Over the last three and a half months, I’ve spent most of my writing time on this blog tracing a series of trajectories that all spiral in toward a common center. Each of those explorations started with some feature of contemporary culture and followed it back to its roots in a very odd set of assumptions about the universe. It’s the same set of assumptions in every case, too, and they can be summed up neatly in the claim, made famous by the New Age movement back in its glory days, that you create your own reality.
Though it’s far from the only place where that notion is on display these days, politics allows it to be seen with brutal clarity. Consider the angry insistence on the part of so many people these days that the people who voted for Brexit and Donald Trump could only have been motivated by racism. As a matter of simple fact, that’s not even remotely true, and anyone who takes the time to listen to the voters in question knows this. Yet every effort to point this out to the people who make the claim is met by angry bluster and another repetition of the same insistence. You don’t behave that way if you recognize that the world is what it is, irrespective of your opinions about it. You behave that way if you think the world has to be whatever you tell it to be.
It’s worthwhile to compare this to the more traditional attitude with which the privileged dismiss the needs and concerns of those beneath them. That used to show itself in the mainstream media and the conversations of the chattering classes in such utterances as “they’re voting against their own best interests.” The implication, of course, is that the speaker understands the best interests of the people being discussed better than they do. Patronizing? Sure, and also dubiously honest, since what evokes this comment is inevitably that the deplorables du jour are voting for their own interests and against those of their soi-disant betters. Even so, this is considerably less detached from reality than the sort of thing we’re hearing now. It’s one thing to insist that the people you disagree with are mistaken in their beliefs and misguided in their motives, and quite another to insist that they have only the beliefs and motives you choose to attribute to them.
That latter sort of weird paralogic can be found all through the thinking of the well-to-do and their tame intellectuals these days. One example that’s been on my mind of late is the way that a good many climate change activists insist that it’s climate denialism to ask whether renewable energy sources can produce a sufficiently reliable supply of concentrated energy to replace fossil fuels. Naomi Oreskes’ widely cited 2015 op-ed making that claim is particularly fascinating, because Oreskes herself wrote a superb study of the way that geologists spent half a century ignoring the evidence for continental drift because that evidence conflicted with their theories—and there she was, not that many years later, insisting that another batch of evidence should be ignored because it conflicts with her theories. It’s almost as though she was taking notes.
It should be obvious that the question of whether renewable energy sources can replace fossil fuels needs to be settled by a close examination of the underlying science. In fact, such an examination has been done many times already, and when it’s been done honestly, the results show that a society powered by renewable energy is going to have a lot less energy—and above all a lot less reliably available, highly concentrated energy—than we use so blithely today. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that we should just keep on using fossil fuels; fossil fuels are, ahem, nonrenewable and depleting fast, another point that somehow gets next to no discussion in the climate change scene. It means that the sooner we get to work using renewable energy more efficiently, with a focus on conservation and local production of low- and medium-intensity energy forms for such uses as hot water and space heating, the less traumatic the inevitable transition is going to be.
Yet this sort of straightforward common sense gets little traction in the climate change scene. Instead, the pervasive attitude is that renewables will power our current wildly extravagant energy-wasting habits just fine. Why? Because they say it will, that’s why. Mere physical reality isn’t offered the chance to get a word in edgewise. Again, that’s not something you do if you realize that the world has its own independent existence. It’s what you do if you’ve convinced yourself that the world is entirely the product of the inside of your own head.
All this puts me in a situation that is frankly rather odd. After all, I’m an occultist—you know, a student and practitioner of traditions of rejected knowledge that claim that under certain circumstances, the mind can do things with its surroundings that the rationalist materialism of our society insists can’t happen. The people I’m critiquing here are respectable mainstream intellectuals, politicians, and businesspeople—you know, people who are supposed to be realistic, pragmatic, and thus not prone to the extravagant flights of fancy to which occultists are allegedly subject. And yet here I am, trying to point out that the world is what it is and has to be taken into account, while they act as though the world is whatever they want it to be!
It’s almost as though José Arguelles and the other New Age promoters who made the fictitious prophecy concerning December 21, 2012 into one of the most profitable cash cows in the history of alternative spirituality turned out to be right, in a certain ironic way. One of the many competing narratives in the years leading up to that particular nonevent was that on the date in question, the world would enter a new era of spiritual enlightenment in which everyone would joyously embrace New Age philosophy. Well, a significant number of people do seem to have done so, consciously or not; the only difficulty is that the New Age philosophy they’ve embraced doesn’t happen to work so well in practice, and so their attempts to create their own reality have apparently resulted instead in the creation of Donald Trump.
