How many people have you heard lately talking about “the secret to life,” the law of attraction,” or the power of “manifesting”? Sure, it all sounds good. But this is just the latest recycled version of the power of positive thinking approach to life that has led so many people astray over the centuries. I’m not against people enjoying life, an optimistic approach to living, or taking responsibility for one’s life. I am suspicious, however, of anything that tempts people to believe that: their individual happiness is the ultimate goal of living; that however they define that happiness or the fulfillment of their needs is fine, as long as they choose it for themselves; that they are fully in charge of their lives and do not need to depend on any other; and that a life worth living is always pleasant and easy.
I Want, I Want, I Want
Most purveyors of the law of attraction (and yes, these people are manifesting making lots of money off people who want to hear this easy talk) encourage people to ask, What do I want to manifest in my life? What we should be asking ourselves is the questions that come before and beneath that question: How can I know what to manifest if I don’t first understand what is illusion and what is true? How does it help me in the long run to manifest my desires if what I desire is as ephemeral and unsatisfying as smoke when what I really need is fire? What have I gained if I become adept at attracting to myself what feels good for an instant but what cannot prove an enduring foundation for the future? A new car? A six-figure income? A romantic partner? All good—perhaps. But should these be the object of our heart’s deepest and purest intention?
Are these the questions we should be asking ourselves, What do I want? What do I want to attract? What do I want to manifest? I, I, I, I! That’s the second part of why this recycled power of positive thinking talks is so tempting: it focuses not only on desire without asking what is worthy of human being’s deepest desire, but on the “I,” the individual ego. In this age of consumerism and economic fearfulness, of “social” networks that seem not to slake our isolated and alienated selves’ thirst for community but only increase it, we don’t need anyone to coach us to focus on ourselves more. For most genuine paths of salvation in the world, the “secret” of living well is never to focus on the self, but to go beyond the healthy self to recognize that one belongs to something larger and that one has a role to play in that something larger, a role that does not always lead to one’s personal happiness or needs being met in the moment.
It’s common today to bash traditional religions as being external, authoritarian, or the enemy of the spirit’s evolution, and to valorize the “spiritual” movements that focus on the internal individual making free choices. But true religion, whether it is in the form of Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam, or whatever, has always pointed the self beyond its self. Obviously traditional religion can be corrupted to serve lesser forces. Unfortunately history shows us this over and over again. But so can spirituality be corrupted. Has Ayn Randism brought peace to the world? No, it has brought injustice, violence, and suffering. What will the followers of the law of attraction bring to our world, beyond their one personal desire for their individual happiness.
Beware the Highway Robbers, Find Yourself a Trustworthy Guide
One of the most trustworthy life coaches I know is that doctor of the heart called Ghazali. At the end of his life, after writing countless books of spiritual counsel for theologians, mystics, and other adepts, he wrote a guide for the spiritual life for ordinary persons, The Path of the Worshipful Servant to the Garden of the Lord of All Worlds. He wrote the book because the path is so difficult and “the danger involved so enormous.” He explains why it is so in his introduction:
It is indeed a rugged path and a hard road, fraught with many obstacles, serious hardships, remote distances, enormous difficulties, frequent hindrances and impediments. It is beset with deadly perils and interruptions, abounding in enemies and highway robbers, and offering very few companions and followers. This is exactly how it needs to be, since it is the path of the Garden of Paradise….
Then, in addition to all of that, the servant [of the Lord] is weak, the time is difficult, and religious commitment is subject to retrogression. There is little leisure and much preoccupation. Life is short, and there is incapacity in work. The critic is perceptive, and the appointed term is near. (The Path of the Worshipful Servant to the Garden of the Lord of All Worlds. Tr. Muhtar Holland, Amal Press, p. 2)
Whom would you trust when you set off on a journey to a destination you want to reach before you die? A person who tells you, It's easy, all you have to do is want it and it will be yours? Or the person who has been traveling there a long time and tells you, The way is hard, there will be help all along the way, the destination does not belong to you but you to it, and it is the only place worthy of your travels? Dr. Feel Good? Or a true doctor of the heart?
But first, make sure you know where you’re going.