Don’t tell me to “free my mind”

One of the writers on the same Pagan e-zine that I write for posted an article this past month that made me truly furious. I commented on it, and she replied with a non-reply, so I’m going to express my analysis a little more fully here. In short: claiming that we all create our own reality – and that our minds are the entire determinant of our reality – is victim-blaming, insulting to people who don’t have your privilege, privilege-blindness, and sometimes flat-out dangerous or abusive. Here are the key parts of her post:

Once you understand that there is nothing certain that there is no one absolute truth then you have become empowered. It is at this point that you truly understand that anything … ANYTHING is possible and that you and only YOU are The Creator of your own life experience. You have infinite possibilities. There are no limits or boundaries to what you can experience in this lifetime. Isn’t that truly amazing?! What is it that you most desire to do in this lifetime? What is it that you have been told you will never be able to do? And why is it you believe them? I don’t believe them. I know that I can do whatever it is I desire most to do in my lifetime. I am the only one who places restrictions on myself. And those limitations are by my own choosing.
. . .
Regardless of what other people believe and what they think is impossible, I’m here to tell you that you can create your reality. You can have, be and do whatever it is you most desire. You ARE the creator of your life experience. So start deliberately creating!

In my comment, I said that what the author wrote is demeaning and insulting to people like me who have disabilities and very real limitations in their lives. Saying that “I am the only one who places restrictions on myself. And those limitations are by my own choosing,” implies that my physical disability is something I have chosen, and that if I consciously chose otherwise, I could make it disappear. That’s as reasonable as saying that if I flap my arms hard enough, I could fly.

Her reply was that “I am truly sorry you feel that what I have written is demeaning and insulting. I believe that life is all perception and perception is subjective. What I deem as reality may or may not be yours. This piece is meant to be inspirational and empowering to those individuals who feel powerless in their current life experience. I’m sorry you don’t feel it was. Love and light to you.”

My comment was tough but moderate in tone, because I felt the author genuinely deserved a chance to say that she (I think the author is female, but I’m not positive.) didn’t mean these words to apply to, say, gravity, or physical disability; basically she deserved a chance to admit that there are things in the world that aren’t subjective. But her reply simply infuriated me more. If I were speaking to her directly, I would use the refutation of telling her that her fly is unzipped or her shoe is untied. If she really believes what she’s saying, she’d just think about it and change it, not look down and do the zipper by hand or tie her shoelaces by hand. Since I don’t have that recourse, I’m going to explain why this position infuriates me and why this is insulting and demeaning by being privilege-blind and why it can be actively dangerous.

The absolute worst of this kind of nonsense comes out of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and related works. The so-called “Law of Attraction” touted by Byrne et al. says that whatever you think about draws similar events to you and makes them happen in your life. This isn’t just about thinking positive thoughts – this is stated as a natural law, and when faced with a question about the Holocaust, Byrne responded: “if [the Jews’] dominant thoughts and feelings were in alignment with the energy of fear, separation, powerlessness and having no control over outside circumstances, then that is what they attracted.” Byrne would rather blame victims for everything bad that happens to them instead of admitting that there are things in her world that she can’t control. The author of the post avoided blaming me directly for my disability, when I tried to confront her moderately politely about it, but she didn’t deny that she thinks my disability might be my own fault, either. That’s insulting, and degrading, and dehumanizing.

Starhawk had a good description in one of her books – I think Truth or Dare, but I haven’t been able to find it lately – about how the idea that “we create our own reality” in the puerile sense adopted by this author is really only true for people who have incredible amounts of privilege already. People who are generally upper middle class, have more racial privilege, cissexual, able-bodied, and so on, those sorts of people can maintain the illusion that they create their own reality, because they do have a tremendous ability to get the world to do what they want. But that ability doesn’t come from their minds. It comes from their status, which isn’t something everybody has. Ask a subsistence-level farmer if she can create her reality – she’ll look at you as if you’ve lost your mind, or she’ll say, sure, she can, as long as that reality involves working incredibly hard just to keep her family fed, as long as there are no weather upheavals or local wars.

