Reality is not what it used to be
“When you become aware of this great law, then you become aware of how incredibly powerful you are, to be able to THINK your life into existence.”
— Rhonda Byrne, author, The Secret
“We create reality with our minds. Consciousness makes the reality you live in. Thoughts are actions, and cause consequences in the material world.”
— “What the Bleep do we Know?” (documentary film)
The Nelson consensus
It depends on your own set of social connections of course, but for me it is run-of-the-mill normalcy, not in the least unusual, to hear notions such as I cite in the opening epigraphs.
We create our own reality.
This is said so frequently in the Nelson society of which I am a part, that I confidently assert the idea is taken as common sense among a substantial fraction of the population. Is Nelson weird? I don’t think so. A bit hippie-ish, certainly new-agey, but not weird. There are neighbourhoods in every large Canadian city now where this kind of thinking is the standard attitude. Nelson is unusual only in being quite a small city.
How I make my own reality
I would not dispute that the general way one thinks about the world – for example, an attitude of expecting good from people, or a tendency to be critical and negative toward things that happen around me – is a primary ingredient in how I feel the world I inhabit, and how I will be characterized by people who know me. In this very prosaic sense, I do make the world I live in, I do determine the friendships I will have and the people I attract. I like certain kinds of people and they generally like me; other kinds of people leave me neutral, indifferent, or even hostile. I am responsible for how I move through the human world and my effect on other people.
Beyond this simplest sense of constructing a social environment for myself, in what other ways is it true to say my thoughts “create reality”? From this point on, the arguments begin.
I cannot let ignorant opinion about poverty and privilege go by me without protest. I do not let anyone say – without objecting to it — “I have money because I have good thoughts,” or “I have evolved my consciousness, and my wealth and health are the manifestation of this growth.” This is the explanation of their lives one might hear from the prosperous Nelson bourgeoisie; many well-educated, globe-travelling types, secure in ownership of material possessions and content with their many experiences, agree. Just how do they achieve this happy condition?
Is material success a reward for the immaterial, spiritual merits of mind and consciousness?
Attracting money, manifesting prosperity
“I manifest my prosperity by my mind’s positive thoughts and my spirit’s evolved condition. That is why my life is good, why I possess so much, travel so much, experience so much.”
For me, hearing this sort of idiocy is like dental surgery without anesthetic. It is in fact the crux of the teachings in the immensely popular film and best-selling book, The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. The first epigraph above is a quote epitomizing the book’s key teaching.
“The Secret posits that the law of attraction is a natural law which determines the complete order of the universe and of our personal lives through the process of “like attracts like”. The author claims that as we think and feel, a corresponding frequency is sent out into the universe that attracts back to us events and circumstances on that same frequency. For example, if you think angry thoughts and feel angry, it is claimed that you will attract back events and circumstances that cause you to feel more anger. Conversely, if you think and feel positively, you will attract back positive events and circumstances. Proponents of the law claim that desirable outcomes such as health, wealth, and happiness can be attracted simply by changing one’s thoughts and feelings.” (Wikipedia)
Capitalism, history, and social justice
My regular readers know by now that I have been a Marxian socialist and critic of society in my younger days, and have been thoroughly submerged in the materialist science of the Western tradition when I was at university and in my past energetic political activism. They will know that I feel I have been “transformed” by life experience, by being a father and grandfather, by living in Nelson, by new books and new relationships.
The personal changes I feel within have happened over two decades. The changes are evident in the way that I value spiritual, immaterial, esoteric, and emotive qualities in life more than I used to. I would say my heart is now more in balance with my intellect; it feels like progress.
When I was trying to provoke Revolution, to overthrow capitalism and establish social justice, I had more anger. I still loathe what capitalism means to me, extended into its cultural and spiritual effects on humans beyond mere economics. While I will not offer the simple word “socialism” to say all that I need for my vision of a better human world, I still use the word “capitalism” as shorthand for a great deal that I dislike. Many people say they do not like capitalism and that they reject materialist and egotist lifestyles.
There are people who say they stand against capitalism and yet are enjoying lives so very privileged by capitalism’s history – a history they mostly know nothing about – that their claim to be “alternative” people swimming against the mainstream is to me blatantly false.
History made Canada one of the world’s richest and freest nations, not because Canadians are spiritually-evolved.
It is a very complex, detailed, material history that made northern and western Europe the world’s most powerful civilization. Since 1450 AD, empires ruled by European nations enriched their civilization; white-settler colonies shared in the power and the glory of Europe. Slavery, mass death of native populations, wars of conquest, deliberate under-development and outright plunder of resources are part of material history.
If one is born into Western civilization in the middle classes, a “birthright” of affluence derived from generations of history, and the entitlements of good health, education and opportunity generated by injustices of the past, are yours to inherit.
History and fantasy
Naturally, because of my self-identification as an historian, and as one who studies knowledge of historical time very seriously, I am appalled by the ignorance of human history that affluent Westerners demonstrate by their attitude of entitlement and their expectation that they deserve prosperity and liberty because their minds have evolved to higher planes of insight.
“I create reality with my thoughts” is an attitude of such colossal narcissism and stupid ego that I must protest it everywhere I hear it and to anyone who says it, unless they have a more cogent argument than Rhonda Byrne and her ilk.
A compelling argument about changes in human consciousness over our history can indeed be made. But not by the ignorant, and not by the fantasists who think “Science” provides evidence for their “law of attraction.” No matter that water molecules show apparent effects from human meditation, as per the testimony of “scientists” in the film What the Bleep do we Know?, human mind is neither godlike nor magical in its effect on matter.
