Near Enemy #6: You create your own reality

What are ‘near enemies to the truth’?  Borrowing this phrase from Buddhism, I use it to refer to slightly distorted versions of spiritual teachings—statements that are close to a profound and subtle truth, but are distorted just enough to make a big difference over time. When we’re talking about deep and fundamental truths, getting it a little bit wrong doesn’t matter in the short run, but it does in the long run, just like a tiny adjustment to the rudder of your boat makes little difference at first, but after 1000 miles, it lands you on a different continent.

Now, some people object to the use of the word ‘wrong’ in the previous sentence, subscribing as they do to the idea that the only necessary criterion for truth is it feels true to me. This view is as dangerous in spirituality as it is in politics, because it usually means I want it to be true, so I'm going to believe it, regardless of the facts. If you don't see how dangerous this is, or if you doubt whether there really are facts or universal truths, please read the second half of the first blog post in this series.  

Understanding the Near Enemies to the Truth, and why they are near enemies and not the truth itself, is hugely important for any spiritual seeker who wants to get past the beginner stages and into the deep (and deeply fulfilling) spiritual work. Having said that, it’s important to note that if a Near Enemy is near enough, it can be a Temporary Ally for a beginner. But as the stakes get higher in spiritual practice, there is no such thing as ‘close enough’ anymore, and your comforting affirmations must be sacrificed on the altar of truth, or else your spiritual progress stalls. With that brief orientation, let’s look at this month's Near Enemy. 

NEAR ENEMY #6: YOU CREATE YOUR OWN REALITY

This misunderstanding of ‘Eastern’ spiritual teachings has been around for decades, especially in the New Age scene, from which it has made its way into popular culture. This meme comes in a variety of flavors: at its worst, it is nothing but the most immature kind of narcissism, while at its best it is a proper Near Enemy to the Truth.

Since spiritual teachings can be used to inflate the ego, it is entirely possible that a person does more harm to themselves and others after discovering spirituality than before. Much turns on the assumed referent of the given pronoun: for example, in the assertion ‘You are a manifestation of the Divine’ (tat tvam asi), to what does the pronoun ‘you’ refer? In the assertion ‘I am the Absolute’ (aham brahmāsmi), to what does the pronoun ‘I’ refer? If it is mistakenly taken to refer to a more highly developed, more refined, more ‘spiritualized’ version of the ego-self, then suffering will inevitably result. The spiritual ego is often more harmful than the ordinary ego because it is better disguised and therefore more insidious.

The misunderstanding of this key point has given rise to odious and harmful ideas such as the ‘law of attraction’, ‘The Secret’, and the concept of ‘manifesting’. These concepts are distortions of the ‘You create your own reality’ teaching, and they are harmful for anyone who holds them because they partake of delusional magical thinking which inevitably brings suffering, and they are harmful for others because they unwittingly legitimate white/male privilege and the systemic marginalization of all other social groups.

These two facts are linked. If a person believes he can manifest whatever he likes through the power of positive thinking and his personal will, that belief will be much less often disconfirmed if he is a white male cisgender individual. Due to his social and institutional privilege, he will get what he (thinks he) wants more often than others, and if he attributes this to purely mental states (which is exactly what happens in ‘law of attraction’ teachings) then he will look at less privileged individuals with pity laced with contempt, because after all if only they could empower themselves with positive thinking, they too could have almost anything they want!

Furthermore, not even the most privileged person can manifest anything he likes, but if he embraces the ‘law of attraction’ type teachings, he will necessarily always find fault with himself when the manifestation does not succeed: he must not have thought positively enough, he must not have visualized clearly enough, his intention must not have been pure enough, etc. Thus he ends up with an ego painfully at odds with itself: on the one hand, he thinks of himself as gifted, special, powerful, a ‘manifester’; on the other hand, painful insecurity and angst lurks under the confident surface. He knows that he isn’t good enough, because if he was, he would be able to manifest anything his heart desires. (Just using the masculine pronoun for convenience at this point; I’ve seen plenty of women caught in this trap too.)

