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Real Others

Real Others

Growing up without clearly defined boundaries that establish and delimit the sense of a personal self can lead to emotional, psychological, and spiritual problems as well as to serious social maladaptations such as acting out, victimhood, magical thinking, codependency and enabling, and in severe cases, narcissism and other personality disorders, to name only some.

Unfortunately, there are a number of wildly popular philosophies that in promoting the idea that the world, including other people, is nothing more than an outpicturing of personal consciousness, obfuscate or deny personal boundaries. These philosophies include the so-called law of attraction, New Thought, the work of Neville Goddard, and the Hawaiian ho’oponopono forgiveness technique presented by Hew Len, all of which propose that the practitioner can alter worldly conditions solely by changing his or her consciousness, where those conditions are said to originate. This idea can be highly misleading precisely because it contains a seed of truth that opportunists can misconstrue to exploit those susceptible to the countless movies, books, lectures, workshops, coaching, and other instructional offerings that claim to hold the key to magical manipulation of the world.

This seed of truth lies in the correspondence between self and world, an idea at least as old as Vedic advaita or “nonduality” and confirmed by quantum physics in the revolutionary discovery that objective reality is “observer-dependent.” Even at the level of everyday experience, this correspondence is easy enough to spot. A man who goes out into the world looking for a fight will not have to wait long to find one, while someone who believes that people are basically good-natured, mean well, and do their best will not be disappointed. Round peg, round hole. Reality may be “out there” in some way that scientists and philosophers have had a hard time explaining, but there is no doubt that we screen in and screen out according to our lights, and that at least to that extent, observation is participation. So does our consciousness inform our experience of the world and others. More mysteriously, this principle of correspondence operates at least sometimes along nonlocal trajectories, showing up as surprising fulfillments, happy coincidences, serendipitous timings, synchronicities, and those seeming interruptions of cause and effect generally regarded as miracles. While such extraordinary events do occur, they appear to do so as though with a will and timing of their own rather than as the effect of willful intentions to cause or “attract” them, which is why they cannot be coerced into a method, and this is where the seed of truth gets buried alive in the soil of untruth, for these popular philosophies all claim to have “the secret” to managing the element of correspondence through techniques that invariably deny the boundaries of personal identity, leading to needless confusion, failure, and disappointment.

New Thought “treatment,” for example, is founded on the assumption that the world, including other people, is an outpicturing of the beliefs of the practitioner. To treat another, therefore, one need only treat oneself, for when one has resolved the “mistaken” belief in his or her own consciousness that presumably is being expressed in the “patient,” the patient’s condition will spontaneously resolve, thus making the “demonstration.” This, at least, is the theory. That said, I’ve spoken to New Thought ministers around the country, all of whom reported that among hundreds of their congregants who practice this sort of treatment regularly, about three percent see results. Three percent. Here is a number so low, it constitutes the exception rather than the rule. Clearly, what is most likely occurring in these exceptional cases is a happy coincidence rather than the demonstration of a so-called law. Imagine if the law of gravity worked only three percent of the time! Of course, when the technique doesn’t work, the practitioner can always rationalize that the required faith was missing, that some further troublemaking belief was operating in the shadows. No amount of evidence that the assumption underlying the technique simply is false is allowed to count against this sort of “faith,” because the justification is always available that the necessary inner condition must have been lacking, a tour de force of circular reasoning. Worse, these approaches often are presented as “scientific,” by which is meant that they are empirically verifiable and repeatable, neither being the case. Karl Popper’s work, which identifies falsifiability as a criterion of legitimately scientific hypotheses, cautions us that any proposition that would not allow itself to be falsified under any possible conditions is not scientific at all but pseudoscientific. The refusal to admit any possible falsification is in fact a hallmark of dogmatic, fundamentalist, and militant thinking of every stripe. Yet many writers and speakers have made a living if not a fortune off the willingness of the credulous to swallow undigested such nonsensical, grandiose, and unfalsifiable claims.

