The Myth Of Manifestation: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

One of the true causes of suffering isn’t desire itself but the expectation one’s desire will be fulfilled completely or in certain ways.

That teaching is one of the Four Noble Truths Gotama Buddha imparted on the world about 2,5000 years ago, though definitely not the first human to explain how crippling living from a place of craving can be.

In this way, “manifestation” culture is a way of turning misunderstood ancient wisdom teachings into a way of fulfilling materialistic greed, the true root of suffering on Earth. You can’t actually have everything you want, and wanting more will keep you from ever knowing true joy or freedom.

But this is the basis for the New Age school of thought called the “law of attraction,” recently made most famous by The Secret, a film and self-help book by Rhonda Byrne that uses misunderstandings of quantum mechanics and distortions of ancient mystical teachings to purport that if you ask the universe for something, and believe you will have it, you are destined to receive it.

The book and film even selectively draw from the teachings of spiritual teachers like Jesus Christ, such as Matthew 22:12: “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive,” despite the fact Jesus said belief wasn’t enough, but how one acts based on the quality of their heart.

The film and book were in part influenced by the 1910 book The Science of Getting Rich, written by a Methodist who proposed healing the mind eased in creating prosperity. It is true that good mental and emotional health overall makes it easier to create prosperity, but it is not a gurantee, especially if you are a member of marginalized classes in society.

Gotama Buddha was an ardent opponent of the caste system in his Indian society, at the bottom rung of which were a group called the “untouchables,” those considered undeserving of access to material wealth and societal privileges because of their occupations or family lineage. While that term is now illegal in India, such a stratified class system still exists there, and similarly in most countries in the world, including of course in the United States where the number of people close to or below the poverty line is increasing.

Are so many people struggling to make end’s meet simply because they aren’t having the “right” thoughts or haven’t been working on their vision boards enough?

I became aware of how dangerously prevalent this belief system had become when I began to notice it was being pushed most by business executives, entrepreneurs, and wealthy celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and others who have no academic background in theoretical physics, neurology, psychology or theology. I have seen a lot of such people begin to back away from the misunderstandings of quantum mechanics explanations with the “law of attraction” techniques, if not because you might lose too many people in a 10 minute YouTube video while you try to manifest wealth via new subscribers and ad views.

As someone who has a regular meditation and yoga practice, and is a Reiki Level III practitioner, I’m constantly using and looking for guided meditations on YouTube. Because of that, I often get suggestions for related videos and it is not surprising how often “how to use the law of attraction” and “manifest anything” and “only 1 percent of people do this,” videos come up in my main feed.

That is not to say that makes up the majority of spiritual videos I see on YouTube, nor is there anything inherently wrong with people attempting to promote such techniques. But part of my awakening of the last two years has been realizing how pervasive the influence of Western capitalism is in the religious and spiritual communities.

As a journalist and word nerd, I got curious about the word “manifest,” and why this word is used by spiritual practitioners in trying to describe law of attraction techniques.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the origin of the verb form of “manifest” is:

late 14c., “to spread” (one’s fame), “to show plainly,” from manifest (adj.) or else from Latin manifestare “to discover, disclose, betray” (see manifest (adj.)). Meaning “to display by actions” is from 1560s; reflexive sense, of diseases, etc., “to reveal as in operation” is from 1808. Related: Manifested; manifesting.

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, “manifest” means “to make evident or certain by showing or displaying.”

So if I wish to use the law of attraction to “manifest” something, it really strictly means something would not be created or come to me, but be shown to me. Most of the time manifestation culture is used to get people to believe they can manifest a mansion or new sports car because that is especially what has been desired by the Baby Boomer generation who made The Secret so popular.

But let’s use that definition and principle with something smaller. When I began writing this one day last month, I had the intention that by the end of the day I would like to “manifest” a free bowl of mint chip ice cream. I even believed that it would come to me. It didn’t though. No one I met on my way home or at my house had mint chip ice cream, and if they did, they didn’t freely offer it to me. But even if they had, I still didn’t create or manifest it.

Some farmer or migrant milked a cow that had to be born, perhaps caged and injected and separated from its mother, whose parents were slaughtered to make the delicious $10 “all-natural” cheeseburger with chevre I “manifested” from Little Big Burger.

