“Your thoughts create your reality.”
“Change your thinking, change your life.”
“What you focus your attention on, you will attract into your experience.”
These statements are popular expressions of the Law of Attraction. Many spiritual seekers embrace them without exploring their history or assumptions. The disadvantage of accepting these ideas uncritically is that discouragement follows when meditations, affirmations and vision boards don’t “work.”
Spiritual Pioneers and the Law of Attraction
A nineteenth century movement of “spiritual but not religious” Americans encountered similar frustrations. Drawing on New England transcendentalism and teachings of the “mind cure” metaphysicians, practitioners of New Thought sought to use “the Law” to manifest good in their lives.
New Thought spiritual leaders of the early twentieth century combined mystical and intellectual wisdom. Influential writers such as Florence Scovel Shinn and William Walker Atkinson taught that personal experimentation and empirical discovery – rather than doctrine or dogma – paved the path to spiritual development.
Many spiritual seekers benefited from these teachings. But there were also those whose prayers were not answered, whose illnesses were not cured, and whose prosperity never materialized. Skeptics pointed to such cases as evidence that the Law of Attraction was bunk.
One of the brilliant writers of the day, Horatio Dresser, realized that the Law of Attraction was often misunderstood. In Handbook of the New Thought, Dresser observed that the power of thought received “undue emphasis” in many books and teachings. This led people to accept a simplified version of causality in their understanding of life. They believed that thoughts had great power to manifest in physical reality, and that proper thoughts could lead to increased prosperity or the perfect loving relationship.
Developing the Spiritual Mind
The belief, “I create my own reality in the manner of my choosing,” implies that life is under a person’s direct control. It presents a world-view in which “the human self is the decisive agent.” But this ignores the fact that the planet is populated by millions of living beings interacting in all sorts of ways. A complex world cannot be under a single individual's control.
Dresser proposes an alternative: to assume instead that there is a Creative Intelligence within life. This Intelligence (Universal Spirit, Higher Power, God) is causality. It is truth. The divine works through impersonal principles such as the Law of Attraction to serve the good of all. The Spirit within does the work. The individual who seeks to manifest what is in their highest good is tasked with learning to be receptive to this good.
Cultivating receptivity may be difficult is because the ego wants to hold onto its pre-eminence. It is the ego that is supported by a belief in supreme human agency. The ego resists surrendering its small wants and needs.
A new conception of the self is called for, according to Dresser. This involves an awareness of a higher consciousness. It embraces spiritual surrender, accepting that “all spiritual life is a sharing of power with its Cause.” Thus, the ego’s foundational belief in supreme human agency is transcended by asking for and accepting divine guidance.
Rather than fixating on thoughts, Dresser suggests a deeper dive. Beneath churning thoughts and emotions lies the spiritual mind, “the inmost region which lies open to the inflowing divine life.” Once inner stillness is attained – through prayer, meditation, yoga, or just walking in nature – the quiet voice of Spirit can illuminate the next step on someone’s path.
Being Guided Towards Happiness
Humans who seek to expand their consciousness face a two-fold challenge. On the one hand, cultivating receptivity and spiritual discernment requires inner focus. On the other hand, serving the good in ourselves and others requires an outward, positive openness to the world.
When inner guidance is asked for and received, each person faces a choice. Should they allow habitual reaction to take over, disregarding the inner voice? This is the ego’s preference, as it maintains a psychologically comfortable status quo. Or should they change in order to act in accordance with spiritual perception? This is the moment of opportunity. Accessing one’s inner guidance and acting upon its truth is the road of spiritual progress.
Does spiritual surrender mean giving up individuality? Not at all. Dresser emphasized that the authenticity and worthiness of each person is fundamental. We should all bear in mind “that each individual has a right to be, has a work to do.” Individuality is realized in relationship to wholeness. Each individual, thereby is “contributing their measure of service to the world, while all the time remembering that they are one among many, that we are ‘all members of one another’ through [the Creative Power] which realizes heavenly purposes for all.” When we are in alignment with Source, the Law works for and through us, bringing forth the desires of our heart, if not our mind.