Law of attraction vs principle of reflection

I first came across the law of attraction years ago, during the hype around ‘The Secret’ book and movie.

It had some appeal, since I’ve always felt there was more to life and reality than our conventional experience. I’d studied philosophy, delved into mysticism, metaphysics, and psychology, and while much ‘New Age’ stuff is dubious, there’s a clear extension of themes and efforts from religious and spiritual traditions into the supposedly new realm of New Age material.

A few years back, while feeling far more cynical, I looked into the history of the New Age movement and found that much of it could be traced back to the New Thought movement, which in turn was a kind of esoteric re-working of Christianity. New Thought emerged from the same roots as Christian Science.

What bothered me initially about the law of attraction was that it didn’t seem to work, and I ended up quite skeptical of it.

But then a few years ago I began to notice something unusual in my life. I’d spent a lot of time introspecting and had become aware of certain patterns of thought, feeling, and behaviour in me.

Those patterns were quite familiar, but what changed is that I came to realise the more important events and interactions in my life were following the same patterns.

That in itself is not necessarily mysterious. What was mysterious was that when I recognised what was going on – that my experience of life was reflecting these inner patterns of thought and feeling – everything shifted.

Although it seemed that my external experience was making me feel anxious or sad or angry or frustrated, the truth was that I already had within me that pattern or dynamic of negative feeling, and I was somehow recreating it in my external experience.

I came to think of this not as “attraction” but as “reflection”, but the point is probably moot.

More recently I’ve discovered that the better exponents of the “law of attraction” are actually focused on the quality of our feelings moreso than the promise of getting rich and having the life you want.

Or more to the point, they argue that having the life you want is first and foremost about being happy, not about feeling dependent on external experiences to overcome your negative emotional set-point.

With a “trigger warning” for those averse to New Age/New Thought material, what I’ve found the most helpful is the writing of a woman named Esther Hicks. As far as New Age contexts go, Hicks is unapologetically far out there. But I have to admit that once I got past the cringe, I’ve found the underlying message to be extremely helpful.

The message, in essence, is to feel better. Feeling better is achieved by focusing on things that feel good instead of things that feel bad.

As someone who has spent most of his life feeling bad, I find this message breathtaking in its scope and significance. If you’ve followed my posts on introverted Feeling in the Myers-Briggs system, this approach is perhaps the ultimate Fi-dominant attitude to life.

If you’ve followed my posts on the idealism of the melancholic temperament, you’ll find that this approach to life fully embraces the melancholic genius, by depreciating “reality” in favour of the meaning and ideals that we yearn for.

Who would have thought that you could find happiness by focusing on the things that make you happy?

But whereas this might sound like willful ignorance or blindness to life’s problems, the knowledge that life reflects your own internal dynamic means that finding happiness is also the most effective way to improve your life and the lives of those around you.

I’ve seen in my own life that recurring negative patterns of experience are inescapable. We keep recreating them, because they reflect an unexamined and uncontested internal dynamic.

As I explored in my previous post: you could say of any persistently negative, recurring situation or feeling that even though you don’t like it or enjoy it, you do want it. It is the outcome or net product of one or more forgotten or unexamined desires within you.

If you feel bad all the time, there is part of you that either wants to feel bad, or needs you to feel bad as a means of achieving something else that you want. Maybe you value your identity as a martyr or victim? You can’t have that identity without feeling martyred or victimised.

Maybe you like to feel that you’re part of a special minority who alone know the truth? You can’t have that unless you’re surrounded by an ignorant majority that reject your truth.

These thoughts might make you feel good, but only in the context of feeling bad. To feel unconditionally good is therefore impossible unless you give up these aspects of your identity.

My focus on feeling good has already shown me myriad ways in which I instead choose to feel bad. One of the most insidious is that I identify myself with a kind of inward struggle. Identifying with struggle is implicitly endless….if I see myself as one who finds answers or overcomes obstacles, I’ll spend the rest of my life finding questions I need to answer and obstacles I need to overcome.

The real answer is very simple. Just feel good.

