Magical Thinking and Infallible Teachers.

Tamara commented on an earlier post to say that she was surprised to hear that one of the three fetters that is lost at awakening is "magical thinking."   I suppose I should unpack that a bit.   One thing I should say up front is that I've done a lot of study with a researcher named Jeffery Martin who has been studying the topic of awakening and awakened state of mind (he calls them states of "nonsymbolic awareness"), and he's interviewed a lot of people who've had awakenings, including quite a few in traditional Buddhist traditions.

Every one of them gives a different explanation for the fetter that I'm referring to as "magical thinking," and I'm no exception.   The traditional name for this is "belief in rites and rituals."   What happens when this fetter drops, at least in my experience, is that you no longer think that doing something when you don't have any idea how it's going to work or how to know that it's working makes sense.   This does not make you immune to blind spots—just to wishful thinking.   Maybe that's actually a better way of putting it than "magical thinking."

Thinking that the teacher is infallible is a classic example of wishful thinking.  An infallible teacher would be so relaxing.   I could just sit back and wait for them to tell me what to do, and they'd tell me, and it would always work!   How great would that be?

Alas, I have never met such a teacher.  I have met teachers who have acted as if they are infallible, though.   It's easy to get sucked in to this when the teacher is really quite brilliant and you don't know much—there's a tendency to hang on their every word.   When you notice that something they've said doesn't really connect logically, it's easy to think "ah, that's just because I'm not as advanced as my teacher."

This is not conducive to practice.   Even if the teacher were infallible, even if I was right that I was just failing to understand because I wasn't as advanced, that doesn't help.  I need to know what to do in my practice.  If what the teacher said doesn't lead me to some practice that I can do, and to some way that I can evaluate whether I am doing it right, then I can't make progress.

Magical thinking is, in a sense, when I think that even though I don't know what to do in my practice, it'll all turn out fine anyway.  If I keep mumbling these mantras, somehow that will add up to an awakening.   The dropping of the fetter is when you really, truly stop thinking that: when you take personal responsibility for knowing what to do, understanding how to do it and then doing it.