The concept of the law of attraction seems to have been first introduced to the reading public in the late nineteenth century, the brainchild of traveler, spiritualist, occultist, and founder of the Theosophy movement, Madame Helena Blavatsky.
Madame Blavatsky was a larger-than-life character well known to the spiritual and creative communities of her day. She plays a cameo part in my literary-historical novel Her Secret Rose, about the Irish poet and occultist WB Yeats.
Like most gurus, Blavatsky was a controversial figure. To her champions she was an enlightened inspiration; to her critics, a charlatan and fraud. What is undisputed is that she was a whizz at PR. According to her bio, as a young woman she was given “secret lore” by “masters of the ancient wisdom”, who dispatched her to deepest Tibet to develop her psychic powers.
Out of this, she created a movement called Theosophy, a “synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy” which, she claimed—much as Rhonda Byrne was to claim more than a century later—was the secret at the heart of all the world’s religions.
Her opus, published in 1888, was called The Secret Doctrine, and Theosophy was her version of what later came to be called “the perennial philosophy”, served up with large helpings of mumbo-jumbo, arcane language, outlandish claims, much smoke, and multiple mirrors.
It is still practiced today and has influenced thinkers from Aldous Huxley and Krishnamurti, through the Beat poets, to the counterculture and hippie movements of the 1960s and the attendant yoga, meditation, and mindfulness movements.
LoA was taken up and popularized by one of the cofounders of the Theosophical Society, Irish lawyer and esotericist William Quan Judge, who attempted no new revelation of his own, but to illustrate in his own words Madame’s theosophical teachings and their ideal use. He wrote, in summation of his deepest belief:
All our troubles in life arise from ourselves, no matter how much they may seem to come from the outside; we are all parts of the one great whole, and if you try to center your mind upon that fact, and to remember that those things that seem to trouble you are really due to your own way of looking at the world and life, you will probably grow more contented in mind… It is your own mind you should watch, and not the circumstances in which you are placed.
Or as the writer Anais Nin put it a great deal more succinctly, “We do not see things as they are; we see them as we are.”
Furthered by various New Thought writers, LoA went in and out of fashion throughout the twentieth century until 2006, when it was revived for a new generation by Rhonda Byrne, who used clever marketing methods and new technologies to publicize her film and the subsequent book and website, spreading New Thought sayings far and wide until they have become almost household slogans: thoughts become things; what you believe, you conceive; and, most controversially, like attracts like.
LoA has given rise to many gurus on the Internet, promising easy solutions to serious problems in breathy language. Here’s one, chosen at random from the first page of a Google search just now, fronted by a woman called Katherine Hurst and claiming a community of 2.3 million people in more than 100 countries.
Pulling us in with promises and a surfeit of exclamation marks, Katherine invites us to:
Activate the power of Intention! Experience your original state of limitless abundance you felt as a child! Believe deep in your heart you can have, do, and be anything you want in life! Envision yourself manifesting everything you ask for! And feel what it’s like to live on your terms! I want to give you the same opportunity I was given years ago, to open up and allow the Universe to provide everything you want, once and for all! Be our next success story!
All of which sits uneasily with the (almost invisible) small print at the bottom of the page:
In accordance with the latest FTC guidelines, we want to make it explicitly clear that the customer letters we have received are based on the unique experiences and circumstances of a few people only. We cannot promise that you will experience similar benefits from using our products. The generally expected performance of our products in regards to any specific disease has not been scientifically validated.
It’s easy to make fun of those who are drawn to LoA, as a magazine article written around the time of publication of The Secret does, concluding with a line of Einstein’s that purports to explain its popularity: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former”.
Yes, we can all be stupid, most especially when we are feeling desperate as so many of those who turn to LoA are, but the massive appeal of the theory is not so easily explained away.
And any creative entrepreneur will recognize many of the recommendations of LoA as being very similar to creative principles: setting clear intentions and aligning thoughts, speech, and actions to those intentions; accentuating the positive; applying focus and creative visualization; trusting in inspiration and the creative process.
But from the perspective of conscious creation, LoA teachings fail on four fronts.
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