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Why I have beef with the term "manifest"

In the context of self-development, the word “manifest” makes me think of little princes and princesses waving wands, expecting purple ponies to appear.

One my best and dearest friend’s word of the moment is manifesting. “If I do this or that, if I change my attitude, then I maybe can start manifesting…love, the ideal career, more money, more interesting friends, more travel etc. in my life” is how it goes. She’s enrolled is something called the To Be Magnetic program — a coaching program that, in the words of one of its founders, teaches people how to “get in touch with (their) authentic self. (As) that will be the vehicle that will take (them) to manifesting.” I haven’t tried the program so I won’t knock it, but I have beef with the idea of manifesting.

Why? Because it strikes me as a shallow, “genie in the bottle” approach to living in a world where many people never get what they want, and a great deal do not even have the things they need.

Psychology Today describes manifesting as “the idea that, through the power of belief, we can effectively ‘think’ a goal into becoming reality. It’s a form of ‘magical thinking,’ or the need to believe that one’s hopes and desires can have an effect on how the world turns.”

Something about the use of the word “manifest” in the context of self-development makes me think of little princes and princesses waving wands and expecting purple ponies to appear. The word has been irking me so much that I’ve had to take a long, hard look at why it’s so ruffled my feathers. Here’s what I came up with:

Manifestation isn’t original. It New Thought, “Law of Attraction” and “The Secret” recycled. And it’s kinda cruel

In 2004, the self-help book “Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires” by Esther and Jerry Hick, which described “the law of attraction” became a New York Times bestseller. I read it from cover to cover three times, and my twenty-four-year-old self got all pumped at the idea that I could be the master of my universe. Two years later, “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne, which was made into documentary with the same title, was released and has sold more than 35 million copies worldwide since. The ideas for the law of attraction and Byrne’s “secret” are an offshoot of the New Thought Movement, which began in America around the 1830s, and which grew from the teachings of a Phineas Quimby — a folk healer and mind reader who believed that “illness originated in the mind and was a consequence of erroneous beliefs” and that “the receptive mind, open to God’s wisdom, could conquer any sickness”. At its core, the manifestation/law of attraction/New Thought philosophy states that positive thoughts bring positive things into a person’s life, and negative thoughts do the same. Tell that to someone planning their honeymoon who receives a terminal illness diagnosis, or a mother thinking about what to cook for dinner as her child runs onto the road and gets hit by a car. To assert that we can will things into being with our thoughts and beliefs is simplistic and egotistic. There is something authoritarian and cruel about this philosophy because the underlying assumption is that the “unfortunate” man’s thinking is the cause of any unhappiness he might have in his life.

Manifestation is attractive to those who love being in control

To quote Forbes writer Mark Travers, manifesting is “the process of creating something through thought alone”. Often associated with spirituality and pseudoscience, “the idea is that through visualization, affirmations, and other similar techniques, you can turn your thoughts into reality.” Sounds like self-determinism at its finest. However, there doesn’t seem to be much room here for acceptance, flexibility, or the willingness to embrace chaos and uncertainty. Manifesting ­­ — with its focus on goals, and change, and making your dreams come true — sounds like a great idea for perfectionists, taskmasters, monomaniacs, and control freaks looking for personal happiness projects. But for anyone who understands that life isn’t meant to be a walk in the park, it feels like a con.

Manifestation negates the power of the undesirable and the value of learning to live without

I believe in a participatory universe; I consider myself an optimist and am a big fan of positive, constructive thinking, goal setting, visualization, and fantasizing. However, the most powerful lessons I’ve learnt have not come from getting the things I want but from having to surrender the things I had assumed I wanted or needed, from letting of the things I had felt entitled to. And the most precious lesson I’ve learnt is how to make the best of what I have. In life, there is injustice, illness, there is poverty, there is war, there is sadness, there is loneliness, there is boredom, there is rejection, there is death. And each of us will experience one or all of these “undesirable” conditions to a certain degree. Their assignment to us may be random, and more often than not, we will not be able to wish them away or have them be replaced with something more pleasant. 

At its core, manifesting sells us the notion that we should strive to have our desires met — make the thing we want appear and the thing we don’t disappear — and that if this doesn’t happen, then surely we are doing something wrong and must change something about ourselves or our circumstances. It dismisses the worthiness of undesirable circumstances and conditions, and deprives us of the gifts of acceptance, fortitude, resilience, solidarity, and maturity that often accompany the crucible of undesirable, unpleasant, tragic things. If, as manifesting suggests, satisfying one’s every wish and desire is the name of the game, I wonder how we will we ever learn to be content.

By Michele Koh Morollo, NUMEN NoSC Therapies


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