Cedric's Pagan Thoughts

The spiritual meanderings of a NeoPagan shaman, an eclectic Wiccan, a Celtic musician, a world traveler, a bard, and an uncompromising cat-loving Bast-worshipper

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Cereal Box Enlightenment

Cereal-Box Enlightenment
How I Became a Pinball Wizard
by Cedric

In the movies, whenever someone achieves enlightenment or acquires magickal power, the event usually involves climbing to a Tibetan mountaintop, participating in candlelit rituals conducted by mysterious mystics in matching robes, or studying in a cave with a wise but ancient teacher of a forgotten tradition. But my path to power was even stranger than the well-produced scenes Hollywood can conjure.

I once studied with the High Priest of an ancient tradition. Well, okay, actually, he and his wife started their tradition, so it wasn’t very ancient. And I didn’t study with him so much as exchange a number of deep, meaningful email messages with him. However, something he said to me is far more pertinent to this article than how he said it. It sticks with me to this day. He said, “If you’re in the right frame of mind, you can find enlightenment reading a cereal box.”

For me, it wasn’t a cereal box. It was a pinball machine.

The refitted machine sat in the corner of the breakroom in the small publishing company where I worked at the time. It flashed and hummed in all its refurbished glory, and best of all, it was set for unlimited free play.

I attacked the game like a surgeon, carefully analyzing each channel and bumper, noting the relative location of ramps and flippers, determining which targets to hit in which order for the highest possible score. Each time the ball moved, my eyes fixed its location, and I strove to hit the flipper with the exact timing needed to propel the silver sphere to precisely the right location. I quickly determined that I could hit the left ramp by slapping the button just before the ball rolled off the right flipper. The left channel required an earlier shot, when the ball was at the right-hand flipper’s midpoint. The ramp at the top right was tougher, requiring a very forceful shot from the perfect spot on the left flipper. “Too soon” or “too slow” or “too hard,” I would mutter in self-critique, swearing to estimate the physics better next time.

My analysis and care paid off. Each day, I saw my score climb. My eyes never wavered from the ball as my aim improved. Then after a month, I realized that my scores had stopped climbing. My game was no longer improving. I had gone as far as logic could take me.

Some people say that the beginning of slavery is the fear of death. Well, in my case, slavish attention to estimating trajectories had begun with my fear of losing. But as I stared at my static high score, watching it refuse to budge any higher, I realized that I didn’t need to fear losing: The game was free, and loss could be erased with the press of a button.

So I stopped watching the ball. I stopped even looking at the playing field, the maze of bumpers and lights beneath the glass; instead, I stared forward at the machine’s backstop, trying with all my might not to look at the ball.

The results? Disastrous. At times, I activated the flippers only to realize the ball was nowhere near them. On way too many occasions, I glanced down just in time to see the ball roll right off the flipper. My intuition had let me down. And as you can guess by now, I couldn’t keep myself from sneaking peeks to monitor the location of the ball.

Just when I was ready to resign myself to failure, a curious thing happened. My left hand hit the flipper button, and I caught a glimpse of the ball careening up the right-hand ramp, the one that I could rarely hit even with all my attention focused on the game.

As the ball danced around the bumpers of the loft, I wondered how I could repeat such a shot. I hadn’t even seen the ball’s location when I hit the flipper; all I saw was the ball going up the ramp. So when the ball eventually rolled back down toward my left flipper, I took a deep breath, stared straight ahead, and pictured the ball gliding up the right-hand ramp.

And that’s exactly what it did.

Oh, sure, I hit the flipper somewhere in there; this isn’t a tale of spontaneously manifesting telekinesis. But where my logic had failed, visualization and intuition had triumphed.

Over the next weeks, I explored the technique further, refining my visualizations. I found that simply wishing for a high score didn’t do the trick; that was apparently too vague. Likewise, I found it was more useful to focus on a specific goal—such as hitting the left-hand ramp—than it was to worry about which target was the easiest to hit from the ball’s current position. And one day, while I was refining my visualization technique like a man in a white lab coat, the Universe decided to expand my reality a little further.

You see, when I’d analyzed the game, I had seen that the right ramp could only be hit from the left flipper. There was simply no way I could concieve of shooting the ball up that right-hand ramp from the right-hand flipper. It was impossible, utterly impossible.

And then I did it.

