Much of today’s writing about spirituality is loaded with nonsense. Often it consists of little more than wild speculation, shoddy reasoning, and the repetition of a few stale truisms.
A very small number of writers and editors have climbed above this morass to combine spiritual depth with intellectual acumen and literary polish. Mitch Horowitz is one of them. A writer and publisher of many years’ experience with a lifelong interest in man’s search for meaning, he is vice-president and editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin in New York and the author of the acclaimed book Occult America: White House Séances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation. His website is mitchhorowitz.com.
Horowitz’s latest work, published in January 2014, is One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life. It is a wide-reaching and insightful history of the mind power movement and how it has changed contemporary society. In November 2013, I conducted an interview with him by e-mail about this book.
Richard Smoley (RS): Your book is entitled One Simple Idea. Could you tell us what this one idea is?
Mitch Horowitz (MH): The idea is the very American concept that thoughts are causative – which later came to be called “the power of positive thinking.” This notion has appeared, with varying degrees of orthodoxy and literalism, at different times throughout human history. New Englanders in the 1830s and 1840s used this idea to launch a vibrant culture in “mental healing,” in which trances, prayer, and affirmations were seen as a means to heal the body.
During much of the nineteenth century allopathic or mainstream medicine in America was in an abysmal state. The traditional medicine of the day often relied on painful and dangerous regimens of bloodletting, weeping wounds, draining of bodily fluids, and ingestion of toxins and harmful narcotics. Mental healing was seen as a gentler alternative.
By the late nineteenth century, experimenters in mental healing began asking what other powers the mind might possess. The mental healing culture came to believe that our thoughts could influence or shape our personal experiences, extending to matters of wellbeing, success, and, finally, money. This principle of mind power has traversed the cultural landscape, reshaping much of our religion, therapy, and ideas of self-help.
RS: The story of positive thinking, as you describe it, begins in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Do you see any precedents for this approach in earlier forms of philosophy or occultism?
MH: You can find threads of the mind-power thesis within Egyptian-Greek Hermeticism, within certain strands of Neoplatonism, within elements of Idealism, Transcendentalism, and Swedenborgianism – and, significantly, within some of the experiments launched by students of the eighteenth century Viennese occult healer Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer believed that all of life was suffused with an invisible energy called “animal magnetism.” He theorised that if you placed a subject into a trance state – in a practice later called hypnotism – the patient’s “animal magnetism” could be manipulated to produce bodily cures. Mesmer’s students in Paris refined the master’s ideas: They edged away from Mesmer’s theory of an ethereal bodily fluid and believed that it was the mind itself that was bringing about the cures. Mesmer’s best students formed our earliest conceptions of the subconscious mind, which they believed not only could produce healing but, under certain conditions, could bring on displays of clairvoyance, telepathy, and even astral travel. The tumult of the French Revolution cut short many of these experiments – but the ideas of mesmerism began travelling to the United States. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Americans – who love remaking ideas and finding new and broader ways of using them – took the mind-power thesis even further. American experimenters came to see the mind as a tool of metaphysical power that could be used for attracting and influencing circumstances.
RS: One of the central figures in your story is Phineas P. Quimby. Could you tell us about who he was and why he was so important?
MH: Quimby was one of the earliest and most impactful founders of New England’s mental cure scene. He was a nineteenth century clockmaker who spent most of his adult life in Maine. In the early 1830s Quimby suffered from tuberculosis, which was worsened by the side effects from harmful treatments, such as mercury ingestion. One day Quimby took a raucous horse-and-buggy ride in the Maine countryside and unexpectedly found that the excitement of the ride lifted the symptoms of his tuberculosis. Quimby marvelled at the effects of his mood on his body. He believed that this private insight revealed a mind-body connection – and searched for a theoretical model to confirm it. That confirmation arrived for him in 1836 when lecturers began visiting Maine extolling the ideas of mesmerism. Quimby believed that mesmerism revealed the connection between mind and body. He worked the rest of his life as a mental healer, refining and applying various methods, especially arousing the confidence of a patient in his ability to recover. Quimby was extremely influential on the New England scene until his death in 1866.
RS: One of Quimby’s disciples, Warren Felt Evans, introduced the concept of the New Age in a book of his called The New Age and Its Messenger, published in 1864. Could you talk a little bit about how the positive-thinking movement shaped the New Age?
MH: Evans was among a circle of Americans who were dedicated to the ideas of the eighteenth century Swedish mystic and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg believed that earthly events mirrored and were controlled by laws and events in the spirit world. In Swedenborg’s view, the material and spirit worlds formed a continuum. When figures such as Quimby and Evans began experimenting with mental healing, they believed they were, in effect, channelling and applying cosmic laws. The early mental healers did not possess a psychological vocabulary – they often spoke and thought in religious terms. Hence the ideas of Swedenborg – who described a universe of spiritual laws and influences – made innate sense to mental healers. Evans believed that humanity stood on the brink of a New Age of therapeutic spirituality – of whom the “messenger” was Swedenborg. The founding idea of New Age spirituality, as articulated by Evans and his contemporaries, was the philosophy of mind power. This later came to be called positive thinking and New Thought.
