hckr.fyi // thoughts

Having New Thoughts

by Michael Szul on

I never really paid much attention to who Mitch Horowitz was until Douglas Rushkoff had him on a live special on Team Human. He seemed reasonably intelligent and had a good grasp on the occult. In his own research, he effectively reduced occult philosophy to thought causation and wish fufillment—a bit simplistic, but also effective communication. The podcast episode is worth the listen for Rushkoff's anecdote on his wife's pregnancy—a truly inspiring story. I met Doug a few decades back. We stayed in touch for a few years in the early 00's, but eventually that stopped. The Internet was young back then.

My own personal mythology is deeply steeped in the occult tradition—ever since roughly 1991.

I just closed my eyes and inhaled deeply and for a few brief seconds, the sun through the window and the synesthesia of smell time shifted me back to my middle and high school years as I counted backwards to find that date.

I used to love the stories and ideas of lost, ancient knowledge. There is a streaming service full of hokum called Gaia that frequently gets in trouble for spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories—so much so that they have to put a disclaimer at the beginning of each show.

Of course I dialed up a subscription—mostly because between the lines of misinformation there were a number of people interviewed that continue to be respected members of different communities—Lon Milo DuQuette, for example. Mitch Horowitz is also interviewed frequently, so I decided to binge those interviews, as they ranged from America's role in occultist to his exploration of the Kybalion.

Horowitz is well-spoken and a good communicator. He calls himself a "chronicler of metaphysical experience" and has determined that this simple description is the driving force in his life. I can admire such dedication and focus, and after watching multiple interviews on Gaia, I decided to pick up Occult America and a copy of The Kybalion for good measure.

I have mixed feelings about Occult America. The concept is fascinating and the overview is engaging and inspiring. But when it comes to occult history, I've spent a lot of time with Gary Lachman books, which are significantly detailed. Halfway through Occult America I realized that most of what I was reading in the book was what I heard on the Gaia interviews. I expected more content and deeper details in the book, but there weren't any. This lead me to feel that the book—although certainly worth reading—was more of an introduction with the expectation that you would go out and seek additional solace in other tomes.

The picture developing out of Occult America—with the exception of Theosophy—was mostly one of "New Thought" concepts and histories. If you don't know what New Thought is, think The Power of Positive Thinking or The Secret. It's a general set of "mind" principles hailing the power of causative thought, and it permeates American occultism, religion, and self-help programs. Horowitz has become a New Thought advocate and is fascinated by the history and characters.

New Thought emerged as an idealology and movement in the late 19th century—primarily in the United States. The movement drew inspiration from various other sources throughout its history, including Spiritualism and Transcendentalism, eventually gaining significant inspiration from the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

New Thought gained popularity through the publication and dissemination of books and pamplets, and the establishment of various organizations and quasi-religions such as the Unity Church, Religious Science, and the Church of Divine Science.

The problem with New Thought is that it has always struggled with self-help conmen, struggled explaining why sometimes it didn't work, and had issues reconciling itself with America's religious roots.

The middle issue is a non-issue in my opinion. Even if we take thoughts to be causal, actions (brought about by thoughts) are causal as well. Not to mention that I'm pretty sure other people also have thoughts. There are a myriad of factors that could disrupt a New Thought initiative, but that's why you hedge your bets when you can and you play for the law of averages.

New Thought (much like any self-help initiative) has been litter with conmen throughout the ages. For example, Napoleon Hill authored Think and Grow Rich, which is still a bestseller today, but his life and career was rife with failed businesses and accusations of fraud. His story is not unique. Still, people fall victim to fraud because the argument makes logical sense—even if the premises and/or conclusion isn't sound. New Thought can be thought of in a very simple way. We have quantitative evidence that negative thoughts and stress cause adverse harm to both mental and physical health—eventually spilling over into external events. We also have quantitative evidence of the opposite: positive thoughts, prayers, and mindfulness that benefit mental and physical health, and also spill over into external events. New Thought explorers have taken this logical and sound evidences and either applied it to other areas of life or expanded and amplified it to encompass a larger umbrella.

The problem with New Thought is much the same with alternative medicine. There are techniques that work, but the reason (or philosophy) behind why they works might not be sound. With many of these, often science throws out the whole of it rather than accepting that there is some truth. The most famous case might be that of Anton Mesmer. As the name implies Mesmer was the founder of mesmerism. Born in Germany, Mesmer studied medicine and began to develop a theory of animal magnetism, believing that there was a magnetic fluid in animals (including humans) that flowed throughout the body, and could be manipulated to restore health.

Although popular, especially with the aristocracy, Mesmer's practices and theories were met with skepticism from the scientific community. A commission was formed by the French government to investigate Mesmer's practices, and Benjamin Franklin of all people was able to prove that "animal magnetism" wasn't a real healing modality, and that ultimately the "healing" was a result of psychological cures.

Despite the invalidation of Mesmer's theories, "mesmerism", did work—just not for everything and not in the way that Mesmer thought. Mesmer's work became the precursor to hypnosis, and presented some of the first semi-scientific views of the connection between the mind and body.

In areas of alternative medicine such as chiropractic and acupuncture, we see numerous studies showing their efficacy above the placebo effect despite science dismissing the philosophies behind the alternative practices.

Many in the early New Thought movement were associated with either business or religion. Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science was founded on principles related to the exclusive power of the mind. Meanwhile, Charles F. Haanel—author of The Master Key System was a successful and noted businessman. Both tie into the foundation of American culture: Christian idealology and corporate business. The latter of which—in many respects—eschewed any entertainment of systemic issues and championed the idea that your place in society is merely a result of your mindset. In many ways, New Thought is very much an American movement in the sense that American idealogy either influenced New Thought ideas or New Thought ideas were incorporated into American mythology. Horowitz covers some of this in Occult America, including through eyes of Ronald Reagan—highly influenced by Manly P. Hall, who believed (much like H.P. Blavatsky of Theosophy fame) that America was uniquely suited to a spiritual destiny.

Today, of everything to come out of the New Thought movement, the Kybalion is probably the book/philosophy to emerge in recent circles as a jewel on the hill. Likely written by William Walker Atkinson, but attributed to "Three Initiates," the Kybalion is a tool of philosophical thought that adds New Thought ideas and turn of the century science in hermetic history.

The Kybalion presents seven principles that govern the universe.

The principles can be defined as:

The reason for the rise in popularity of the Kybalion can be seen in the simplicity of these principles as they form a solid foundation for a philosophy of life. In many ways, the Kybalion offers the best of New Thought without overly emphasizing material gain or embedding itself too far into Christian religion. It's able to escape these traps by attempting to tie its wisdom back to ancient hermetic thought.

My own opinion of the Kybalion is that is an above average philosophy read. My brief review on the reviews page states:

The principles themselves are wonderfully consolidated, pragmatic, and usable. The book has two chapters that drone on unnecessarily. Quality side table book in the same category as the Tao Te Ching, etc.

A book devoid of religious specificity that emphasizes the power of thought, the inseparately of the mental from the physical, and the flexibility of reality is a high quality starting point for personal philosophy, and is very much worthy of multiple reads and contemplation.