December 28, 2023

Magical Meaning: The Value & Vulnerability of Believing in the Unprovable.

“It’s 11:11, make a wish!”

My sisters and I grew up pointing out this magic number and scrambling to make a silent wish before the minutes turned to 12.

We never missed a chance to hold our breath under a bridge, wish on a star, or blow out birthday candles.

But when I learned something of mysticism as an adult, I discovered wish-granting superstitions are not reserved only for children. For example, repeating number sequences on a clock, a receipt, an email inbox, and the like are referred to among some as “Angel Numbers.”

Google any number sequence and “Angel Number” and you’ll find the translation of what your angels are trying to tell you at that particular time in life. Spoiler alert: they all more or less say your angels want you to know they’re watching over you and you’re headed in the right direction—a lot like astrology, psychic readings, and Tarot cards.

There’s also manifestation: a new-age mentality that if you think it, in the right way of course, it will come true. It involves repeating affirmations to yourself, journaling about your dream come true in the present tense as if it’s already yours.

I’m not discounting these forms of spirituality. In fact, I participate in some of them. I just find it interesting that they all point to the thing we desperately want: a reassurance that our life has a purpose, our choices matter, and that someone (or something) is looking out for us. We’ll do almost anything to find proof of it.

According to psychic medium Laura Lynne Jackson, author of Signs: The Secret Language of the Universe, number sequences are just one of many ways our angels (people on the other side who we don’t know as well, as loved ones who have passed) try to communicate with us. I love the idea of receiving guidance, messages, and protection from ancestors, loved ones, and guardian angels who exist in a dimension beyond the tangible earth and believe it’s a reality.

What becomes difficult is distinguishing between a supernatural message and our intricate brains just doing what they scientifically do—build stories based on our experiences and desires, and constantly look for and create evidence for what we want to believe.

When it comes to the supernatural, I constantly vacillate between believing and doubting. I choose to believe there are empathic heavenly beings watching out for me and answering my prayers, that my loved ones who have passed away are still alive somehow, that life doesn’t abruptly and permanently end after death.

But I can’t help the cognitive dissonance of that and the existential “what ifs” that creep in alongside every declaration of faith: What if life is an accident? A purely biological coincidence, and the only meaning we draw from it is make-believe?

Faith in supreme beings who have my back is far more comforting than nihilism, even if it sometimes seems naïve or oversimplified (even to myself). One of the wonders of our minds is that we get to choose what we believe when it comes to the unexplainable. Often, it’s less a matter of what is true and not true and more “how does it cause you to feel, to act, to function in life?”

Scottish author, poet, and theologian George McDonald said, “Even if there be no hereafter, I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not.”

When it comes to the life’s mysteries, stories are all we have, and I’d rather believe one that brings me peace, one that requires imagination and hope. There’s also the placebo effect phenomenon, where positive psychology researchers are finding that placebos physiologically change us and can often be as powerful, and often even more powerful, than the real thing. So, what we believe about something and how well it works is even more important than if it actually does.

In the popular podcast series, Flightless Bird, journalist David Farrier interviews Mike McHargue, a Baptist-turned-atheist-turned-mystic-Christian. Mike is also a science advisor and story consultant for Marvel. He shares about the experiments in the 50s and 60s where in order to treat severe epilepsy, neurosurgeons conducted experiments to separate the two sides of the brain to see how autonomous they are. Only the left brain can speak, so the right brain used a pointer to communicate. They asked a patient if he was a Christian. His left brain said “yes,” but his right brain said “no.” Half of the brain was a believer and the other wasn’t.

Mike says, “The different structures in our brain compete and get into conflict every moment of our lives about what we’re going to do and what we’re going to believe. Parts of my brain are Christian, and parts of my brain are atheistic. Maybe I need to stop trying to brow beat one of my brain into submission and let them do what they do and be honest about the fact that I’m not a rational machine. I’m an evolved biological organism who has competing impulses designed to help me survive.”

Surrendering in the battle between what’s true and what’s not is a relieving thought, though easier said than done given the obsession our egos have with knowing in black-and-white terms and being right about what we’ve come to “know,” even in cases where there is no provable right or wrong.