But what the author of this post, like Byrne, is peddling isn’t just insulting to me and people like me. It can be actively dangerous. She’s standing on the roof of a tall building and insisting that she’s keeping herself up so high by flapping her arms. She says that she wants to empower me, so that I too can flap my arms and rise to the same heights. But what she actually gives an example of in her post is an instance where she says that she didn’t let little things like possibly not having a place to live discourage her: “We gave our thirty-day notice without even having a place lined up.” That’s not a message of empowerment, and it’s not about avoiding discouragement. That’s telling people that they should be reckless and believe that everything will come out all right. It also actively discourages them from going out and finding the tools they need to actually be empowered. It’s like her standing on the roof and flapping her arms, and then telling someone that the fact she doesn’t fall is proof that if the other person walks off his roof and flaps his arms too, he won’t fall either. Why should he look for a ladder to climb one floor higher to where you are? Just “free your mind!”

Yes, your attitude and perceptions make a difference, and can even make the difference between success and failure. But having a positive attitude isn’t an adequate substitute for taking basic responsibility for your own life, within the limits you encounter. It’s also not grounds to blame people for bad things that have happened to them or for the limits or burdens they encounter. Sorry, lady: The Matrix was cool, but it was just a movie. I feel sorry for how bad it’s going to hurt when the ground comes up and hits you one of these days.

About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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19 Responses to Don’t tell me to “free my mind”

  1. ravenqueer says:

    Starhawk had a good description in one of her books – I think Truth or Dare, but I haven’t been able to find it lately – about how the idea that “we create our own reality” in the puerile sense adopted by this author is really only true for people who have incredible amounts of privilege already.

    Quoted for truth. I agree that attitudes and perceptions make a difference and can be the difference between success and failure, but the problem comes along when people refuse to acknowledge that making choices about one’s own attitude is not the same as “creating our own reality”.

  2. Literata says:

    Exactly. I can choose, most of the time, not to put extra energy into being angry about my disability, or frustrated by it, although those are natural reactions that still occur for me sometimes. But making those choices isn’t going to mean I can suddenly run a marathon. Or, heck, run at all.

    Similarly, I have adaptations in place in my daily life that make my reality a nicer place to be. But those adaptations cost money, and sometimes energy or other people’s effort. They’re not there just because I wished for them. And they don’t make me able to run, either.

  3. I agree with you completely about the privilege issue, as someone disabled and privilege-bound. Honestly, reading that statement would have immediately set me off on a different topic: it borders on utter perspectivism (a close cousin of nihilism), and that starts stripping people of morality.

    You are concerned that this will lead to self-destructive behavior; the author encourages others to go for the gold no matter what may happen to themselves. Yet at the same time, if all reality is “subjective” as this author is claiming, his/her readers are going to come away with an idea that despite most of the Pagans as wanting to “harm none”, the Universe is our reality so that other person doesn’t really matter. Crush the enemy.

    Nietzsche’s development of perspectivism rolled out a whole new level of relativism in which you could will yourself into a powerful state (ergo his “The Will To Power”) and there was no set of pure truthful knowledge. (Relativism compares to culture or religion or philosophy, etc. – one *set* may be true, but there is still a truth for a group and morality is still defined.)

    This also starts bordering… heck turning straight into “Secular Humanism” or Satanism. Is that what she defines herself as? Because that’s what I’m seeing.

  4. Literata says:

    Ooh, good different angle, Voracious Boot. Yet another failure mode that falls down towards the Objectivism and/or Satanism and/or Go Ahead, Be A Dick category of unethical worldviews. And yeah, this author provides no clue how she deals with the interactions of subjectivities that must occur.

    Oh, and I forgot the Dr. Gregory House disproof of the nominalist fallacy, which is remarkably close to this “create reality” approach: (closes eyes) “I am surrounded by naked cheerleaders!” (opens eyes) “Damn.” But House is notoriously misogynist, so maybe I’ll imagine kittens instead.

  5. blotzphoto says:

    How do you know that they are Cheerleaders if they are naked? Also: Secular Humanism = Satanism? Qua? Plz explain?

