Since the film “The Secret” was released, there has been a lot of buzz about the “Law of Attraction” – often focused on enhancing our wealth, health and material success. This is natural – it is natural that all beings seek pleasure, happiness and comfort. Anything that promises to help us to achieve these objectives is bound to attract our attention and capture our imagination. Understanding and utilizing the “Law of Attraction” by focusing on positive thoughts in order to magnetize the things we want to experience and have into our lives promises just that. However, is material success a sign of an enlightened, positive, spiritually elevated mind? This point of view seems to me to be deeply problematic. Rather than lead us towards a deeper search for spiritual truth that can give us a source of strength and wisdom, indifferent of material circumstances – the point of view that material success is a result of successfully mastering the right thoughts that attract such success, seems to enshrine those that have achieved it as deserving their status. It seems to be another variation on the myth known around the world as the “American dream” – that if you work hard, you can become rich and ssuccessful, only in this case it is not about working hard – it is about thinking positively.
The unspoken message
There are a lot of unspoken, indirect messages however contained in these ideas. Just as the “American dream” has the hidden corollary message that if you are poor and unsuccessful, it must be because you are not working hard enough, superficial interpretations of the “Law of Attraction” give a similar indirect message that if you are not reaching your dreams, you are simply not thinking positively enough. Such points of view also correlate happiness with material achievement – implying that those who have not attained the outward signs of status and success are not happy. All of these points of view tend to put the burden of social injustice not on an unjust system that entrenches inequalities, but rather on the individual. While variations of the “American dream” mythology lead to blaming the socially excluded as being lazy, not ambitious enough, proponents of the “Law of Attraction” may see it as a lack of enlightened, positive thinking. Neither point of view leads to compassion or solidarity. These are different variations on the individualistic ideology that underpins capitalist society and glorifies the 1% of the population that achieves extraordinary success – not only as being hardworking and meritorious – but now they are perhaps even spiritually more enlightened than the rest of us. Though the implied promise of the myth is that anybody can reach that coveted status, and there are the few, exceptional stories of those that climb from poverty to remarkable success that reinforce it, the reality is that the inherent design of our current capitalist system is simply not set up so that everyone prospers. It would take compassionate thinking to redesign the system to be more equitable, and I think that this is a more sure sign of spiritual elevation than utilizing the law of attraction to join those that profit from the current paradigm.
Ancient wisdom teachings
Yet most ancient wisdom teachings from around the world do not lead us towards the worship of wealth and material signs of success. Rather, traditionally, spiritual wisdom is seen to be that perennial source of inspiration that allows us to achieve a type of happiness that has its source within through our connection to Divinity, rather than running after elusive, temporary, impermanent things outside of ourselves. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19)
Story of the miraculous glass pitcher
There is a teaching story about a wise, elderly priest that went to his neighbor to borrow a glass pitcher. The next day the priest returned to the neighbor and told him “Last night, the most amazing thing happened – your glass pitcher gave birth to a baby pitcher!” And the priest handed the delighted neighbor, not only the glass pitcher that he had borrowed, but also a smaller pitcher as well. The following day, the priest returned and asked his neighbor if he could borrow a silver bowl. The neighbor willingly loaned the priest the silver bowl. The next day, when the priest came back to return the bowl, again he exclaimed “Again – an amazing thing happened, your silver bowl gave birth to a baby bowl!” And the priest returned two bowls to his very pleased neighbor. The following day, the priest asked the neighbor if he could borrow a vase. The neighbor eagerly lent him a beautiful vase. In the morning, when the priest returned to the neighbor’s house he said – “I am sorry, I have very sad news. Last night, your vase died.” The neighbor was furious and said “Are you crazy? Everybody knows vases can’t die!” And the wise old priest smiled with a glint in his eye and said “Oh, but glass pitchers and silver bowls can give birth?”
Applying the law of Attraction
I am not trying to negate that the Law of Attraction exists. Indeed, the truth that what we focus on grows lies at the very heart of authentic spiritual practice and is the key to understanding the mechanism behind the science of classical mantra meditation. When we begin to consciously train our minds rather than let our thoughts run in scattered, reactive, restless directions we realize that we can change our consciousness and affect our reality. It then becomes of great significance – what do we choose to focus on. The true secret to the Law of Attraction does not lie in describing the mechanics of law itself, but rather in applying this law to the correct choice of the object of concentration. When we start to realize that indeed the universe is interactive, listening to us and responding to our inner thoughts and desires – should we start to manipulate that for short term gains?
