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One of the most popular self-help ideas out there is known as manifesting. A recent book on the topic is Roxie Nafousi’s Manifest: 7 Steps to Living Your Best Life (2022), an international bestseller since its publication earlier this year. Previous books on the topic you will likely have heard of are Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006) and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937).

Each book offers techniques aimed at harnessing the power of our mind to create the reality we want. The allure is obvious. Many of us have a vague idea of what we want in life. This is usually based on societal ideals of success. We want a great partner, a big house, a couple kids (or not), and so on. Perhaps we want a fancy car. Perhaps we want to travel far and wide.

But then we return to the reality of here and now. We might be in school still, unsure of what exactly will come next. We might be in a job, hopefully one we like, and wondering how we go from “here” to the “there” of our dreams. Manifesting, so we’re told, requires only that we think hard about our goals and eventually they will come into being.

The Reality Check

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Unfortunately, most of us learn quickly that life is more complicated than this. We live in a world of complex societal and economic structures that push and pull us in virtually invisible ways. When I was 18 and applying for my first student loans, I had no idea that I would go on to about ten years of graduate school, accumulating loans that would be with me to this day. And when I was starting college, credit card companies would set up desks in our University Center, trying to lure in new customers eager to spend.

Luckily, a number of laws have been passed since then to curb predatory credit card practices. But student loan problems have only grown worse. And as I’ve aged, I’ve encountered other outside forces that I couldn’t just manifest my way through or around. The academic job market turned for the worse just as I began my Ph.D. To this day it has not recovered. The housing market has taken wild swings. I had one friend buy a house in 2004, only to see himself “underwater” (owing more on the house than it was worth) when the housing bubble burst in 2008. Other friends have been lucky, buying their first house in 2009, when President Obama’s Housing and Economic Recovery Act gave all new homebuyers an $8000 credit.

We can see that the world around us can be a roller-coaster. The things or jobs or people we want to manifest might simply not exist in one or ten years.

Our society is also driven by a number of biases. As a white male with middle-class parents and a good education, these could be completely invisible to me. Luckily, I’ve had friends, mentors, and colleagues point them out and found plenty of reading material to see them ever more clearly. Nonetheless, I’m still blind to them a fair amount of the time. Simply put, other people around me who aren’t white or male or cis-gendered will face barriers that I don’t. The graduate school supervisor who had a good feeling about me might not feel the same about them due to inherent sexism, racism, or homophobia. Or a lender might not give me the same interest rate, or a shop owner might treat me poorly. There are countless ways that folks like me gain advantages simply due to our appearance. If I follow the idea of manifesting, I might be deluded into thinking this is all thanks to my own mental effort.

The downside of all of this, too, is that we might overemphasize our personal responsibility for failure. If we think it’s all up to our own minds, we might take on feelings of guilt or shame when bad things happen. This can range from not getting that dream job to life-changing illnesses or accidents. For this reason, psychologist Anna Katharina Schaffner Ph.D. suggests that manifesting can be bad for us.

Some Positive Take-aways

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Nonetheless, a certain amount of truth can be found in the idea of manifesting. Simply setting goals and thinking about the path to achieving them is an important use of our time. Without this mental effort on our part, little can be accomplished in our lives.

It is also helpful to maintain flexibility and openness to new opportunities. The more we think about our goals, the more we realize that they cannot be set in stone. When I was 19 and an accounting student in college, I literally thought I might one day work in a nice office in a tall building in Denver or Seattle. That was the limit of my imagination at the time. However, as life progressed, my goals changed.

And the routes to our goals will change as well. In this way, the mental practice of manifesting can help us develop a lively and open mind state to work with the changing world around us.

So manifesting our wealth or happiness isn’t all bad. It only becomes problematic when we forget about the realities of the society and physical world around us. After all, the path to our goals will run through these outer constraints. The better we understand them and our current place in the world, the better we will be able to navigate our way to a flourishing life.

Default Alt Tag for this pageJustin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.