It is possible to have a serious investigation of the changes in human mind over historical time.
One of the similarities between Marxian materialists and the proponents for evolution-of-mind, thinkers like Ken Wilber and Dr. Clare Graves, is that they perceive human history moving through long stages, and that in succeeding epochs there is evidence of development of that mysterious human quality of “possessing consciousness”.
I would agree human consciousness has evolved; I intuit that our spiritual development as revealed in our religions and other cultural phenomena has undergone progressive growth.
For Marx, a student of Hegelian metaphysics, each stage of human history – from primitive communism, through ancient slavery, Asian despotism, feudalism, capitalism, and modern communism – has a material foundation in production by humans of their necessities of life; in each stage there is a “class consciousness” appropriate to the material basis of society. The philosophers of consciousness-in-evolution, like Sri Aurobindo, Wm. I. Thompson, Jean Gebser or Don Beck, also posit an unfolding of human mind over long epochs of time.
I entertain the hypothesis that our consciousness now is not what it used to be. Yet I am no neuroscientist and I have no solid definition of consciousness that can satisfy the demands of Western physical sciences’ standard of evidence.
Turning points in the formation of consciousness
Religious texts are key indicators of a general cultural consciousness of whole peoples; we can get also a sense of an ancient civilization from the record of their literature, art, architecture and politics. What kind of gods they had and how they worshipped, and their concepts of a spiritual life, allow us a point of comparison of our minds with others’ in cultures that have disappeared. We can also compare our national, social, or cultural mental landscapes with those of contemporary people.
It is commonplace to say that in the evolution of ancient Hebrew religious thought, change is apparent in the way God is portrayed in the sacred texts. Historical events can be hypothesized to explain changes; the eradication of the ten “lost tribes” by Assyria, the destruction of Solomon’s Temple by Babylonia, the razing of the Second Temple by Romans, are all markers in the evolution of the Israelites’ deity into the universal monotheistic God of Judaism and Christianity. The Holocaust in WWII has had an effect too, in the re-establishment of a state of Israel and its significance in global politics. The consciousness of Jews and Israelis is shaped by this incredibly long history and its punctuation by outstanding crises.
Ancient Israelite scriptures touched the mind of Mohammed, and Semitic history originated the bedrock of Islam. For Islam, the historic success of the Caliphs’ empire for centuries, the assimilation of Persian traditions, the slow decline of Arab power under Turkish, Crusader, and Mongol invasions, and the global reach of Islam from Morocco to Java to east Africa, generated patterns with effects on the development of Muslim culture, particularly law, gender-relations, and theology. The “Arab mind” and the “consciousness of Muslims” are products of a history chequered with alternating heights of leadership and nadirs of disintegration.
Peoples of the British Isles have matrices in their history that make the national consciousness of those folk different from others’; the Dark Ages, Protestant Reformation, two Revolutions, Irish Famine, Highland Clearances, rise and decline of the British Empire, and two world wars, are events defining what Churchill called “the Island Race.” Their interior life is shaped by history. Canadians of British roots share that mind to a degree, but not fully.
Americans have a Christian colonial myth, their Revolution, slavery, the Civil War, and their super-power status since WWII, to give them a sense of “exceptionalism”, of being uniquely blessed, lacking all parallels in the history of the world. History cannot teach lessons to Americans precisely because nothing they do has ever been done before by people such as they conceive themselves to be. The world is different, viewed from an American perspective.
“Narratives” that make the human world
While American consciousness is different from Canadian, a convergence of their culture with ours has been remarked upon; the globalization of what Charles Eisenstein calls the Story of Separation is also in effect.
The world has one global capitalist culture with a narrative appropriate to that system, Eisenstein has shown, and he believes we are on the threshold of transitioning to the next narrative, the Story of Interbeing. For him, “ur-stories” are the determining matrix of human beings in relation to their material habitat. Story is consciousness-forming, in his specific meaning of the word.
Conclusion: the mind/matter mystery
Clearly, consciousness as humans experience it has to have a material soil. The grey matter of our brain is where our mind has its point of origin, but nothing stops us from using the faculty of imagination to “locate” our mind somewhere beyond our brain. It is our glory to have compassion, to empathize with other beings, to feel how another being feels.
An obsessive materialist says “mind is a disease of matter.” An occult mystic says “mind exists independently of matter.” A compromiser might say “our mind is energy, and is part of the energy/matter spectrum; eventually our sciences will explain and understand consciousness.”
I personally am willing to live with the lack of understanding we have of consciousness, not believing humans alone have it, and not believing that matter will obey my thoughts. The perplexing discoveries of physics since Einstein – the uncertainty principle and “spooky action at a distance” for example – leave my untrained intelligence dazed and confused by the challenge of imaging how my mind and consciousness fit into the cosmos of matter and energy.
I have made myself clear about “creating reality with thought.” It’s a lie. It will lose its power to deceive and its force to persuade. It will become a phrase without meaning for human purposes, as meaningless as “God is dead.”
Some recommended reading on the subjects raised here.
Jack Miles, God: a biography, and, Christ: a crisis in the Mind of God.
William Irwin Thompson, Coming into Being, and, Self and Society.
Charles Eisenstein, Synchronicity (essay at www.realitysandwich.com) and,
The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible.
Joseph Chiltern Pearce, The Heart-Mind Matrix, and, Spiritual Initiation
Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization
Dr. Don Beck, at www.spiraldynamics.net/essays
Ken Wilber, various websites.
Purely history: Norman Davies, Europe: a history (1996) and The Isles: a history (1999)
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of Arc Of The Cognizant can be found here.