Before science fiction claimed it as a future fact, levitation was seen as evidence of a spiritual or a paranormal happening. Jesus and Buddha walked on water along with several saints, the ability to hover in mid-air was considered a natural progression of a monk’s search for enlightenment, and unexplained levitations were also a sign of the devil’s work.
In 1976, when I was barely sixteen, I learned Transcendental Meditation. The advanced form of TM meditation, Sidhi, reputedly involves practitioners ‘flying’ from a cross legged position. My rational mind, unhappy with the implications of contravening the known laws of physics, decided that if Sidhi meditators were convinced they were levitating there must be at least a semi-logical explanation. Sidhi apparently involves levitating from a cross legged position by first ‘hopping’ from this position then spending increasingly longer periods of time in the air until the hop turns into flight and then into levitation. While I am personally not convinced that actual levitation takes place through this process I am more open to the idea that the meditation itself changes the meditators perception of time.
If you can remember an instance of your own reflex-speed thought, for example falling, or having an accident, having to react with your reflexes rather than thinking first, then time can appear to slow down, the accident seems to happen in slow motion. Or least it does when you recall it if nothing else. Your awareness of your surroundings becomes hyper sensitive and your mind processes information at what would appear to be an incredible speed in comparison to how we think in less stressed times. If you can enter this state while meditating, then a simple hop could be extended and appear to the hopper to last much longer than it would to an objective observer.
However, nowadays sci-fi ‘owns’ levitation. It is unusual to watch a sci-fi film that does not employ some form of anti-gravity control. Space ships hover in mid air with no apparent propulsion. Superheroes use mysterious powers to defy gravity and objects (sometimes cities) routinely float unsupported. We see it so often we accept it as an alternative reality. The film makers don’t need to explain each instance of this counter-physics phenomenon.
Spiritualists also claim to be able to float, to levitate. They call upon the spirits of dear departed ones to enable them to raise themselves or an object as a proof of their ability to commune with the dead. Magicians also levitate themselves, their assistants or objects. Sometimes as a way of debunking the fraudulent claims of the psychics, but more often to amaze and entertain. We know that levitation is not straightforward (except in sci-fi films) because we all experience gravity as a fact of living. Our human desire to grow wings and fly is also our desire to break free of gravity and float. Magical levitation creates wonderment. We know that the magician is tricking us because we know that levitation should not be possible, but we do not know how they are fooling us. To know how is to lose the wonder because wonderment is a state of pleasurable not-knowing. As Georges Bataille described:
‘the self is forced to remain in intolerable non-knowledge, which has no other way out than ecstasy’.
We know that magnets can repel other magnets. We may be aware that magnets are used to pick up large pieces of metal or to levitate trains like the Maglev. Therefore, we can imagine that magnets could be used to create larger scale levitation. Perhaps this is why we so readily accept the preponderance of gravity defying acts in film.
I tried to make my own magnetic levitation platform using some strong magnets. I know it is possible because I have seen small scale levitation platforms used for shop displays etc. Making one yourself, however, is not straightforward. Magnetic force is inherently chaotic. My opposing magnets had plenty of repulsion power but were so chaotic that I couldn’t achieve stable levitation. So I bought a small levitation platform from China. It uses a combination of conventional magnets and electromagnets to enable another magnet, the platform, to hover two centimetres above it.
Instantly I am enchanted.
My fascination for magnets is unbounded. I love the invisible force that exists between magnets, this tangible, physical flux that I cannot see. I can feel its strength and I can see it’s consequence, but the force itself remains invisible. I can now make small objects levitate.
Watching a levitated object is in itself a form of meditation. I can see the gap between the surface and the object hovering just above it. I can sense that something is creating a cushion that supports the levitating object. Yet the cushion is both transparent and totally permeable. I can run my fingers through it with no sensation, no resistance.
I can imagine that if my human perception could ‘see’ magnetic force then the world would appear very different and my understanding of reality would include being able to ‘see’ north.
 George Bataille in Simon Morley, The Sublime (London/Cambridge, Mass: Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press, 2010). p. 90