Dealing with the Dogmas of Rebirthing.
By Piotr Rajski, M.A.
says gran: a positive person is one who
like Sue, having jumped from the fifteenth floor
of her upscale apartment
says at the moment of impact:
"I've got an appointment tomorrow at three…"
David Huggett, "Gran, the maledictions."
I divided my concerns about the "thought is creative" principle into
three broad categories: Philosophical, Psychological and Practical. I will
also suggest (4) an alternative to the principle.
Although this is a very tempting proposition (who wouldn't like to enjoy such a power), the experiences of those who became enlightened show that the matter is not that simple. First of all, in most cases, people do not become enlightened as a result of playing with one's thoughts, but rather through going beyond thoughts. It is most often achieved through meditation. This is, for instance, how Osho (2000) described his experience:
"That night for the first time I understood the meaning of the word maya. Not that I had not known the word before (…) I was aware of the meaning - but I have never understood it before. How can you understand without experience? That night another reality opened its door, another dimension became available. Suddenly it was there, the other reality, the separate reality - the really real, or whatsoever you want to call it. Call it God, call it truth, call it dhamma, call it Tao, or whatsoever you will. It was nameless. But it was there - so transparent and yet so solid one could have touched it. (…)" (P.73-4)
However, Osho quickly makes another comment as to not let his readers to remain confused about the matter of reality. He writes:
"Since that day the world is unreal. Another world has been revealed. When I say the world is unreal I don't mean that these trees are unreal. These trees are absolutely real (…) - they exist in God, they exist in absolute reality (…)." (P.76).
In other words, Osho even after his enlightenment warns us against marching blindly into the tree, in the hope that our thoughts will somehow dissolve it. This would likely end up in a painful encounter. I don't know any enlightened persons who would, for instance, encourage you to jump in front of a car. If anything, enlightened people become very humble with the reality, realizing the sacredness of its source.
Yet this is what we at times do when we interpret the principle mechanistically. The real and unreal become confused. We move into the subjective world of our thoughts. We cannot prove anything objectively. We lose the fundamental tool of testing our theories, concepts and ideas - the reality. Rebirthers sometimes claim to have control over "things." They do not realize that there is a difference between the statement - "Thinker is creative with his thoughts," and - "I can produce/control what I want with my thoughts."
I refer to the people assuming this attitude as "small gods." I don't mean this in a derogatory sense, as I was also a small god myself. I believe as well that God wants us to use our creative powers and exercise the power of our mind. It took me some time however to realize that miracles in this material domain are not a result of superficial cognitive manipulations. Miracles happen in God. Look at the miracles performed by Jesus. He customarily stressed that whatever he was doing it was done by the power of his Father, His will and in Him. In contrast, rebirthers’ efforts to create are ego driven. They have difficulty listening. They are willing to accept, but only what fits with their preconceived goals or plans.
1.3 Epistemological Trap.
The "thought is creative" principle as presented by Orr and Ray (1983) is also a form of tautology. It means, that once accepted, it cannot be falsified. This is reflected in the statement – "The only way you could prove that this is not the absolute truth is by thinking it is not, thereby proving the axiom." By accepting this innocent sentence, we put ourselves in an epistemological trap.
As explained by Encyclopedia Britannica a tautology is a statement "so framed that it cannot be denied without inconsistency." For instance, the statement – "All men are rational" – asserts with regard to anything whatsoever that either it is a man or it is not rational. Male chauvinists would quickly conclude that this statement is true if applied to women. (J ) But this universal "truth" follows not any facts noted about real men. It is based on the actual use of the words "man" and "rational" and is thus purely a matter of a faulty logic. In reality some men are rational and some are not some of the time.
Similarly, the "thought is creative" principle may be quite true, but it is not "the absolute truth" as purported by Orr and Ray, certainly not because of the logic they suggest.
1.4 Ethical Relativism.
Another consequence of the principle is that it may lead to ethical relativism. If it is me, who "creates throughout all time and space," then also the ethic becomes a product of my thinking. In other words, it is not, for instance, that prostitution is bad by itself, but it is what I think about it that counts. When I think it is bad, then it is bad, when I don't think it is bad, then it is not that bad.
This approach is quite a risky thing to do, which I know from my own experience. As a young person, in search for this "self-determined" ethics, I experimented with activities traditionally considered "inappropriate" and I reaped a lot of pain. I finally realized that the Ten Commandments were not given to make our lives miserable, but because they are good for us. No amount of "positive" or "creative" thinking may ever change it.
2. Psychological Implications of the Principle.
If the principle is the absolute truth – many rebirthers conclude – it means that they are responsible for everything that happens. Accidents don’t "just happen" – someone has to take the responsibility for them. There is no escape. If you are serious about this philosophy it may lead to overburdening.
