In today’s self-help subculture there is an often repeated proposition, represented by various people, that we can use our consciousness to create the life of our choosing. This is based on the so-called Law of Attraction or law of resonance, which says that things, that are the same, attract each other. The idea is, that thoughts create vibration patterns that, like magnets, connect with vibration patterns of other people, events and situations. If we therefore influence our own thoughts, we can influence our life. Unconsciously this is supposed to happen all the time anyway, but if we manage to raise awareness for our thoughts, we can steer them into the direction, we desire our lives to move towards to. A popular addition is also to combine this approach with insights from other fields of knowledge, like for instance Quantum Mechanics. This combination can suggest that the consciousness of an observer is a deciding factor in influencing the behavior of the observed. Following this idea we would be surrounded by a quantum field of possibilities. And if we have the right mental attitude, we could influence this field to manifest our desires.
Flowing forth from this perspective are sentences like the following:
„When you manage to recognize and resolve your old beliefs, you can create exactly the life that you desire from the bottom of your heart.“
„When you believe that you are not lovable, how is anyone else supposed to love you?“
„Your success is dependent on what you tell yourself. When you can really sense, how success would feel like, you send out vibrations that automatically attract it into your life.“
„When you meet someone who triggers, disturbs or threatens you, it’s your old patterns that are responsible. What is it you still believe that is in resonance with this experience? How have you attracted it into your life? What is the lesson that life is trying to teach you here?“
Here are some more quotes, that are often attributed to famous or invented people (with dubious sources and often altered), which either refer directly to the law of attraction or to the underlying principle.
Whatever someone thinks of himself, determines his fate.
If you want and expect it, it will soon belong to you.
No matter whether you believe you can do it or you can not to it, you will be right.
The Law of Attraction attracts everything that you need, depending on the kind of mental life you live. Your environment and your financial situation are perfect reflections of your habitual thinking. Thought rules the world.
You do not attract, what you want. You attract, what you believe is true.
Your word is your wand. The words you speak creat your own destiny.
Florence Scovel Shinn
You become what you think of the most.
We are what we think. Everything we are arises out of thoughts. With our thoughts we create the world.
The dominating thought or mental attitude is the magnet and the law says: same attracts same. That is why our kind of thinking is inevitably going to attract circumstances, that correspond to it its nature.
The happiness in your life is dependent on the nature of your thoughts.
Whenever I allow these phrases to touch me, I feel a mixture of euphoria and tension. I find them tempting and disturbing at the same time. For they promise power by force of will, while at the same time ascribing responsibility for everything that happens. Including aspects of life I do not like or suffer from. But could this really be true? Is there not something like fate? Where does the responsibility end? And what kind of power do I really possess? What does it mean, when I feel powerless? Does it only mean that I have not worked enough on myself?
I believe that the Law of Attraction is based on real psychological phenomena, that are actually way more differentiated than is obvious on the surface. This is exactly the reason why it is not easy to refute it or make meaningful distinctions. I actually believe that many people have profited from approaches that are based in one form or another on the Law of Attraction. And I also believe that people representing this approach sometimes do have a deeper understanding than gets obvious in the marketing. At the same time I want to take the stress and disturbance seriously, that goes with exaggerating the role of willpower and overloading personal responsibility. In this article I want to shed light on how to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The original situation in which people get interested in approaches connected to the Law of Attraction is usually one of powerlessness. Maybe I have fallen in love with an emotionally unavailable woman for the 5th time. Or I have been struggling financially for years and want to finally breath freely when I check my bank account. I might also be working a job that does fill my bank account, but drains my heart. Perhaps I have a dream that is so far from my reality, that I only feel numb when I think about it. There could also be a lethal illness that threatens me. The experience of powerlessness is the common denominator.
Powerlessness is an existential experience. It means that something, that is essentially important for our well-being, lies beyound our reach or at least seems to. Sometimes it is not at all clear what the real possibilities would be, given an all-knowing observer. Inner and outer life-situations are often complex and can quickly become incomprehensible. Maybe it is just me thinking that I cannot do anything? What if I just have not yet found the right buttons to press? After all, there are enough people, who seem to have „made it“… why should it be just me, who does not? And in principal we can always say with Viktor Frankl: until we die, we become. Until then we do not know, what is in store for us.