Some migrant working under oppressive conditions on some Nestle farm being paid cents per hour in South America harvested the cocoa used to make the chocolate chips in the ice cream, whose parents died when they were 6 from overwork and malnutrition. I didn’t manifest it at all, I benefited from the sacrifice of animals and other people.

What most of these New Age practitioners don’t want to acknowledge is the fact that most of those who perpetuate this belief system are cis white people, most of whom were raised upper class or upper middle class (like myself), or are now that way, and actually believe that when they get something they asked for it, it was strictly because of the power of their own thoughts. Perhaps it is easier to believe that than acknowledge the fact all the material wealth and luxuries they have were cultivated, crafted and manufactured by those on the bottom rung of the class system.

I watched a YouTube video from a life coach type on the law of attraction who said that he had a desire to be a best-selling author, envisioned his book at this particular book store and two years later there it was. I believe he manifested it, in that he saw what was to happen in the future outside of linear time, but also because he wrote the book, sought out a publisher and editor, they approved it, and it was marketed.

The book went from being words on his computer to a printed copy through the work of loggers, some who may have lost a limb or put their health at risk, who cut down trees used to make the paper for it. Workers at a printer made sure the machines worked properly to print the book correctly and on time. Truck drivers, FedEx, UPS and post office delivery drivers made sure it got in the hands of those who ordered it from receptionists and agents at the book company, some of them working overtime, not being able to see their families as often as they want.

The guy is also a stereotypically attractive cis white male who is articulate and literate and more likely to be chosen to be published than an author of color saying the same thing, as is the case for most spiritual teachers who write best-selling books, like German-born Eckhart Tolle, distilling the wisdom teachings of brown-skinned people from ancient Egypt, India, Sumer, Africa and South America.

I’ve brought this up among fellow Reiki practitioners in Denver, Colorado where I grew up, and in Portland, Oregon where I have lived now, and most of them, who are predominantly white, agree, though some I’ve told this to online, even astrologers of color, aren’t so sure or are in denial.

It’s true we are way more than our skin, our bones, our flesh or our muscles. Really everything except for our own consciousness, is an illusion. That does not change the facts and reality of the linear history of our species that has been marked by violence and systemic oppression of others based on belief system, economic class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender representation, or just one’s adherence to how the system works.

This topic brought to mind the irony that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones was released in 1969 when the Baby Boomer generation was in the midst of a consciousness revolution in part based on the idea of free love and liberation for humanity from the constraints of economic enslavement. It’s considered one of their greatest songs and one of the most well known from that era. The chorus of that song is:

“No you can’t always get
What you want
But if you try sometimes
Well you might find
You get what you need”

That revolution collapsed, and much of the generation strove for economic stability, quickly turning into greed those who were proponents of the “law of attraction,” or just clever business people, could exploit with the rise and profitability of the New Age movement that has kept most people from accessing the teachings within it due to economic stratification.

I think that song still stands the test of time in part because the idea is timeless, written by young men who grew up poor in Britain who learned the hard way that you don’t get everything you want in life, including all the money you made from record sales and touring, something that was very difficult for even popular bands like theirs in the 1960s because of the political and economic realities of the entertainment industry then.

More personally though, these teachings are contradictory to what I’ve had to learn the hard way as a recovering alcoholic in Alcoholics Anonymous. On the back of my 18-month coin, and on the wall of the living room of the recovery house I live at, is the serenity prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

I have my own personal conceptions of a higher power or “God,” but the hardest part of my awakening, and my recovery, has been to realize of how little I have control over in the world, or even in my own life. I’ve realized how much my feeling of lack and perpetual desire led me to relapse, to becoming homeless and almost taking my life.

I’ve realized I have no control over other people, how they act, how they think, how they feel or how they view me, positive or negative. It has actually been liberating, but clashes with manifestation philosophy that reinforces this hyper-individualistic and self-centered approach to life.

Now I know that I may actually get every “thing” I’ve ever desired in my life, but that it’s not because I created it with my thoughts, but because it was what I needed at the time in order to love and serve others, because that is ultimately all we are here in this physical realm to do.

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