Spirituality is not alchemy
Please stop "manifesting" your blah blah.
The upsurge in people experimenting with spiritual and/or religious practices over the last few years has been exciting for a good ol’ fashioned woowoo person like me. I love seeing people discover new tools that help them find grounding and meaning, and I loooooooove being introduced to new tools to play with, too. I will try just about any spiritual practice once, as long as it doesn’t involve harm. And I’m open to all kinds of fun divination weirdness… I even use shuffling music on my phone to suggest ideas for questions I’m struggling with. Yes, yes, I am THAT grrl.
But I also find myself so frustrated with people and practices that take things to the extreme, especially the whole “you just need to MANIFEST your dreams!” kind of messages. This BS showed up around me first with The Secret (thanks, Oprah) in the mid-2000s, and continues to flare up all over the place. I just listened to a podcast episode that covered New Age Tiktok, and they shared a video where a young person teaches their viewers how to get the person they have a crush on to text them back.
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To me, the universe is infinitely connected in ways we don’t fully understand, and in that unknown lies a lot of potential and magic. Not “magic” as in, “poof, here’s your favorite ice cream!”, but more “magic” in “wow, it feels really good to be connected to others in ways that don’t always make rational sense.” I think there’s a huge difference between those ideas. If you’re not in any way interested in New Age-y, woowoo stuff, these concepts might feel identical, and I’m not sure I could change your mind. But if you play with, and sometimes struggle with, these takes, too, let’s have a look.
The idea that you can manifest your own happiness is just so incredibly problematic. It suggests so many things that make me mad:
That “happiness” is the goal of life. I could write a whole ‘nother post about this, and I prolly will someday, but happiness is an illusion and fleeting. Fulfillment and meaning are my goals.
That your not getting what you want out of life is purely an individual problem, and has nothing to do with the systemic conditions of our existence;
That this individual problem can be overcome if you just think about it, or pray about it, hard enough. If you don’t, it’s your fault for attracting negative outcomes.
Any spiritual or religious practice taken to extremes like this is going to cause problems, and likely harm. Think of all the religious extremism we see around us, and all the damage it does! And think of all the religious people you might know who are not extremists causing damage. It’s a spectrum for everyone, folks! Believing that you’re connected to the universe in an unknown way and that your actions have impact in ways you don’t understand does not mean you have to go full-bore into, “I CAN MAKE ANYTHING HAPPEN WHENEVER I WANT AND IF I DON’T I AM BAD AT THIS.” Or worse, the kind of people that think that people who get cancer brought it on themselves, or who think that poverty is caused by negative thought pattern. Seriously, y’all? Seriously?!
As the world becomes (or at least feels) increasingly more complicated, many people are reaching for ideas and tools that simplify things, that make everything more black & white, more clear about what’s right and what’s wrong, and what “works” and what doesn’t. But there’s another way: embracing the complication. Learning to hold conflicting feelings in your heart at the same time, and not trying to push any of them away with shame or guilt. Opening to the questions, and seeing what happens on the other side of them. Scary as hell.
When I was 18, I started to have doubts about my Christian faith. My family were solid Lutheran churchgoers when I was growing up, and I really loved the idea of God and Jesus loving us no matter what. Then I started to encounter some of the hypocrisy as Christian extremism started to rise (this was the early ‘90s and anti-abortion and anti-queer movements were all over the news), and I started to question what I believed. It felt terrifying, to say the least. I grew up knowing that God could hear my every thought, and if I even thought something bad, it felt like I could make bad things happen. And certainly, questioning God had to be bad.
At the time, I was dating a guy whose dad was a Baptist minister. I always found it so interesting that his preaching style— somewhat fire ‘n’ brimstone, tamped down a bit with New England reserve— was so different than his everyday personality. He was generous and funny, loved to talk and was open to all kinds of ideas. I confessed one night to him that I was having doubts about my faith. He said, “Great!”
This is not the answer that one expects to hear from a Baptist minister, amirite? He went on to share that in his practice and understanding, God wants us to question our faith, he doesn’t want us to just believe blindly. God wants us to experience our faith for ourselves, to hit those hard questions. If we come away from the questions and still believe, then our faith and our practice gets stronger. Yay. And if we come away thinking that maybe this faith isn’t for us, that’s OK too. God wants us to find our way, not just try to get into heaven.
It’s nearly thirty years later now, and I still think about that conversation often. The Baptist pastor introduced me to the Unitarian-Universalist church in my town— he was good friends with the minister, a Zen Buddhist. I spent some time there (and even ran into my third grade teacher!), and eventually settled into a mish-mash of practices and beliefs that borrow heavily from Buddhist traditions, but also sprinkle in lots from my love of Jesus as a human (he was way cool), and pagan practices from my love of the unknown wonder that the planet and the universe provide. My dad told me once that he thought I was just hedging my bets, and I laughed and said, “I absolutely am!”
When the world gets complicated, we want to have control over what feels uncontrollable. And that’s certainly understandable! A sense of control gives many of us comfort (I would know nothing about wanting to control absolutely everything all the time, ahem, *cough cough*.) Turning to our spiritual and religious practices to help us find grounding in all of it, yes! Great! But clinging to those practices as easy ways to get what we want, less than great. Spiritual work is not linear, it is not A —> B. It’s a constellation, and it’s confusing and it’s gorgeous and it’s scary. There is no one right answer, no single way to just poof! get happy. Anyone who says differently is selling something.1