    • Inquisitive Raven says:

      Did you notice that Voracious Boot put “Secular Humanism” in quotes and not “Satanism”? I took it to mean not actual Secular Humanism, but Straw Secular Humanism as envisioned by the Religious Reich, which, yeah, is pretty much Satanism without Satan, except that IRL that’s the Church of Satan.

  6. Literata says:

    For the first, you’ll have to ask House. Or Hugh Heffner. For the second, I’m sorry, I should have asked Voracious Boot to clarify. I don’t think zie meant Secular Humanism per se but rather certain secular/atheistic “I’ve got mine, screw you” philosophies, like Objectivism. But I might be reading that in, too.

  7. Dav says:

    I find this an incredibly disempowering and dangerous line of thought. It not only disempowers people with actual real life stuff, but empowers those in the majority who want to wish away the inconveniences of those with less privilege – eg. those who think being queer is a “lifestyle choice”.

    As a scientist in training, I find it terribly troubling as well. It turns out that some things are objective, and we have tools of measuring and finding that. The things we find may be incomplete or imperfect, but germ theory isn’t a perceptual issue, and having surgeons wash their hands demonstrably improves the odds that their patients don’t die of sepsis. This idea that reality is all personal has led me to some infuriating discussions with creationists, who think their evidence is just as good as that peer-reviewed stuff. No, it’s not, and I can *prove* it.

    Serious, serious fail.

  8. Literata says:

    Yeah, and I didn’t even get into the people who pretend to use Quantum Mechanics: Now With Rainbow Unicorn Poop Sparkles! to justify this. Dav, can I add you to my list of people who I might deputize for the Science Police to help keep me from falling into similar errors?

    • Dav says:

      You can, although Scientist *in training*, so . . . yeah. Maybe deputy associate science police intern or something.

  9. Ginny W says:

    Oh, gods, this shit.

    Seriously, I went through a phase of believing this shit when I was sixteen. I was past it by the time I turned eighteen, because it was so obviously bullshit. When even an over-privileged fuzzy-headed teenaged girl in the first flush of her OOO MAGICK SPARKLIES stage can get it, anyone can. Grr.

    An artist of my acquaintance read The Secret a while back. Well, part of it. She got fed up about twenty pages in. And took a rather fabulous shot of her tiny creations staging a protest march to go throw the thing in the river. (“Wake Up!” is one of her artistic mantras.)

    • Literata says:

      Sweet Sehkmet, that image made me laugh and cheer all at once. Thank you!

    • Heh. Have you seen Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s review of The Secret on Amazon? It is so made of win.

      I had a coworker who, in retrospect, must have been steeping herself in this crap. I’d go over to her computer to install the latest software that I was designated to install because no one else could be arsed to do it (I was hired to do the web page; this transmogrified into being everyone’s favorite tech help monkey because everyone else was “ooooh you know I don’t understand computers” … oh, sorry, was that a tangent?) AND ANYWAY there’d be things glued to her monitor. Nothing wrong with things glued to the desktop monitor; we all personalize our office space. But I’m talking about a dollar bill with an affirmation like, “Money is energy and energy is always moving through me! Yes!” and “The entire universe is made of love. Wow! Everywhere I look, I see love!”

      This is all paraphrased, of course, but the syntax of using little “Yes!”s and “Wow!”s for punctuation is exact. All I knew to think then was, “You’re sort of an airhead, aren’t you? Next time I have to interact with you, I’m going to be imagining a little Yes! or Wow! or Amazing! hovering over your every sentence, and it’s going to be really hard not to laugh. This is So Not Good.”

      So, yeah, I think she was possibly just off reading The Secret.

      • Literata says:

        Wow!

        Okay, sorry, I had to. You genuinely made me laugh, but I wanted to say that in a non-lolcat way. Your description of the hovering “Wow!”s is like a cross between a Sims-like speech bubble (sul-su!) and the kind of permanent question mark that haunts some women’s rising intonations. Gah!

        TNH’s review is awesome on many levels, but especially for the real-world examples. It would be funnier if some of them weren’t so sad.

