Practical Magic(k)

Technologies of Wishing: 8 Tips from William S. Burroughs on Living a Magical Life

The following piece was written after listening to a William S. Burroughs lecture at Naropa University, recorded in 1986. Listen to it yourself for full effect.

 William S. Burroughs is one of the most interesting writers of the Beat generation. His books, like Naked Lunch, famously and scandalously broke new artistic literary ground with the cut-up method, preceding the mashup and remixing of electronic media that would come in the decades to follow. He was friends with the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginbsburg, and in the 1980s, become something of a cultural icon in the Bowery, having dinners with the likes of Patti Smith and Andy Warhol.

In psychedelic culture, however, Burroughs was also known for being one of the earliest Americans to write about Ayahuasca. His visit to the Amazon was chronicled, way back in the 1953, in The Yage Letters. His interest didn’t stop at psychedelics—he was interested in Ayahuasca, for instance, due to the rumors that it produced telepathic abilities—but all manner of occult and esoteric possibilities. Writing, for Burroughs, was a magical act. A kind of self-authoring.

The right set of words could re-write the world, or, if you weren’t careful, re-write your life in a way you hadn’t realized you were wishing for. In a series of lectures, Burroughs details the possibilities of writer as a hermeneutical (Hermes, after all, being the messenger, the god of communications and crossroads) magician. What better way to open ourselves up to a symbolically-fused reality, a world of living meaning and synchronicity, than to take a few clues from a writer? Especially a writer like William S. Burroughs, whose no-nonsense, experimental approach to reality speaks to the modern, magical psychonaut.

“The subject I will address… is in interest to young and old, man and beast, to everyone without obsession. The subject is the technology of wishing.”

Magic, of course, is a kind of sympathy with the cosmos. The meaning in you is somehow wrapped up in the meaning out there. A ritualistic act corresponds with a future event. A successful magical rite before the primordial hunt helps to guarantee its success, because the two are bound up together in a single, magical point. In this world view, the whole cosmos is like a string, linked in profound resonance.

In this lecture, Burroughs is discussing a now obscure book, On the Frontiers of Science: Strange Machines You Can Build by G. Harry Stine. He explains a strange device called the “Wishing Machine” detailed in chapter 9. This retro-futurist 1980s book went on to inspire a similar machine in a novel Burroughs would write in 1988, The Western Lands.

Burroughs goes on to offer us at least 8 important tips for seeing the world as a place bubbling over with meaning and synchronicity, and the right tools to help us navigate it.

1. Wish without desire

This seems counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t your wish lose its potency without a strong desire to see it come to pass?  “If you’re gonna make a wish,” Burroughs says, translating Eliphas Levi (an occult author and magical practitioner), “you must be ready to ‘wish or will without desiring.'”

The trick behind this is to surpass the shallower streams of human desire and go straight for the deeper waters of certainty. This leads us to tip number two.


 2. “Always visualize your wish as already accomplished. All wishes must be unconditional.”

This is where wishing, and magical intention, gain their potency.

“If you’re going to say, “I want it, but…” forget it. It’s dead on the launching platform.”

But this leaves you with an important consideration. What kind of responsibility would make this wish realized? What would it take? Keep that in mind when you’re visualizing it already real and concretized.


3. Everything is meaningful to you because it is meaningful to YOU

“Everything you see has a special meaning,” Burroughs says, “because you see it. It seems obvious, but in practice it comes as a shock to many people.”

He scolds the “scientific dogma” of materialism, which claims that human consciousness, and external reality, have no connection—denying that sympathetic, magical worldview. This kind of reductionist perspective is “indefensible,” he argues, “to anyone wo keeps his mind open.” Carl Jung, who coined the term synchronicity, and further elaborated on it with the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, understood this as the “reality of the psyche.”

Our inner world is not an epiphenomenal vapor—our interior landscape is not vaporware. Burroughs was a strong critic of materialism, which denied his own lifetime of experimentation with consciousness and subjectivity.