No, I don’t actually think this is literally what’s going on. The New Age movement was as successful as it was because the attitudes at its core are what you get when you take the basic assumptions of modern industrial society and go just a little further in that same direction. If you happen to belong to one of the comfortable classes in an industrial nation, after all, you already create much more of the reality you experience than most other human beings have ever been able to do; you can screen out a great many of the unwelcome features of existence, and fill your mind and your senses with lifelike images of any number of wholly imaginary realities, courtesy of television, the internet, and the movies. Thus it became very easy for people to convince themselves that they could change the world the way they change a channel.
They had plenty of help in reaching that conclusion, though. All through the second half of the 20th century, an entire industry of self-help books, videos, speakers, and organizations beavered away at the lucrative task of convincing the well-to-do that they really did deserve whatever they thought they wanted. The New Age movement was only the tip of a very large iceberg where such ideas are concerned. Plenty of “inspirational” and “motivational” teachers who wouldn’t be able to tell a channeled entity from a cheese Danish spent their careers insisting “you can if you believe you can,” “anything you can conceive, you can achieve,” and a boatload of similar half- or less than half-truths. (Anyone who believes these slogans, it seems to me, is obliged to display a working perpetual motion machine to the rest of us.)
The sheer immensity of the cultural impact of these attitudes has not, I think, really been grasped. Go into a dollar store in the working class East Coast neighborhood where I live, for example, and walk down the cramped little housewares aisle, and you’ll find wooden plaques meant to hang on apartment walls with cheery little affirmations—“Live, Laugh, Love,” and the like. A century ago, students of New Thought schools were taught to pin up notecards with such sayings on them to remind them to take charge of their thoughts; now it’s just part of the decor. In the name of self-esteem and a flurry of similarly vacuous labels, such habits have found their way all through American public education and popular culture.
It’s worth taking a closer look at the cheery little affirmation cited above, by the way, as it offers a clear glimpse of the problems with the whole genre. Can you imagine putting a plaque saying “Hate, Mourn, Die” in some corner of your home? “Live, Laugh, Love,” is equally unhealthy, because equally unbalanced; it’s just unbalanced in the other direction. Since emotional life follows the rule that New Thought teacher William Walker Atkinson called the Principle of Rhythm—a swing of the pendulum one way is always followed by a swing the other way—I doubt it’s accidental that there’s so much seething hatred and bitter mourning just now among those social strata that were so enthusiastic about positive thinking a few years ago. I’m not at all sure I want to know just how high the death toll from suicide and other causes is going to be among that same demographic, as the present tragedy runs to its end.
It so happens, you see, that some of the technical methods the New Age movement borrowed from its predecessor, the New Thought movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, can do a fair job of producing the illusion that you create our own reality. A fair amount of what happens to you in the course of your life is shaped in part by the way you approach things. This is especially true of that part of the world around you that consists of other people, since the verbal and nonverbal signals you give them help shape the way they perceive you, and thus the way they treat you. Even the purely material side of existence, though, responds differently to different approaches. If you’ve ever gotten good at using a tool, you already know that there are productive and counterproductive ways to relate to physical matter, and your attitude and unthinking habits play quite a substantial role in determining which of these is typical of you.
The methods of New Thought work, in other words, because each of us is always engaged in a conversation with the rest of the world, and what we contribute to that conversation helps shape what the world says to us in response. The best of the New Thought teachings back in the day grasped that, and taught students to listen to the world’s side of the conversation; that’s one of the things that meditation does, and it’s also one the things you can get from studying your dreams, or from work with random-symbol generators such as tarot and runes. Yes, this is a part (though only a part) of what occultists like me do, and it’s also something that can be done in a less ornate way, the way the better grade of New Thought schools used to teach.
Turn the conversation into a monologue, and you can still get results, at least at first, because you’re still changing the way you relate to the world. There’s a trap hidden in this approach, though, and it’s called the intermittent-reinforcement effect. Psychologists found a long time ago that if you want to train rats to push a button, say, you have to give them some kind of reward for doing so, but you don’t get the best results if you give them the reward every single time. No, the most effective way is to give and withhold the reward randomly: this push of the button dispenses a bit of food, but the next two don’t, and then one does, and then three don’t, and so on. The rat ends up obsessing over the button, pushing it frantically over and over again. What’s more, you can stop giving the rat any reward at all, and it will keep on pushing the button for a good long time on the off chance that maybe, just maybe the thing will work once more.
