At this point, we've all heard about the 'Law of Attraction' and the concept of 'Manifestation', spread by hopeful fourteen-year-olds, witchy-looking women, and Facebook mums alike.
But where do these 'Laws' come from? Is there any truth to them? How much has TikTok accidentally made up? Can 'magical thinking' be dangerous?
The concept of 'what goes around, comes around' is ancient. From the nosy neighbor to the lousy churchman, there have always been some people we have secretly yearned would get their comeuppance. Sometimes, they do. Actions have consequences. Nevertheless, the social media, Gen Z version of this impulse towards passive revenge is born of fragments of pseudoscience, self-help books, and half-understood religious concepts.
I was that fourteen year old, so I do understand. I think it's the mixture of infantilization combined with the newfound assumption of responsibility and self-determination that leaves us disillusioned as young people, seeking more. Many of us have to deal with very adult issues like mental health, abuse, harassment, and domestic problems - yet often our contribution is minimal, and we are essentially sidelined. Sometimes, these ideas seem to have the answer for us. Yet the law of attraction never saved me. I was never able to manifest my way out of my life, though I could see it as clear as day. What went wrong?
Maybe I should have tried to understand it better.
Where do the law of attraction and karma actually come from?
The phrase 'Law of Attraction', was introduced very late, in an influential (if sprawling and odd) book among spiritualists of the time called 'Isis Unveiled'. The author of this book was an enigmatic and peculiar Russian aristocrat called Helena Blavatsky, an educated and well-traveled medium. Her one mention of the 'law of attraction', however, leaves something to be desired, asking why if matter is attracted to matter, spirit is not attracted to spirit. Of course, my admiration for any sort of Victorian eccentric is boundless, but on this point, I must concede her logic appears a little flawed.
"By whatsoever name the physicists may call the energising principle in matter is of no account...as it escapes their detection, it must be something besides matter. If the law of attraction is admitted as governing the one, why should it be excluded from influencing the other?" Helena Blavatsky
The person who really popularised the Law of Attraction was a humorist called Prentice Mulford, who wrote a book called Thoughts are Things, which gave the principles of the power of the mind to get the things a person wants. He was a good writer, and many of his ideas were appealing on a wider, spiritual level - he was one of the main founders of the New Thought movement. His book tells us of the power of the mind to overcome any wider circumstances. The words 'Thoughts are Things' are inscribed on his gravestone in Sag Harbour, New York.
As for our other main concept - karma, it's a common misconception that Karma simply means that if you do something bad, something bad will happen to you. That's reductive, although sometimes it does mean that. It's actually a collection of different related concepts, that figure especially in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, which propose an ethical cause-and-effect. In Buddhist thought, Karma normally determines the cycle of rebirth. In Hinduism, there are a variety of definitions of Karma. In Jainism, Karma is in the field of a soul, attracted to it by the moral actions of the individual.
Can 'magical thinking' be Dangerous?
The concept of thoughts turning to actions relates to the idea of thought-action fusion, a risk factor for a number of mental illnesses. Thought-action fusion refers to the belief that thinking about something is equivalent to doing it. Thought-action fusion is particularly linked to OCD; one of the two varieties of thought-action fusion is likelihood thought-action fusion, where there is a belief that thoughts can spill out into reality. We can see this in practice.on platforms such as Reddit, where many with OCD tell of their compulsions relating to the Law of Attraction. The second variety of thought-action fusion is moral, where thinking of an action is perceived to be as bad as actually doing it. We can see this in relation to karma; indeed, some doctrines of karma can be damaging in this sense to vulnerable people, espousing the importance of moral intentions and sometimes even the thoughts of an individual in contrast with their actions. Thought-action fusion is related not only to OCD, but also to generalized anxiety disorder, depression, eating disorders, and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. Thought-action fusion is a risk factor for these illnesses.
Of course, it can be argued that to some extent such thinking is harmless. Yet remembering my obsession, my constant self-questioning, and self-chastisement over my thoughts, I wonder whether this is really true, particularly when considering vulnerable or young people. That said, a belief in something greater, in retaining some kind of power over one's circumstances, can be a great motivator and help young people to keep going rather than surrender to a kind of dreary hopelessness. The danger is when there is an obsession, or fascination, with ideas like this. Once they begin to rule a person's life, it's time for that person to start questioning the way they think.
The appeal of the fragments of pseudo-science and magic is obvious. It offers those who have not had the opportunity or inclination to look at the science behind it a voice in a world where a scientific statement is supposed to be conclusive. But scientific misinformation is very harmful, as can be seen by the numbers of 'anti-vaxxer' and 'flat-earther' people and groups. An obsessive clinging to a 'magical belief' and denying the authority of empirical evidence can lead to delusional trains of thought, and bring resulting harm to oneself or others via dangerous misinformation.
So what should we believe?
I am not against the Law of Attraction or Karma. I believe that, within reason, irrational and 'magical' beliefs can be beneficial to people, offering a source of mystery and comfort. But I believe that concepts like these have a far from proportional role in the lives of many people, and more information should be provided with regards to the risks of this kind of thinking. I think that karma can offer a great source of strength when faced with difficult choices - because sometimes it is hard to do the right thing or make the right decision as opposed to the easy one.
I loved the idea of manifestation when I was fourteen because it gave me hope. But I am eighteen now, and looking back, I see my gains as solely the result of my actions. Law of Attraction or not, we are responsible for our own actions, and their consequences - which are what should really define us.