Good Vibes Only™
Thoughts on the Manifestation Industrial Complex
I’ve been watching WeCrashed, a new Apple TV series charting the astronomic rise and fall of WeWork–the inescapable global coworking space which, at one point in its trajectory, held a valuation of $47 billion. Much of the plotline focuses on the relationship between the company’s founders Adam Neumann and his wife Rebekah Paltrow Neumann, whose narcissistic personalities and codependent marriage dynamic make for compulsive, if nauseating, viewing.
Rebekah - played to neurotic perfection by Anne Hathaway - is an actor-turned-yoga teacher-turned-branding director (and yes, real life cousin of GP) from considerable familial wealth. She insists that WeWork is a company with a mission to “elevate the world’s consciousness” while ruthlessly firing employees on the basis of their “bad energy”. Before WeWork has even opened its first location, she encourages Neumann to ‘manifest’ a valuation of $45 million; later we see her attempt to placate employees who are angered by her public declaration that “a big part of being a woman is to help men [like Adam] manifest their calling in life.”
Watching Hathway deliver these lines helped to crystallise some of my uneasy feelings about the way that manifestation has come to be (mis)understood in contemporary culture. While the concept of universal energy has its roots in the most ancient of eastern traditions, the co-option of these principles as a framework for modern success has come to feel more like writing a shopping list for life than developing a genuine spiritual practice. It’s the Protestant Work Ethic for Millennials. Girlboss in sustainable clothing. The latest in a long line of belief systems that encourage people to see a lack of society-defined ‘success’ as the result of personal failure.
The application of pseudo-spiritual strategies in the pursuit of individual prosperity is nothing new. Author and historian Kate Bowler has talked extensively about how the entire genre of self-help grew “…out of the rise of cities, rise of income inequality, people started selling these cheap self-help books on street corners that tried to explain why some people rose and other people fell. There's different versions, but all of them have the same belief in a rabid individualism.” The metaphysical ideas on which these books were based, Bowler explains, “formed some of the primary assumptions of what we call the American Dream.”
The core of this belief system is in the power of the mind as “the most important spiritual generator.” According to the rules of modern manifestation, the only thing standing between you and the seven-figure salary/sun-drenched holiday home/vintage convertible is your ability (or lack thereof) to channel your own mental energy towards its acquisition. This is the notion that guides Rebekah Neumann throughout the inception of WeWork; one that conveniently overlooks factors such as the $1 million cheque her father hands her on her wedding day, which is later used to fund the company’s first-ever location.
Let me state here that I am not refuting the benefits of channeling positive mental energy in the direction of your personal goals (if your Dad isn’t handing you a million-dollar cheque, how else are you supposed to do it?) Nor am I sneering at an aspiration for material wealth in the first place (we live in a Capitalist society, so ditto). What troubles me about the Good Vibes Only Gospel - the language of which has become almost as ubiquitous as its pseudo-psychotherapeutic counterpart, Therapy-Speak - is that it conflates spiritual progess with finanical prosperity, and overlooks the role that systemic injustice plays in blocking so many millions of people from ‘manifesting’ their own dream lives.
Both on the show and in real life, Adam Neumann has spoken about his vision to create a co-work space that channelled the communal spirit of the kibbutz where he was raised. The irony of WeCrashed is that Neumann ultimately sabotages his own efforts to build a business based on true community, simply by refusing to acknowledge his individual fallibility. The idea that “Everything you need is already inside of you” might feel uplifting on first read, but it overlooks the perennial truth that Bowler notes (and WeWork exists to confirm), which is that:
“…Most of what you need is going to be outside of you. It’s structural justice and a community that holds you, and coming to terms with your own limitations and frailties. But you can't sell that.”
Kate Bowler - Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel