What is reality, really?

The basic premise of “positive thinking” is that “your thoughts create your reality”.

One of the obstacles I’ve encountered is a narrow or limited interpretation of “reality”.

In the beginning I think I intentionally partitioned “the reality shaped by my thoughts” off from “actual reality”, because…well let’s face it: positive thinking material sounds like cringe-worthy new-age rubbish.

But at the same time I knew from philosophy of mind and psychology that our beliefs do shape our mood and our experience, and that our perceptions are highly malleable.

I also knew from personal experience that a change in belief or perception can have results that seem nigh-miraculous.

And because of my broader spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, I don’t have any trouble with the idea of actual miracles either.

But still, I maintained a kind of distinction between the “reality” I was seeking to change, and actual reality; and this distinction is problematic.

It’s problematic because if I can conceive of a reality apart from my all-encompassing experience of reality, then I can have thoughts and beliefs about that “real reality” that contradict or undermine what I’m trying to achieve in changing my thoughts.

So long as I hold on to a distinction between subjective and objective reality, there’s going to be some wriggle room or ambiguity in my work.

It’s the same as my recovery from my auto-immune disease. For a long time I investigated the psychogenic aspect of it, while still refusing to commit to a psychogenic cause. Once I finally accepted that the cause was psychological, only then did I make progress in overcoming the pain.

I only improved once I chose to believe that my physical symptoms were an expression of psychological stress.

So what is reality?

It’s a tautology, but I can’t experience anything beyond my own subjective experience.

Etymologically, “reality” comes from “res” which means “thing”.

Reality is just “all the things”.

We can’t disprove the subjectivist position that things only exist in our own experience of them, nor the skeptical position that we cannot know anything about reality beyond our experience of it, nor even the solipsist position that all reality might well exist only within my own mind.

Philosophers can argue about it, but we aren’t really looking for a philosophical position here.

What we’re looking for is the relationship between our thoughts, our feelings, and “all the things” of our experience.

What we want is to feel better, with the understanding that we have the power to change our feelings by changing our thoughts, and that this in turn will change our experience.

There’s only one “thing”

The testimony of mystics is that “all the things” are really just one thing — the expression and manifestation of a single divine being.

Our suffering and misery as humans comes from the identifying or “reification” of the one into many, and the attribution of independent existence and power to those many things – ourselves included.

Independence and separation give rise to thoughts of abandonment, of harm, of things going wrong. The moment we start thinking that we exist in a world of isolated things, we lose the freedom and grace of the divine spirit within us.

The metaphysical significance or “divine plan” behind delusion, sin, and evil varies between religions, but the important point is that it isn’t real, it doesn’t have independent existence; the divine alone exists.

When we think of reality as something “out there” with independent existence, and maybe (as my previous post explored) malicious or callous or corrosive to our well-being, we suffer.

We suffer just from thinking of it that way, let alone shifting our perception to seek out evidence that it is that way.

If I view “all the things” as existing out there, with their own independent existence and power, and I myself striving and struggling against them, then of course I feel bad.

What are “all the things” really? They are aspects of my experience, objects of my consciousness, forms and ingredients of this mysterious stream of awareness.

Do they really have their own existence, their own power?

Two realities become one

All my negative experiences have in common a kind of deference to external reality and power, a falling-back into the thought of things “out there” that aren’t the way I want them to be.

I view things as having their own existence and power, and therefore I imagine potential negative consequences if I don’t respond to them in the correct way.

Providence, grace, insight, wisdom, there are various names for it in different traditions, but altogether there’s a common understanding that the power of the divine, the one thing that actually exists, transcends and entirely overcomes the flawed sense that I’m an isolated human being struggling in a multifarious universe.

That’s why detachment, recollection, withdrawal from “worldly” concerns is a prominent theme in mysticism. But not for its own sake, only to allow us to come into alignment with the one.

In terms of “positive thinking” that means changing our thoughts to allow for providence or divine help to come to the fore in our experience, filling in all the gaps and drawing us into the flow that has always awaited us.

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The paradox of “you create your own reality”

Years ago I spent some time reading “law of attraction” material.

I ended up quite skeptical about it for two reasons: firstly because I tried it and it didn’t work (more on this in a moment); secondly because the primary advocates of the law of attraction were making money by selling the law of attraction, and using their success in this enterprise as evidence in favour of the law of attraction. This implied not so much that the law of attraction can bring you success, but that selling people on the law of attraction can bring you success.

At the same time it’s impossible to really argue that the law of attraction “didn’t work”, because according to the theory (depending on which version you come across) the law of attraction is always working.  Your beliefs are always and continuously shaping your reality, and it’s a moot point whether you take that to mean literally altering the external world or merely filtering your perception of life’s possibilities and horizons.

Either way, what really struck me about the law of attraction is the paradox of investigating and attempting to exploit a law that is theoretically already operative in every single aspect of your internal and external world – including your attempts to exploit this law.

Which means we have to view “law of attraction”-related behaviours (buying and reading books on the topic, thinking about the law of attraction a lot, trying to “manifest” good things into your life) not as evidence of people really understanding and using the law of attraction for their own benefit, but of people wanting to feel that they are understanding and using it, while being ultimately disappointed.