For me that currently seems to involve equal parts letting go of negative thoughts and briefly analysing negative thoughts. Some seem to require a bit of patience and untangling, but I think it’s increasingly just a matter of letting go.

When I feel bad, do I really need to know why I feel bad? It’s far more important to know how to feel good.

And typically, actually feeling good helps you transcend the problem, making it all clearer in hindsight than you could ever make it by dwelling on the negative part of your experience.

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Do you create your own reality?

Remember the Law of Attraction?

It became popular in 2006 thanks to the book and film “The Secret”, but the idea has been around for a while as part of the New Thought movement.

The Law of Attraction always bothered me because it seemed incomplete. The promise of changing reality simply by changing our thoughts seemed too good to be true, or to be the complete truth.

On the one hand, I’ve seen in my own life that perceptions can, for all intents and purposes, blind me to possibilities and realities that are outside my experience or my expectations.

Likewise, there is plenty of psychological evidence to support the claim that we create – if not our reality – then our fully immersive interpretation of reality, through cognitive and perceptual biases.

But New Thought wants to go much further than that, claiming that reality itself is dependent on the content or tone of our thoughts, with some going so far as to claim that reality exists in order to mirror back to us the contents of our own thoughts.

I wrote some time ago about the paradox at the heart of the law of attraction, but lately I’ve been reflecting on another, deeper paradox, and I think we can now reconcile the two.

While the law of attraction people were encouraging us to write imaginary cheques or bank statements to help us feel rich, or build scrapbooks of our dream home or dream car, dream partner or dream career, what they failed to clarify was that the you who wants to create a more satisfying reality is as much a creation of your thoughts as anything else.

Your thoughts create reality, but on what side of the equation does your sense of self and your many desires fall? Do you create or control your thoughts? Or are you yourself a product of your thoughts and impressions?

It may be true that your thoughts create your reality, but that doesn’t mean you can willfully control your thoughts or your reality.

That’s because your sense of self is as much a construct and creation as anything else in your experience. It has more in common with the objects of sensation than with the subject – consciousness – at the very heart of it.

So let’s revise the law of attraction thinking: your thoughts create your reality, including your own self and identity. This self or identity is a product of your thoughts, not the origin or producer.

That’s why all the encouragement to focus on and think about your desires should be viewed with ambivalence, because it implicitly reinforces an illusory sense of control, the idea that you can have whatever you want if you just want it with enough effort and focus.

Your thoughts create your reality, including the sense of a self who has control over its own thoughts.

That probably wouldn’t sell as many books as promising people all the wealth and success they think they need, deserve, or desire, but it does explain why those promises fell short.

Incidentally, this is why New Age and New Thought sources often invoke the concept of your true self or higher self. It is in part a valid attempt to depreciate your self-centred desires and illusion of control. It’s an attempt to talk directly to the ‘self’ behind the curtain, the real source of your thoughts and impressions.

The higher/true self idea can be found in the far older Upanishads, which describe the self as two birds sitting on a tree.

Some have argued that the same idea is echoed in St Paul’s depiction of the Inner and Outer man.

This is why mysticism contains the theme of enlightenment as remembering who you really are, or realising the source of all your thoughts and impressions as something mysterious, hidden, and divine.  Likewise it is the outer self, the illusory self that must die or be denied – be recognised as a product, a construct, a creation, rather than the creator.

As the commentary on the “two birds” analogy put it:

We are drowned, submerged, in the deadly ocean of samsara, of continual birth, death, pain and pleasure. Sankara points out that the individual self is overwhelmed with confusion because it cannot understand what is really happening to it, and why. Just like a piece of driftwood on the heaving sea, it is lifted up and down, thrown onto the shore and then pulled out to sea again. So it grieves at its helplessness and hopelessness.

All is changed, though, when the individual sees, right in the core of his being, the very God he has been hitherto worshipping as separate from himself. Experiencing within his own being the presence and the glory of God–and thereby realizing that glory as his own–the individual becomes liberated from sorrow.

