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.

All thoughts come from the same place

I feel like I’m in control of my thoughts, choices, actions. It’s as though I’m steering myself through life, trying to avoid obstacles and collect rewards along the way.

And right behind the steering wheel is ‘me’, a sense of self that is possessive, vulnerable to harm, and carries with it a persistent identity.

Buddhism tells us that if we observe this sense of self closely we’ll find that there is no substance to it. It’s made up of multiple thoughts, ideas, and images. Like a trompe l’oeil or optical illusion, these thoughts and impressions create the mental illusion of a substantial self where none exists.

But who is the subject of this illusion?

The mind is the subject, or in some traditions it is pure consciousness itself.

The problem for humanity then is that we think we are these possessive, vulnerable and persistent selves subject to fear and craving, when in fact we are minds, or consciousness.

Or to put it another way: we are minds that mistakenly identify with these illusory selves.

These illusory selves might be possessive, fearful, and full of craving, but our minds are not, our consciousness is not.

Asking the wrong questions

But why do our minds identify with this illusory self? Why do they try so hard to sustain the illusion? And how can we finally dispel the illusion?

These are (in my case at least) the wrong questions to ask, because I am asking them with the assumption that I can gain understanding, maybe work out where it’s all going wrong, and then fix it.

In other words, I’m treating the “illusion of a self” as just another obstacle to steer myself through.

The roots of the illusion run deep. The mind is deeply deluded. Ultimately there’s nothing you can do to free yourself, because anything “you” can do will just be part of the illusion.

All thoughts come from the same place

But even these wrong questions are not coming from “me”, because both the questions and the sense of self are coming from the same place, from mind or consciousness.

If all thoughts come from the same place, then whether we are deluded or enlightened is beyond “our” control. And whether we stay deluded or cease being deluded is likewise beyond our control.

Recognising this truth is itself a step toward enlightenment. Enlightenment being ultimately freedom from the heavy delusion of this possessive, vulnerable, fearful and desirous self that the mind believes it must maintain.

Nowhere to lay your head

Buddhists go to a subjective extreme: everything in your experience is a thought-form or impression arising out of the emptiness of pure consciousness, persisting for a moment, and then falling away back into that same emptiness – the whole time not truly other than emptiness.

Christianity goes to an objective extreme: all beings are contingent on the divine being for their nature and existence. We exist only via limited participation in God’s being, who is pure being-itself.

In either case, we can take refuge in the objective reality of God or the subjective reality of ’emptiness’ as our true home and true self.

But in the meantime, inquiry, practice and diligent effort seem to be a part of the progress toward liberation from the illusion of self, until we arrive at the point where any further effort is counter-productive.

As one famous Hindu mystic put it, it’s like using a stick to poke and stir a fire. When you’re done with it, you throw the stick in to burn as well.

There is a crack in everything

Years ago a friend gave me a ‘page-a-day’ calendar of quotations and sayings that were meant to evoke a kind of Zen-like wisdom.

At first I loved it. I trawled through and accumulated a set of my favourites.

Years later I hated it. I wondered who had picked the quotations, and what mercantile interest had crafted this bizarre interplay of culture and commercialism.

But the inspiration was genuine, and the care of my friend was sincere. So over time I’ve come back to appreciating the meaning behind it.

One of the quotations I remembered well was a verse from a song by Leonard Cohen.

I subsequently came to admire Cohen, and have been listening to his music in the wake of his death this year.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

That crack in everything – the gaps we feel in our own existence – our instinct is to fill the gap, to seek immersion in pleasure, power, or profit. We want to distract ourselves from the emptiness at the edges of our existence.

The heart of all vices, compulsions, and evil lies in our impulse – part fear and part desire – to consolidate our grip on life. We fear our limits, we fear the holes life punches through our veil of self-control.

If we could only become something better, achieve something more, cover over the gaps, then life would feel complete.

But completion lies in the opposite direction.

It’s not the holes that are the problem, it’s the rest of the veil. It’s the thin layer of pride that we try to stretch across the whole of our existence.

We fear losing control, but the control itself was always an illusion. Even our fear is an illusion within an illusion, because we can’t control that either.

So when the holes are getting bigger, as the veil begins to thin, our fear might even increase.

‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom.’

People interpret this to mean that we should fear God, as if that’s a smart choice. But wisdom in Christianity is not just a state of having knowledge, it is an aspect of God. Wisdom is divine. We could just as well say that fear accompanies God’s presence, because our pride cannot abide Him.