Magic, Myth and Mind
In order to be able to categorize the Law of Attraction regarding the experience of powerlessness, I want to lay some groundwork. There is a way in which we can understand the history of human progress as a history of the fight of the human will against the kind of powerlessness, that can threaten the very survival as well as a fulfilling life. Phenomena that seemed to be insurmountable challenges just a century ago, are not a problem anymore today. Just considering the fields of medicine, mobility and communication can show us, how radically the world has changed, as the examples of the internet, air travel and drastically decreased infant mortality rates are able to demonstrate. Without the human mind this would not have been possible. This tool has allowed us in many respects to improve our existential situation and make essential experiences possible. Of course there are many other examples, but I want to use the field of psychotherapy to elaborate on what the mind has contributed to progress. And where its limitations are.
Before we had anything akin to a teaching of neurosis, the best theories on what we call mental illnesses today, were magic and mythic models of explanation. People were believed to be able to use magic and curses to influence the inner state of other people. The voodoo-doll is always an impressive example, but also the „evil eye“, by use of which people could be banned from their tribe, subsequently dying of isolation and hopelessness. In the magical perspective on the world we solve the problem of powerlessness by creating symbols of something real (like the voodoo-doll or certain words or phrases), that we can manipulate. By way of the magical connection between symbol and reality we can influence the latter, by changing the former.
In the mythic perspective, influence happens mediated through powerful beings like gods, demons, spirits and angels, whose support we can ask, pray or make sacrifices for. If they heed our plea, they can heal sicknesses, bring riches, grant good harvests or bless a love-relationship. They could also be made responsible for phenomena, for which nobody had any other explanation, like e.g. in the case of demon posession. In this fashion, inexplicable psychological states fell into the domain of magic and myth. Against this background we can also understand the stigma of these kinds of states, which is fortunately continuously receding. For those states would be understood as evidence of the disfavor of higher beings, who did not want to help but harm this person. And everyone who would get close to him or her would suffer the same fate.
It was not until the recognition of inner correlations and the naming of psychological cause-and-effect-relationships by Sigmund Freud and his contemporaries that we understood, we could entirely do without magic or myth to counter this kind of suffering. And in order to be respected as a physician in matters of the soul, Freud used the medical model and declared psychological suffering to be a sickness, which could be cured in the classical sense. Thus, also in this context we developed strategies to use the mind to keep powerlessness at bay.
The interesting point, though, is as follows: Even though many present approaches in psychotherapy try to resolve psychological issues in a strictly manualized, rational and willful fashion, the process to which Freud’s psychoanalysis was referring to, does not work in a linear-rational manner at all. Freud’s discovery of the unconscious actually means that most of the psychological content escapes the direct graps of the waking mind and is therefore only accessible to indirect methods, if it is not supposed to fall prey to censorship. Hence the importance of dreams, Freudian slips and free association as access points to feelings, wishes and needs that seem to be too threatening in the everyday environment of a particular human being to be processed consciously. We do need our mind in order to gain order and orientation in these areas of ourselves, but we also need something else.
The psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist writes in his book „The Master and his Emissary“ about the functions of the two brain-hemispheres in human beings. According to him we need our left hemisphere for linear processes like language, thinking and planning, without which we would not be able to act. In the meantime, the right hemisphere perceives the „field“, recognizes patterns in the unknown, senses interrelationships and orients us intuitively. Those are very different kinds of perceiving oneself and the world, that both contribute something very vital and important.
I like to imagine the difference by using the example of „draw by number“: using the left hemisphere, we connect the numbers thereby forming a pattern. Using the right hemisphere we recognize the pattern. Sometimes this works already, before the pattern is complete. Whatever we perceive using the right hemisphere only becomes available to our conscious speech, thinking and action, when we manage to connect it to our left hemisphere. Thus we can express what we perceive through our right hemisphere. Without this expression we cannot communicate to others and have a hard time to sort through our perceptions. In my understanding, psychotherapy mainly deals with this process of connection, in which unconscious experience from the right hemisphere becomes conscious and expressable enough to be accessible for our actions.
