Mind Power: A Manifesto

Why a PEN-Award Winning Historian is Dedicated to Positive-Mind Metaphysics

From time to time I hear from old friends, and sometimes from strangers, wondering why I occupy myself with what they regard as “woo-woo” stuff — that is, New Thought and positive-mind traditions.

They are right about my commitments. Since the 2014 publication of my One Simple Idea, a history and analysis of positive-mind metaphysics, I have grown more dedicated to exploring the use and viability of the core mind-power thesis, which is: thoughts are causative.

My aim is not to disembark from “serious” esoteric traditions (more on that in a moment); nor is it to discontinue my work as a historian. Rather, I am specifically interested in formulating a tough-minded, intellectually defensible, and useful distillation of New Thought ideas. I try to locate New Thought’s ancient antecedents in Hermeticism and a wide range of religious traditions, as well as in modern expressions such as Transcendentalism, Idealism, Pragmatism, Christian Science, and the work of nineteenth-century experimenters like Phineas Quimby, Emma Curtis Hopkins, and Horatio Dresser, up through twentieth-century mystical voices such as Neville Goddard, Vernon Howard, and Ernest Holmes.

But make no mistake: I am not interested in intellectualizing New Thought. I am interested in using it. And, if I’m able, in helping my neighbor to do the same.

I have a deep and abiding love for what might be considered “sensationalized” works of metaphysics, such as Think and Grow Rich, How to Win Friends and Influence People, It Works, Psycho-Cybernetics, and others. I feel an absolute conviction that many of these popular works possess a touch of magic. That is, amid certain dead ends, exaggerations, and foolishness they also evince tremendous insight, workable ideas, and a theology of results, tested in the experience of the individual author and his readers.

Portrait of Neville Goddard (1905–1972) by Tim Botta

I can say no such thing about many contemporary expressions of traditional or esoteric spiritual traditions. “There’s no short cut,” a good and brilliant man once told me within an intensively learned and beautiful esoteric community. My response is: “I don’t know that.” I haven’t tested that thesis. When an individual is starved for understanding — or for the solution to a life-depleting problem — extraordinary things become possible. William James called it a “conversion experience.” Others call it “awakening” (a term that I find too portentous, as it implies permanency, whereas the search for change is filled with switchbacks and frustration). Of this much I am certain: the inner key to almost any program of legitimate self-development lies in the depth of the individual’s hunger. As an Arab proverb goes: “The way bread tastes depends on how hungry you are.”

I have witnessed individuals who have dedicated (and in some cases depleted) decades of their lives in the service of serious traditions — yet in a moment of anxiety or even a minor mishap they evince the same brokenness that I do. And I ask why. And I ask you the reader (and myself) not to jump to any handy answer to that. Just maintain the question.

Above I used the metaphor of “bread.” The implication is that a tradition must be nourishing — it must offer sustenance and not counterfeit bromides. Can this be said of New Thought and its adjunct traditions? Should you run off and read a popular work like The Power of Positive Thinking? My answer is yes.

Portrait of Vernon Howard (1918–1992) by Tim Botta

New Thought and the positive-thinking traditions are, very simply, applied Transcendentalism. The mind-power equation is an effort to live within the stream of Divine potency using the medium of thought; to fulfill the dictum of Romans 12:2 by being “transformed by the renewing of your mind;” to use the aspirations of thought as a means of bridging worldly and higher life; to tap the creative potential inherent in our relation to the Highest Source. Positive-mind metaphysics — and much of the American metaphysical tradition — sees a very thin line of separation between mental and spiritual experience. This is the influence of New Thought.

I am also committed to New Thought for reasons of spiritual belief. I share Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson’s ideal that a “Higher Power” — as understood by the individual — can bridge gaps, crises, and inabilities in our lives, especially when cognitive efforts fail. This led a critic in the Wall Street Journal to contend that “Mr. Horowitz isn’t interested in research.” I am interested — I explore biological, neurological, and quantum physics research in One Simple Idea and elsewhere. But I also believe that a blind spot exists in many of our research models, which is that when we discover a biological or physical correlation to an event we assume that it’s the only thing going on. We fail to consider that there may be lots of causes and correlates — that the thing occurring biochemically may be triggered by varying factors: physical, psychological, and extra-physical, if such a thing exists. I contend that it does exist. For one thing, I cite data (sometimes hastily dismissed or overlooked) from decades of legitimate psychical research. I may be wrong about extra-physicality; but we don’t advance the cause of our understanding by narrowly proscribing the antecedents we consider.