The holes in our pride, the gaps and limits of our self-control are reality shining through a delusion we keep alive only through our own mistaken efforts.

The delusion, the mistaken efforts, we don’t really know where they began or what drives them. It isn’t our self-control, since that does not exist.

It’s a terrifying thought, when all that is left is our desire to hang on to control against what looks like darkness, emptiness and death.

But at some point that veil will be torn in two, and we will realise that what seemed like darkness was a light too bright for us to see.

When you grapple with a problem

In the previous post on sickness and pride I suggested that we should view our frustration with the common cold as pointing to the deeper problem of our pride, or the illusion of a self that is in control.

This false sense of control and the often accompanying sense of frustration is everywhere in life. But it is usually at its worst when we face obstacles and challenges, when we are struggling and feel like life is not unfolding as we’d like it to.

That’s why suffering has special value in religious traditions – when things are going well for us our pride and illusion of self are unassailable. It takes inevitable suffering and disappointment to reveal the sharp edges of these faults.

So we can treat all problems as we may treat the cold: recognise the struggle, the sense of control, and the frustration as illusory. The impression of a self at the center of these feelings is just an impression, not an actual self, so our suffering and struggle can become perfect reminders that we are in the grip of delusion and pride.

A moment of change occurs, in which we see through the illusion, if only briefly.

With this change comes the recognition that it was not brought about through “my” efforts, because the me who feels responsible for those efforts has temporarily vanished.

When it vanishes, so do the problems and the struggles that hitherto seemed so distressing.

I think this is the secret to the Daoist concept of wu wei – acting without acting:

The way never acts, yet nothing is left undone.
Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it,
The myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord.
After they are transformed, should desire raise its head,
I shall press it down with the weight of the nameless uncarved block.
The nameless uncarved block
Is but freedom from desire,
And if I cease to desire and remain still,
The empire will be at peace of its own accord.

Acting without acting is another way of saying that the illusion of a self who is in control becomes transparent.

The illusion of a self who is in control is like thinking that you can manipulate the weather with your thoughts. If you really believed that, your life would be full of pointless struggle and frustration, illusory successes and inevitable failures.

But then there’s the paradox once more: that whether you believe it or not is also something not under the control of an illusory self.

Nonetheless, this insight can unfold throughout your life. Maybe it happens suddenly for some. For me it is unfolding slowly, one area of life at a time as I seem to remember or realise that it is applicable in this aspect of life or in that struggle also.

What can you learn from the common cold?

I’ve been sick this past week.

Sickness is always challenging, spiritually as well as physically, because the central theme of our pride and sense of self is to seek pleasure and happiness while avoiding suffering and pain.

Sickness is synonymous with suffering, but it is also a direct challenge to our sense of self-control. Painful or unpleasant symptoms highlight the limits of our control at the most intimate border of body and mind. Our fragile sense of self arcs up in response to these threatening sensations and loss of control.

So my recent bout of a bad cold was frustrating. I felt like I couldn’t accept the symptoms, and I kept trying to find ways to avoid them, deny them, or reject them. It was quite pitiful.

At the same time, it was hard to find the mental space and clarity I needed. It was hard to even recall what I believed about my mind and my self. Eventually I gave up looking for meaning and dosed myself with pseudo-ephedrine tablets.

But now that the symptoms are disappearing and I’m returning to normal, I’m retracing my feverish steps and looking for meaning in the sore throat and blocked sinuses once more.

Do you control your body?

One thing that became clear during the sickness was my deeply ingrained sense of control over my body.

I’ve written extensively about the illusion of control, the illusion of “self”, but have been thinking of it broadly in terms of choices and actions. Sickness reveals how much deeper this sense of control goes, because at the meeting of body and mind our emotions and other somatic sensations respond automatically to our mental states without being ‘willed’ or chosen.

This is significant, because although our sense of control is an illusion, it is a convincing one, and our emotions or passions respond as if it is real.

If our mind persists with the illusion of a “self” then our body responds accordingly, eliciting the somatic states we know as desire, anger, sorrow, joy, and so on.

But when we are sick, our body no longer responds as usual. We no longer receive the biofeedback of consistent emotions, and so our sense of control is challenged, as is the consistency of our internal narrative.

Self-inflicted suffering

Ironically, the symptoms of the common cold are all produced by our own immune system, and there is good evidence that stress increases the severity of those symptoms. It’s not the virus that causes your nose to run, your throat to ache and your temperature to rise; these are defense mechanisms against the perceived threat of the virus.