This doesn’t mean – can never mean – that the deluded, flawed, illusory sense of self is God. But it points to the Imago Dei of the inner man, the “Christ born in us”, the participation of the individual being in the divine Being of our creator.

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?

‘Overcoming’ Auto-immune disease

I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease about five years ago. Since then I’ve intermittently tried to comprehend the cause and etiology of the disease, necessarily going well beyond the limits or context of scientific research.

While there are various studies showing interesting links between aspects of psychology (for example, childhood trauma) and chronic illness in later life, there is a dearth of solid research saying “Zac, this is why you suffer from the immunological analog of punching yourself in the face.”

I’m mostly unapologetic about delving into the kinds of material that some might describe as “new age horseshit” but at the same time I’m increasingly weary and wary of those who accept uncritically the assurances of wealthy, slickly marketed gurus whose message of love, peace, and healing is now available in downloadable format for the one-time offer of $29.95 (monthly subscription).

You only have to look at the most prominent of these new age scions to realise that they show all the signs of being Choleric by temperament, which, in the context of a charismatic marketing campaign based on literally telling sick, sad, and suffering people exactly what they want to hear, does not guarantee that they are frauds, shysters and snake-oil salesmen.  But it does suggest that the supposedly Divine, Transcendent Life-Force or Energy Welling Up From Deep Inside Them™ and inspiring their benevolent mission of love and peace to all humanity looks and sounds a lot like their own ego.

Nonetheless, I can’t afford to wait for scientists to unravel the mysteries of our physical makeup, and the same desire for understanding that led me into philosophy and the study of religion leaves me pretty damn open-minded about the theoretical basis for a pragmatic approach to health and sickness. In other words, if someone wants to argue that the body is a holographic projection of the mind, I’m open to it. But if believing this does nothing, then it remains just an empty possibility, and I have no use for it.

One theoretical context that has provided some value is the work of Dr John Sarno, who came to prominence some decades ago for arguing that many forms of chronic pain are a biological response to an emotional or psychological cause. Coming from something of a Freudian background, he argued that the pain was real, but it was caused by the brain attempting to distract itself from emotional turmoil. Sarno believed that this chronic pain could be overcome simply by accepting its true cause, effectively seeing through the brain’s attempt at self-distraction.

This is only a rough summary of the theory and associated methodology. It is not a broad theory, in the sense that Sarno accepts the legitimacy of genuine physical injuries, diseases, and illnesses; he merely wishes to add this particular syndrome to the panoply of diagnoses and hence treatments. I do not think, for example, that my condition is discussed in Sarno’s books, or if he considers autoimmune conditions to be an expression of the same mechanism.

So if you read something like this sincere account of a person’s struggle to overcome an autoimmune disease by confronting underlying emotional trauma and consequent psychological self-abuse, you can hopefully look past any confusing or confronting references to “new age” themes, and see that he is describing roughly the same underlying mechanism as that proffered, to greater mainstream acclaim, by Sarno.

I’ve mentioned previously in the context of temperaments that the melancholic is prone to physical ailments, and also that the melancholic must, according to Conrad Hock, learn to love suffering. While I’ve interpreted this previously as a brake against the forces of perfectionist idealism, the account above presents it as a means of reaffirming the feeling faculty at the heart of the melancholic temperament.

As the author describes:

My physical healing process began when I realized that tensing against and resisting my severe physical pain was itself a form of stress that added to my illness.

In a similar way, I’ve wondered if even my attempts to root out and uncover the causes of my illness are paradoxically contributing to the stress and intensity that drive it? The further paradox might be that this disease is not something that you overcome, since the illness itself entails confusion over where exactly ‘you’ begin and end in the first place.

If I take my chronic auto-immune disease as a kind of gestalt image of my life in the world, then it is clear that something is not working.  But that I would feel ‘fine’ if not for the pain and other symptoms, tells me that I am missing something more subtle, more profound, or just very deeply ingrained. It may even be, as the author attests, Sarno suggests, and the life of a melancholic implies, that I have learned to function at odds with my own nature.