RS: In the early generations, the positive-thinking movement centred on healing. Around the turn of the twentieth century, it shifted toward “prosperity thinking” and the attainment of material success. Why did this change come about?
MH: The early twentieth century French hypnotherapist Émile Coué observed that the, “French mind prefers first to discuss and argue on the fundamentals of a principle before inquiring into its practical adaptability to every-day life. The American mind, on the contrary, immediately sees the possibilities of it, and seeks… to carry the idea further even than the author of it may have conceived.” This was the pattern for most of America’s spiritual experiments, and it highlights the transformation of mental healing into the prosperity gospel. American enthusiasts came to believe that the mind could improve health – and they began seeking ever-greater ways of applying the mind’s power.
The person who first hit upon the idea of using mind-power methods to attract money was actually an English writer and political activist, Frances Lord. She visited America in the late 1880s to take part in the suffragist movement. But Lord also grew interested in mental healing – and she proposed expanding its boundaries to prosperity. Lord wasn’t a “think and grow rich” exponent; rather she believed that if labourers and working people could alter their thought patterns they could balance out economic inequality.
Critics rarely see that the prosperity gospel had its earliest roots in the ideals of the Progressive Era. Lord and her American contemporaries – who included Wallace D. Wattles, a socialist activist and the author of The Science of Getting Rich, and suffragist Elizabeth Towne – believed that the mind could serve as a force for social equity. As the twentieth century opened, the industrial economy produced a mass wave of consumer goods; and at the same time the state of American medicine greatly improved. Hence, money, rather than health, moved to the front of the American mind – and became the focus of the positive-thinking movement.
RS: The positive-thinking movement sometimes seems indifferent to social issues: poor people are poor and sick people are sick because of their own wrong attitudes. Has there been any response to this problem from within the movement itself?
MH: In the positive-thinking movement’s early days, from the late nineteenth to the turn of the twentieth century, it showed deep concern for social issues. Surprising figures adopted the positive-thinking gospel, including black nationalist Marcus Garvey, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and many figures that identified themselves as socialists or radicals, such as Ralph Waldo Trine and Wallace D. Wattles. These people believed that the patterns of the mind were one element – and certainly not the only one – in alleviating social oppression; they believed that working people, women, and minorities needed to claim a dramatic new sense of self-worth. That tendency faded as the movement became more geared toward a philosophy of individual advancement. Within today’s New Thought churches you continue to find large numbers of very liberal people. Attendees at New Thought churches include actors, artists, experimenters, gay and lesbian congregants, and many people who work to create social openings. So the core movement has remained liberal in its makeup. However, the popular mainstream literature to emerge from the positive-thinking movement, by authors such as Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale (pictured above), and Dale Carnegie, evinces almost none of its earliest reformist aims.
RS: The positive-thinking movement is also sometimes criticised for its callousness: since you create your reality with your thoughts, it must be your fault if bad things happen to you. Is this a valid criticism? If so, is there any valid response to it?
MH: It is a valid criticism – and it is one of the problems that I try to deal with in the book, especially in the final chapter, “Does It Work?”, where I explore the failings and efficacy of the movement. In short, I believe that the positive-thinking movement’s embrace of what is called the Law of Attraction was both a theological and ethical mistake, and it overshadowed the movement’s greater promise. I believe that no one should endeavour to frame life as the product of one overarching mental super law. That simply doesn’t square with the personal experience of most sensitive people. We all encounter a mixture of joys and tragedies in life, and these experiences are attributable to myriad and sometimes inscrutable factors – not solely to tendencies or accidents of thought. We live under many laws, influences, and events. However, if the positive-thinking movement can move away from this “mind is all” concept, then we can newly appreciate the movement’s very powerful insights. As has been borne out in many reaches of the sciences, the mind provides a little-understood but persistent and traceable impact across various aspects of existence, from health to relationships to addiction recovery. The impact of the mind can also be seen – most controversially – in the findings of quantum physics. This last point is very contentious, and I try to explore it in an accurate and non-sensationalistic manner in the book.
RS: One little-known figure that you highlight toward the end of your book is Vernon Howard. Could you tell us about him and why you find him interesting?