Generally speaking, taking responsibility for one’s own actions is a positive quality. It is often associated with good mental health. Rebirthers are often quite keen to take responsibility and as long as things are OK even quite enthusiastic about this philosophy. Problems start when things don't go so well. "Average" people simply vent on such occasions, blame everyone around, while sipping beer or coffee. Rebirthers on the other hand, when they interpret the principle absolutistically, often struggle. It can still be a creative, growth enhancing process, if they are capable of sorting out what is their responsibility and what belongs to other people. However, I knew rebirthers who were going to the extremes. They were taking responsibility "for everything," to the point of masochistic self-torture. Some ended up in depression.
Such absolutistic interpretation of the principle is not good, I believe. Where there is no escape from responsibility, usually there is no escape from guilt and self-blame. Again part of the problem comes from the ego, searching for power and control at all costs. Rebirthers, to whom it happens, forget that there are other people (e.g. spouses) "creating" around them and contributing to the particular situations and outcomes. They also tend to forget that there are other powerful forces, such as family, society, culture, economic and political systems, environment that set the stage for what happens in their life.
Absolutistic interpretation of the principle often leads to isolation. If I am responsible for everything, nobody can really help me (what a nice boost to the ego!). The whole work, some rebirthers think, has to be done in the mind through reconstruction of thoughts. Such attitude at times reduces our ability to receive help from the environment. By attempting to play "small gods" we at times cut ourselves off from people who love and support us. I noticed it was quite difficult to help some rebirthers who found themselves in an emotional low. They were just "too big creators" to accept help from another person. They used the principle to build a wall at the price of losing emotional contact with other people.
The principle is sometimes used as a self-defense device. The popular logic goes as follows: "If I am responsible for things that happen to me, you HAVE to be responsible for things that happen to you (even when they result from my actions)." All the complaints against us can be neutralized on this basis. "It is you who complains, which means it is your problem," I heard people saying, "so you better change your thoughts."
Under these circumstances we may have difficulty accepting an objective feedback. I remember a rebirther who lashed out at me for "lack of positive thinking" when I suggested something she could improve in her functioning. This is not what positive thinking is for. It was not meant as a means of protection from the reality. We should not become blind and act like machines.
When valuable information is rejected just because it is not "positive," then it is difficult to achieve progress. Constructive criticism becomes impossible. It is difficult to improve a system (be it a person or a movement such as Rebirthing) if only positive information is allowed.
2.4. The Power of Positive Thinking.
One of the variations of the principle says: "your positive thoughts produce positive results." (Orr, Ray, 1983). This philosophy is quite old and not typical for Rebirthing. This is the beginning of many manipulations we try to perform on reality. It may be used to create income, or favorable social outcome, health, immortality or etc. Rebirthing literature is full of reports of how beautifully this philosophy can work in many instances.
Occasionally, I believe, this approach can misfire. We sometimes hope for a positive outcome when there is no objective basis for our optimism. At times positive thinking is used as a substitute for action. Instead of doing whatever would get us closer to the desired outcome, we write affirmations. Occasionally we trust people who are not worthy of our trust and we voluntarily victimize ourselves. I remember that on one occasion even the Father of Rebirthing reported to me that a substantial amount of money was stolen from him in the airport. Perhaps he was a bit too "positive" about the nature of the humankind.
In other words a rigid interpretation of the principle of "positive thinking" may deprive us of some important survival skills – objectivity, flexibility, alertness. As one of my alcoholic clients expressed it - "To be positive does not mean to be stupid." Rolland (1994) also describes how Ramakrishna rebuked one of his disciples for letting people take advantage of him. Being "positive," loving and supportive does not mean we should not keep our eyes opened.
2.5. Difficulty Expressing "Negative" Emotions.
The recommendation for "positive thinking" may sometimes serve as a censor. We are "supposed" to be positive so to have negative emotions becomes somehow shameful. It reduces our ability to express anger, irritation, hurt, jealousy, sorrow, because all of these emotions seem to be somehow improper. This applies in my observation especially to the situations in which rebirthers are with other rebirthers. Unexpressed envies, small and big upsets, often create a lot of tension. Dug in behind the safe ramparts of "positive thinking" we forget the virtue of forgiveness.
2.6. Between the Potential and the Ideal.
The "thought is creative" principle opens a totally new spectrum of opportunities. What once seemed impossible, now becomes a possibility thanks to positive thinking. This initially creates enormous expectations. Overweight people try to lose weight just through writing affirmations. Not very attractive women become busy creating lovers. Men reach for positions and go into ventures that are beyond their intellectual and emotional potential. When everything is possible (through positive thinking), nobody is really satisfied. The sky is the limit.
Again this naïve optimism often misfires. People try to manifest certain ideals forgetting that the ideal and their own potential are two different things. Many people overextend themselves and end up disappointed and frustrated. Then they claim that "Rebirthing does not work."
