“Down With the Blue Bloods”
The conventional rap on positive thinking is that it is for corporate finks (or those who aspire to be), fuels Trump-like reality distortions, and forms a therapeutic miasma that keeps working people in their place.
My view is different. My story is different. And I write it from lived experience.
My philosophical hero is Neville Goddard (1905–1972). an English, Barbados-born mystic, who wrote under his first name. He heard the following words in the midst of a personal vision: “Down with the blue bloods!” To Neville, privilege did not belong to the rich but to the truly imaginative.
Because of Neville’s English background and elegant bearing, many people assumed he was born wealthy. He was not — far from it. Likewise, because of my New York background and surname, many people judged the same of me growing up. A school bus driver upon hearing that I lived in a suburban development with gaudily named streets like Royal Way and Regents Lane said, “Oh, a rich kid, huh?” A truculent writer with whom I worked once (just once) called me “college boy,” inferring the same thing.
Here’s the truth, of which I rarely speak: My father was a Legal Aid Society attorney in New York City who defended the poorest of the poor. For reasons beyond his control, he lost his job and profession, leaving us to consider applying for food stamps and warming our always-unaffordable home with kerosene heaters. We wore used clothes and scraped together change and coupons to pay grocery bills. There were no Hanukkah, Christmas, or birthday gifts. My sister and I would buy them with our own money, earned from odd jobs, and pretend to friends that they came from our parents. In the words of The Notorious B.I.G., “Birthdays was the worst days.”
One night, in desperation, my father stole my mother’s engagement ring to pay debts, over which he may have been physically threatened. (He had started carrying mace spray.) They divorced. My older sister and I got by through after-school jobs, student loans, and the precious availability of health benefits through my mother’s labor union, the 1199 hospital workers. Given the economic devastation visited on many American homes, including during the still-unhealed 2008 recession, I do not consider our story exceptional. (These words were written before the 2020 pandemic, which only adds to the crushing burdens on working people.)
But when someone assumed then, or does today, that the son of a Jewish lawyer is necessarily born on easy street, he is wrong. This brings me to something else that I rarely mention: I write these words as a millionaire. It’s not because I’m a hotshot media figure, bestselling author, or dealmaker. For decades in my day job I published occult and New Age books — not your typical path to wealth. I co-raise two sons in New York City. I have no family cash cow. And yet, to draw again on The Notorious B.I.G.: “Now we sip champagne when we thirsty.”
Why is that?
Because Neville, in my estimation, was correct. Wealth, to some extent, comes from within. For our purposes here, let me quote Helen Wilmans. An early-twentieth century suffragist and New Thoughter (New Thought is the spiritual philosophy behind positive thinking), Wilmans rose from dirt poverty on a Northern California farm in the late 1890s to command a small publishing empire.
“What!” Wilmans wrote in her 1899 book The Conquest of Poverty. “Can a person by holding certain thoughts create wealth? Yes, he can. A man by holding certain thoughts — if he knows the Law that relates effect and cause on the mental plane — can actually create wealth by the character of thoughts he entertains.” But, she added, such thought “must be supplemented by courageous action.” Never omit that.
Wilmans’ career was a New Thought parable of liberation. While working as a newspaper reporter in Chicago in the early 1880s, she became one of the pioneering female reporters of that era. Everything had gone against her in life. She was fired from jobs, divorced from her farmer husband, left to raise two daughters on her own, and lived one step ahead of eviction from her Chicago boarding house.
More than anything, Wilmans yearned to start her own labor newspaper. She wanted to bring the ideas of mind-power to working people. One day in 1882, she asked her Chicago editor if he would invest in her venture. He dismissed the idea out of hand. In despair Wilmans ran from the newspaper offices (probably not wanting her male bosses to see her in tears) and wandered the darkening streets of Chicago on a November afternoon.
She thought to herself: I am completely alone; there is no one on whom I can depend. But as those words sounded in her head, she was filled with a sense of confidence. It occurred to her that she did not have to depend on anyone else — she could depend on the power of her mind. This was the New Thought gospel. She wrote:
I walked those icy streets like a school boy just released from restraint. My years fell from me as completely as if death turned my spirit loose in Paradise.
Like Wilmans, I had never dreamed of wealth or wanted to be surrounded by fancy things. I believe in labor unions, moderately redistributive tax policies, and personal thrift — not gross consumption.
But there is something vitally important to earning a good living, and that fact cannot be hidden or ignored. Nor can this: Your mind is a creative agency, and the thoughts with which you impress it contribute to the actualized events of your existence — including money.
This statement is absolutely true and should never be neglected. I have tested and verified it within the laboratory of my existence. If you want money, I ask you to wholly embrace it as true. This necessary act of conviction will not, in any case, lead you to rash behavior. It does not suggest neglecting daily obligations or loosening your hands on the plow of effort.
When someone is thirsty he needs water not a discourse on water. If spirituality— by which I mean extra-physicality — is real then it should aid in vital pursuits. Strong people acknowledge what they want, including money, and in so doing they are in service neither to falsehood or shame.
The same is true regarding attainment. Spiritually minded people, and all others, should honor their ambitions and pursue them openly and transparently, with due respect to colleagues and competitors. Yet this is frowned upon in many reaches of the contemporary alternative spiritual and New Age cultures. Within these worlds, we often recycle ideas from the Vedic and Buddhist traditions and use them to prop up unexamined ideas about the need for non-attachment, transcendence of the material, and the value of unseen things.
Writers who cannot decipher a word of Sanskrit, Tibetan, or ancient Japanese — the languages that have conveyed these ideas from within the sacred traditions — rely upon a chain of secondary sources, often many times removed from their inception, to echo concepts like non-attachment and non-identification. We are told that the ego-self grasps at illusions and fleeting pleasures, formulating a false sense of identity around desires, ambitions, attachments, and the need for security.