MH: Vernon Howard was a late-twentieth century spiritual philosopher who I see as probably the most remarkable and unclassifiable figure to emerge from America’s recent metaphysical culture. Howard was loosely a part of the positive-thinking movement insofar as his books of the 1950s and early 1960s were in the mould of typical New Thought literature in which you were counselled to use your mind to attain influence, prosperity, and power. But in the mid-1960s, Howard underwent a remarkable spiritual maturation. From that point until his death in 1992 he produced an extraordinary output of writings and talks that distilled the core principles of the world’s ethical and religious philosophies. Howard taught that we live from a false, conditioned nature, which prods us to seek conventional modes of success, which, in turn, prop up our ego and self-image. This puts us on a constant cycle of seeking recognition from a world filled with people who are themselves frightened and desperately seeking approval, and who often lash out in hostility to cover their fears.
If we can see through this painful predicament, Howard wrote, we can experience a sense of our true nature, which emanates from what we call God. We experience this true self when we reach the limits of our conditioned responses to life. No other figure that I have encountered possessed a voice as practical and vivid – or an intellect as piercing of human foibles – as Howard’s.
RS: In your book, you posit Ronald Reagan as a kind of culmination of the positive-thinking movement, in both good and bad ways. Could you talk a little about how Reagan fits in with this movement, how it shaped his politics, and how the movement has shaped American politics today?
MH: Reagan is a continual mystery to journalists and biographers because he seems to them to possess no internal barometer or motivating influence. Many observers have wondered about his inner nature, about what made him tick psychologically. My contention in the book is that Reagan, to be fully understood, must be seen as a product of the positive-thinking culture. The core assumptions and phraseology of positive thinking are at the back of much of his personal philosophy. Reagan also reflects many of the movement’s strengths and weakness: He was capable of continually reconceiving of himself at different times in life to meet the challenges that he faced, and it gave him a surprising resilience and adaptability when climbing out of near-poverty as a young man and when confronting the new realities of US-Soviet relations during the Gorbachev era, during which Reagan dramatically shifted from flinty cold warrior to global peacemaker. Yet it could also contribute to an unnerving blindness in matters of policy, when Reagan would emotionally fixate on a single fact, story, or anecdote and use it to buttress sweeping political convictions, such as the belief in widespread welfare fraud or in the efficacy of the Star Wars missile defence system.
In the political realm, Reagan ushered in an age where presidents had to sing praises to the limitless potential of the American public. In President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address he declared, “This is a country where anything is possible.” That was a direct echo of Reagan, who routinely described America as a nation where “nothing is impossible.”
RS: Even if you grant that the mind has the power to shape reality, it’s also true the mind has many facets that are not accessible to the conscious ego. What level of mind is actually shaping reality, and how can we have access to it?
MH: That’s a very intriguing question. We have a strange habit of putting a name on concepts – such as “ego” or “unconscious mind” – and then thinking we have identified a clearly definable thing and can proceed to talk about it as though we all agree upon it, as if it were an apple tree. Yet we know very little about the mind and its agencies. We can’t even agree on what produces the so-called placebo effect and how it works, though for more than a century medical researchers have tracked the persistence of some kind of physical relief related to mental expectancy. One of the things I argue in the book is that we do seem to be able to enter an exquisitely sensitive and suggestible state where mental properties are heightened. This is sometimes called the hypnagogic state, experienced in the period just before drifting off to sleep or awakening, or in times of deep relaxation or comfortable sensory deprivation. Émile Coué, and others who worked with affirmations to recondition the mind, believed this hypnogogic state possessed unique potential for autosuggestion or self-hypnosis. I won’t go into the data here, but serious psychical researchers have also detected what appear to be heightened instances of clairvoyant perception and telepathic conveyance in subjects during this state.
It’s difficult to place precise labels on what is occurring at such times but there does seem to be a state of relaxation from which the mind is unusually receptive – and which may point to the mental-emotive condition from which we can produce or revise self-conceptions, and maybe do something more.
RS: All things considered, how much truth do you see in the “one simple idea” of positive thinking?
MH: As I’ve suggested above, and as I explore in the book, I am convinced that the mind harbours some shade of influence, not only in matters of self-worth but also in circumstances of outer life, as well. I believe that our repeated thoughts – when held with determination and emotional conviction – can evince a shade of influence on external events. This is a very delicate claim, which presents more questions than answers. But I believe that if we look historically across broad disciplines – from psychology to medicine to the physical sciences – and if we consider, with care and discretion, the empiricism of personal experience, we find ourselves facing an ever-broadening conception of the mind’s influence.
Historically, the modern assessment of the mind’s reach continually broadens and never recedes. The mind is, of course, one factor among many under which we live. We are affected by environment, chance, physiology, economy, and accident. But grappling with this idea – that the mind, like other factors, produces a shade of practical impact on our experience – can help deepen and expand our sense of ourselves, and our questions about what it means to be human.
For further discussion of New Thought and its history, see New Dawn 142.
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