Neville Goddard goes as far as stating that “other people are yourself pushed out,” meaning that others are objective representations of one’s imaginal stagings and self-talk concerning them, and adds flat out that they have no free will to resist any claim projected on them imaginally. Curiously however, he notes that others do have the free will, once having fulfilled these imaginal projections, to immediately reject them, a tour de force of “now you see it, now you don’t” philosophical sleight-of-hand. Even so, the view that the world, including other people, is nothing more than a construct of one’s personal consciousness has a name in philosophy: solipsism. As a philosophical position, solipsism, which alleges that only the self exists, that only oneself is real and that the world is its personal dream, is not only existentially unsettling and morally repugnant but also dangerous, because in undermining the reality of others, it annihilates empathy. It is, in short, the philosophy of the megalomaniac. When we hear a presidential candidate declare, “I alone can fix it,” we are in the company of the solipsist. Ho’oponopono’s contention that the practitioner is “totally responsible” for everything he or she experiences in the world, including how others behave, is another solipsistic assertion.

The underlying unity of consciousness and the world, of observer and observed, operates impersonally, transcending individual will and separate identity. Because it transcends individual will, it cannot be controlled or manipulated willfully. The very attempt backfires. Oneness is all-inclusive. Paradoxically, this means that it includes otherness. There is a profound mystical truth hidden in Goddard’s statement that “other people are yourself pushed out”—indeed, the whole world and the universe beyond exist within the Self, the one Consciousness of which we are part, each and all—but a great misunderstanding of this principle of nonduality comes in when we try to use it strategically to manipulate others, whereupon it becomes solipsistic and false. Attempting to live at the level of the oneness of consciousness when one has not transcended separate identity leads to the violation of personal boundaries. In the transcending of separate identity, personal boundaries are conserved, not ignored or flouted. One can see how readily a seed of truth can be turned into a highly marketable system of lies.

Despite these fatal flaws, there is value to be found in these philosophies, provided one rejects the underlying solipsistic assumption and shuns magical thinking in favor of self-work. Ho’oponopono practice, for example, offers four short, powerful mantric phrases—”I’m sorry,” “please forgive me,” “thank you,” and “I love you”—that may provide deep emotional release and resolution in areas where one feels the need to be forgiven or suffers from a shortage of gratitude. In a similar way, another’s behavior may call us to step up to assert or enforce a needed boundary. In a situation of physical abuse, for example, it is seriously misguided for the victim to believe that something in his or her consciousness is creating the abuser’s violence, but spot on for the victim to take responsibility for “creating” the situation through the willingness to remain in it. Correspondence between inner and outer can be exceedingly subtle and indirect, often operating through complementary roles and stances. New Thought “treatment” without the solipsistic element might move us to examine what we’re bringing to a problematic situation or troubled relationship that could stand improving in ourselves, and we should not be surprised if, stepping up to the needed self-work, we find that the situation or relationship improves accordingly. Even the so-called law of attraction can be useful if one takes it no further than the insightful idea that our consciousness informs our experience through the self-fulfilling and self-proving power of belief, and is careful not to mistake this for the ability to “attract” or create specific conditions at will, an ability we do not possess outside the pretensions of magical thinking.

We owe it to ourselves and each other to be careful what we believe. Despite the undeniability of the subjective amphitheater and various shamanic, yogic, and other ancient practices that employ transpersonal levels of awareness in the realization of nonduality, others exist in their own right, apart from our individual consciousness and certainly from our will, though we have some responsibility for how we experience and engage them. Reality is at once subjective and objective in a way that defies rational mapping. Subjectivizing reality denies otherness, clearing the way for exploitation. Because others are real in their otherness, they remain autonomous and responsible for their choices and actions. We cannot by intending, visualizing, imagining, or otherwise altering our consciousness control them, nor would anyone with a sound sense of self want to do so. We may benefit from soul-searching and self-correction in any situation where we’re playing a part in co-creating a problem, and perhaps find ways to extend a benign influence through altering our consciousness at deep levels, but beyond this, we are wise to steer clear of those selling solipsistic programs, who offer us counterfeit power by encouraging us to view others as nothing more than constructs of our personal consciousness, for in peddling the magical thinking of the child, they dismiss essential boundaries of the self, exaggerate the will, undermine empathy, and while promising the key to heaven on earth, lead us into the malebolges of hell.