I question whether this interpretation is accurate. In recently working with the Shanghai-based translator of a Chinese publication of my book One Simple Idea (of which the Chinese government censored about 30 percent), I found, to my chagrin and bemusement, that Buddhist concepts I thought that I, as a Westerner, had understood were, in my retelling, completely alien to her experience as someone raised within non-Western religious structures.
Our popularized notions of the Eastern theology of non-attachment are cherry-picked from religious structures that were, in their originating cultures, highly stratified and hierarchical. Hinduism and Buddhism, moreover, addressed the lives of ancient people for whom distinctions of caste, class, and status were largely predetermined, and who would have regarded cultural mobility almost as unlikely as space travel. There were social as well as spiritual reasons why worldly transcendence beckoned. Shorn of their cultural origins, concepts of non-attachment today sound tidy and persuasive to Westerners who understandably want something more than the race to the top. (Or, just as often, who fear they may not reach the top and thus desire an alternate set of values.)
But this transplanted outlook is often ill fitting and brings no more lasting satisfaction to the modern Westerner than so-called ego gratifications. This kind of ersatz “Easternism” has been with us for several decades, most recently popularized by writers such as Eckhart Tolle and Michael A. Singer, yet it has not provided Westerners with a satisfying response to materialism because it often seeks to divert the individual from the very direction in which he may find meaning, which is toward the compass point of achievement.
Some of my spiritual friends and colleagues have told me that I am too outwardly focused. Isn’t the true path, they ask, marked by a sense of detachment from the outer? Doesn’t awareness come from within? Isn’t there, finally, a Higher Self or essence from which we can more authentically live, rather than succumb to the illusory goals of the lower self or ego, which directs us toward career, trinkets, and pleasure?
I have been on the spiritual path for many years. I have sought understanding within both mainstream and esoteric movements. My conviction is that the true nature of life is to be generative. I believe that in order to be happy, human beings must exercise their fullest range of abilities — including the exertions of outer achievement.
Seekers too often divide, and implicitly condemn and confuse, their efforts by relying on terms like ego and essence, as though one is good and other bad (while neither actually exists beyond the conceptual.) A teacher of mine once joked: “If we like something in ourselves, then we say it comes from essence; if we dislike it, we say it comes from ego.” I contend that these and related concepts, like attachment/non-attachment and identification/non-identification, fail to address the needs, psychology, and experience of the contemporary Western seeker. And, in fact, such concepts do not necessarily reflect the outlook of some of the most dynamic recent thinkers from the Vedic tradition, including the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918–2008) and Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986).
Let me be clear: The inner search and the search for self-expression are matters of extraordinary importance — and extraordinary mystery. I am not a Christian, but believe that the simplest and most resounding truth on the question of the inner life and attainment appears in the dictum of Christ: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s.” We are products of both worlds: the seen and the unseen. There is no reason to suppose that our efforts or energies are better dedicated to one or the other. Both exist. Both have veritable claims on us.
I do not view non-attachment as a workable goal for those of us raised in the West, and elsewhere, today. Rather, I believe that the ethical pursuit of achievement holds greater depth, and summons more from within our inner natures, than we may realize. “Satisfaction with our lot,” Emerson wrote in his journals on July 28, 1826, “is not consistent with the intentions of God & with our nature. It is our nature to aim at change, at improvement, at perfection.”
“Yes I Can”
I recently read a book that I recalled my mother borrowing from our local library when I was eight or nine years old: Yes I Can, the autobiography of entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., published in 1965, the year of my birth. In the public mind, Davis is remembered as a flashy, somewhat self-parodying Vegas performer — but decades before his tuxedoed stage shows, Davis was an innovative prodigy, raised on the vaudeville circuit, where he was subjected to the brutality, insults, and physical assaults that often characterized black life under Jim Crow. These threats followed him into the army during World War II, where he used his skills as an entertainer to mitigate some of the racism around him — though indignities and violence always snared him at unexpected moments. When Davis left the military, he made an inner vow that shaped the rest of his life:
I’d learned a lot in the army and I knew that above all things in the world I had to become so big, so strong, so important, that those people and their hatred could never touch me. My talent was the only thing that made me a little different from everybody else, and it was all that I could hope would shield me because I was different.
I’d weighed it all, over and over again: What have I got? No looks, no money, no education. Just talent. Where do I want to go? I want to be treated well. I want people to like me, and to be decent to me. How do I get there? There’s only one way I can do it with what I have to work with. I’ve got to be a star! I have to be a star like another man has to breathe.
I challenge anyone to question the drive, purpose, and canniness of Davis’s words — not to challenge them from a meditation cushion or living room sofa, but from within the onrush of lived experience. Davis was viewing his life from a pinnacle of clarity. Would his worldly attachments and aspirations cause him pain? He was already in pain. At the very least they would relieve certain financial and social burdens — and probably something more. Would his attainment of fame ease his inner anguish? I think he owed it to his existence, as you do to yours, to find out. Whatever your goal may be, you cannot renounce what you haven’t attained. So to conclude that success, in whatever form, is not meaningful is just conjecture without first verifying it.
Do not be afraid of your aims, or slice and dice them with melancholic pondering. Find them — and act on them. Clarity is critical.
By living as a productive being, in the fullest sense, you honor the nature of your existence and perform acts of generativity toward others. If you are able, you may then determine from the vantage point of experience and attainment whether your aim responded to an inner need of profound meaning. I won’t tell you what you’ll find — you may differ from me; I will tell you that this been the case for me.
(This article is adapted from the author’s book, The Miracle Club.)
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