A comparative exploration of some New Age/New Thought beliefs and some of their most-enchanting, and perhaps forgotten cross-cultural analogs.
By now most of us have heard of the "Law of Attraction" (abbreviated LoA), a concept popularized by the New Thought movement positing that positive thoughts and intentions will bring about positive material effects. Often this "like attracts like" rule is elucidated in terms of a metaphysics of energy, in which every action or phenomenon, including thoughts and moods, exert effects on their environments within (and even beyond) the boundaries of flesh. According to New Thought, this is possible because spirit— which is equivalent to divine consciousness—is the ultimate reality that all human minds naturally participate in, and if one has faith in this concordance, one will be able to access other (good) things that exist in similar relationship to this divine matrix of energy. But the "New Thought" zeitgeist that swept America in the mid to late 1800's held this belief first and foremost with respect to the body and human health and disease. Christian Science is an American sect of Protestant Christianity that incorporated tenets of New Thought perhaps more than any other (New Thought was concurrent with sharply rising 19th century trends in healing, mesmerism, and mediumship). The core of Christian Science's teachings is the (historical) core of New Thought—that disease is caused by the machinations of the mind, and consequently it is possible to heal the body with thoughts. One of the early heralds of this paradigm was Franz Mesmer (d. 1815), a German doctor who developed a theory he called "animal magnetism" positing that a "universal fluid" or life force that permeated the universe and was responsible for both sickness and health in humans. Similar to concepts of "chi" in Chinese medicine, Mesmer theorized that when this animating fluid flowed unimpeded through organisms, they were healthy; when it got blocked or impeded, it created energetic stagnation and consequently sickness. He developed methods of ameliorating these energetic blockages using charismatic healing techniques—essentially, quite lively performances, that famously would drive his patients into cathartic fits or seizures, after which they would report feeling better.
The very significant statistics documenting the success of the placebo effect (and even its frequent outperformance of many modern drugs, particularly psychiatric drugs) is a testament to the curative properties of belief. The same holds for hypnotism (as well as less dramatic forms of positive suggestion), which has been viewed with varying levels of skepticism by the medical profession, but has also been shown to be remarkably effective at curing a wide variety of ailments. Ironically, the benefits of "positive" thinking & speech in the form of prayer, spells, and rituals have been long known by shamans, priests, and regular folk in societies outside the temporal and physical reaches of Western science. But yet these beliefs are often ridiculed by scientific communities, while at the same time their very own R&D is busy documenting the placebo effect and now conducting dozens of other more specific neuroscientific studies corroborating reciprocal relationships between physiological states, feelings, and external environmental conditions— I can't help feeling like this odd stance on the part of the world of technoscience is a subtle form of biopiracy. What many who oppose organized religion but yet embrace Transcendental Meditation, Tantra or the like (I'm thinking of a prominent neo-atheist here) may fail to realize is that you cannot find a religious tradition in all of creation that does not enshrine its own equivalent of the 'law of attraction' and the power of suggestion. Yes, it may come to enshrine other things along the way, things that are not so great. But Magic is at the center of religions, it just gets patented and trademarked by a particular group of people. Then it accumulates theology around itself. Then, for better or worse it is effectively camouflaged.
In the contemporary New Age movement the LoA got a lot of publicity in the 2006 film The Secret. The Secret is one part self-help film, one part exposé alleging a trans-historical conspiracy on the part of the powerful to hide powerful teachings–essentially magical and occult teachings—from the masses. The film cites historical orders of the spiritual underground—including practitioners of Hermetic magic and the Renaissance-era Rosicrucians—as examples of groups that have kept and cultivated the LoA in times past. It focuses specifically on visualization techniques and other ways to bring about specific outcomes in one's life through positive thinking. The central thesis—that you attract things, events, and situations to your life because of often unconscious mental dispositions, emphasizes that the "law" goes both ways—it can attract both the negative and positive. But far from just being concerned with health and the body, The Secret takes the Law of Attraction to a decidedly materialist application, focusing on increasing wealth and prosperity. It is perhaps the New Age, liberal analog to the Prosperity Gospel, which began in the early 20th century and is still largely affecting evangelical and charismatic theology and ministry today. Essentially the philosophy in The Secret is an amalgam of New Thought and Occult teachings, because it implies that thoughts can affect—even manipulate—"external" material reality.