Stress increases the severity of symptoms because the emotional threat of stress triggers inflammatory defences. It’s the old problem of your body failing to distinguish between physical threats and emotional ones.

It’s possible that being stressed primes your immune system to respond more aggressively than it needs to. Thus a stressful period in life seems to coincide with illness. In my own experience, the symptoms of my autoimmune condition have always corresponded to some kind of stressful stimulus.

The role of stress and inflammation in a variety of illnesses is a growing area of research with a great deal of promise, and of particular interest to people suffering autoimmune conditions.

Pride is the root of all sin

In Christian terms, the illusion of self is interpreted as pride. Not pride in the sense of feeling good about accomplishments or good qualities, but pride in the sense of wishing to be the author and agent of our own greatness. As Aquinas wrote in reference to the fall of Lucifer:

 he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

This desire – this pride – gives rise to all other forms of wrongful desire in the same way that persevering with the illusion of self embroils our minds and bodies in a mess of compensatory and destructive responses.

The emotional link

Our minds keep filling our internal narrative with the recurring theme in which we save the day, save ourselves, redeem ourselves in some form. What this meditation on sickness has shown is that our emotional state responds to this internal narrative, this pride, this illusion of self as if it is true – rejoicing in our triumphs and lamenting our failures, or more often endlessly hoping and dreading about future outcomes.

That’s why pride is often said to make us “puffed up” or inflated. Pride is not merely a false belief, it is also a physiological state.

That’s also why emotional responses like anger, fear, envy, craving and sorrow are often indicators of underlying pride and a self-centered mind. We might pretend to be selfless and humble, because in our pride we wish to be seen as virtuous. But when other people’s successes fill us with envy, or we sit paralysed with fear at where life may be headed, or we crave distraction and escape from our feelings of incompleteness, at those moments our pride and delusion of self are revealed.

This emotional aspect of our illusion of self is significant. It’s like the soundtrack to a movie – you may not always be conscious of it, but the video will seem thin and distant without it. Emotional responses help keep us immersed in our internal narrative, longing for fulfillment while ever vigilant for threats.

The answer, yet again, is to recognise that I do not have control, because my sense of self is an illusion. It is a “puffed up” thought of my own importance, a desire to be like God.

And the paradox, yet again, is that I cannot recognise anything, for that exact same reason.

 

Melancholic Facades and the Challenge of Sincerity

Melancholics learn to interact with people through a facade. At the same time, they hate to be subject to duplicity or manipulation by others.

This inconsistency makes sense if you consider that a melancholic is, on the one hand, not easily stirred by external stimuli, while on the other hand he is afraid of being shamed or humiliated. Not easily stirred by external stimuli means that the melancholic will often, by nature, fail to give a suitably emotive or excited or even interested response to another’s words or tales. He might in fact be emotive, excited, and interested, but not to the degree of expression expected by the other temperaments. For a Sanguine interlocutor, the words ‘no, I really am interested’ delivered in monotone with a deadpan expression are insufficiently encouraging.

Depending on the degree of negative and disappointed responses he receives, the melancholic may learn that he must amplify his expressions until others are satisfied. A blank stare must become an encouraging nod; an encouraging nod must become a warm smile; a warm smile must become amused laughter.

This is in fact incredibly draining and slightly demeaning; draining because it requires constant effort to monitor and adapt one’s own expression, demeaning because it undermines one’s natural responses. Yet for an adult melancholic these habits may already be deeply ingrained. At its worst the melancholic may feel that the amplification of his expressions takes on a life of its own, becoming a mask or facade that impinges on his own integrity. But the melancholic never thinks of the facade as an imposition on others, or as a form of benign manipulation. It is, after all, benevolent -an attempt to embody a more ideal example of interpersonal communication- and the pains of an amplified smile or habitual chuckle are borne by the melancholic alone, the cost of pursuing the ideal.

There are two main scenarios in which the melancholic facade encounters a facade in the other.

The first is when the melancholic encounters a facade like his own. In such cases, the melancholic usually realises that he cannot ‘read’ the other person, which is to say that he does not get the expected feedback to his own facade. It’s as though both are trying to be ‘good listeners’ but that leaves no one to do the actual talking. The best outcome is to find some point of common interest that can get behind the facade.

