The Lost Traditions of Practice
Lessons from Magic School
In Part One of this article, I have detailed some of the ways practitioners can use the model of conjuring to improve their effectiveness and communication skills with patients and staff. Skillful application of these disciplines may also enhance their relationships with patients, and possibly lead to improved compliance and outcomes.
Modern physicians and patients have permitted various interfering factors to weaken the relationships which are foundational to healing, and so both have lost touch with these relationship-building skills. Every medical system that has stood the test of time for centuries or millennia relies on such tribal based relationships. Our own system, which does not, has entered a death spiral after only fifty years.
To Understand Delusion, You Must First Master Illusion
One of the most important reasons for training medical practitioners in conjuring is to develop the capacity to think critically and clearly. Understanding how the conjurer uses skill and psychological principles to mislead their spectator helps the medical practitioner to understand the forces of delusion.
Perhaps even more importantly, developing these faculties helps the medical practitioner to understand more about the forces creating self-delusion, a far more dangerous state for both the practitioner and their patient. Even a short course in conjuring will help any physician perceive influences of which they were formerly unaware.
However, there are reasons why conjuring and medicine have historically remained in separate domains:
There's No Business Like Show Business
But, it is absolutely a business above all. For this reason, obtaining market share and profitability are paramount. A conjurer must provide entertainment which is commercial and acceptable to paying customers. "Give them what they want" and "Leave them wanting more" are absolutely appropriate priorities for performers.
The cliché of performers clawing their way to the top exists because success in business requires a certain degree of single mindedness and insensitivity. There is no established ethical standard for conjuring or show business in general, as "success is its own reward". As a result, it should not be surprising that some conjurers are willing to misrepresent work and ideas as their own, or betray their associates to obtain an advantage.
The contrast with medicine should be obvious, but as detailed in the Mythology of Modern Medicine section of this site, a large number of people have been brainwashed into believing that modern medicine demands that physicians be more "businesslike". There is no historical basis for this perspective, and in fact it is possible to trace the deterioration of medical practice in this country to confused attempts to combine the incompatible ethics, motivation, and perspectives of business and medicine.
Conjuring is Irrelevant
What are the tangible results of a conjurer’s efforts? An object appears or disappears, seems to move from one place to another, or is transformed into another object; a chosen card or a concealed sentence or picture is revealed; something moves for reasons that are not immediately apparent. Puzzling? Perhaps. Entertaining? Possibly, if the conjurer has practiced enough (and if the patient isn’t too annoyed or sick to appreciate the “effect”). But, all of these results are ultimately trivial, and completely irrelevant to the goals of the patient-physician interaction.
Indeed, even magicians have a difficult time explaining the "why" of the peculiar things that seem to happen in a conjurer's performance. This phenomenon has been termed "the adventure of the props in the magician's hands" at the Las Vegas Magic School. Why "lose" a playing card in order to "find" it? Why burn up a string and "restore" it when you could just not destroy it in the first place? Why pull cards or streamers out of your mouth? Why simulate ritual torture or mayhem on stage?
Why indeed? No wisdom can guess, because there is no purpose behind any of these actions. Even the entertainment value of most magic is pretty thin for anyone over the age of twelve: Conjuring in our society has become empty ritual.
None of the results of the conjurer's skills address the sufferings of birth, old age, disease, or death. Not one relieves the disorders of qi, blood, or spirit. Not one overcomes imbalances of heat, cold, thirst, hunger or dangerous external forces. Not one pacifies disorders of anger, greed, ignorance, pride, jealousy, or complacency.
Does Anyone Need a Conjurer in the Exam Room?
Performing “tricks” in clinical settings is most likely to be a distraction for both the patient and the physician. Here is why. Let’s take the example of the pediatric patient: Children are often cited as being the best subject for magic in the exam room.
Children are distressed or cry at the doctor’s office because of fear, pain, or a feeling of insecurity. Physicians can address all of these issues directly, and none require performing magic.
It is my opinion that it is oppressive to children by forcing them to endure low quality magic instead of addressing their concerns.
For adult patients also, it is clear that none of the factors that result in dissatisfaction with their medical care will be addressed by conjuring. Teaching doctors to do tricks will not improve outcomes.
