You-ism, Me-ism, & Real-ism

“Today humanity, as never before, is split into two apparently irreconcilable halves. The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner contradictions, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposite halves.” -C.G. Jung, 1959

MattGiobbiThe sentiment that our lived world is a manifestation of our psychic lives is deeply rooted in our human history. Contemporary interpretations of the idea are very popular and very controversial, and it seems to me that much of the ridicule that the idea receives is more of a statement about the motivation for such ideas, rather than the idea itself. The mind as an active participant in creating our experience of our lived world is not contested by most neuroscientists, philosophers, and psychologists. The active mind is the central point of what we call cognitive psychology. Yet, talk about manifesting what we want in life by focusing on it mentally receives skeptical reactions and even ridicule. It seems to me that the ridicule is mostly aroused by the motivation, not by the concept itself.

If I propose to most thinking people that our perception of the world is something that is both a product of our way of thinking and the world itself, and that changing our thinking about something necessarily changes the world we experience, there would be little to argue against. We have empirical evidence that we participate in our experience of reality. However, when we propose that one can bring about desired physical conditions in the real world by visualizing or focusing on them in the mind, then we become skeptical. The criticism is not towards the role of the experiencer in the experience, it is towards the idea that we can wish for what we want and it will magically appear. This idea seems childish and grounded in some pre-Enlightenment way of thinking. It suggests magic and mysticism -something beyond the logical and rational science that characterizes modern thinking.

Yet, we cannot deny that the mind is an active participant in our experience and manifestation of our reality. Two friends go to a theatre and experience two different films. Superficial elements remain objective, but more subjective aspects become fluid. Returning to a favorite book we discover it in a new way. The book changes because we change. The film is experienced through each individual. We can talk about objective characteristics of the film, such as running-time or aspect ratio, and we can talk about phenomenological characteristics, such as meaning and implication. Both are mind-dependent, but the objective aspects are measurable while the phenomenological aspects are of a different quality. Some characteristics of the film we can explore quantitatively while other we can explore qualitatively. It is only when we try to exclude one approach to the service of another that we begin to lose our way into rigid ideology.

We have understood for thousands of years that our experience is inter-dependent with the psyche. In cognitive science we describe bottom-up and top-down processes. This is contemporary jargon for the idea that the mind participates in our experience of reality. As one Eastern thinker expressed it, we need three things to form a rainbow: water droplets, sunlight, and a perceiving person.

The idea that we can manifest our world through intention is not simplistic. The idea that you will get what you want because you wish for it is. However, how you think and view the world will not only order what you experience, it will also establish what the world is likely to deliver to you. People who smile at others invite smiles into their world. People who act aggressively towards other will invite aggression into their world. This is not magic, this is reality.

It seems to me that if some way of thinking helps to bring about certain realities in one’s life, then that way of thinking is useful. However, I think it is important to keep in mind the belief in belief, rather than the reality of the belief itself. I find little use in the real, but what is true is of great importance to me. Belief in belief is the essence of what is true. It is harnessing the power of the mind to bring about our phenomenological experience of ourselves and the world. If you believe you are a kind person, you will act kindly and you will invite kindness into your life.

The quote by Carl Jung that opens this essay brings an interesting twist to our idea of manifesting through intention. Jung tells us something about the psychical world that at first seems even more zany than the idea that we can bring about what we wish for. He is telling us that if we do not attend to the unconscious aspects of our minds, that the universe will necessarily knock on our door with what we are denying. Think about this! If Rhonda Byrne and others are proposing that we can manifest in our lives what we are thinking about, Carl Jung tells us that what we are avoiding thinking about will come to get us! In other words what we do not wish to see in ourselves will manifest in our realities and come knocking on our door. When the knock comes we experience symptoms and run for the medicine cabinet for silence the knock.

This concepts sound silly and magical. The unconscious is another one of those ideas that seem to have little to do with science. The idea that our unconscious can somehow control reality seems even odder and is the stuff of ridicule for most logical thinkers. Isn’t it crazy enough to believe that we can control reality with our thoughts, let alone believing that we can control it with our unconscious -what we are not thinking? Clearly this is not scientific thinking. Or is it?

I happen to find that a little bit of magic can go a long way in life. That is why I love novels, and art, and films. It’s the magic that keeps me going to the spiritual rituals of all kinds. There is a beautiful anecdote about the Nobel Prize winning atomic physicist Niels Bohr. As he and a friend took a tour of Bohr’s home, the friend commented on a luck horseshoe hanging above the door. “Surely you do not believe in luck horseshoes?” asked the friend. “Of course not,” replied Bohr, “but I understand that it works weather you believe in it or not!”

This possibly apocryphal story contains a great deal to consider. Anais Nin expressed it like this, “we do not experience things as they are, we experience things as we are.” Our attitudes, moods, worldview, and beliefs affect how and what we experience ourselves and others. Once I had a young student in my introduction to psychology course. Completely oblivious to her facial expressions, she would cringe with disgust whenever she heard a concept that she did not understand or which she did not agree with. Otherwise, she showed no evidence of how she felt about a topic in our lecture. It was as if she had no awareness of her physical reaction to what did not fit-in to her way of understanding the world. Her physical reaction to what she did not accept was so strong that classmates took notice and began to avoid interaction with her. In our lecture introducing  psychotherapy, I introduced the concept of becoming aware of what the patient is saying with their body language. The student had an “a-ha” moment! Suddenly becoming aware of her own, unconscious, body language and facial expression, she smiled widely and never grimaced in disgust again. That is the power of transforming that with unconscious into consciousness. It is becoming aware of aspects of ourselves that we are not aware of.

The effect of this awareness transferred into the student’s world. Her classmates became more receptive to her and her entire disposition seemed to shift in a more accepting direction. The negative message that she had been inadvertently been sending out into the world changed for the better, and the world responded accordingly. This is not magic or mysticism. This is the reality of our interactive experience of who believe ourselves to be, and how we believe the world to be. What is true on the inside, R.W. Emerson tells us, will manifest on the outside.

Students are fascinated by the placebo effect. A common understanding is that a placebo tricks the mind into believing something that is not true, which produces results that are “all in the head”. Or is it? My father was suffering from pain in his ankle, the result of an old high school football injury. After a few weeks of trying-out a new magnetic wrap, advertised to alleviate pain, he asked me in a teasing way, “Dr. Giobbi, you are a psychologist, do these magnets really work?” “I don’t know,” I replied, “how does your ankle feel since using the magnets?” “I feel great!” he said. “Well,” I smiled, “I guess they work then!” The proof is in one’s experience. The power of belief in belief is evident not so much that it’s “all in one’s head,” but in the fact that it truly is all in one’s head!

What we believe about others, about ourselves, and about the world shapes what and how we experience the others, ourselves, and the world. The more aware we become of our implicit, unconscious beliefs, attitudes, and opinions, the more freedom we have in directing and manifesting our reality. As Carl Jung tells us, “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside awakes.”