Law of Subtraction

(This article originally appeared in Sacred Fire magazine, Issue #13)

The Secret is the law of attraction!
Everything that’s coming into your life you are attracting into your life…
It’s what you’re thinking.
Whatever is going on in your mind you are attracting to you.
-- Rhonda Byrne, The Secret, 2006: Atria Books, p. 4

You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes
You might find
You get what you need
--The Rolling Stones: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

It began with parking spaces. Using my newly-discovered power of manifestation, I would visualize an ideal parking space as my battered brown Honda Civic station wagon puttered to the California campus where I was a graduate student. More often than not, I succeeded! Instead of walking for what seemed like miles, I had a short jaunt from my car to my first class. Even so, I was often late.

Things really started to go amiss when I met Jessica and a different kind of “law of attraction” took hold. At first, the manifestation machine seemed to be working just fine. Passion and projection made it easy to imagine a bright, comfortable future together—she a Dean of Students at some prestigious university, and me a high-powered professor and consultant in organizational development. Maybe we’d squeeze a kid or two into the picture too. But then it got more complicated. As our relationship deepened, we discovered that we were extremely good at pushing each other’s buttons. In a way that no one would consciously hope to manifest, but all good couples manage to do, we set about the business of showing one another where we needed to grow.

Sometimes I would nostalgically slip into visualizing an idealized future without all of the messy entanglements of, well, a serious relationship. But there was really no turning back. Once I stepped into the “give and take” of true commitment with Jessica, I felt like I had less control over my life. For both of us, old skeletons from our emotional closet began to emerge. We began a meditation practice to seek healing for our wounds. Laboring through our graduate studies became more difficult as our interests turned inward. After investing years of effort and countless thousands of dollars, we no longer even knew what future to affirm. And, judging by the harried looks of those professors that were supposed to serve as our role models, we began to suspect that our visualized future in academia wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.

A cornerstone of New Age thinking is that our thoughts create our experience. Sometimes this metaphysical rule is expressed as the “law of attraction.” For the unenlightened, this all too frequently means that fears about a particular outcome attract that very experience into one’s life. For instance, those inclined to obsess about sharks might be better off choosing a well-chlorinated pool over swimming in the ocean. Not to mention staying away from lawyers!

The Good News (and interestingly, many sources claim that this wisdom dates from the time of Christ) is that if we let go of our fears and begin to affirm more positive thoughts, then we can also draw better experiences into our lives. From this perspective, divine wants nothing more than for us to be happy, and happiness means getting what we want. Spiritual practice is really just about good mental hygiene.

While most people might hesitate to embrace the idea that their thoughts are the source of every personal experience (What of those horrible high school years, the string of divorces, the IRS audit, the traffic accidents, etc?), there is nonetheless a widespread faith that collectively, and with the benefit of science and technology, we humans can create the future we desire. From this standpoint, the law of attraction is merely an extreme expression of much more pervasive modern, Western assumptions about mind, free will, and individual expression. It is not a very big jump from Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” to the New Age motto “I am what I think.”

Certainly our thoughts do color our experience. If—like Thomas Hobbes—you see life as “nasty, brutish and short” then you should not be surprised that the few friends you have are a rather glum lot. And there will be plenty of other bits of evidence to confirm your expectations: death, taxes, old Jerry Lewis movies, etc. But is “mind over matter” all that really matters?

Paradoxically, the more we try to control/program/manifest in our lives en masse or individually, the more we seem to careen off in unexpected directions. As I tried to master my own universe, this took the form of a kind of slow-burning spiritual crisis. Just as I got the hang of manifesting good parking spaces, just as I became a graduate student in the citadel of the mind where unlimited possibilities of intellect are most celebrated, things began to break down.

As I mentioned, beginning a serious, committed relationship with Jessica was the first challenge to my grand plans. At about the same time, I suffered a further set-back: In the middle of a long run along the beach one day, I found myself stricken by what seemed to be a mild fever—a literal slow burn. Suddenly I found it hard to walk, let alone run. These symptoms were eventually diagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and would continue to plague me for many years. Being less mobile, I found myself also facing depression and insomnia. For an over-achiever trying to attract a vibrant, positive future, this was a clear sign that I was becoming more Hobbesian than MacLainesean (as in, “’Shirley’ you can manifest better!”).

Or was it? In retrospect, it is easy to see how a wisdom far beyond the capability of my poor, addled brain was beginning to play out. Through a series of synchronicities I eventually stumbled upon Eliot Cowan and plant spirit medicine. As I struggled to overcome fatigue and depression in order to complete my dissertation, Eliot helped me to see how “creating our own reality” was really the source of great suffering.

Trying to impose our agendas on the world—as opposed to aligning ourselves with the agenda the world has for us—is precisely why modern life is so out of balance. In the “Old Age,” our ancestors were much more humble about their role in the web of creation. Instead of using their minds to try to create their own reality, they did their utmost to listen and live according to the reality of far wiser beings—what we would call the gods. The result was that they lived in relative harmony and balance for many thousands of years.

Eliot became my mentor and role model for a life of surrender. That is a long story in itself. But suffice it to say that I found myself pulled along by ancient forces that have the wherewithal to create not only my reality, but a unfathomable universe that includes countless beings in many dimensions. That led to my becoming an apprentice to be a Huichol shaman. Jessica also discovered her spiritual calling, and together, we were drawn up into a greater community that is helping Western people reconnect with the wisdom of the gods and the ancestors.

Not quite in line with Hobbes (fatalism) nor MacLaine (New Age free williness), surrendering to heart wisdom is about moving in alignment with the world. Yes, I do still hope to find a convenient parking space as I go about my day. Having goals and expectations is part and parcel of being human. But I don’t always get what (I thought) I wanted: Sometimes the parking space is far away from my destination. When I make plans, but still deeply accept whatever is before me, I find unexpected gifts along the way: An opportunity to connect with the trees perhaps, or a “chance encounter” with someone who has something important to tell me.

The trick is to learn to let go of the plans and expectations when our experience takes us elsewhere. This is the law of subtraction: The less we struggle to impose our own reality on the great tapestry of being, the more joyful we become. That is the path of Fire and Heart.