Debunking and Reowning the Magical Thinking of New-Age, Self-Help Wish Fulfillment
The simple statement that “our thoughts create our reality” has gained a lot of popularity over the past few decades, particularly in spiritual-but-not-religious circles. It acts as a mantra for people who genuinely want to live better lives and improve themselves. I think there is some validity to the statement, but that a nuanced view will afford us a more honest and satisfying engagement with the experience of living.
I believe it will be useful to look at three broad categories1 for this statement:
The magical version.
My thoughts create physical reality out there.
ie: If I think and truly believe that I’ll get a good parking spot, that parking spot will appear.
The rational version.
My thoughts are just inside my head and have nothing to do with physical reality.
ie: Parking spots are a direct result of the number of cars to parking spots and have nothing to do with what I think about them.
The integrated version.
My thoughts affect my attitude, engagement, and experience of physical reality.
ie: Whether or not I get a good parking spot, my belief about parking will determine whether I’m happy or sad.
I’m not here to shame anyone for holding any of these beliefs—we have all fallen prey to all of the categories. I am here to look more deeply at them and show how when we choose to think magically or rationally we are limiting the power of our ability to choose happiness. I do believe this is a developmental sequence; that the magical belief is less complex than the rational one, and the rational less complex than the integrated one. And I believe that the lesser developed beliefs can do far more harm than good in the world.
My Beliefs Are Magical
The essence of the magical version of “our thoughts create our reality” is, “As long as I think positively, I’ll get the physical reality I want.” This is by definition a magical belief: “Magical thinking is the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which cannot be justified by reason and observation.” It is no different from believing in Santa Claus—if I’m naughty, I’ll get a lump of coal; if I’m nice I’ll get good presents.
In and of itself this is not a problem—we don’t chastise children for believing in Santa. But it becomes problematic when we hold on to the deeper underlying structure later in life because it maintains the questionable idea that getting what we want makes us happy.
A good parking spot will make me happy. More money will make me happy. A more attractive partner will complete me. These beliefs are definitely problematic—there are plenty of people with nice cars and houses and beautiful partners that kill themselves because they are so depressed, and plenty of people with no possessions that feel immense joy and gratitude. And these beliefs are reinforced by magical, wish fulfillment thinking.
Furthermore, if my positive thoughts create a positive reality and my negative thoughts create a negative reality, then I’d better do my damnedest to avoid thinking about negative things. Again, this can be a really useful practice, but it can also lead to terrible psychological consequences of denial, repression, projection, and self-blame. And it is disastrous from a spiritual perspective: almost all spiritual beliefs maintain that our enlightened nature is ever-present (namaste; the Kingdom of Heaven is within) and that spiritual awakening is a process of undoing our egoic, false beliefs. How can we undo beliefs we are completely unwilling to look at?
The Gifts and Limits of Rationality
A natural response to magical thinking is to look at the world rationally. From a rational perspective we can study, measure, and disprove some of the wonky beliefs stated above: if there are twenty cars and fifteen parking spots five people will have to park elsewhere; happiness correlates more with experience and giving than possessions.
I don’t think I need to say much about the benefits of rational thinking—it should be relatively self-evident that rational thinking has led the world from caste systems, indulgences, monarchies, and the-world-is-flat thinking to merit based social mobility, economic prosperity, democratic governance, and technological innovation that has ended famine and is working to end poverty. Separating the mind from the body gave humans the chance to manipulate the external world in incredible ways and has led to increased longevity, health, and quality of life around the world.
In sum, the rational willingness to say, “Instead of wishing for a good parking spot, let’s build a bigger parking lot,” has been incredibly beneficial to humankind.
Yet it is also a partial truth.
The danger of thinking purely separating the external world from the internal world is that it isn’t commensurate with our experience of reality, and can therefore disempower us.
Without being aware of our internal ability to choose, we’re stuck in pure reaction to the outside world.
Without being aware of our social conditioning, we’re trapped by it, unable to choose something else.
To continue our parking example, what if the ease and efficiency of building a bigger parking lot so everyone will get a good parking spot does not actually lead to happiness? Without looking internally and asking, “What is truly important to me? Is this my own choice or is it something I’ve blindly accepted from my family, peers, and society?” we put tremendous resources and effort into things that may not actually matter whatsoever.
A more pragmatic example: our current rational thinking has led to incredible advances in end-of-life care, allowing our elders to keep breathing for more days. But has it actually increased their quality of life? And at what cost to our health-care system is it doing this? Is this the best use of our resources—not from a political, governmental standpoint, but from the point of view as a human looking at the whole system: When I’m ninety-five years old and unable to walk or talk, do I want to spend $100,000 living another couple of weeks in pain or on morphine, or would I rather sponsor the health of a dozen children? Or the college education of my great grandchildren?
A Healthy Integration—My Thoughts Affect My Experience, Regardless of Reality
It may seem that I am straying far from the initial discussion, but the limits of rational thinking also keep us from seeing that there is a relative truth in the magical thought that “our thoughts create our reality.” We can re-examine and re-own both ways of thinking, placing them in a larger context that will help us experience reality in more rich and rewarding ways.
Physical reality exists outside of us and things occur that we cannot control. The most obvious example of this is death. All bodies die; even the staunches fundamentalists will agree that Buddha’s human body died, and Jesus’ human body died. Yet what we do with physical reality, how we react to and participate with it, is an interaction between our conscious and unconscious thoughts and beliefs. When we find ourselves dying, we can respond with fear, anger, resentment, and desire, or we can respond with grace, grit, wisdom, and compassion.
Similarly when we find ourselves gripped by an unconscious belief—for example feeling afraid or wanting to be accepted—we can fight the fear and repress it, or we can accept and investigate it, learning from it and delighting in it.
As Shakespeare’s Hamlet said: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” He didn’t say thinking makes reality, he said thinking makes reality good or bad.
Another take is Shakespeare’s Duke Senior in As You Like It. He says, “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” acknowledging both the adversity (physical reality) and his mind’s power to choose his experience within it.
The takeaway from this exploration is that when we find ourselves upholding magical beliefs which we all will do, we remember that this is not the only option. The moment we recognize ourselves thinking magically we can ask:
“Will this magical thinking truly satisfy my deepest desire? Is it reinforcing a false belief about reality which will keep me suffering in the long run? Am I giving the power of my own decision and ability to be happy out to the fulfillment (or not) of an egoic wish?”
And we give ourselves the compassion to either choose the magical thought, despite its flaws, or to choose against it.
Similarly if we find ourselves maintaining rational beliefs and a steadfast split external and internal realities, we can stop and ask ourselves:
“Am I in touch with purpose in this moment? Am I aware that I’m making the meaning of the moment, regardless of what’s outside? Is the meaning I’m making one that I want to be making? Am I assuming something to be good or true which others would disagree with? Am I projecting my ability to choose my reaction and holding myself instead as a victim of the external world? Are there other realities, perspectives, and inputs which I am completely ignoring in this moment?”
By exploring these question we will find more excitement and depth in our experience of each moment, regardless of whether or not we get the parking spot we want.
1. Of course there are many varieties and subcategories; this is just one way. I think it is useful because it allows us to take the points in this article further, generalizing these broad categories and noticing that this pattern holds for a great variety of beliefs.
(or a dialectic)