A classic example of the subjectivity of meaningfulness lies in the realm of dreams. For the most part, dreams are our subconscious processing emotion and experiences. But I suspect there’s another element to them—something we can neither pinpoint nor explain away—in which they connect us to other people.

Jung proposed the Collective Unconscious: the theory that our deepest unconscious beliefs are formed not by genetics or personal experience, but by inherent knowledge and imagery we’re born with because of our shared ancestry. He believed dreams are an important portal into the collective unconscious—a place where our subconsciousness connects with the subconscious of others. That may include people we don’t know personally and people who are no longer alive in their physical bodies.

I’ve had many dreams in which the true, subconscious state of a friend or family member’s emotional well-being is revealed. It’s helped me be more forgiving, or nudged me to reach out to them when it turns out they were sending out a silent cry for help.

I agree with Jung in that there’s a subconscious dimension accessed through dreams that we’re all connected to, but I think the fruitfulness lies less in our shared primal beginnings and more about using them to better connect with ourselves and each other in the present.

Our dreams can help us make connections and become better aware of our psychological state. In The Jung Podcast, Jungian analyst John Betts says dreams don’t tell us what to do, but give us insight into the conscious attitude we hold. It is the relationship between your dream material and your ego, he says, that really counts. So our dreams can help us become more self-aware and loosen our grip on mindsets and assumptions that may not be true, or don’t serve us or the people around us. It’s like a therapy session from our brain while we sleep.

Rather than disregarding dreams, maybe there’s more we can learn from them, if we want to. Do we receive messages from the dead, the divine, or the subconscious minds of living persons through dreams? No one can prove it. But no one can disprove it, either.

Sometimes, it’s easier to ignore the things we can’t explain and back up with proof, only focusing on the here and now, what we can see. Believing something intangible requires effort. The word doubt comes from “duo” or “double.” A doubter is of two minds: a believer and a skeptic. But what is faith without doubt? Knowledge. And with knowledge, you don’t need faith.

We cannot escape the burden of faith, whether within or outside the parameters of religious conviction. Everyone has to believe in something. But we keep ending up in this place where the head and heart, the logical and the ineffable, are at war.

Research shows that far more neural signals are sent from the heart to the brain than the other way around. While we often assign the heart as emotional and the mind as objective, they’re actually a unified intelligence, connected by the vagus nerve. The neural net around our heart is crucial to our thinking and reasoning, and the heart thinks for itself and sends signals to the body rather than passively waiting for instruction from the brain. The vagus nerve is also connected to the gut, which is directly connected to our thinking patterns and brain health.

Maybe we’re free to put as much trust in our heart-based and intuitive “gut” feelings as our science-backed brain-thinking. Maybe lack of tangible proof doesn’t make something less real or possible than what we can explain.

Still, these supernatural experiences we have will always be highly subjective, rarely striking someone other than ourselves with the significance we feel. Who, for example, can feel the wonder I did when I saw a bright green comet shoot across the sky my first night in Ireland? Who else but me can understand that when a hummingbird hovered in front of me at the very moment I told a friend I was looking for signs of God, I knew it was Them? Only I can experience the surety I feel that a dream where a loved one was dying was a message to reach out, or that a certain line in a book, podcast, or words from a stranger were more than coincidence, something beyond myself bringing comfort and clarity when I needed it most.

Anton Chekhov said, “I think human beings must have faith or must look for faith, otherwise our life is empty, empty. To live and not to know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why there are stars in the sky. You must know why you are alive, or else everything is nonsense, just blowing in the wind.” Having something to hold onto, finding ground beneath your feet, feels better than being tossed among never-ending waves of nonsense.

There will always be things we can’t explain. Life would be unmotivating and homogenous if we had all the answers. Mysterious megaliths would lose their allure, a million conversations of theory would come to an abrupt end, and religious institutions would flounder.

Harmony lies in accepting both ambiguity and knowledge. Life is meaningful and it is absurd. Moments can be coincidental and deeply meaningful. Dreams are a connection to the portal of collective unconscious and arbitrary brain chatter. God, or the universe, can be a caring, external overseer, and something that is already within us.

I think I’ll take my skeptical, believing brain and keep making wishes on 11:11, just in case they come true.


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