3. Practical Shortcomings of the Principle.
In the Rebirthing literature you can find basically two techniques of the practical application of "thought is creative" principle – affirmations and personal law. As far as affirmations are concerned it is my experience that only a few people can do this technique consistently. Most of the people, including myself, do not have enough perseverance to write affirmations even 10 minutes a day.
There are two basic explanations of this phenomenon. First, it is said, affirmations trigger so called "negative mental mass," or unpleasant elements in our unconsciousness, and thus provoke resistance. Second, the technique itself, especially if applied mechanically, creates boredom, and thus resistance. For some clients writing affirmations is a form of a "school trauma." I remember well one of my clients who would fill whole copybooks with affirmations. However they were written as if they were a punishment from a teacher. This impressive effort on her part was not accompanied by any insight, any reflection on how the affirmation could be translated in her real life.
Affirmations are relatively simple to apply and thus can be used by rebirthers who don't have a formal background in psychotherapy. But in order to be an effective tool, affirmations have to be used skillfully. From the therapeutic point of view it is much more interesting to explore what people record as their reaction to the affirmation than the affirmation itself. Both clients and rebirthers often neglect this part. If this is the case, then writing affirmations is often a phony recommendation. People seldom follow it.
In my experience a journal is often a better tool of working with thoughts. Especially moments when one feels down offer an excellent opportunity for growth. When you record your thoughts without censoring, both positive and negative thoughts, such a work triggers less resistance. My thoughts flow easily down to the paper, because I do not try to "create" anything. I observe, accept and record myself the way I am. It is a form of meditation. I feel much more in contact with myself while doing this than when I try to write affirmations. Once my work is finished and I have recorded how I felt, I can review the content of what I have written for the presence of strong negative thoughts. I can then change them into affirmations if I feel that I need to do it.
3.2 Artifacts of the Personal Law.
Another practical application of the "thought is creative" principle involves looking for so called "personal law." Orr (1998) defines personal law as "a thought which controls our mind and life more than any other thought." (P.40). As a "core belief" personal law underlies the structure of our beliefs about the nature of the world, life and ourselves. Such a thought, once identified, can be then changed into a positive one through reversal. In theory it should lead to a new perception of the world.
It sounds simple but in practice it is not that easy. I attended a couple of Personal Law Seminars that had one thing in common. A list of the possible personal laws was given to the participants in advance. Then, through different projective techniques these laws were "discovered" by the participants. Methodologically it is quite dubious and seldom leads to valuable results. I know people who discovered two, three, sometimes more personal laws in such a way, and it did not look that these findings changed much in their lives.
Besides these methodological flaws I have two doubts about the concept of personal law. First, that if such a thing as "personal law" exists, it is likely preverbal, not coded in words, and thus not accessible through pen and paper techniques. Even if it can be discovered, through intuition, illumination, self-observation, etc., it is probably, and this is my second concern, too overpowering to be changed by the "thinker" himself. In my experience personal laws are often related to the issue of bonding. To heal traumas in this area usually requires a lot of support from the significant others or the group.
4. Is the Principle really the "Absolute Truth"?
It does not take much time to realize that by thinking – "I, Peter, am a millionaire" - I do not become a millionaire. At least not automatically and not immediately. Someone would say – "What a pity" – but it may not be such a bad thing after all. If each of my thoughts manifested right away, I would probably die many years ago killed by my own self-destructive impulses. Can you imagine an instant manifestation of all those expressions, such as "F… you," "get lost," "go to hell," people so often use in their daily life?
Fortunately, the principle is not "absolutely true" this way. There are certain conditions under which this absolute truth works. And if there are conditions, this is not the absolute truth anymore. What are these conditions?
First of all there is the element of time. It looks as thought God, while giving us the powerful tool of the mind, gave us a protective layer of delay. It gives us time to decide whether we really want something or not. Second is the element of emotion, of wanting. These are our emotions that add energy to our thoughts, and eventually make them manifest themselves. Third is the element of action. Through our actions we try our ideas in the reality. The results of our actions can make us pursue or drop the idea.
These four elements - thought, time, emotion (wanting) and action - seem to work as a formation. In this context one could say that not every thought, but only a thought, which is accompanied by wanting, which is strong and persistent in time, and which leads to action, will manifest itself.
As far as the thought about becoming a millionaire is concerned, mere thinking it a few times will not manifest it. But if it becomes my desire to the extent that I will keep this thought in my mind over a prolonged period of time, and I add some constructive actions to achieve my goal, then it may manifest one day.
There is one more thing we should keep in mind. We are not alone in this world. Other people around us are also busy manifesting their thoughts. When I try to manifest a very appealing idea of nice love making with my wife, but she is not "in the mood," my idea will not manifest. I have no more control over my wife's thinking than God – and He gives her a complete freedom to think what she wants.