With respect to the creators of The Secret, I'm most interesting in the popular reception of these sorts of ideas and less in focusing on this particular instantiation of them. But generally, the problems with the New Age, American version of the "Law of Attraction" can perhaps be pointed out by starting with the very naming of it. It is apparently a "law", and to modern English-speaking ears this word conveys a very particular set of meanings—namely things like predictability, mechanistic function, and determinism. Indeed, when we hear about similar laws of causation it is in the context of science. Such laws cause one to assume that things can be predicted, conditions can be replicated, and that there is a future indicated by the arrow of time in which these predicted things will happen. Then there is the epistemological problem created by the mind-body dualism that still haunts our culture. What makes the "Law of Attraction" seem like New Age psychobabble to the empiricists of our time is their fundamental assumption that the external world of material causes and effects is ontologically different from the internal, mental, or spiritual world. Enfolded inextricably within this Cartesian framework is the assertion that humans are superior to non-human animals because they possess rationality—and it is through this that man can be connected to the divine. So there we have the problem—what you get when you introduce notions of the magical properties of language and thought into an anthropocentric world-view that still enshrines rationality and logic. And indeed, the "law of attraction" is often explained AS science. Something just doesn't compute. It's too much precision, too soon. As Bertrand Russell said, one doesn't begin with the precise. Sometimes there's this attitude that "well, subatomic physics corroborates this now, so we can finally make a legitimate argument for it". Well, I agree that "it's all science", but to me that's no different from saying it's all a dream, or it's all language. You don't have to turn to discussion of quantum mechanics or vibrational metaphysics to explain why the LoA works. If that helps you believe, by all means, tell yourself those stories. I guess I've realized those stories don't help me believe, or know anything or hold anything meaningful in my being for any substantial period of time. What helps me are the wild things. In wild places, thinking and feeling collapse into one, sensory perception is primary and naming comes after. Naming happens when you leave.
The precision of naming takes away from the uniqueness of seeing.
In a society founded on Newtonian science and Rationalist thought, world views to which for better or worse American culture is inextricably indebted, the LoA has been formatted in ways that render it palatable to our distinctly linear, materialist, and textual sensibilities. Most importantly, because of the structure of our current knowledge-economy, it is often a soundbyte with no story, making it easy for people to either blindly accept or blindly reject it (this is true of so many things). Similar concepts that maintain the subtle yet powerful reciprocal relationships between an individual's states of consciousness, speech, and the world they inhabit can indeed be found in esoteric and occult teachings throughout history, as well as within the folk psychology and folk biology of indigenous cultures with strong hunter-gatherer traditions, either actively or preserved in cultural memory. It is the latter that I would like to discuss in this post.
To me, spirituality is best rooted in ecological understanding. It has to be tested in the field, literally. The best outcome would be that ecological and naturalist knowledge would do for us everything that spirituality does—and more. And my contention here in this essay is simply that it's very difficult to understand the causal effects of intention in this world, the world that I am now writing from. A world full of abstraction, of capital, of text and hypertext, of blank and sterile spaces and dislocated and fragmented ecosystems. Blank spaces soak up intention and focus like a sponge, they shatter it into a thousand fragments. (It is a great human challenge to maintain focus in an empty cell, which is I suppose why the Desert Fathers did it.) But those ascetic techniques of 'extreme spirituality' are not part of most modern people's skill set. Of course we have to resort to talking about things we cannot see, particles, or inanimate waves of energy, in order to rein in our focus, which behaves like an animal searching for food, or a mate, even long after our bodies don't (need to) hunger for those things. There is a sense in which our attention will always be feral. It's notoriously condemned for this in Christian thought, and called (lovingly I like to think) the "dog of desire" by Sufi mystics, which is perhaps a better description. Because you don't dis dog magic—the dog spirits are listening, and you want them on your side, you know.
