What is Manifesting? | The new materialistic cult with a dark side

What is 'manifesting'? Can you wish a new car or boyfriend into reality? A new craze (or cult?), endorsed by celebs like Cara Delevingne, is here. It's vapid, exploitative, and potentially damaging.


In the run up to Christmas, I was in Waterstones looking for a gift. As I scanned the shelves, a spine caught my eye: How to be a Buddhist Millionaire. I picked it up, assuming it must be a satirical comment on the absurd hypocrisy of capitalist hippiedom; it was not. Here is how the book begins, with a short epigram: “Even the Dalai Lama’s robes cost money. Although His Holiness may not have to reach into his own wallet, someone somewhere will have to pick up the tab.” The quote was attributed to “Anonymous.”

Buddhism can be mined for its pithy nuggets of wisdom – it’s part of the reason why it has taken off so successfully in the West over the past few decades. In the proper context, of course, Buddhist quotes are a meaningful and intrinsic part of a complex, historical religion; but snatched out of their context, these quotes have become as trite as a ‘keep calm and carry on’ cupcake. The internet is loaded with images of Buddha statues, overlaid with quotes like: “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is not complete” – easily digestible sayings that usually revolve around self-love, self-worth, or self-care. 


Even though the Dalai Llama doesn’t pay for his robe, somebody has to make it, argues Matt Jardine

This, of course, is what Matt Jardine, author of How to be a Buddhist Millionaire, was trying to recreate with the anonymous ‘proverb’ at the start of his book. Because no-one, ever, anywhere, has actually commented on the cost of the Dalai Lama’s robes and who foots the bill for them. And if they did, it wasn’t in some wise, spiritual way. At best, maybe someone overheard an off-hand conversation between a couple of monks; but I suspect Jardine fabricated the whole thing and thought that if he wrote ‘anonymous’ after if, then he could pretend that his book was founded on true Buddhist wisdom.

Jardine’s book is symptomatic of a wider movement that’s happening right now, which has to do with thinking yourself into your future with a particular focus on getting the stuff of your dreams. Jardine has managed to refashion Buddhism to suit his acquisitive impulse, but many others are turning to a new zeitgeist: manifesting, sometimes known as the laws of attraction. 

The idea is that you can literally manifest the things you want by thinking hard enough about them. It’s become a viral craze, largely on TikTok, and largely among teenage girls, who believe that if they write down the name of their crush 33 times for 3 days, he’ll text them back. I used to do something similar when I was about 13. For a while I was very seduced by the promise of teenage witchery. I invested in all of it – crystal balls, tarot cards, candles, cauldrons – and I’d spend hours throwing drops of lavender essence over my shoulder at midnight and whispering my true love’s name over a candle. And of course I did – I was 13. I’d just stopped believing in fairies and Father Christmas and suddenly magic was real again. It didn’t last long – within a year I’d cleared out all of my embarrassing witchy accoutrements. 

Many of the TikTok teens who currently subscribe to the belief that 528 hertz is the “love frequency,” or that the numbers 1111 and 444 are “angel numbers” sent from the universe, will probably look back on it all with red cheeks. That’s fine. But there’s something unsettling going on here: these crazes are being monetised to the tune of millions, and not just for kids. High profile celebrities are signing up left, right and centre – Cara Delevingne is manifesting a baby and Oprah Winfrey, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga are all on board – and people are making a killing out of telling other people that they can have the kitchen of their dreams if they just think hard enough.


Cara Delevingne is ‘manifesting’ a baby

These new cults – often picked up by people who sneer at stupid old Christians – are religion with all the good and interesting parts stripped out. In place of community and altruism, they advocate self absorption, self obsession, and more narcissism; in place of asceticism they promote acquisition; and in place of learning, they encourage ignorance (especially those posing as science). And by the way, it’s nothing new: witchery, voodoo and the like have been practiced by the disenfranchised and powerless (women, slaves) for centuries. The only difference is that now it’s being monetised by savvy opportunists and sold as somehow empowering.