The same principle applies at a social level. I don't control other people’s thinking. I may try to influence them, I may try to seek their cooperation, but I don’t have control over them. Quite opposite, the mental mass produced by millions of my fellow thinkers often creates conditions – customs, laws, economics, etc. – that control my thinking and my behavior. This is another reason to reject the "thought is creative" principle as an "absolute truth."
4.1. Alternatives to Positive Thinking.
There is one basic alternative to the positive thinking. It is rational thinking. Rational means based on reason and oriented toward reality. This is not a new concept. In psychology, basic ideas of so called "rational-emotive approach" were first formulated by Albert Ellis and his associates in the early 1960s. Cognitive therapy has grown enormously since that time and represents one of the dominant domains of the contemporary psychology. It has a well-established research base. Handbooks and manuals of cognitive therapy are easily available. (see for instance, McMullin, 2000, Greenberger, Padesky, 1995). What are the principles of cognitive therapy?
It maintains that emotional problems are rooted in our thinking. I don't think any rebirther would have difficulty with this proposition. Ellis believed however that our emotional problems come not so much from "negative" thinking but from "illogical" or "irrational" thinking. This tendency often manifests in "self-talk" or "self-verbalization," which is often biased toward irrationality by early childhood experiences. The main task of the therapist, according to Ellis (1962), is to demonstrate to the client that his disturbance comes from telling himself a chain of false sentences. The therapist is supposed to dispute the main irrational ideas of the client. She may point to the unjustified generalizations, contradictions, presumptions lacking any evidence, etc. In other words the therapist encourages the client to test his ideas against reality, and eventually to change the ideas.
This is very similar to what we do in Rebirthing. Ellis asked, if he believes in the "thought is creative" principle, probably would confirm, but with one condition. Namely, that the principle is true in the sphere of our emotional life. Everyone can easily test this position. It does not take much introspection to see that our thoughts precede emotions. To prove that the same relation exists between thoughts and the physical world is much more complicated. By adopting the principles of cognitive psychology Rebirthing would have a chance to become a research-based, more main stream therapy. This would be one more reason to move Rebirthing from positive thinking to rational thinking.
It is also worth mentioning that rational thinking does not exclude God. Statement – "There is no God" – scientifically speaking, is in no way better than the statement – "There is God." These are but two hypotheses that can be used to test reality. In other words, adoption of rational thinking by rebirthers does not preclude them, in principle, from being also spiritual.
To illustrate my point about the difference between positive and rational thinking I will use the ancient myth of Dedalus and Ikarus. As you may remember it was a paramount for them to try to escape from the island of Creta, which was under control of a bloody tyrant. Dedalus, who will represent for me the principle of rational thinking, was very creative. He built wings for himself and his son so they could fly away from the island. However, when they were above the sea something unfortunate happened. Ikarus, delighted by the pleasure of flying, came to the conclusion that he was "like a god." In this sudden burst of enthusiasm ("positive thinking"?) he decided to fly to the Sun. The wax in his wings melted and he drowned in the sea.
One of the fundamental concepts of Rebirthing, known as "thought is creative" principle, was critically analyzed. The author presented some concerns over the applicability of this "absolute truth," especially if understood in a dogmatic and absolutistic way.
On the philosophical level the principle seems to create confusion about the relationship between God, matter and the human being. Second, it means tautology, inability to verify its conclusions. It may lead to a moral relativism.
On the psychological level it may lead to overburdening with the sense of responsibility, emotional isolation and self-defending behaviors. It may cause difficulty in expressing negative emotions. Positive distortions of the reality, high expectations for positive outcome caused by some applications of the principle may lead to disappointment and frustration. Unskillful and inconsistent use of affirmations and the concept of personal law may multiply this effect.
The author proposes that the principles of rational thinking, as delineated in the cognitive psychology, be adopted as the main alternative to positive thinking. A move in this direction would bring Rebirthing closer to the main stream therapies.
Ellis, Albert. (1962). Reason and Emotions in Psychotherapy, NY.
Encyclopedia Britannica, http://search.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=73272
Greenberger D., Padesky C. (1995). Mind Over Mood. Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think. Guilford Press, NY, London.
Huggett, David. (2000). Gran, the maledictions. Rowan Books, Edmonton, AB.
McMullin R.E. (2000). The New Handbook of Cognitive Therapy Techniques. W.W. Norton & Co., NY, London.
Orr, Leonard. (1998). The Healing Manual. Inspiration University, Walton, NY.
Orr Leonard, Ray Sondra. (1983). Rebirthing in the New Age. Celestial Arts, Berkeley. First published in 1977.
Osho. (2000). Autobiography of a Spiritually Incorrect Mystic. Osho International Foundation, N.Y.
Rolland, Romain. (1994). The Life of Ramakrishna. Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, India. P.4.