Awareness, perception, intention, and focus—these are all things that evolved because they have biological functions—specifically ecological functions. They evolved not so much to track and follow our OWN thoughts, but rather to sense and track signals and signs in our environment—to recognize and home in on patterns. It is good to observe one's own thoughts of course, as Buddhists teach, but only insofar as that helps you observe the larger world of which you are a part! (The distinction is fuzzy between observation of thoughts and obsession with them. Ideally I should observe my thoughts the way I observe a river, or clouds passing in the sky.) When you rely on your natural environment for sustenance of all kinds, when you are both hunter and hunted (seer and seen), it completely and holistically shapes the way you think. Any survival situation (re)shapes how you think, and it is essential, for our purposes, to imagine our Paleo and Neolithic ancestors as constantly being in a survival situation. All wild animals, too, and plants and fungi—right now—are in a constant, dynamic state of survival. And I certainly don't mean "survival" just in the dramatic sense, like that guy who's arm was pinned under the boulder. I mean it in a much more mundane sense. But it's that quotidian space of survival which is the ultimate testing ground for cause and effect in the biotic realm. Additionally, I do not mean to imply that ancient humans never lived in abundance. I do believe they sometimes did—particularly abundance in the form of skill and craft—things that are carried within a creature and that become intuitive. Abundance of knowledge and awareness. In this way an animal can be in both a state of abundance and a state of survival. Prepared, oriented toward seeking, yet not wasting any energy. Some groups of people have preserved bodies of knowledge that encode the effects of hundreds of years worth of field experience in the causal webs of being. Transmitted orally, these stories are true symbionts—they must merge with our bodies to stay alive (although truly, a virus is a far better metaphor for textual traditions, not oral ones). And in oral/embodied form is where they are maximally effective. The gun is always loaded.
This brings us close to a key to understanding conceptions of "intent" in traditional/native systems of knowledge. Especially in urban and suburban landscapes, we inhabit a rather "dead" world, at least in the biotic sense and on a scale visible to the human eye. It's difficult to feel like you're really part of a landscape made up of inorganic textures and objects. Well, unless you're wearing UCP or digi-cam (which is I suppose why that was developed). But truly, it's difficult to feel like you "mean" something in these landscapes constructed by someone else. Do you know the feeling I'm talking about? Some may see it as a sort of existential despair, the ennui of inhabiting the modern, post-industrial world. But it literally does have to do with meaning—with semiotics... a very fundamental form of meaning, perhaps the progenitor (and definitely the engine) of Life itself. It's at once incredibly profound and simpler than any philosophy—it is the meaning inherent in the natural, living world—what I have articulated on this blog as "ecological cybernetics," a green informatics, the study of which a really cool gang of radical molecular biologists even have a name for: biosemiotics.