McGilchrist posits the hypothesis that the different modalities allowed for human beings in a pre-historic environment to use the left hemisphere to take care of planning for food and protection by conscious action, while the right hemisphere vigilantly observed the surroundings. Therefore we need both hemispheres for the whole picture which orients us in the best way possible and ensures our survival.
Like the title of his book suggests, McGilchrist makes the point, that the right hemisphere should lead as the master, while the left one follows as his emissary. The field perception of the right hemisphere unconsciously takes in way more information, than the precise focus of the left hemisphere ever could. Apart from that, it is open to everything new and unknown. In the meantime the left hemisphere categorizes stimuli in such a way, that we know what to do with them: is the stimulus useful, dangerous or inconsequential? Without this categorization we do not have any orientation on the level of action. Because of this narrowing on categories, the left hemisphere cannot know what it does not know and is apt to believe that willpower should suffice in reaching a goal. The more complex a situation is, however, the more important it is to gather all the information in the field and use it meaningfully for our own decisions. If we take this seriously, it means that we need non-rational leadership for complex situations in order to make decisions, that have rational meaning and serve us and other human beings. One way to talk about this kind of leadership is intuition.
In a german podcast, Vivian Dittmar, author of the book „The inner GPS“, explains that intuition means a kind of perception that we cannot explain rationally in the present moment, although it turns out to be coherent and useful often enough. Its usefulness does, however, depend on the kind of experience a person has in the given field of expertise. As a psychotherapist, I might be able to sense the inner worlds behind a given sentence, but I would suck at predicting the stock market. Thus we can see that the field perception of the right hemisphere does indeed have something to do with reality, even though we might not always be able to say, what the connection is. And everyone, who has gathered long-time experience in a certain field of expertise, knows, that he or she is able to sense what to do at a given point in time, without having to think about it.
Before rational and after rational
Accepting the premise, that we need non-rational leadership, leads us to an important question: How do we recognize, whether this non-rational entity actually relates to what we can perceive in reality? What if we are mistaken? Are not magic and myth also non-rational ways of understanding the world and fighting powerlessness? What about those? Sure, sacrificing a virgin to a god certainly has calmed down a lot of people, but is this really necessary? Does it help? And is the price acceptable?
For me this leads to the conclusion, that not everything, that is non-rational, has the same quality and value. The US-philosopher Ken Wilber organizes this problem by using a developmental sequence, that is based on research and theories by various developmental psychologists (among others Jean Piaget, Clare Graves, Robert Kegan, Jane Loevinger, Susanne Cook-Greuter). To that end he speaks of a rough model with three stages, through which both mankind and every individual human being can develop. The stages are called pre-rational, rational and post- or trans-rational.
It is exactly these stages onto which we can also map the different approaches to the problem of powerlessnes, that I have addressed above. Against this background we can recognize that both pre-rational and trans-rational thought are both non-rational and can therefore be confused with each other. Pre-rational myths can be construed as trans-rational wisdom and vice versa. But in their relationship to the rational mind there is a very important difference, because trans-rational thoughts take the rational into account, even if they transcend them. Pre-rational thoughts ignore what we can perceive with the rational mind or are directly in conflict with it.
A good example might be the way Joseph Campbell deals with myth: on a pre-rational level, we take myths and mythological figures literally and actually believe that they really exist and have power. Trans-rationally we take myths as metaphors and projections of unconscious movements of the soul, which can tell us important insights about our internal and external life. It is exactly this distinctive characteristic that I want to use as a standard, by which I make distinctions regarding the topic of the Law of Attraction.
The heart of the matter
I believe that the idea expressed by the quotes in the beginning of this article, does not work in this way. Without further differentiation I get the impression of a magical, i.e. prerational connection, in which I can manipulate the world directly through my state of consciousness. Following this idea, through my thoughts and mediated by e.g. the quantum field, the world should comply to my desires, spare me any dangers and offer me only wholesome opportunities. At least, when I have worked on myself enough. If the world does not comply, it has to be due to the fact that I have not done enough. At the bottom line, this perspective suggests hope for total control over my life, if I just had these „damn states of consciousness“ down. I can use this perspective to defend against the awareness of a lot of forces in the world that are out of my hands – chief among them my own unconscious and the will of another human being, who can love and who can harm us.