The second scenario can be much harder to pick, depending on the other person. It could be a boss, a friend, a colleague, or a neighbour, and the facade will change accordingly. They may be consistently hard to read, or they may simply give off an impression that conflicts with the context or content of how they present themselves. For example, when someone offers praise that doesn’t ring true despite their apparent sincerity, or when they share information that doesn’t seem quite relevant, or when their persona shifts in an unexpected way in the presence of a third person, such that their responses to you become inconsistent; these examples are clues that a person is not being completely open with you, and may have a hidden agenda or vested interest of which you are unaware.

The melancholic finds these instances of duplicity and manipulation hateful for three reasons: first, because he is susceptible to such tactics and hence is doubly embittered when he finds himself deceived. Second, because he hates to be shamed and humiliated, and it can be both shameful and humiliating to be unwittingly manipulated by another. Third, because the melancholic’s own facade is the product of well-intentioned albeit misguided effort to connect with others in a mutually affirming way, to embody the ideal of interpersonal commmunication. Since attempts to manipulate the melancholic are mediated by this facade, the melancholic may feel that his bona fide attempts to relate to others have been abused. Someone has taken advantage of his attempt to meet the ideal.

In such scenarios the melancholic may revert to a more genuine idealist response, which puts personal integrity above interpersonal ideals. Once he realises that others are not playing by the rules, or in good faith, he will immediately become more cautious, reserved, and less responsive. In his mind, the manipulative person can no longer be trusted, and there is no longer any need to maintain the facade. This change can come as a surprise to others, who may feel that the melancholic has suddenly become a different person or radically changed the nature of the relationship.

The Challenge of Sincerity

This example of facades and interpersonal communication shows how the tendency to embrace the ideal can work against the melancholic if the ideal he chooses is incomplete, one-sided, or misguided. At face value it is genuinely ideal to be polite, empathic, considerate, and attentive. But another ideal – the ideal of sincerity, authenticity, and integrity conflicts with a single-minded pursuit of idealised interpersonal communication. In practical terms, the melancholic will suffer if he continually forces himself to pretend to be polite, empathic, considerate and attentive. In fact, the whole relationship will suffer if the melancholic fails to express himself honestly.

Melancholics are liable to apply their uncertainty and fear of being shamed to their own self-expression, holding back out of concern that their natural, uncontrived, honest self-expression might unintentionally offend, hurt, or disappoint others. A melancholic will tend to think long and hard before speaking, in hope of avoiding such outcomes.

The ideal of sincerity presents a challenge. The melancholic knows that everything will be better in the long run if he ceases to control and contrive his interactions with others; yet he fears the immediate consequences of failing to self-censor and self-control, even while knowing it is flawed and unsustainable. He fears that his true self will turn out to be an objectively bad self. Yet he knows that even a bad self is at least a self, whereas a facade is no self at all.

Perhaps there is a way out of this dilemma.

The melancholic tends to think in ‘all or nothing’ dichotomies. Either maintain the facade for the sake of ideal interpersonal communication, or drop it completely for the sake of ideal sincerity. But sincerity does not mean pretending one has no inclination to better express oneself. Sincerity does not mean disowning the desire for ideal communication. Sincerity does not mean that the desire to communicate better is somehow false.

Sincerity simply means being without pretence, duplicity, or deceit. While the melancholic facade may constitute pretence, duplicity or deceit, the motivation behind the facade is sincere, and can be expressed in a more sincere way. In other words, there is no need to present to the world either a polished facade or a polished sincerity. No, the choice is between a polished facade and an unpolished sincerity, a potentially messy and inconsistent sincerity, a sincerity that may take time to come into its own.

The fears that push the melancholic towards a facade will fade in time if we allow the gradual exploration of sincerity to unfold. In practice, this means resisting the urge to fill each moment of interpersonal communication with one’s idealised set of responses, cues, expressions and attention. It means allowing oneself to lean instead toward one’s actual feelings and responses, perhaps slowly at first, but with greater surety over time. It may mean expressing sincerely one’s doubts, concerns, and even one’s wish to communicate more ideally – but to express them without duplicity, rather than through the contrived and convoluted mechanism of a facade.

As the Confucian classic, The Great Learning, states:

What is meant by “making the thoughts sincere,” is the allowing no self-deception, as when we hate a bad smell, and as when we love what is beautiful. This is called self-enjoyment. Therefore, the superior man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.

This applies not only to self-deception but to the deception of others as well. But ultimately we are deceiving ourselves as well if we think that there is anything to gain from the melancholic facade.