  10. Sherrian says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  11. K says:

    I still have not yet read The Secret. I have the movie version queued up on Netflix to watch later though. Not because I want any advice right now; I just want to see how bad it is, maybe write a review of it if warranted.

    The closest thing I have to encountering this kind of thinking comes from my mom (who has a copy of The Secret, though I don’t know if she ever actually got around to reading it,) and a friend.

    Well my friend lent me this book, One. It’s basically a self-insertion fanfic that the author wrote about himself. See, he was already a published author when One came out, so he seemed all proud of that fact. The story involves a lot of flying around in the author’s very own favorite private recreational plane and using that to jump from dimension to dimension.

    Well in one of the dimensions, SPOILERS: the dude’s wife dies.
    And in that dimension, after mourning for like a year, he WILLS HER BACK TO LIFE.
    Or rather if you prefer he WILLS HIMSELF INTO ANOTHER DIMENSION IN WHICH SHE IS STILL ALIVE, whatever. Same thing.

    And after I finished reading the book, my friend was like, “Wasn’t that a nice story? It’s all about how you have the power to change your own life and we are all connected!”
    No, it was about some guy who was so enamored of himself that he decided to make some kind of superhero autobiography story… and some of the worst sentences I have ever seen…

    Oh and also in terms of privilege: Dude in the story was swimming in class privilege. At the end of the story he gets to go to a special award ceremony for being awesome, or something, I don’t know.

    It may also be worth noting that the friend who lent the book out to me is into quantum mechanics or space travel theories and all that string theory jazz, I don’t know. Positive energies and science.

    • Literata says:

      Jazz string quartet theory? (Or is that “quark theory?”)

      I’ve had more than one experience with someone I loved dying. That’s the most blatant experience that this take on positive willpower is BS. That sounds like the kind of book I would end up throwing at the wall (if not at whoever gave it to me).

  12. Sherrian says:

    Expanding on earlier comments at Literata’s request:

    (1) I’m so glad to see the number of comenters objecting to this crap. Twenty years ago it seemed to be heavily in the mainstream of Pagan thought (or at least what was available to a college-aged seeker at the time). Even Starhawk’s condemnation of it was surprisingly wimpy: “I might not be so sanguine about my ability to create my own reality if I weren’t privileged in so many ways…”

    (2) The articel hinted at this, but I think it needs to be stated explicitly: this line of thinking is often advanced in bad faith by people who know exactly how destructive it is and who benefit tangibly and financially from the result.

    Specifically, multi-level marketing companies are absolutely steeped in this line of thinking; it’s how they persuade recruits that enormous riches are theirs for hard work and wishing. It’s the backbone of that industry; Amway makes far more money on “motivational tools” than it ever did on soap. And people go broke on wishing and trusting, convinced that they can create riches if only they want them enough.

    The goal there isn’t innocently to pass along a worldview that’s given the speaker comfort and fulfillment; it’s to manipulate the vulnerable into accepting responsibility for abuse.

    The biggest problem I have with the “create your own reality” ideology is that the teachings of the well-meaning promoters and the abusive promoters are exactly the same. This isn’t the difference between Fred Phelps’ Christianity and Fred Clark’s — it’s the same story told the same way.

    When it’s impossible to tell from a person’s words whether they’re trying to make me happy or setting me up to be robbed, those words make me a little nervous.

    • Literata says:

      As for (2), I don’t want to accuse the original poster of acting in bad faith. I think Byrne absolutely acts in bad faith – see TNH’s review for just a few reasons why.

      Honestly, I object to these words even said in good faith, but I don’t go around “harshing people’s mellow” for it unless they either (a) specifically address it not just as a strategy that works for them but as something that I ought to adopt or (b) say patently ridiculous things (“gravity is subjective!”), and even then usually only when (a) and (b) happen together. I am, however, more sensitive to it since my disability has worsened.

      “to manipulate the vulnerable into accepting responsibility for abuse” – I wonder how this strategy compares with some of the strategies used by physical and emotional abusers to make victims blame themselves?

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