Of all the rackets which currently smother our addled American republic, there is probably nothing more damaging than the billion dollar industry of self-help. The problem with the self-help industry is very simple: you've got to get all that self-help from somebody else. How did us Americans ever acquire the delusion that shelling out money to the other guy for books or seminars or workshops or retreats is self-help? How can it be self-help, when you have to keep going back time and again for more and more, and the only thing you end up with is a dent in your Master Card? Dare one suggest that the self-help industry is just another snake oil money-making racket, designed to drain you of your pocketbook resources more effectively than any shrink who lures you into his office and starts quoting Freud?
Well, never mind about the scams. The idea of self-help is a good one, and when it is actually you who is doing the helping, you can definitely improve your life. But I am talking about helping yourself in the old-fashioned way: when you acknowledge your weaknesses, recognize your mistakes, and then try to do something about them. This is the kind of help which requires self-awareness, self-discipline, self-reliance, and--most of all--daily effort. True, meaningful change only comes gradually. But if you are able to commit yourself to some kind of genuine discipline, you will definitely change your life for the better.
Which brings me to Charles Godfrey Leland's all-but-forgotten treatise on The Mystic Will. Leland was a late 19th century folklorist and researcher, with a huge number of titles to his credit, quite a few of which are still in print. He was a man of extraordinarily varied interests and apparently lived a full, happy, and successful life. All his books make for interesting reading, but none of them contain the life-changing secret to be found in The Mystic Will. Indeed, as far as I'm concerned, this book contains the one and only self-help technique you will ever need in your life. If there is anything you want to change about yourself, if there is any skill you want to develop, this book will show you how to do it. And yes, I know that here I'm recommending that you go to someone else for some self-help, but at least in this case the price is right.
So what is Leland's secret? Simple. Leland was an early believer in the idea of autosuggestion or the kind of positive message you can repeat to yourself to change your life for the better. In this he was a precursor of Emile Coué, Louise Hay, and Shakti Gawain, not to mention all those other New Age gurus running around today who want you to start saying nice, encouraging things to yourself. So what's the big deal? We've been hearing about the benefits of affirmations since the 1920's, when Coué got people to constantly tell themselves that every and in every way they were getting better and better... What makes Leland's ideas different?
Simple. Leland discovered an additional psychological trick which makes your autosuggestions actually work. The trick is very simple: instead of repeating your affirmations during your normal waking consciousness, you start reciting them to yourself just before you go to sleep. In other words, when your brain goes into a state of hypnagogia. This is an altered state of consciousness which occurs when you start falling asleep and your brain begins to generate theta waves. Hypnagogia can be characterized by mild hallucinations, either audio or visual (I usually start seeing strange human beings or animals when I'm about to fall asleep). Most people don't quite realize that this altered state always occurs whenever they shift out of their waking consciousness. But it happens to everyone, and it is an altered stated which we can take advantage of, since it is the one and only time in our lives when we can deliberately connect with our subconsciousness.
The hypnagogic state is a psychic twilight state. I have written about the importance of real twilight elsewhere, but here I need to mention the importance of psychic twilights. These kind of transitional states can be profoundly effective in bringing about change within your being. When you come to a threshold between two different kinds of consciousness, such as the moment between waking and sleeping or the moment between inhalation and exhalation, you are at a point of powerful intensity. Once you learn to recognize these moments and take advantage of them, you can change much about your life, including curing bad habits, increasing your energy, strengthening your powers of observation, and so on..
It has often been noted that very creative and imaginative people frequently find their inspiration right when they are about to fall asleep. I have read that whenever Thomas Edison was puzzling over an intractable problem, he would put a metal ball in one of his hands and then take a nap. As he fell asleep the ball would fall onto the floor, at which moment he would be jolted back awake. And then he would have his solution. It had come to him when he had gone into hypnagogia, and by suddenly awakening he could remember it and use it.
The author of the Vijnana Bhairava was very much aware of the importance of this kind of psychic twilight. Dharana 50 reads: "At the point of sleep when sleep has not yet come and external wakefulness vanishes, at this point being is revealed." In other words, the hypnagogic state is not just good for affirmations or connecting with your subconsciousness--it can also give you some kind of insight into the bedrock nature of reality itself. All you have to do is make the effort to pay attention.
Leland doesn't use the term hypnagogia in his text, but he is obviously describing this particular psychological state. I have learned that it's not the easiest thing in the world to start reciting affirmations to yourself when you do go hypnagogic, since the state never lasts very long. However, with practice, you can learn how to make the most of those few moments you always have before you lose your waking consciousness.
My favorite affirmation at the moment goes like this: "Every day in every way I am growing more and more serene." It is obviously based on Coué's more celebrated "Every day in every way I am getting better and better," which strikes me as a perfect recipe for vainglorious spiritual materialism--and all the poisonous hubris contained therein. On the other hand, aiming at increasing serenity in your life strikes me as a much more humane, sensible, and worthwhile goal.