It’s like the lottery. You could say that people who play the lottery want to be winners. But to be more precise we should say that such people want the experience of a faint glimmer of excitement every week, followed by routine disappointment. They want the remote possibility of being winners, without much risk of actually winning and upsetting their whole lives.

If the law of attraction is true, then many of us are somehow deeply satisfied by the experience of repeatedly failing to win the lottery.

The continued popularity of the law of attraction can therefore be understood as an expression of the same wish to flirt with success without actually experiencing it.  Trying to “manifest” a new car by really really wanting it is no different from ticking off your “lucky numbers” each week in hopes of hitting the jackpot.

Trying to use the law of attraction to improve your life reminds me of that scene in Life of Brian where the crowd obediently chants in unison: “Yes, we are all individuals!” It’s a kind of self-refuting idea like “this statement is false” because seeking to utilise the law of attraction to improve your life implies that you really do wish to improve your life. But if you really did wish to improve your life, then according to the law of attraction your life would already be improved.

This paradox is covered by some of the law of attraction materials, where they claim that people often fail to distinguish between a wish or desire and an affirmation of scarcity or lack. That is to say: a person might think “I want to be rich”, but the law of attraction hears “I hate being poor”, and it’s the latter “vibration” that has creative power.

People read such commentary and conclude that they should therefore not only focus intently on the things they desire so that the universe can dutifully “manifest” them into existence, but that to do so successfully they must control how they feel about these desired objects. I want more money, but whenever I think about it I feel desperate and scared of not having enough. So instead I must try to think about it in a positive way, feeling hopeful and joyful and optimistic about wealth.

Trying to force a change in your feelings implies a kind of violence against yourself, and I wouldn’t recommend it. But more importantly, here again is the paradox of control.  You think you can control what you want and how you feel, with the implication that you want to want something other than what you currently want. It’s a “free will” complication, and more profound than people realise.

Let’s reiterate: if the law of attraction is true, then you already have what you want, and this includes your apparent desire to want differently, your dissatisfaction with what you currently have.

It would make more sense to use the law of attraction as a kind of diagnostic tool for examining your own deeply held beliefs and desires, examining the struggles and major themes of your life. If you struggle with money, then the law of attraction implies that you want to experience struggle; the proof is in how your life unfolds.

This paradox is not confined to the law of attraction movement:

“Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

This famous line from the Gospel is the nexus point of New Thought positive thinking, its quasi-Christian prosperity-Gospel equivalent, and the lived tradition of the Christian church.

It raises the same ambiguity: are we supposed to try harder to believe that we have received the things we pray for? Or is our belief or non-belief supposed to indicate whether the thing we pray for will come to pass? This conundrum leaves us with the horrible spectacle of sick people wondering whether God wants them to be ill despite their prayers, or if they are supposed to somehow make themselves believe, have more of the necessary faith to effect a miraculous healing.

In the orthodox Christian tradition, faith – belief – is viewed as a gift. Your belief in the tenets of Christianity is something caused in you by God. But even this claim goes to the heart of an intellectualist-voluntarist debate within Christianity and Western Philosophy more broadly, a debate I only learned about through the early stages of my now defunct PhD project.

At the heart of the debate is the question of which is prior: the intellect or the will? From my reading of the problem, it seems that intellectualists are inclined to see human beings as something close to an intelligent automaton, like a robot from science fiction, that follows its programming with great sensitivity and complexity yet is programmed nonetheless. We act according to reasons. There is no point at which we simply will without the guidance of reasons provided by our understanding, our beliefs.

Voluntarists object to the view of will as dependent on the movement of the intellect, arguing that it diminishes the freedom of the will and amounts to a form of determinism. Voluntarists maintain that we can will independently of the advice provided by our intellect, going against our own better judgment, or acting without consideration at all.

So even in the supposedly “new age” movement, this old debate remains relevant. If the law of attraction follows our thoughts and desires, what do our thoughts and desires follow? Can I simply will to have different thoughts and desires? Or must a change in my thinking and willing come about through a change in my understanding?

Without even attempting to settle the old debate here, I wonder if the problems presented by the law of attraction theory would make more sense when viewed from an intellectualist rather than a voluntarist view?

What we have is a situation where reality allegedly responds to one’s thoughts and desires, yet where our thoughts and desires are not necessarily transparent or trustworthy to us.

Not only are they not transparent or trustworthy, but they prove much harder to alter and influence than many law of attraction believers have hoped.

From an intellectualist perspective, this makes a great deal of sense. You have not arrived at your present thoughts and desires by accident. It has taken years of experience and compelling reasons to form your deepest beliefs and desires. Nor can you simply change those experiences or those reasons simply by having a superficial desire for change.

More to the point, as implied in an earlier paragraph, it is entirely appropriate and reasonable that certain people would be drawn to the law of attraction theory, and reiterate superficial desires for a better life. There are reasons why some people find the theory believable, and others do not.

There is perhaps more to be gained by people interested in the law of attraction theory if they were to reflect on why they are interested in it in the first place. Why are you receptive to it? Even on its own terms, the law of attraction theory promises that the answer to this question will be quite revealing.

Beyond that, the desire to change your beliefs and desires is nonetheless still a desire. And the belief that you can change your beliefs is still a belief. What if the crux of the problem is not how successfully you can change them, but what to make of the inner conflict they imply?