One can’t really manifest more money, a bigger house, a boyfriend, whatever. But what excessive introspection can do – and every neuroscientist and psychiatrist will tell you this – is create anxiety disorders. It goes like this: “If I keep thinking that I can manifest my dreams, and then they don’t come true, then there must be something wrong with me. The universe must be against me. Maybe I’m to blame for all of the bad things that have happened in my life.” The grown-ups who spread these spurious ideas should be condemned for condemning society’s children to a prison of self-doubt and self-loathing – which is always where narcissism ends up. 

But what about those who argue that manifesting and the laws of attraction have scientific ground? Meet Dr Joe Dispenza, whose YouTube videos have captions like: ‘Manifest Your Desires [GUARANTEED RESULT]’ or ‘The Universe Will MANIFEST What You Want If You Can VISUALIZE It’ or ‘Do THIS in MARCH 2022 to Attract MONEY to You LIFE!’. Who is Dr Joe Dispenza? According to his website, ‘Dr Joe holds a Bachelor of Science degree and is a Doctor of Chiropractic’ – an excellent profession, but not one that qualifies you to talk with any conviction about neuroscience.

Dr Joe promises everything from money to sickness cures, if you can just visualise your future. The “old model of reality – cause and effect” is dead, says Dr Joe, chiropractor, and instead, there is a new “quantum model of reality” in which “you have to teach your body emotionally how that future is going to feel before it’s made manifest. In other words you have to feel awe in order for the mystical moment to happen.” Don’t worry if it all sounds a little cosmic; it’s actually all rooted in science. 


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A post shared by Dr Joe Dispenza (@drjoedispenza)

Dr Joe tells a story about an unnamed ‘researcher’ at Yale in the 1940s, who was studying electromagnetic fields around living organisms. “He started studying eggs,” Dr Joe explains “and he was using a magnetometer and what he found was that a hundred percent of the time” – (do scientists really work in absolutes?) – “no matter what egg he measured, the positive charge was always at the head, and the negative charge was always at the tail. Well if you have a positive charge on one end and a negative charge on the other one you’ve got an external electromagnetic field called the magnetic field, that’s a magnet, right.” 

It’s not quite clear what Dr Joe is driving at here – something to do with eggs, magnets, salamanders – but he manages to extrapolate some astonishing conclusions from these 80-year old findings. “You’re taking thought, it’s producing a frequency, and that frequency in the form of chemistry is storing that thought emotionally right in your second centre,” he explains, sagely. A frequency in the form of chemistry? A second centre? Here is a chiropractor, dabbling in bits of neuroscience, chemistry, physics, and god knows what else, to reveal a “new quantum model.” It’s a bit like alchemy – boring, base sciences, transformed into cosmic truths that make you rich. Unfortunately, after watching the video, I was still penniless, so I guess the universe must be against me. 

It’s easy to laugh at this stuff, but it’s not just comedic; it’s also pernicious. Not only because it’s theft and deception – stealing bits and pieces from qualified scientists and pretending to be something that it isn’t – but because these people make a lot of money out of selling lies to vulnerable people. Based on the science behind the placebo, Dr Joe says that the chemicals in our brain can create “our own pharmacy” of curative drugs; Stacie Chevrier, author of the 2007 bestseller The Secret, which really kicked off the manifesting trend, wrote a 2016 article called ‘Defeating Cancer Using the Law of Attraction’. Telling desperate people with terminal illnesses that all they have to do is think hard enough about a future they may never see seems like a cruel trick to me. 

Thinking positively, focusing on the future instead of dwelling on the past, meditating, finding inner peace, having belief, having hope, having fun: all of this is to the good. But capitalising on it all? Telling young people, sick people, people in debt, people without a future that all they need to do is think positive thoughts? That just promotes apathy, doubt, guilt, and blame. It keeps people where they are, it encourages disenfranchisement and calls it empowerment. It’s worse than a joke – it’s damaging and it needs to be called out. So I’m manifesting an end to manifesting – but knowing how the universe feels about me, that’s not a future we’re likely to see anytime soon. 

1 Comment

  • 004delaney4676 says:

    100% agreed! Two days ago I lost a friend to cancer who had been a devotee of Dispenza for years. She fervently believed that she could cure her cancer by following Joe Dispenza’s teachings, and actually died on her way to his most recent event in Nashville..

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