I believe the true core of all the approaches connected to the Law of Attraction has to do with uncovering of unconscious processing patterns, which confuse our orientation as adults and lead to repeated decision making, that might „feel great“ at the time, but does not lead to any desired outcomes. These „great feelings“ might also consist in not rocking the boat and leaving everything as it is, to not endanger the stability in ourselves and in our lives. Typically this approach leads to situations in which we experience powerlessness, because the same thing happens over and over again and we cannot „for the life of it“ understand, how this is possible.
To understand these unconscious processing-patterns, we need to consider the childhood situation that I have already referred to in articles like Mediation. In this situation, parts of our nervous system develop and without inner work, they continue to work the same way in adult life, as they did in childhood. As a child we are dependent for our very survival on the relationship to our mother or our primary caregivers respectively. Therefore we feel an enormous pressure to do everything possible to ensure its stability. When we fail to do so, we are confronted with panic and fear of death, which for a child are only tolerable to a certain degree. In order to ensure more or less stable conditions for growing up, we therefore push every stimulus for this panic out of awareness and thus distort our perception. This makes for what we could call „programs“ and structures for our sense-making process regarding ourselves and reality. And one experession of these structures are beliefs about ourselves and others, which usually have a general and absolute quality to them. Here are some examples:
„I’m too stupid, dumb, ugly, not good enough.“
„As a woman I should always be nice and quiet.“
„All men want sex. Always.“
„Whoever has money has no soul.“
„Whoever wants me has to be so deepy disturbed that I do not want him/her.“
„When someone is not available, it’s because I haven’t done enough.“
These beliefs are usually the way in which we managed to push unbearable experiences out of awareness as a child. As long as I believe, e.g., that I am stupid, I do not trust my senses and prevent myself from noticing, how my parents hurt me. When I tell myself that I am ugly, I may be able to defend against noticing unwanted attention. When I believe that money and having a soul do not go together, I can live more easily with poverty. To believe that somebody who wants me, must be disturbed, possibly protects me from the experience of being overwhelmed or engulfed by someone’s closeness. As long as those beliefs are unconscious, we perceive ourselves and our surroundings in a way, that has much more to do with our past situation, than with the one of today. This means that we cannot really consider our present situation, when we make a decision. And thus we can overlook opportunities and dangers, which we would notice, if we were more conscious.
Gaining consciousness on early circumstances is easier said than done, because the distress and pain of the past tend to reappear when we allow ourselves to question our beliefs. I like to take the following image to illustrate this: since our heart hurt so much, that the pain became unbearable, we put it on ice. That numbed the pain and stabilized the inner situation in such a way, that survival was possible. Since our heart is also our compass, which orients us regarding important life decisions, we can only use it for our own purposes today to the extent that it is no longer frozen. Following this image, the next step would be to unfreeze the heart so that it can serve as compass once more. And if you have ever felt, how unfreezing fingers feel like after having been frozen, you know, how uncomfortable that can feel like.
Confusion is the price of defense
I want to take a case as an example, in which a client for the 5th time in his life actually had fallen in love with a woman, who was not emotionally available. In this case, after a brief commitment and a break-up by her, there had been a couple of on and offs and he had been hoping for living together and founding a family. However, again and again she withdrew. Generally he had been quite mindful and attentive towards her, took her seriously, expressed himself as openly as he could… and still: the relaxed flow of connection, that he was looking for, did not emerge.