Discovering the New Age author within

In the past I toyed with the idea of becoming a ‘spiritual writer’ or producing self-help books, but held back because I thought it wasn’t enough to be able to talk the talk. I’ve since learned that actual virtue, enlightenment, or profound wisdom and compassion are not necessary; you only have to tell people that you have these amazing qualities, and maintain the appearance of having them. It turns out that the only obstacle to pursuing such a path is being able to live with yourself while you tell people things they want to hear in exchange for money.

When I was devouring religious and mystical texts in my youth the boundaries between mysticism and early New Age figures were quite flexible. You could go from reading books on Zen and Sufism to something on the ‘Fourth Way’ of George Gurdjieff, and assume he was someone who had followed the same path: studying diverse sects and texts and arriving at a method that captured the essence of a spiritual path without the pitfalls of ‘organised religion’. (It turns out that Gurdjieff’s students – in particular his female students – were less successful in avoiding the pitfalls of charismatic, idiosyncratic, sexually exploitative ‘spiritual teachers’.)

Likewise, many books on self-help and psychotherapy took inspiration from Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist themes, or from a kind of syncretic Jungian melange. Such texts were derivative of religious themes, and right or wrong, seemed sincere in their intent to go deeper into the nature of the mind and of reality. I read many such books, bringing an undergraduate philosophical approach to their logic and structure, keen to find any unique elements or novel perspectives that might shed light on my own experiences. Some of it was genuinely helpful, and quite amenable to an individual already committed to questioning and pondering the meaning of life and the nature of reality.

So when I read German spiritual author Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”, I could see pretty clearly what he was doing. All the elements were there, if not quite of the “Hero’s Journey” then at least the “New Age writer’s journey”: a troubled youth, a period of intense questioning and despair, a plunge into ‘the abyss’ a la the Dark Night of the Soul, a return in the guise of the Holy Fool who sits on park benches in a state of enlightened bliss, a career dispensing wisdom that grows organically, and finally a book that hits the New York Times bestseller list after an all-important endorsement from Oprah.

In terms of temperament, Tolle would most likely be melancholic – an idealist shaped by his struggle with existential despair. In terms of provenance, the esoteric tone and content of Tolle’s work are reminiscent of his early theosophical influences, reportedly through the work of the German theosophist Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken.

Best described as “a sort of New Age re-working of Zen”, Tolle’s work has some interesting ideas in it, but if it weren’t for the Oprah endorsement might well be sitting in relative obscurity commensurate with the arcane tone of the book.

I have a bit of a soft spot for Eckhart Tolle. He looks like a mole that has just climbed out its burrow and is sitting, squinting and disoriented in the daylight. Others have described him as ‘elfin’, but I think the word they’re looking for is ‘gnome-like’.

As such, he lacks the choleric self-confidence of his New Age comrades, those who fall more in the ‘motivational speaker’ and ‘personal development’ categories. Writers and speakers like Dr Wayne Dyer, who counters Tolle’s depressed, esoteric, European persona with the broad openness and plain talk of an American self-made man. If Tolle is gnome-like, Dyer looks like he might eat a gnome. There’s nothing especially esoteric about Dyer’s work, and his focus on motivation, success, and opportunity with a spiritual vibe are well suited to an American audience.

I’m not suggesting that either Tolle or Dyer are frauds, but surely at least one of you reading can see how easy it would be to fake and embellish a rich spiritual journey, and begin projecting to others the kind of enlightened guru they want to see?

The public appetite for spiritual nourishment is unabated despite or perhaps because of the challenges to traditional Christianity in Europe, the US, and indeed Australia. I’ve seen first-hand that people can be astoundingly credulous, willing to believe anything that bears Oprah’s Imprimatur, while reserving their cynicism for the religion of their birth.

With an estimated net worth of $15 million and $20 million respectively, Tolle and Dyer demonstrate there is no longer any need to associate spiritual wisdom with temporal poverty. So do you want to become a New Age writer? The audience is willing to believe – you just have to believe in yourself.