Even worse, ‘law of attraction’ believers are forced by the logic of their own belief to blame themselves for everything bad, lame, painful, or unpleasant that happens in their life. We see the influence of this doctrine when you ask yourself something like “How did I attract this negative person into my life?” Only a narcissist blames themselves for everything, and self-references every event. But of course we’re all narcissists until we’re not.*

I hope you see how harmful these lines of thought are. But clearly millions of people do not: witness the millions of books sold by Esther Hicks, who claims to be periodically possessed by a group of aliens calling themselves ‘Abraham’ whose harmful teachings have been swallowed and perpetuated by countless people, to the detriment of our society and spiritual communities. If ‘Abraham’ are real, they emphatically do not have our best interests at heart.

Back to the main point. If ‘you’ refers to the socially and culturally constructed personality-self, it’s simply false and even absurd to say ‘You create your own reality’. What you experience, both in terms of what happens to you and how you react to it, is determined by countless causes and conditions you did not choose (such as your childhood conditioning**) which are determined by further causes and conditions (e.g. your parents’ conditioning, your socio-cultural privilege or lack thereof, etc.), in a vast web of interdependent interrelationships far too complex for our brains to comprehend.

Clearly, someone who thinks that what they think is the primary determinant of what happens to them is immersed in narcissistic magical thinking no different from that of (some) five-year-olds. If you’re reading this blog, you’re more likely to say, “I agree that I can’t control what happens to me (without becoming an OCD agoraphobic), but I can choose how I react to what happens.” Believing this sets you up for more self-hatred, because the fact is that you usually can’t choose your reactions, and life is probably showing you that every single day. If you could choose your reactions, why would you choose to be triggered? Why would you ever say anything you regret later? Why would you ever choose to believe your pessimistic and self-defeating thoughts?

And if you acknowledge that you often can’t choose your reactions, but you think you should be able to, that obviously leads to more self-hatred.

Yes, meditation and mindfulness lead to a greater ability to choose to respond differently, both in terms of seeing more options than you did before, and a gradually increasing capacity to choose that option which is most beneficial for all beings. But meditation and mindfulness (if correctly and regularly practiced) accomplish this through a largely automatic process for which you can take no credit, so it is likewise insane and self-injurious to imagine you should have more choice available to you than you currently do.

Perhaps the ultimate fruit of the spiritual life is the ability to determine your own inner state. But this ability is the result of much spiritual work (or rather, time investment), and no-one can think their way into this ability. Having the capacity to be truly happy and content regardless of external circumstances is emphatically not the result of any degree of positive thinking. It is the result of clear View and surrender to the Truth, which themselves result from the patient and dedicated practice of being-with-what-is apart from your conditioned mental contructs about it (otherwise known as meditation).

So what is the Truth to which ‘you create your own reality’ is but a Near Enemy? It’s twofold.

First, this teaching seeks to empower the practitioner with the realization that her moment-to-moment experience of reality is much more due to internal causes and conditions (such as samskāras) than to external ones. This realization is at first sobering or even overwhelming, because healing samskāras is harder work (for most) than making a lot of money. Being empowered with the truth of things can feel like a burden as often as a gift (or both simultaneously). Once you realize that your inner experience is not anyone else’s fault (in the sense that it’s much more determined by your samskāras and conditioning than anything else, not in the sense that we can excuse anyone’s bad behavior), you kind of owe it to yourself and others to do the inner work which will bring about a less reactive version of yourself, one who is able to abide much more frequently and steadily in her Center.

