Why Positive Thinking Works
Why should positive thinking, “manifestation,” or the “law of attraction” work at all? Before you cry “confirmation bias!” (materialism’s equivalent of “lock her up!”) take a deep breath.
In my book The Miracle Club I propose a theory of mind causation. It may be wrong, it may be grossly incomplete, but I feel that we need to at least try to theorize from the intersection of testimony, science, and mysticism. It’s necessary, I believe, for our generation of seekers to do more than tell the same stories over and over. We must experiment, we must experience, we must have results — and we must attempt to come up with reasons why mind causation just might work.
I’ll start by quoting something that mystic Neville Goddard (1905–1972) said in 1948: “Scientists will one day explain why there is a serial universe. But in practice, how you use this serial universe to change the future is more important.”
It was a striking observation, because it wasn’t until years later that quantum physicists began to talk about the many-worlds theory. Physicist Hugh Everett III (1930–1982) devised the concept in 1957. He was trying to make sense of some of the extraordinary findings that had been occurring for about three decades in quantum particle physics. For example, scientists are able to demonstrate, through various interference patterns, that a subatomic particle occupies a wave state or state of superposition — that is, an infinite number of places — until someone takes a measurement: it is only when the measurement is taken that the particle collapses, so to speak, from a wave state into a localized state. At that point it occupies a definite, identifiable, measurable place. Before the measurement is taken, the localized particle exists only in potential.
Now I have just about squeezed all of quantum physics into roughly a sentence. I think it’s an accurate sentence, but obviously I’m taking huge complexities and reducing them into the dimensions of a marble. But I believe I’m faithfully stating what has been observed in the last eighty-plus years of particle experiments. And we’re seeing that on the subatomic scale, matter does not behave as we understand it to.
Our understanding of matter in our macro world generally comes from measuring things through our five senses, and experiencing them as singularities. There is one table. It is solid and definable. It’s not occupying an infinite number of spaces. But contemporary quantum physicists have theorized that we may not normally see or experience superposition phenomena because of information leakage. This means that we gain or lose data based on the fineness of our measurement. When you’re measuring things with exquisitely well-tuned instruments, like a microscope, you’re seeing more and more of what’s going on — and that’s actual reality. But when you pan the camera back, so to speak, your measurements coarsen and you’re seeing less and less of what’s actually happening.
To all ordinary appearances, a table is solid. The floor beneath your feet is solid. Where you’re sitting is solid. But measuring through atomic-scale microscopes, we realize that if you go deeper and deeper, you have space within these objects. Particles make up the atom, and still greater space appears. We don’t experience that; we experience solidity. But no one questions that there’s space between the particles that compose an atom. Furthermore, we possess decades of data demonstrating that when subatomic particles are directed at a target system, such as a double slit, they appear in infinite places at once until a measurement is made; only then does locality appear. But we fail to see this fact unless we’re measuring things with comparative exactitude. Hence what I’m describing seems unreal based on lived experience — but it’s actual.
In any event, my supposition is this: if particles appear in an infinite number of places at once until a measurement is taken; and if, as we know from studying the behavior and mechanics of subatomic particles, there’s an infinitude of possibilities; and if we know, as we have for many years, that time is relative, then it is possible to reason — and it’s almost necessary to reason — that linearity itself, by which we organize our lives, is an illusion. Linearity is a useful and necessary device for five-sensory beings to get through life, but it doesn’t stand up objectively. Linearity is a device, a subjective interpretation of what’s really going on. It’s not reflected in Einstein’s theory of relativity, which posits that time slows down when it begins to approach the speed of light. Nor is it reflected in quantum mechanics, where particles appear in an infinitude of places and do not obey any orderly modality. Linearity is not replicating itself when a measurement taken of a particle serves to localize the appearance or existence of the object.
If we pursue this line of thought further — and this is where the many-worlds theory comes into play — the very decision to take a measurement (or not to take a measurement) not only localizes a particle but creates a past, present, and future for that particle. The decision of an observer to take a measurement creates a multidimensional reality for the particle. This is implied in the famous thought-experiment called Schrodinger’s Cat, which I describe here (yes, pre-tattoos, but remember there is no time):
So whatever that particle is doing, the very fact that a sentient observer has chosen to take a measurement at that time, place, moment, and juncture creates a whole past, present, future — an entire infinitude of outcomes. A divergent set of outcomes would exist if that measurement were never taken. A divergent set of outcomes would also exist if that measurement were taken one second later, or five minutes later, or tomorrow. And what is tomorrow? When particles exist in superposition until somebody takes a measurement, there is no such thing as tomorrow, other than subjectively.
And what are our five senses but a technology by which we measure things? What are our five senses but a biological technology, not necessarily different in intake from a camera, photometer, digital recorder, or microscope? So it’s possible that within reality — within this extra-linear, super-positioned infinitude of possibilities in which we are taking measurements — we experience things based upon our perspective.
Neville Goddard’s instinct was correct in this sense. He taught that you can take a measurement by employing the visualizing forces of your own imagination. You’re taking a measurement within the infinitude of possible outcomes. The measurement localizes or actualizes the thing itself. Hence his formula: an assumption, if persisted in, hardens into fact. But the assumption must be persuasive; it must be convincing. That’s why the emotions and feeling states must come into play. And Neville observed that the hypnagogic state — a state of drowsy relaxation — helps facilitate that process.
You can use several different techniques in connection with Neville’s ideas, and, as he did, I challenge you to try them and see what happens. You’re entitled to results. I believe strongly in results. I believe that every therapeutic and ethical and spiritual philosophy should result in some concrete change and improvement in your life or your conduct; if it doesn’t, then such an idea should have no hold on you. I feel similarly strongly that the ability to describe a concrete outcome in your life is vitally important, and that too was always part of Neville’s teaching. Testimony is both an important source of ideas and an invitation to others.