This experience had repeated itself a couple of times and he was sick and tired of it. He related, how every time the woman had felt like it was super important to win her over, without actually knowing why. The fact that he was unable to articulate this was odd, because of his overall well developed linguistic and cognitive capacity. Considering his early childhood situation, we found out, that he had not been able to reach for and connect to his mother, whenever he was feeling powerlessness, sadness or anger. In those instances she withdrew and he could not do anything to prevent it. Any kind of begging or protest had not helped. Sometimes it had been especially difficult, because the withdrawing did not happen on a physical but a psychological level, even though her body was still there. This meant that a part of his had not been mirrored. And since he had been feeling insecure about being actually recognizable on a deep soul level, he had doubts about actually existing as a sentient being with a vital internality.
This left him with a deep yearning and powerlessness, which he had been trying to numb by keeping up the fight for connection against all odds. He told himself that he might not have shown up enough or that he just had not understood properly yet, how a real relationship was supposed to work. And that he would just have to put more effort into understanding the internal conflicts of the woman, imagining, he might be able to resolve her conflicts and win her over. In a way he held on to the belief that he, as he was, might not be good enough to deserve being seen or loved. This belief had the function to defend againts the powerlessness, that came about with the fact, that the withdrawing of his mother’s had nothing to do with him and lay way beyond his grasp. Realizing this powerlessness as a child would have meant despair without any hope for change.
When seen from my perspective, the relationship to this woman had looked impossible to me for quite some time, but my client would not have any of it. He had tried to turn the tiniest spark into a fire and would become angry, when somebody tried to talk him out of it. Uncovering his belief about his inadequacy meant that he had to face the real powerlessness, that he had experienced as a little boy. For a long time this had seemed like pure horror to him – something to be avoided at all cost. It took quite some time, accordingly, before he was able to realize his limitations, when the next setback came along.
Finally, when he was able to bear the horror and sense the love within him, despite being unreciprocated, he was able to realize, that he paid in orientation what he gained in illusory control by believing in his inadequacy. This was why he had been unable to recognize when a woman was so afraid of her internal conflicts that she would probably be unable to commit to him in the way that he was looking for. In order to be able to realize this, he would have to take his nervousness seriously, that he had been numbing by his hopeful outlook. Because of this outlook he had been falling in love with women, who had initially seemed to be willing to the kind of openness he was looking for, only to subsequently signal their overwhelm and wish to withdraw. For him this looked like he could actually change something, just as he had believed, when he had been a little boy, just not to fall prey to utter despair. The awareness of the kind of glasses, he was wearing, allowed him to take them off, to look at them and perceive his counterpart with clear standards for what he wanted to engage in and what not.
The child and the bath water
Against the background of this case vignette, the degree of accuracy of the title „I’m going to attract this into my life“ might become apparent. From a trans-rational perspective, we are not talking about a magical process of attraction due to a supernatural quantum field, but a clarification and reorganization of perception. This process is not merely rational, but it is possible to describe it in terms, that do not violate principels of reason. However, since we are considering complex phenomena, we are dependent on the field perception of the right hemisphere of the brain, which shows up as intution, given a certain level of awareness and experience. Field perception allows us to spot, order and weigh dangers and opportunities differently than we habitually do. Once we get clear on the standards, by which we measure our lives and become able to differentiate those standards from our beliefs, we can change the focus of our attention. And this new orientation can then lead to us „creating“ a new life.
For my client this meant at first, gaining security and confidence in the ability to actually know his real aspirations and desires in life. Disorientation recedes increasingly, the clearer he can perceive the realness of his love, even when it is not reflected back to him, while at the same time grasping the nature of his situation. With this kind of confidence he is able to take risks and can check diligently, whether a woman is able to hold herself, when she is afraid. He can steer his level of engagement, before risking the same experience again. Maybe this kind of perception leads to him noticing a woman, that he might have overlooked before, because he had underestimated her capacity for openness. Another possibility altogether might be, that he wants to create a safe home for his love within himself, before trying his luck in the next relationship.
All of these are descriptions that go beyond the rational mind, but are not in conflict with it. With this kind of empowerment I cannot see any kind of grasp for total control, resulting in no pressure to be able to hold the reins about things that I have no power over. I can agree with that whole-heartedly. Without this differentiation, however, I am afraid that approaches related to the Law of Attraction do more harm than good and that the illusion of magical control eventually leads to even more powerlessness, disappointment and self-hatred.