Biosemiotics is the study of how information flows through the natural world, and also at once it is reframing the very definition of information and processes of semiosis—how meaning is created and what constitutes meaning. In the biosemiotic framework, a sign is any pattern or signal—olfactory, auditory, visual, tactile, magnetic, and beyond—that gets "interpreted"—that is, utilized—by something else. For example, if one studies the metabolic processes of single-celled organisms and how their metabolic byproducts are perceived and utilized by other organisms, that is biosemiotics. Studying the tracks left by squirrels in the woods, and noticing how those movement patterns cause creatures that prey on the squirrels to modify their behavior in certain ways, that is biosemiotics. The forest, the savannah, the desert, or the Arctic tundra—wherever your ancestors are from—that place was, is, full of signs made by living creatures, and also by geomorphological and meteorological processes of strategic value to living creatures. They are available for you to observe, decipher, and extrapolate from, but they are also there without you—without us. The first, most primordial and primal messages were not necessarily intended to be messages. They were not consciously infused with meaning by the sender. They can accommodate sentience, but what really boggles my mind is the notion that meaning is an emergent quality of living systems—and it doesn't require sentient intelligence, or even much intelligence at all. Meaning needs three players to emerge: the signifier, the sign, and the interpreter, and without anyone or thing to interpret, there can be no meaning—but the key is that in the biotic world nearly everything is being "interpreted" all the time. The first messages were molecules, and maybe even atoms, if you dare. Then they were scratches and prints, and then pictograms, hieroglyphics, alphabets. But what we need to remember is that all these forms of signification still exist, alongside each other, and in any given moment they collectively command power far greater than our language does. Biosemiotics sees local evolution as a tendency toward increasing semiotic freedom—in other words, life forms have evolved on earth in ways that enable the messages they send and receive to be increasingly complex. But that doesn't mean that this view is anthropocentric or subscribes to an idea of "progress"—because no form of semiosis is valued over any other, they are all equal. No one is saying that more "semiotic freedom" means better. For the most part, biosemiotics encompasses linguistics in its academic form, without becoming completely wrapped up in and trapped by it. It can then potentially serve as the scaffolding for an evolutionary and even cosmic theory of meaning that bridges an epistemological schism between the humanities and the sciences. Too broad or grandiose? Maybe, but there are great uses for it, I promise you.
It's highest purpose is perhaps simply to teach us the oldest language on earth. You won't see industrial profit come out of this. Biosemiotics isn't here to build spaceships or a faster computer. It's both science and poetics—simultaneously redefining both. But it smashes altars all around, in science, anthropology, theology. It can't be pinned down. Maybe it shouldn't. Maybe that's not the point. (Maybe it shouldn't even be written down...)
In a space where everything is alive, dying, and changing, there is so much "meaning" everywhere—so many signals being sent through multiple sensory channels and between a huge range of life forms—that it creates a constant, static "noise"—it becomes the baseline. Any time a baseline is established, deviations from that basic state can be interpreted as signs, especially if they repeat. This phenomenon of baseline/deviation/sign can repeat ad infinitum and the concept of "baseline" translates to all levels of awareness. Myths and stories transmitted in indigenous cultures about how the natural world came to be, traditions of animal medicine, why certain animals behave the way they do, and how human thoughts and intentions have ecological effects, come from a context where it is understood that nothing is meaningless in the ecological world. This might sound overwhelming to the would-be terrestrial navigator, but this state actually makes it possible to track the effects of very minute changes, because often in a very responsive environment like a forest, subtle events have a butterfly effect. "No event for the Koyukon is ever wholly accident or chance, but neither is any event entirely predetermined" (Abram) This causal ambiguity allows for a fluidity in interpretation, the sort of fluidity and theoretical resilience that is necessary when responding to the dynamic, ever-changing, spiral-moving, fractal face of the wild. One merely has to know what to pay attention to, and in many cases this translates to understanding how you are perceived by your environment. Many instances of native wisdom reveal that it has been proven, again and again, beyond reasonable doubt, that intention and ego can spell one's success or failure, particularly in the hunt. Controlling one's thoughts could, in the most extreme case, be a matter of life or death. In this way thoughts are linked to survival.
Similar yet different to the LoA, here we find that often it is not so much about displaying your intention, but rather masking (camouflaging) it, or even not having it at all. In practice, this translates to practices that in various ways show respect or reverence to animals, plants, and/or forces of nature that have pivotal roles in one's livelihood. This means measuring and controlling how you think about these things, and your role among them. Chief among these practices is perhaps that of the hunter avoiding saying what he is going to do before he sets out to hunt, or bragging about his achievements after the fact. David Abram writes about a Native American arctic tribe: "The Koyukon people take great care to avoid speaking of certain animals directly using elaborate circumlocutions so as not to offend them." This is especially true for more powerful animals that occupy important places in the relative ecology/economy of humans. Here is the knowledge that animals are repelled by arrogance but drawn to a disposition of reverence and humility.
It is indisputable that intention effects your focus and your disposition. Intention can be a form of obsession if it turns into a continuous thought. This fragments and narrows your faculties of perception and you can loose the ability to be "part" of the landscape where you are. At this time, for many reasons, it is far easier for you to be perceived by something before you perceive it. And since animals are experts at tracking things they cannot individually perceive based on the perceptions of other life forms in the forest (i.e. through bird language), the creature you are trying to find may just find you first. Many hunters and scouts will tell you that killer instinct can be perceived and they have countless stories of failed hunting expeditions to corroborate it. The animal kingdom has had millions of years to figure out how to perceive predatory behavior. Some groups of people who have spent lots of time hunting have figured out how to counter-track that. It is imperative to be able to love and revere something, and also kill it. These traditions of reverence (from which offering comes?) were practiced not out of duty, but because at the critical moment you literally must have your "heart in the right place" to ensure a maximum chance of success in your task. I guess you could say it's based on the folk-version of statistical analysis. (Nature has peer reviewed studies too, it's called instinct.)
It's true that humans as adept pattern recognizers do tend to see patterns when none are there. It is always important to keep this in mind. The argument could be made (and is) that this is the source of many "superstitions" within animistic world views. But I encourage us to realize that many—not all— cases dubbed "magical thinking" may still be able to be traced to ecological cognition. Some types of divination, particularly augury—observing the flight patterns of birds in order to predict future events—I see as a stylization and ritualization of the act of tracking. Augury became so highly ritualized to the point where priests would literally let a flock of captive of birds go and then "read" them, and it was easily rigged. But this can easily be traced back to remote tracking: tracking something "invisible" through the observable activity of another thing, as with bird language mentioned earlier. It is a form of triangulation, and can work on many scales. It's true too with hepatomancy (the ancient Greek practice of reading a sheep's liver). Of course you can turn that into liturgical bullshit, but examining an animal's internal organs can tell you a lot about the terrain it inhabited when it was alive.
Again, it's difficult to measure the effects of our will and our intentions—things we've been socialized to believe are "internal", "private", and unavailable to the perceptions of others—in a context that's not alive and in a dynamic, interconnected state of survival. Of course on some level modern first-world landscapes are "in a state of survival" too, it's just that the means and definitions of survival have changed. But the causal chains of being that stitch together wilder landscapes are diluted, weak. Here, these networks don't exist between alive things. Will and intention have less power because they are not relied upon in the same ways they were during much of humankind's time in this earth. As we walk through life we are not constantly "perceived" and tracked by the earth the same way many of our ancestors were. Wilderness/earth/nature is much less of an agent, to us. It is not believed in/stories are not told about it. Science explains why things happen, but it never places you within the story, as a participant. Sometimes science makes the world seem more alien and mysterious than do non "scientific" ways of understanding the world. It has often succeeded, historically, in being a narrative that excludes the human participant so that it can attain higher levels of linguistic precision, instead of being a narrative that includes the human participant but uses less precise language. How to balance the two?
The idea, common to ancient shamans and modern psychedelic visionaries alike, that language is an innate principle of the natural and non-human world even finds a bizarre, rather frantic expression in Derridean deconstruction and poststructuralist literary theory. Even the ivory tower, which was built to rise out of the "primitive" swamps of green informatics, leads back there, perhaps unbeknownst to itself. But that's for another post...
List of People, Things, and Places to help think
"Placebo" — Radiolab WNYC Podcast
Jesper Hoffmeyer (biosemiotics)
The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram
ROOTS School VT
Things written and thought by Tom Brown Jr.
Mammal Tracks and Sign, Mark Elbroch
Forests of all kinds
The Biology of Belief
Cognition in the Wild, Edwin Hutchins