Every day there are issues in my practice for which understanding performance, communication, or dramatic skills are useful. I can’t think of any situation in the past 30 years when performing magic would have been helpful.
Let's for a moment be realistic about the many demands on a physician's time. This also applies to the vast majority of medical professionals working in the "system". I schedule thirty minutes or an hour with every patient, but every second is taken up with history, physical exam and treatment, and documentation.
This is actually a large amount of time when contrasted with the average office based physician, who has to see a patient every 15 minutes or even more frequently. Under these circumstances, even the shortest “routine” is going to be a major impediment to keeping a schedule, especially in view of the many demands modern physicians face.
Conjuring methods have not changed significantly since the mid 1800's. Medical knowledge and practice, in contrast, is perpetually changing. Keeping up requires considerable effort and time even for those practitioners who have a specialized practice. Generalists such as myself could easily spend every waking hour reading journals or attending conferences. New technology, new drugs, new procedures, as well as a constantly expanding and shifting mandates from third parties has resulted in unprecedented demands on a doctor's time and attention.
Most conjuring requires some sort of apparatus or "prop". With all the equipment doctors have to carry around, it is impossible to imagine adding a variety of tricks. Sometimes these props need some preparation before use, or need to be "reset" after a performance. This also takes time out from the real "work" of practicing medicine.
And, what happens when the physician has presented a trick to everyone possible? Expanding a repertoire takes time and practice, as detailed in the next section.
Even the Simplest Trick Requires Practice
Outside the clinic or hospital, time pressures remain for all of the professionals I know. Even for relatively simple conjuring, the practice and rehearsal required to master sleight of hand and scripting would be a limiting factor for most physicians.
And, to be effective in performance, even “routine” sleights require hours of practice with hundreds of repetitions. Scripts must be written, memorized, and rehearsed, then coordinated with the physical actions required until the final performance is flawless. This requires considerable commitment of time and resources.
Anyone who has seen a magician who has not rehearsed enough will agree; it is better not to perform at all than to perform badly. I would estimate that less than 10% of medical professionals have the innate skill and dedication that it would take to routinely bring conjuring into their practice.
Mr. Burger, the Dean of the McBride Magic School, recommends that when students have mastered one “effect”, and believes they are ready to present it to an audience, that they practice for one more month. That this sage advice is widely ignored is one reason that there are so many terrible magic acts and why magic became passé in the mid 20th century. In my research leading up to developing the “Magic for Medical Professionals” seminar in Las Vegas, I have suffered through some incredibly awful magic, and have had to walk out on several shows. And, yes, I am including as many professionals as amateurs.
Another Power Trip for Doctors?
One of the reasons that magic appeals to 10 year old boys is that the symbol of the magician represents competence and power. Small boys of this age probably feel the most oppressed in our society, especially if they are not popular with their peers. Most magicians, in fact, develop their interest in conjuring at this point in their lives.
Some magicians never seem to grow out of this desire to dominate and impose themselves on their audience, which is one reason why there are so many “practical joke” and “sucker” tricks, and why Eugene Burger has chosen to lecture magicians on not abusing their “volunteers” on stage.
When a budding magician/physician will be looking for an opportunity to perform the trick they have in their pocket, this is another form of ego tripping. At best, this is a distraction for a professional who should be thinking about the causes and remedies for suffering instead of looking for an opening to perform a magic trick. At worst, the doctor will be imposing themself on a patient in just the same way as the clumsy restaurant magician interrupts your meal or conversation.
Physicians especially need to be aware of the tendency to become insensitive or arrogant in the normal course of their work. The solution for physicians who want to perform is to find a venue outside of the hospital or office.
The Origin of Conjuring
When one analyzes the skills involved with conjuring, one discovers that conjuring has its basis in juggling. The essential activity of juggling is the skillful manipulation of objects. With conjuring, however, there is additional emphasis on the deceptive manipulation of objects. This assists in the creation of the illusion that something impossible, or, at least very unexpected, has happened. If we expand the manipulation of objects to include people and animals, we can encompass the entire spectrum of conjuring, from “mentalism”, to close up and parlor magic, to stage illusions.