But there’s a deeper Truth here. From the Tantrik point of view, the ‘you’ which creates reality is nothing to do with the constructed ego-self named so-and-so. The ‘you’ that creates and sustains and dissolves your conscious experience of reality, moment-to-moment, is God. In Tantrik philosophy, ‘God’ simply means the universal, transindividual Consciousness by virtue of which all conscious beings have whatever degree of consciousness they do. It’s not the case that you are God in addition to being a personality-self named so-and-so; that latter ‘self’ is nothing but a mental construct (and as such is simply an aspect of the Reality-Whole that Consciousness gives rise to—and therefore is no more ‘you’ than any other feature of experience), which is why it is wholly incapable of doing anything but carrying out its programming. It can’t choose anything but whatever it is conditioned to choose, though part of its structure is a cognitive illusion of agency (“I choose A but I could have chosen B”) by which it thoroughly conceals its lack of agency from itself. As Tantrik philosophy puts it, individual agency must be an illusion, because there is in fact only one Actor behind all actions: the transindividual nonpersonal Consciousness that is your real nature and that of all beings.

But once the awakening process begins, a new possibility appears: that of ‘melting’ the contracted sense of self, the constructed or ‘false’ self, into the wider and deeper selfless Awareness that you already fundamentally are. With more practice/cultivation, this possibility becomes more and more available, until at least once a day, what-you-think-you-are dissolves into what-you-actually-are, unconditioned Awareness-Presence. And then many times a day. And then a day comes when the constructed/contracted ego-self doesn’t have enough energy to re-form itself again. This is what we call Liberation, the culmination of the awakening journey.

Then you realize that what-you-are creates (emits from itself), sustains (holds within itself), and dissolves (reabsorps) absolutely everything, all phenomena and qualia.

If, upon hearing this, you get angry at what-you-are for having emitted some really painful experiences, then you’re still projecting a dualistic idea of God onto what-you-are. (Notice the effect of using the phrase ‘what-you-are’ over and against ‘universal Consciousness’—it tends to disable this kind of dualistic projection. But yes, universal Consciousness is what you are.) There’s no one to get angry at. There is no Other. There’s just what’s looking out of your eyes right now, appearing in countless different forms.

Lastly, in the phrase ‘you create your own reality’, what is ‘your own’ doing there? In terms of the true (unconstructed) nature of reality, it’s simply a falsehood—nothing is yours. There is no actual ownership, not even of your body. It’s all on loan, and it will all be given back. Not even your most heartfelt emotions and feelings are yours—they are simply expressions of a universal human experience. Everyone has those same emotions at some point or another—so in what sense are they ‘yours’? I know they feel very personal, but that apparent feeling is actually just a believed thought—a mostly unconscious thought that self-references the feeling.

Of course, the fact that nothing is personal shouldn’t be used as a pretext for spiritual bypassing—pretending that because nothing is yours per se, there is no work to be done. If we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit that this inner work is called for. Something calls us to it, for the benefit of all beings. The pattern of Reality Whole inclines—even pulls—towards harmony, so much so that you must constantly expend energy if you want to resist that pull. And if that fact is uncomfortable, you (we) tend to numb yourself (ourselves) to it with countless distractions and dependencies. Until you don’t. Until Consciousness is ready to wake up to itself through you. Until the pain of not allowing the awakening process is finally clearly seen to be greater than the raw vulnerable discomfort of allowing it.

~ ~ ~

* Here I am not participating in the deeply worrying cultural trend of pathologizing people with psychology terminology, but rather simply alluding to the fact that every child is a ‘narcissist’, and there’s nothing wrong with that (doubtless it is part of our evolutionary biology), but that true adulthood requires moving beyond magical thinking, constant self-referencing, and taking things personally, which many physical adults have not yet managed.

**The seemingly obvious fact that no one chooses their childhood conditioning poses a sufficient threat to the ‘You create your own reality’ doctrine that it led to the development of the additional doctrine within New Age religion that souls choose their parents before birth, as well as choosing the lessons that they will learn in that lifetime. This bizarre idea, which has no basis in tradition Eastern religions (NB: primary sources that seem to provide a slight basis for it are actually discussing how the soul is karmically compelled to ‘choose’ its parents), continues to circulate despite the fact that a moment’s critical thought reveals that if someone had the wisdom to know which lessons they needed to learn in the future, then they wouldn't need to learn those lessons.