Yet, after we say all that it really is “a question of clicking in.” The notion of synchronicities are popular enough today to be cliché, yet how many of us really sit with this and let it sink in. How many of us are really willing to step out the door tomorrow with the understanding that our inner life is wrapped up in what we are about to encounter out there, in that new day?

4. Note what you are thinking and feeling when you encounter an “Intersection Point”

That’s what we might describe as a synchronicity. A meaningful intersection point between your inner life and the outer world. “Make a habit of noting,” Burroughs suggests, “what you are thinking and feeling when you encounter an intersection point that caught your attention.” You were thinking of a friend when they suddenly text you, or perhaps a stranger, of the same name, is called out on the street. A word on a passing truck shocks you with its significance. The possibilities are endless in combination, and usually never what we expect, but make a habit out of noting your own interior processes. What were you feeling in that moment? What thoughts were crossing your mind? Perhaps you see the same stranger on your commute—in a city like New York—multiple times in one day, on different train lines. “He isn’t following you, he’s just in the same time groove.”

Burroughs tells of a friend who approached him about a series of intersections he was having.

“Everything was talking to him,” his friend suggested, “everything has meaning.”

“Of course it does!” Burroughs replied.


5. Alter your surroundings by altering your point of observation (The trick in seeing, part 1)

This is an “act of magic performed by every artist,” yes, but it holds true for every person. Change your reality by changing your point of view. Take a different path to work. Do something slightly different.

Unhinge the rut of your routine. Stir up the prima materia of intention, reality, and make way for the potency of stumbling—by “chance”—on an vital intersections.


6. “You can’t teach anybody anything they don’t know at some level” (The trick in seeing, part 2)

An easy one in our day that we’ve heard countless times: you can’t see something you haven’t already seen. But, like the previous suggestion on breaking the monotony of daily routine—in the search for insight and signification—you must, as Rilke says, “change your life.

Don’t let yourself become stuck in a rut. Doubly so if you are a creature of habit (I am guilty of this one, myself). “Non-seeing,” Burroughs says, “is an escalating process. The less you see today, the less you see tomorrow.

Remember, even minor novelties, and pathways, are sometimes all it takes. A new street sign opens doorway opportunity for meaningful messages, particular familiars and or perhaps even mischievous cats to cross your path.

You must live your life as if it were your own creative project, your own self-experimentation. Because it is.


7. Upstage destiny: write to keep it from happening

This is also a counter-intuitive idea at first. Burroughs tells us that he is sometimes asked if he would write if he were stranded on a desert island. “Why yes,” he says, “I would try to write in great detail [about] a ship and how they’d pick me up… Writers also write to keep it from happening.” The idea is to think about something that makes you nervous, anxious, and write about it—all the little, realistic ways it could happen—in great detail. Not only are you getting over some of the unnecessary anxiety you’re probably carrying around, but like a doctor giving you a flu shot, you’re inoculating yourself with a dead or weakened virus. Whatever bad thing you’re worrying about happening loses its potency.

Words, imagining, and meaning are magic. Magic can be medicine.


8. Sometimes? Take a day off (where applicable)

On a day where everything is going wrong, and you seem to come across one too many roadblocks, sometimes it’s better to err on the side of caution. Take the day off. “Retrench and be careful.” These days, like when Mercury enters its retrograde phase, are more useful as a moment of poise and reflection. Mercury, Hermes, has a trickster quality. In the retrograde phase he is moving into obfuscation—into the underworld—so this, too, might be helpful. This too, like tip number 5, can help you gain a new point of view.


These tips, as you can see, were designed for the writer in mind, but any of us can adopt a writer’s point of view on reality. A hermeneutical lens. Any of us can quickly recognize the symbolic and meaningful landscape we live in as human beings with rich, interior worlds. Worlds that, on occasion, do spill forth into the material happenstance of our days. We can live our lives more magically if we have the right tools. We can get more out of our own self-authorship if we know the right approaches—experimentation, exploration, creative curiosity—to help open up what infinite treasures our interior lives might yield.

Thanks to William S. Burroughs for pointing out that literary magic is the ultimate “wishing machine.”

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