As someone who was raised in a New Thought household, I have spent my life studying and practicing positive-mind mechanics, such as Law of Attraction. Often when I encounter theories about the causative power of the mind, arguments generally fall into one of two camps: either every thought creates our reality or there’s a rejection of the notion entirely. I fall somewhere in the middle. I do think that the mind plays an intimate role in how we experience physical reality, but I don’t believe it is the only influence. Because in addition to being raised within the New Age community, I am also a professional historian who studies and teaches social movements of twentieth-century America. I have a deep understanding of the power of historical context, which in the collective memory is often very painful. Just as shadows exist in our individual psyches, so do shadows haunt our collective past. Thoughtfully speaking about positive-mind mechanics can be challenging in New Age circles due to the over eagerness of most practitioners to diminish the influence of historical and cultural contexts. I want to expand on this by exploring why context is important, and how applying contextual analysis can help craft a life desired of living while ethically contributing to the mutual benefit of others.
Social Context Matters
Four years ago I was involved with a project to collect oral histories from members of the Montagnard community of Greensboro, North Carolina. The Montagnard are the indigenous peoples of the central highlands of Vietnam, whose semi-nomadic livelihoods were uprooted during and following the Vietnam War. Many Montagnard tribes fought on behalf of the United States during the war but were left behind to face repercussions when it ended. The Montagnard still face religious and political persecution in Vietnam, and since the 1980s different waves of refugees have relocated to Greensboro.[i] For this project I interviewed elders and youth about the pressures of assimilating into American culture while maintaining an indigenous identity. Conversations covered political and religious persecution, life in refugee camps, and longing for family members left behind in Vietnam. Nothing in my white, middle-class upbringing remotely compared to what the Montagnard interviewees experienced. Which is why I emphatically disagree with the New Age claim that marginalized communities remain marginalized because they think they are marginalized. That notion is unhelpful and gaslights those recovering from intergenerational and cultural trauma. It ignores centuries of historical evidence that proves systematic oppression by folks like my ancestors, who arrived in the United States as early as 1631.
When we are born, we are born into a unique point in space and time. Geography, history, culture, and language all inform our understanding of place, social conduct, collective and personal past, and the vocabulary available to us for personal expression. This is to say that when we are born, forces are already in play that will influence how we engage and experience physical reality. A Montagnard teen living in Greensboro was not exiled from Vietnam because they intended it with their thoughts. It is because they happened to be born in the contextual aftermath of the Vietnam War.
When we ignore cultural and historical contexts, we underestimate the complexities of the world in which we live. Treating the individualistic perspective of positive-mind mechanics the same as the collective is narrow-minded. It promotes self-centeredness and misleads people to think they don’t have a personal responsibility to mind the impact of their actions, beliefs, and words towards others. If Law of Attraction is to be applied generally to social groups, it must be approached through the lens of pubic memory – the shared memory of a given community. What collective beliefs did our ancestors teach us to internalize? How do we pass those on to the next generation? When we observe the cultural and historical contexts that influence us, we can make compassionately informed decisions about how we choose to engage or disengage with specific thought patterns. We are accountable to ourselves and others, without unintentionally repeating the pattern of mistreatment towards one another. The process of analyzing and interpreting contextual experiences is called constructivism.
Constructivism is a learning theory in education, which I use daily in my work at a history museum. It argues that people naturally construct their own meaning of the world by experiencing something and reflecting on that experience. According to constructivism, anytime we encounter a new experience we enter it with preconceived beliefs about how the world works. These beliefs are informed by the sum experiences encountered in this lifetime. But when a person exits an experience, whether mundane or transformational, they must reconcile the newly presented information with the previously held beliefs. It is the authority of the individual to choose whether they deepen, supersede, or remain stagnant in their understanding of the world. In other words, we actively create our personal perceptions of reality, whether we realize it or not. It is our individual responsibilities to our personal wellbeing to pay attention to the lessons we interpret and internalize that shape our worldviews.
Listen, Observe, Act
My work with the Montagnard didn’t come out of nowhere. It was a result of unlearning various insecurities and actively shifting my perspective on pursuing a meaningful career path. At age 21 I graduated from college with a degree in Ethnomusicology, the cultural study of music. I loved studying cultural history and wanted to work in a museum, because I knew I wanted to teach the value of the humanities in public spaces. But American culture does not value the social sciences, which are often undermined as “useless” disciplines in comparison to the hard sciences. And I internalized that belief. So even though I was passionate about the humanities and wanted to work in the humanities, I also convinced myself that pursuing that path would be foolish. I constructed a worldview that following my desires would bring automatic failure and shame. So instead I sold myself short and got a job in accounting.
Compounding the belief that following my passion would be absurd was an even deeper belief that I wasn’t smart enough to attend graduate school. That insecurity was something I had battled most of my life, which I imagine many people experience at one point or another. Specifically, I was afraid of taking the GREs, the standardized test for American graduate schools. I never tested well. I was always better at project-based learning. But after seven years in accounting, the anxiety of working in a field that didn’t excite me outweighed the fear of taking a risk. So, I took the necessary measures to listen to my desires and clarify what I hoped to achieve.
I started volunteering at museums. I contacted various graduate programs and took a year to imagine what life would be like if I was accepted. Did I really want to live in Indianapolis? Not really. I wanted to work in museums, but was I open in historic preservation? Nope. I am not as interested in architecture as I am people. I also had to learn how to tune out criticism. People don’t like taboos to be broken. And pursuing a career in the arts and humanities is among the biggest taboos in the protestant work ethic of American culture.
One day my concentrated efforts to steer my career in the direction I envisioned produced results. I was laid off from the accounting job that I already intended to leave, and a month later I was working as a paid tour guide at a museum in Seattle. A year later I was a graduate student in Greensboro studying public history (the application of historical inquiry in public spaces). The digital exhibit I developed about the Montagnard community was my graduate capstone project. It was a culmination of intense personal and academic work towards honoring my intentions and visions for my life path. It also served the Montagnard community by elevating their place in American history, while addressing contemporary issues of immigration and the treatment of refugees within the United States.
If practitioners of New Age are to make ethical contributions to society through positive-mind mechanics, we need to take a closer look at the contexts in which we operate. On a personal level, interrogating and breaking apart the beliefs we’ve embodied that no longer serve us guides us to the sincere desires we genuinely want for ourselves. On a societal level, analyzing social contexts helps us to detect destructive beliefs that have been passed down from generation to generation. From that new viewpoint we can take deliberate action to break the harmful patterns. When we take the time to clarify and hone the skills we wish to contribute to society we are genuine to our wants and desires. Using that as a foundation with which to be of service to others allows us to create a life that becomes greater than the individual self.
It is worth noting that I don’t think there is an end point for reaching a depth of self-awareness. There will always be new leaves to turn over and discover, leading further to opportunities to improve our impact on each other. Don’t sit on your laurels and assume that when we’re all dead, we will see that there were “never victims” of war or genocide. Because people are in pain now, and we’re not dead, yet. Roll up your sleeves and mind what you say and do. Ask yourself – now that I’m here, what part can I play in aiding to heal the pain of our collective past? Right here. Right now.