Acting on Illusion

As I write this, my social media feeds are awash with news of James Blake’s deplorable encounter with an overeager New York policeman, who, acting on little more than the illusion of evidence, tackled Blake to the floor while the former tennis star awaited his ride to the US Open. Blake has received immediate and public apologies from New York City authorities but has been vocal in his insistence that apologies, and even a potential successful lawsuit, are not what he wishes to see come of this incident. Blake has the stage now because of his previous celebrity, but he readily acknowledges that he shares his experience with many unsung others, particularly in underprivileged and minority neighborhoods. For this reason, he wants to transform this trauma “into a catalyst for change in the relationship between the police and the public they serve.”

Blake’s aim to convert a negative individual experience into larger positive social change is on my mind as I think about the figure of The Magician, this month’s archetype here at the Embodied Philosophy blog. In popular culture, we think of magicians as effecting immediate and spectacular change; with the flourish of a hand (or wand) they make things appear or disappear. In some interpretations of the tarot, we think of the magician as bridging illusion and reality; in a sense, applying a singular force of will to bring about reality. It’s this linking of illusion to reality in both the popular and the arcana ideas of the magician that I think of in connection to the James Blake story (ongoing and incomplete as it still is).

First, a detour via the story I initially intended to begin with in this post: A recently published article on the South Asian American Digital Archive titled “How Traveling Yogis Toppled the Oklahoma State Government.” It’s a fascinating read about a now-unimaginable moment in the history of American yoga. Today, despite some murmurs against the practice from uber-conservative groups, we find very little surprising about ubiquitous yoga studios and even more ubiquitous yoga practitioners. But a hundred years ago (ok, maybe even twenty years ago) this was not the case. A century ago, “it was common to talk of hypnotism and yoga interchangeably,” and due to the lower numbers of South Asian immigrants in the US at that time, “it was easy for the American public to conjure up fantastic ideas about yoga’s power and the itinerant men from India who taught it.” The article is super-interesting in its discussion of the particular incident in Oklahoma, but what caught my attention is the information about South Asian migrants (who were being excluded socially, legally, and financially in the US) using negative and ignorant stereotypes to their advantage:

The exotic rendering of India that justified immigration restrictions and Christian missionary endeavors also allowed Americans to imagine an India that was filled with mystical masters that held secret wisdom and supernatural powers. A recurring (and often comedic) motif in the memoirs of early South Asian immigrants in the United States was the presumption that being from India automatically meant that they were one such master. In a time with only a few thousand South Asians in the United States, it did not take much for an Indian immigrant of reasonable savvy and intelligence to convince eager audiences that he was an adept yogi or divinely-ordained swami, and make a living out of this perception. With anti-Hindu sentiment and a series of exclusionary laws often blocking the path to many career opportunities or land ownership, this is just what many immigrants from India did, in both short trial runs of a few months and lengthy careers that spanned decades.

It’s possible to use illusion to create a different reality for oneself, and sometimes even for entire groups of people. It’s possible, sometimes through sheer force of will, to manufacture positive change from negative experiences. Whether it’s James Blake shifting attention from himself to the creating a dialogue about the problem of police brutality, or early twentieth century South Asians constructing a path from harmful perceptions to viable financial support (or even other minorities also taking this path laid by South Asian immigrants – see the story of Korla Pandit), there are many ways to transform adverse illusions into desirable realities. On the individual level or on a larger social scale. It may take years, it will take work, and certainly much collaboration with others – no abracadabra here – but the alternative is to remain mired in the muck of illusion, waiting on someone else’s magic to make a change.