I often tell the story of how I found my dissertation topic. I was in the university library when I happened to reach up to a top shelf and pull down one of several black volumes of a journal called Annales Musicologiques, if I remember correctly. I opened it at random and found an article on Marsilio Ficino, an astrologer, philosopher, musician, translator, priest and magus of 15th century Italy. I translated and commented on his book, On Designing Life to be Like the Sky. I rewrote the book as The Planets Within. Ficino talks about magia naturalis, natural magic. He studied the ancient history of magic and explored many methods himself, including astrology, music, aroma, color, geomancy, image-making, plants, and architecture. He influenced many who followed him over the centuries, largely, I think, because of the accent on “natural” in his magic. I interpret him saying that we can make a more spiritual and more soulful world if we appreciate the power of ordinary things to affect our emotions and sense of meaning. The colors we use, the sounds that surround us, the timing of our projects, the images that we allow to impact us—the objects in our lives are not there just for their utility or their beauty but for their power to affect us profoundly.
This magical philosophy puts a different slant on the arts especially. For Ficino, an art piece is not just an aesthetic object of pleasure but a talisman, an object that has a degree of power for our lives. It’s important what colors we choose for the home and the workplace. Architecture, he said, is the most important of the arts because it affects how we live and accomplish anything. Advertisers know about these things and are always looking for the magic that will sell products. But imagine a natural, everyday magic that would make us healthier and happier, that would support our personal relationships and our work.
In a later book, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, I tried to spell out for our contemporary life how all this could work. Some readers took the book to heart, quit their day jobs and created a more magical lifestyle. Others followed the recipes in less dramatic ways. Currently I apply the ideas of natural magic to my work with hospitals, suggesting how to make entrances, furnish patients’ rooms, and use color and sound to promote healing and health. I suggest certain images, such as Jesus healing the blind man, the blue Buddha and Quan Yin, among many others. I don’t use the word, but I’m using the technology of the talisman in a purely natural way.
With this background I’m also interested in designing contemplative quiet into many aspects of our culture. I recommend that doctors wear some blue to represent the Lapis Lazuli Radiant Healing Buddha. In my own writing room I have images of Daphne, Asklepios, Quan Yin, the blue Buddha and Thomas More. Just outside my room are the Tabula Smagdarina, the Emerald Tablet, which is an ancient summary of the magic Ficino used, and the Heart Sutra, which I consider the basis of all spiritual and magical endeavors. Also just outside my door is a contemporary painting by a Korean artist of the squared circle, so important in alchemical magic.
Care of the soul is not just about figuring yourself out psychologically or finding your spiritual home. It’s mainly about making a sensual, concrete world that supports and inspires you, and that project requires natural magic.