Be careful what you wish for…
In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story the “Monkey’s Paw”, Mr. White receives a magical monkey’s paw, that can grant three wishes. Despite an ominous warning from the paw’s previous owner, immediately Mr. White thinks of a cherished short term goal – to have $200 to make the last payment on his mortgage. The very next day, his son dies in a tragic accident at work, and the family receives an insurance payment of $200. Overcome with grief, the mother convinces her husband to wish for the son to be brought back to life. Soon there is a knock on the door – and Mr. White is terrified by the thought of how his son will appear after the horrific accident and having been buried for more than a week. He makes his last wish, and Mrs. White opens the door to find nobody there. When we wish for objects, or achievements such as name and fame – we may or may not receive those things – but even if we do – they may not necessarily bring us the happiness and satisfaction we imagined. We have a longing for infinite happiness, in fact, and nothing that is finite is able to satisfy that longing. With each desire that we fulfill, our desires multiply and we want even more. The Buddha’s teachings point to the impermanent nature of the material world and how we only create suffering for ourselves when we try to grasp and cling to things that are by nature impermanent. It is like trying to grasp sand. The tighter we try to hold onto a handful of sand, the more the grains slip away. How a baby gets what it wants… If a baby is crying out to her mother to be picked up and nursed, while the mother is busy preparing food, perhaps the mother will try to satisfy her infant by giving her a toy to play with so she can finish what she is doing. Indeed, sometimes, the baby may be distracted by the toy and stop crying. However, if the baby tosses aside the toy and continues to cry insistently to be picked up, the mother will have to stop what she is doing and go to her baby. In the same way – when we want to experience greater spiritual insight – perhaps the universe throws us some toys to see – if we really want the Divine or if we just want some temporary benefits like more money, a new car, a promotion at work, etc. Spiritual wisdom teaches us to let go of chasing after the shadows of happiness and to keep reaching for its true, eternal source.
The Law of Attraction and authentic spiritual growth
So how do we apply the Law of Attraction correctly to facilitate authentic spiritual growth? As I mentioned earlier, the secret lies in choosing the right object of concentration. So if choosing limited objects brings only limited results – what should the object of ideation be? Only the unlimited, divine entity – the true, eternal, infinite source of unconditional love can quench our thirst. The mantras used for spiritual meditation are different synonyms for that One divine entity. Traditionally, one does not simply randomly pick out a mantra from a book, but rather mantras are transmitted orally from a lineage that traces back to an enlightened master. In this way, you can receive a personalized mantra that resonates with your inner being, thus maximizing its effect.
The ocean and the teacup
Yet how can a limited mind focus on something that is unlimited? It is like trying to pour the vast ocean into a teacup. We must go beyond the confines of intellect by cultivating an intense longing, a great, passionate love for the Divine. Opening the heart with divine love opens up the pathway to intuition. It is only by entering fully into intuition that we can experience spiritual truth in the core our being. Spiritual knowledge is not something we can gain by study and analysis with our logical minds. Correct theory is necessary – to point us in the right direction, but is like the skin of a banana. Once you have peeled the banana – you must eat the banana to experience its sweetness and you no longer need the skin. Admiring the banana does not satisfy hunger.
Using mantra to go deeper
Mantra is one way to bring the mind into the deeper realms of intuition by giving it an infinite object of concentration. Mantras used for spiritual meditation point the mind towards the experience of that infinite source of love – and when used correctly, provide a way to focus on cultivating the feeling of love for the Divine. When a baby first starts to call out “ma-ma, mama, mama” or “da-da-daddy” – there is no greater pleasure or sweeter sound for the parents. When a mantra is repeated, not as a dry, technical exercise – but with deep love and affection, the law of attraction brings our Divine Parent closer and closer. This devotional love attracts the Divine to manifest more and more in our lives. Indeed a flow of magical grace may shower us with blessings – or with tests – but when the spiritual aspirant continues to cry for the “mother” rather than be content with toys or discouraged at their loss, the law of Attraction will continue to bring us closer and closer to that nucleus that we are longing to experience. It is there that we will find the inner fulfillment of bliss that outshines all of the material wealth of the universe.