I wasn’t trying to do it. I wasn’t estimating or calculating or trying to visualize myself doing something I thought impossible. I had simply pictured my goal being reached, and whatever was driving my hands didn’t stop to ask how I thought it could be done.

It was around this time that I started trying to find a metaphor to help me understand what was happening. Now, I know that metaphysical metaphors should be mysterious and profound, like the sound of one finger snapping, but I didn’t come up with a metaphor like that: Instead I came up with the metaphor of the foreign cabbie.

You see, I realized that I was like a passenger in a taxi-cab. I had the job of deciding where to go, but the cabbie—the part of my subconscious or superconscious or whatever that was driving my hands when I made the impossible pinball shot—had the job of getting me there. A good thing that was, too, for while I was not very good at driving, the cabbie could pull off maneuvers I didn’t think were possible. Through careful observation and trial-and-error, I devised a set of guidelines for interacting effectively with the cabbie, which I will share with you now.

Guideline 1: The cabbie understands pictures better than he understands words. Apparently, he doesn’t speak English very well. He gets confused by metaphors and negatives. He doesn’t always catch sarcasm. So if you want to go to the Capitol Building, you should show him a postcard of it instead of saying the words “Capitol Building, please.”

Guideline 2: The cabbie wants to be told where to go, but not how to get there. No one likes a backseat driver, and the cosmic cabbie is no exception. So after you show him a picture of the Capitol Building, you need to let him pick the route. (The one modification to this rule is that you may need to break the trip down into smaller segments. For instance, you might need to show him a picture of the Congress Street Bridge and then whip out your postcard of the Capitol once you’re at the bridge.)

Guideline 3: The cabbie wants you to trust his driving abilities. He doesn’t want to hear your opinions about whether it’s possible to make a left turn during rush hour; he wants you to relax and let him do it. Furthermore, he’s like the drivers in my hometown, where automotive ettiquette requires the passenger to appear perfectly calm no matter what sort of insane maneuver the driver attempts. If you panic, scream, thrash around, or point out how close the concrete barriers are, you’ll distract the cabbie, and he’ll crash.

Guideline 4: The cabbie doesn’t want to be thanked or told what a great driver he is. He doesn’t think there’s anything particularly amazing about what he’s doing, and making a big deal out of it just distracts him. So don’t cheer (or gasp with relief) when he successfully zooms between those two looming Mack trucks with only inches to spare; just smile and visualize the next location you want to reach.

As you can guess, the metaphor of the cabbie and the lessons I learned about interacting with him apply to far more in life than pinball. Several years after my experience with the arcade game, when I’d moved onto a different job and other pursuits, I was diagnosed with diabetes. In addition to learning to radically change my lifestyle, I also had to come to terms with needles and bloodletting. This was tough for me; I had a history of passing out any time doctors drew my blood. Indeed, it was my running joke that my body just didn’t want to turn loose of the stuff. The diagnosis changed that. Suddenly I had to draw my own blood four times a day and follow up each bloodletting with an insulin injection.

A few months after the diagnosis, I agreed to accompany my covenmates on a trip to the blood bank; we were all to donate together. For me, it was a chance to prove that I’d licked my needle-phobia. After I’d gone through three technicians and five punctures, I was still conscious, but not a drop of my blood had flowed. All along I tried to stay jovial, repeating my joke that my body just didn’t want to give up any blood.

The technician was having me try different arm positions when the realization hit me. I was the one keeping my blood from flowing, and it would be up to me to make it flow. Taking a deep breath and remembering what I’d learned playing pinball, I visualized my blood oozing through the tube and into the bag; in my mind, the entire scene had the flavor of two-color cartoon.

At precisely the moment that I began to visualize, the technician called out, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. Your blood’s reached the bag!”

So I didn’t gain access to magickal powers by climbing a mountain or meditating for forty years, and I didn’t gain it by being initiated into an ancient tradition of mystics. I didn’t even gain it by reading a cereal box. Instead, I can thank a refitted second-hand arcade game for teaching me the secrets of magick.

Since that summer, I’ve found that I can do all sorts of things I never thought possible: scramble onto a rock in the middle of a stream without getting wet, jump confidently over a Beltaine fire, survive quitting my day job.

And I sure play some mean pinball.
Note: The preceding article first appeared in The Rising Wind, an online Pagan magazine.
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