into the great powers of the unconscious and beyond. Experiences emerge within, very real ones, very powerful ones, and it is possible for great inner transformation to occur. This was also how the Egyptians worked magic, through the imagination. Not through fantasy or wishful thinking, but through the great mundus imaginalis as described by French scholar (and colleague of Jung) Henry Corbin. According to Corbin, the imaginal realm is a place of encounter and union, a meeting point between the human and the divine. One accesses this realm for healing, understanding, and growth, and we all have the ability to visit through dreams, visions, and visualisations. As many therapists know who use visualisation and dream work in their practice, the imaginal realm is a place where magic happens.
As a therapist myself, I couldn’t tell you exactly how a client decides to leave an unhealthy relationship, quits smoking, or chooses to share their deepest secret. I can’t ‘see’ the moment of transformation, but I can feel it and sense it in the therapy room, and I can witness its effects in a person’s life. That’s because magic happens in the dark, in the ‘black land,’ in the deep inner world that cannot be witnessed by the physical eyes. It’s the seed sprouting underground, the caterpillar in the chrysalis, the very moment of conception. Magic lives as a hidden potential within liminal space, somewhere between the conscious and the unconscious, the internal and the external, the implicit and the manifest, the relational space between you and I. It lives in the present moment, outside of time, waiting for the summons.
The Western world feels so much more comfortable with things we can see, measure, and categorise. But magic doesn’t work that way, and frankly neither does psychotherapy. In fact, I tend to think they are related like a mother and child, sharing a close bond and the same DNA. Psychotherapy’s true lineage originates in magical practice, in the desire to help oneself and others create desired change and transformation.
Want to experience effective, life changing therapy? Look out for someone who skilfully practices the arts of the heart and tongue. Look out for someone who knows how to work magic.
Cheak, A. (2013). Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde. Melbourne, Australia:Numen Books.
Corbin, H. (1998). The Voyage and the Messenger. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Ellis, N. (2012). Imagining the World into Existence: An Ancient Egyptian Manual for Consciousness. Santa Fe, NM: Inner Traditions.
Richardson, A. & Walker-John, B. (2010). The Inner Guide to Egypt. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications.