Manifestation for Naturalists

There’s an idea in various metaphysical traditions that “thought is causative.” That is, our thoughts have a direct, metaphysical influence on the world. This is supposedly the principle on which The Secret functions: what we think about, we attract—whether fortune or disaster. In other words, our thoughts manifest our reality and simply by thinking we can heal, become wealthy, solve marital problems, and generally recreate our reality.

Some New Age writers reach into the obscure world of quantum physics for an explanation of how this works. Their argument usually goes something like this: consciousness appears to cause particle wave functions to collapse. If so, then our thoughts have an influence on physical reality. Therefore, think about and envision a parking spot appearing (an actual recommended use of manifestation) and your thought and desire will act upon the universe to make it so.

Many physicists find this line of thinking painful. So do I.

The popularity of The Secret and similar literature indicates that the idea we can think and will our world to be the way we want is powerful for many people. I think it’s powerful for two main reasons. The first is that it gives people a sense of control and of hope. The second is that it actually seems to work.

I believe the reason why “mental causation” works has nothing to do with metaphysics and everything to do with how our minds work. In short, I think our thoughts really are causative—just not in the way New Agers think.

New Thought was a American metaphysical movement that had its heyday at the turn of the 20th century. Psychologist William James took a serious interest in the movement and many New Age ideas first appeared (I believe in a more sophisticated form) as part of New Thought.

I first came across the idea that “thought is causative” while listening to New Thought minister Joseph Murphy. In his book, The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, Murphy describes the process he recommends for making a thought causative. While Murphy believed there was some metaphysical causation taking place, the process he describes is strikingly psychological.

“As soon as your subconscious accepts any idea, it proceeds to put it into effect immediately,” Murphy writes.

The basic idea is that what we believe about ourselves is how we act in and react to the world. This concept is used widely in a variety of psychological techniques.

The beliefs and messages we take on from our parents and surroundings early in life become subconscious as we grow older. Those beliefs, good or bad, have a tremendous influence on how we see ourselves, what we tolerate, and what we allow (or disallow) ourselves. Changing our core beliefs or narratives allows us to make substantive shifts in our lives.

He describes a process of creating affirmations, such as:

“I am healed.”

“I feel wonderful.”

“I am completely free from this habit; harmony and peace of mind reign supreme.”

“I am wealthy, I am prosperous.”

One way to look at this is that Murphy is describing a method of priming the mind and setting it to expect a certain result.

Another, perhaps more powerful version of this, is a process of creating a new core belief or identity (e.g., “I am a millionaire.”) that the mind then acts from subconsciously.

Our minds tend to try and align reality with our expectations and pre-existing beliefs. If we believe our friend to be a kind and compassionate person, we are willing to overlook evidence to the contrary, or downplay the weight of their unkind remark to a stranger. If we believe ourselves to be excellent at work or school, we will bristle at a bad quarterly report or test grade and will consciously (or unconsciously) work hard to ensure that we make up for it with the next project or test.

Our minds work surprisingly hard to defend our core beliefs and identities. When those identities are attacked, or reality does not align with those beliefs, we might first try to alter or deny reality rather than admit our core beliefs might be off-base. (Think how someone with an entrenched political or religious belief can disregard evidence contrary to his or her cherished viewpoint. What beliefs do you find difficult to question about yourself or the world?)

Thought is “causative” in this case because, once a conscious thought is accepted as a core belief about who we are, the subconscious mind rallies its extensive resources to prove it true. It can feel like magic when this happens. When we sleep, the subconscious mind might continue to think about how to solve our problems. When we’re out in the world, it might bring our conscious attention to opportunities or connections that could advance our goals. Where before we felt resistance to sending certain emails, now we fire them off with ease. Where before we felt depleted and defeated, now we find a new zest and enthusiasm.

Murphy cautions that if you try to repeat an affirmation to yourself such as “I am wealthy, I am prosperous,” but feel as though you are lying to yourself, then your subconscious mind will not accept it.

“Your subconscious accepts what you really feel to be true, not just idle words or statements.”

To make this technique work, you have to believe it. You can’t cheat yourself. “Your conscious and subconscious mind must agree,” writes Murphy.

This suggests you have to have real, conscious faith in whatever new identity you are attempting to take on. You must have a genuine belief that what you say is true or else it will trigger a kind of cognitive dissonance. The subconscious mind will reject the new belief or identity you are trying to impose upon yourself, and you’ll remain unchanged.

How do we get a thought into the subconscious? There are different methods, but a common one is “emotionalized thought,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

The more a thought is charged with emotion, the more readily it’s imprinted on the subconscious. Intense conviction, joy, or desire, coupled with a conscious thought, can imprint it as a sturdy belief within us. Or, if it doesn’t become lodged as a new identity, it will—at the very least—prime the mind to seek out or expect certain positive results.

Very often, we see what we expect to see.

Expect good fortune, you will tend to see it.

Expect bad fortune, you will tend to see that instead.

I think it’s worth revisiting the techniques proposed by the New Age and New Thought movements and examining them with a psychological eye. I believe they were popular not only because they promised grand results, but because they (at least in part) delivered on them.

Think, feel, believe, and you can transform the world around you. It sounds like magic, and in a way, it is.


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The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

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