Monday, March 14, 2011

The Myth of Attraction & the Secret of Success

“The most dangerous form of black magic is the scientific perversion of occult power for the gratification of personal desire.”

– Manly P. Hall, Secret Teachings of All Ages

Mind Science and the “law of attraction” proponents have seen their fair share of fraud trials over the history of the movement, but manslaughter doesn’t normally attend their amazing amalgam of popular mysticism. Unfortunately, what starts out as a little weekend wandering in the realms of positive thinking can get out of hand when things turn to ritual. “Practical Mystic” James Ray recently found out what happens when you start dabbling in ceremonial techniques without the proper intention. Like a recreational drug, popular mysticism gets dangerous when its gurus move into harder territory.

The roots of the Mind Science movement can be traced to the fringes of the Golden Dawn and American Rosicrucianism of the AMORC (Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis), but the key to the success of the movement was in keeping their public discourse aside from the heavy ritualism of the GD and avoiding any solid mythological group identity. In the late 19th and early 20th Century they popularized Eliphas Levi’s understanding of ‘magic’ as a branch of psychology, and as the movement gained ground they developed their own terminology to define magical operations under more socially acceptable wording. Many of their writings center on the power of developing an active personal myth to promote health and wellness.

Prominent Mind Science authors such as William Walker Atkinson and Sydney Flowers were adept at using mail-order titles, journals and lectures to spread their message and develop their own modern mythology to support dissemination of their work. Their use of advertising, key words, false fronts, and self promotion would put to shame most of the best transmedia producers in the 21st century. Through the auspices of mail-order’s anonymity Atkinson was able to develop a number of authorial personas, such as Swami Pandrachani, Theron Q. Dumont, and Magnus Incognito, that he used to approach different markets with his ideas. He also used multiple publishing houses, all of which operated from the same address and under the control of Atkinson, to appeal to a wider audience.

While the authors themselves often had ties to more ritualized practice, their writings always focused on the philosophical end of their ideas. Ritual practice was left to an individual’s proclivities, and if a student were to seek out deeper involvement it would have had to have been through one on one contact or their own devices. Due to this adherence they never faced a case in court that dealt with anything more serious than mail fraud and false medical claims.

Rather than creating centralized groups they focused on building a personal myth for their authorial personae and tying that mythology to the scientific discoveries, popular trends and business needs of the day. Avoiding central organization they were able to act with a personal anonymity that proved the secret of their success.

James Ray wasn’t so discreet, and his deviation from the well tried practices of his ‘law of attraction’ forbearers lead him to the money shot that put a dent in his harmonic happiness. When you write a book it can be a powerful tool for moving the culture, but when you gather people in a group and direct their activity you take responsibility for where those folks move.

Ritual can take on many different forms, but always presents a more or less abstract reenactment of an ordeal. In our culture we’re used to things like the Catholic Mass where the ordeal is symbolically represented by wine and wafers. This is about as safe as ritual can get. A ritual such as the sweat lodge that Ray attempted with his group is much more direct, a full immersion through fire, heat, sensory deprivation, and mantra into the cave, or womb of rebirth.

In traditional cultures this process is attended by a deep community connection among the participants, as well as a full set of practice that include further ordeals such as suspension by piercings in the Sun Dance, and through dragging buffalo skulls attached by piercings in the Buffalo Dance. A sense of death is always present in these rituals; death is the key to the ordeal.

One of the critiques of the power of positive thinking is that it covers up potentially valuable insights from negative thoughts, as well as creates an illusory goal of achievement that can be met with disappointment. Another more subtle critique is that it leads people in to practices which are divorced from their root in actively resolving the dynamic interplay of positive and negative. When these misapplied practices are ritualized, or activated, they can have tragic results. Thinking you can sit in a super heated meditation chamber and doing it are two different things, and without the balance of negative forethought having an over eager teacher can be deadly.

Unfortunately for Ray his concept of universal harmony has some truth in it, and you do get what you give. The secret of success that his predecessors discovered was anonymity, which gave them the adaptability to change with the times and avoid serious prosecution when they ran afoul of the governing powers. Anonymity turns an office clerk by day into a mail order magus at night. He should have remembered that before knocking on Death’s door with a false smile and asking for favors. Death stands at the gate of initiation, as well as the gate of wealth, and with a face devoid of features rarely takes kindly to egoism.


David Metcalfe is an independent researcher and artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is author of “Of Dice and Divinity – Some Thoughts on Gambling and the Western Tradition,” forthcoming in The Immanence of Myth.

Writing and scrawling regularly for The Eyeless Owl, his illustrations were brought to life in the animated collaborative grotesquery A Serious Enquiry Into the Vulgar Notion of Nature featured at select venues in downtown Chicago during the Spring and Fall of 2010. The Long Now Foundation has made the unlikely decision to include one of his illustrations in their 10,000 year library vault. He also co-hosts The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.

Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.

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