One way of using Neville’s approach to mental creativity is to enter into an inner state of theatrical or childlike make-believe. Not childish but childlike: a state of internal wonder and pretending. Children are so good at this. We get embarrassed about this quality as we age, but Neville talked about walking the streets of Manhattan imagining that he was in the tree-lined lanes of Barbados, boarding a ship to some desired destination, or in a location where he wanted to be.
He would say: “Unfoldment will come. You will see.” He would always say that an assumption, although false, if persisted in, eventually hardens into fact. He would say, “Assume the state of the wish fulfilled. Live from the end. Live from the state of your wish fulfilled.” Remember, Neville would remind listeners, you’re not in a state of wanting; you’re in a state of having received. Your aim is simply to occupy the emotional and mental state that you would experience after having received.
One simple way to use Neville’s method is to freely enter this state of make-believe, as you used to when you were a child. Of course, you must also continue to go about your adult life in this world of Caesar and currency and commerce, and fulfill your obligations and do the things you need to do. You cooperate with the world. You must abide by the world. You must do the things that the world needs you to do. But the secret engine behind what’s really going on is what you’re imagining. Within are the hidden currents of emotionalized thought, which are the actual engine of what’s occurring.
How long will it take you to see your desired changes in outer life? How long will it take for outer life to conform to your internal focus, your living from the end of your ideal? This question of time intervals has recently become very hot for me personally, because with all the stresses that life throws at us, it is not easy to adopt a feeling state and stick with it for weeks. It’s very difficult, in part because the world we live in does everything possible to disrupt our inner quietude.
Neville noted later in his life that there could be a substantial time interval between your visioning, your mental imaging, and the appearance of the wished-for thing. He would point out that the gestation period of a human life is nine months. The gestation period of a horse is eleven months. The gestation period of a lamb is five months. The gestation period of a chick is twenty-one days. There is almost always going to be some time interval. You must persist. If you want to find yourself in Paris, and you wake up every day and you’re still far away from Paris, you’re naturally going to feel disappointed or dejected. But if you really stick with it, I venture that you will see that your assumptions eventually concretize into reality, and the correspondences will be uncanny.
I’ve had such experiences in my own life; but I’ve personally observed that in some cases, there have been extended time intervals. This has been true regarding my career as a writer, speaker, and narrator. The philosopher Goethe made an interesting observation. We’ve all heard the expression “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.” It actually has its roots in Goethe. Taking a leaf from Goethe’s play Faust, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted this dynamic in his 1860 essay “Fate,” which led to the popular adage. Emerson wrote:
And the moral is that what we seek we shall find; what we flee from flees from us; as Goethe said, “what we wish for in youth, comes in heaps on us in old age,” too often cursed with the granting of our prayer: and hence the high caution, that, since we are sure of having what we wish, we must beware to ask only for high things.
We are being warned to act with perspective: what we wish for when we are young will come upon us in waves when we are old. Many people would object to that claim, saying that they have all kinds of unfulfilled wishes. But unlocking the truth of this observation requires peeling back the layers of your mind and probing formative images and fantasies from when you were very young. What was the earliest dream you can remember when you first came into conscious memory, maybe at age three or four? I mean a literal nighttime dream. What were your fantasies when you were very young? I do believe that children — certainly this was true of me — have very intense fantasy lives even at age four or five. What were your earliest fantasies?
I believe that Goethe’s observation relates to Neville’s remarks about the perceived passage of time and the gestation period between the thought and the actualization. If you take Goethe’s counsel, you might be surprised to discover an extraordinary symmetry between the things that you’re living out in your life today and things that you harbored and thought about when you were very young. These can be positive, negative, or anywhere in between.
Neville recommends that you avoid thinking in terms of, “It will happen this way or that way” or “I’ll do something to make it happen.” His attitude was that the event will unfold in its own lovely, harmonious, perfect way. Your job is not to draw the map. Your job is to live from the destination.
I believe that Neville is going to be remembered, and is being looked upon today, as having created the most elegant mystical analog to quantum physics. He was thinking and talking about these ideas long before the popularization of quantum physics. He had a remarkable instinct in the 1940s, which has been tantalizingly, if indirectly, reiterated by people studying quantum theory — people who have never heard the name of Neville. Yet it wouldn’t surprise me if, within a generation or so, some physics students begin to read him as a philosophical adjunct to their work. That may sound unlikely, but remember that many of the current generation of physicists were inspired by Star Trek and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and I believe there is greater openness today to questions of awareness and mind causation.
We all live by philosophies, unspoken or not. Even if we say we don’t have an ideology, we obviously have assumptions by which we navigate life. When I look back upon people like Neville and Zen teacher Alan Watts (1915–1973), I realize that their greatness is that they lived by the inner light of their ideas. That is a rare trait in our world today. We are a world of talkers. People are sarcastic or cruel over Twitter, and they think they’re taking some great moral stand. Is it brave for someone who lives miles away and doesn’t even use his real name to call people out online? That’s no victory. It’s make-believe morality.
When we look back on certain figures in the political, cultural, artistic, and spiritual spheres, those we remember are the ones who lived by the inner light of their ideas, who put themselves on the line, for success or failure, based upon an idea.
My wish for every one of you reading these words is that you provide that same example. And I really must say the following, and I mean this in my heart: if you sincerely attempt what I am describing, I believe that you will find greatness, because, if nothing else, you will be making the effort to live by the inner light of an idea.
(This article is adapted from Magician of the Beautiful: An Introduction to Neville Goddard.)