Portrait of Ernest Holmes (1887–1960) by Tim Botta

Some seekers have written to me recounting deeply negative experiences at New Thought churches — pointing out a “victim blaming” mentality in which those who suffer illness, accident, tragedy, or setback are subtly held responsible for the “thought patterns” that manifest their woes. These protesters are right. Such thinking does sometimes occur. And when it does I reject it unequivocally. In my One Simple Idea, I considered an episode in which The Secret’s Rhonda Byrne told an Associated Press reporter that people died in the Holocaust and 9/11 “because their dominant thoughts were on the same frequency of such events.” That is exactly wrong. I wrote:

When facing ultimate moral questions, Byrne … spoke of the experience of others, describing events that she had never personally encountered or reckoned with. Opinions, like philosophies, demand verification, either by logic or lived experience. Byrne’s logic was akin to that of a person visiting a neighbor’s house, whistling for a dog, receiving no response, and concluding that the neighbor has no dog. She took no account of possibilities outside of her purview.

And further:

Spiritual insight arrives through self-observation — not in analyzing, or justifying, the suffering experienced by others. To judge others is to work without any self-verification, which is the one pragmatic tool of the spiritual search. The private person who can maturely and persuasively claim self-responsibility for his own suffering, or who can endure it as an inner obligation, shines a light for others. The person who justifies someone else’s suffering, in this case through collective fault, only casts a stone.

At the same time, there are gleaming, extraordinary examples — in my life and the lives of other sensitive people — of sublime insights, breakthroughs, and concrete results using the mind-power model. This often means using emotive thoughts, visualizations, affirmations, autosuggestion, and prayer to navigate oneself toward a hallowed and deeply thought-through aim. Materialists call this delusion; but they haven’t tried it. And they never will. Because spiritual experience is, if it is anything at all, an exquisitely voluntary effort which cannot be learned, opined, received, or otherwise had, or even recognized, in the absence of experience. But we live in an age in which conviction trumps experience.

I personally know journalists and academics who have visited, surveyed, observed and, ultimately, excoriated spiritual communities and traditions without even once, as a personal experiment, engaging in a discrete, hands-on experience, such as meditation. In their minds, to try is to concede intellectual weakness. But just the opposite is true.

William James contended that the ultimate test of any ethical or spiritual philosophy is its effect on conduct. I have witnessed New Thought methods result in improved conduct and in better, happier, more effective lives. Not flawless lives or lives free of lapses, contradictions, foolishness, and even moments of cruelty and delusion. But nonetheless, a certain dignity and nobility emerges in the life of one who tries. And this has driven me to seek out, experiment with, and attempt to communicate the highest truths in New Thought, a modern spiritual tradition that I believe meets the individual directly where he or she lives, and addresses the problems of day-to-day life with utility, grace, and practicality.

In the end, I document and work with New Thought because, for all the foibles and weaknesses dotting its history, it works. Why does it work? When does it fail? Which methods work? Which do not? What are its blind spots? Why is its intellectual culture so poorly developed? What are its most sublime insights? These questions passionately move me.

My personal approach to studying New Thought, or any spiritual tradition, is captured by martial artist Bruce Lee, who wrote: “Research your own experience; absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is essentially your own.”

This informs my study and my search.

A PEN-Award winning historian, Mitch Horowitz has written on everything from the war on witches to the secret life of Ronald Reagan for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Salon. The Washington Post says Mitch “treats esoteric ideas and movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness that is too often lost in today’s raised-voice discussions.” Mitch is a Science of Mind magazine columnist and the author of Occult America and One Simple Idea, a history of New Thought.

About The Artist

Tim Botta writes: “Ernest Holmes, Neville Goddard, and Vernon Howard, with their teachings on developing consciousness, have not only been practical sources of hope for me in difficult times, but continually inspire me to expand how I see myself as an artist. In my drawings, I attempt to capture the essence of my subjects in a direct style, often sketching with ink. I live in North Carolina, where I teach adult education science and English courses at Central Carolina Community College while pursuing my artistic work.”

To find out more about Tim Botta’s art visit his Tumblr site. Prints will be available in the future.

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Originally published at www.harvbishop.com on October 27, 2015.