Practicing New Thought methods under the conviction that you create your own reality, and don’t have to listen when the world says something else to you, is a very effective way to use the intemittent-reinforcement effect on yourself, and trap yourself in a way of doing things that doesn’t work so well. Those methods will get you some results, especially at first, when you figure out how to pluck the low-hanging fruit by stopping this or that self-defeating habit, or what have you. Those successes, like the early luck you get in a poker game rigged by competent card sharps, lure you in and convince you to keep playing—and in the same way, the longer you play and the more heavily you bet, the more certain you are of getting fleeced.
That, I’ve come to believe, is what’s happened to our well-to-do classes here in America, and not here alone. (If you want a fine example of the attitudes we’re discussing in full-blown meltdown mode, for example, visit the Independent—the main voice of privileged progressivism in British society these days—and take in its writers’ foam-flecked rants about the stunning rise of Nigel Farage’s newly minted Brexit Party.) Raised in environments saturated with secondhand New Age ideas, taught in a hundred subtle and not so subtle ways that the world is whatever they think they want it to be, encouraged by the media and their own class privilege to avoid noticing a great many unwelcome realities, they’ve ended up blindly accepting the notion that they get to decide what’s real and what isn’t. Now that that’s not working so well, they’re like the rat with the button, hammering frantically on it and hoping that they’ll get the treat.
I suspect some of them will stay locked into that self-defeating infinite loop until the nice men in white coats come to take them to their very own padded cells. I suspect many others are headed toward nervous breakdowns of various degrees of gaudiness, and many more will get out of the trap by veering suddenly into some sharply different belief system—the way that so many of the hippies turned into Jesus People in the early 1970s, and then morphed into ordinary middle-of-the-road Christians, has occurred to me more than once as a likely model.
While we’re waiting for the sudden loud crunch that will announce the end of the absurdist social comedy we’ve been discussing, though, I’d like to talk about some of the implications. The first thing to keep in mind is that the opposite of one bad idea is quite reliably another bad idea. The belief that you create your own reality is dysfunctional, but so is the belief that your reality just happens to you and you have nothing to do with the way it turns out. You and the world create or, to use an old bit of occult jargon, co-create your reality jointly; both of you contribute to the project, though the world is the senior partner—it was here before you arrived, remember, and it will be here when you are gone. In the same way, too much self-esteem is just as toxic as too little, so bouncing from one end of the spectrum to the other is a lot less useful than finding a healthy point of balance somewhere in between.
The second thing to keep in mind is that treating life as a conversation with the world, rather than a monologue in either direction, has certain benefits. The first, obviously, is that you have the chance to avoid certain kinds of embarrassing mistakes. If you pay attention to what happens in the world when you do this or that, you can learn the difference between the things you can change by altering your thinking, and the things that aren’t amenable to that approach. If you pay attention to what happens in you when the world does this or that, furthermore, you can learn the difference between those reactions of yours that are reasonable and proportional to the event, and those that have been inflated out of proportion by unresolved emotional conflicts or what have you. In either case, you learn, and get better at the art and craft of living.
There’s more to it than that, though. We live in a time when the most important things going on around us right now are things that the well-to-do and their tame intellectuals don’t want to talk about and the media won’t touch with a ten-foot pole. The officially approved voices of our society insist at the top of their lungs, for example, that progress is unstoppable and always makes things better for everyone, but many people have begun to realize that the only kind of “progress” that’s still on track these days is the sort that makes things measurably worse for most of us. Inevitably, the affirmation “but we’re still progressing!”—uttered in tones ranging from the belligerent to the desperate—is becoming an increasingly common catchphrase just now.
The global hegemony that gave the United States its late twentieth standard of living is coming apart, and all of us in the US will be quite a bit poorer in the years to come as a result; that’s another thing nobody wants to talk about. The temporary reprieve from the consequences of peak oil that was provided by shale oil production, and propped up by a really impressive array of financial shenanigans, is winding to its inevitable end as well, and we can expect another round of price spikes and panic in a few years; that’s yet another. There are more. None of these things can be made to go away by refusing to acknowledge them, or by fixating on some contrary belief and clinging to it in the teeth of contrary evidence.
We really do need to listen to what the world is saying to us, and like any good conversationalist, take that into account while deciding what we’re going to say next. The alternative is that the world will raise its voice even further than it has so far. The Brexit referendum and the Trump presidency are two of the things it’s said in a raised tone in the political sphere. Do you really want to know, dear reader, what it will say if it has to shout?