Juggling is irrefutably of ancient origin, as Egyptian hieroglyphics signify. It is likely that many of the skillful manipulations that we call “sleight of hand” had their origination in juggling moves. The present day revival of “street” magic also reminds us that historically, conjurers did not work in theaters and Las Vegas casinos, but out among their audience, along with other street performers such as jugglers. And, as with street magic performers around the world, there are unsavory aspects of street magic which overlap with criminal activities such as con games and swindles.
Conjuring and Crime
Jugglers and magicians have no traditional ethical obligations in the practice of their craft. In fact, conjurers by their nature have to deceive. Illusion by its very nature is deception. The vastly wise Eugene Burger teaches that to achieve the highest level of conjuring, performers must achieve the ability to “lie without guilt”.
In just this way, we can accept that a magician’s ethics are ambiguous. A conjurer can have either good or evil intent in their activities. Con men and gambling cheats can successfully use many of the same principles established by magicians because these activities, unlike those of medicine, are not linked to any ethical system of behavior. Although somewhat out of date, an example one can still find here and there are magician “pickpocket” acts where the conjurer steals various bits of people’s jewelry, wallets, and clothing during the show. Considered an amusing entertainment on the stage, one can easily see how much less amusing this experience would be elsewhere.
Conjuring principles form the basis of the mediumistic swindles of the 19th century, which also created the “spiritualist” movement. Beginning with the Fox sisters in the 1840’s and persisting even to this day, one can find proponents who believe that certain gifted “mediums” can communicate with the deceased relatives and friends of their “clients”.
Many of these performers use techniques which are indistinguishable from those of conjurers when they present the same effects. Taking advantage of a person’s grief for personal aggrandizement or financial gain represents a particularly despicable level of behavior, but it is clearly no obstacle to success in television.
On the other hand, our culture does not accept a physician using their skills and knowledge to perpetrate evil, which is why when doctors act criminally or subvert their traditional medical ethics to serve a repressive government, it seems so newsworthy to the public.
My own opinion is that trickiness and deception are not traits that physicians should rush to embrace.
The Origin of Medicine
Medicine had its basis and fundamental motivation as a result of the development of empathy and compassion in the face of suffering. “Compassion”, as it is defined in the Tibetan tradition, is “the wish to relieve suffering”. The discovery of medicine was one response generated by this compassionate motivation, according to Tibetan theory. Understanding the nature of suffering, the causes of suffering, and the treatments for suffering were the natural result of this motivation, and these became the primary areas of study for both ancient and modern physicians.
Physicians in the United States have lost many of their ties to ancient traditions of ethics and behavior as a result of limited education as well as financial and political pressures. This in no way lessens the importance of these factors in the history of medicine, or their importance in other medical systems.
In Part Three, I will present a perspective on the interface of medicine and shamanism.
The Illusion Show by David Bamberg provides a unique insight into the ordeals of a traveling magic show, by one of the last purveyors of that tradition. David was the son of Theo Bamberg, who developed the persona of "Okito", a vaguely Oriental magician who performed silently and was a master of apparatus and staging. David also performed in "Oriental" guise as "Fu Manchu" very successfully for 35 years. His insights into the life of a showman as well as perspectives on other large traveling stage shows, such as those of Thurston, Dante, and Blackstone, as well as on notable celebrities and magicians througout the World, provide an insider's perspective on this lost era.
Orson Welles, The Man Who Was Magic, by Barton Whaley, is a fascinating e-book on the intersection of art, chicanery, and magic in the Hollywood of his era, and also for those who might be interested to know more about the interplay of conjuring and the processes of moviemaking and stagecraft.
Mr. Welles had an enduring and creative interest in conjuring, which Mr. Whaley, "a student of deception", also shares. Mr. Whaley's insights into the process of conjuring allows the reader to appreciate the depth and unique perspective that Orson Welles brought to his many amazing projects. The book is available from Lybrary.com here.
The most recent book about Houdini; The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero has a great many previously unknown anecdotes about this showman, as well as some interesting perspectives on his activities outside the theater.