"Every way of knowing creates a way of being."~ Parker Palmer
When I was about nine or ten years old, I decided I wanted to be an escape artist, to be world famous and to kill myself on my 30th birthday, because I would have done it all and seen it all by then. And after all, who wants to be older than thirty...
Less than one month before my twenty-ninth birthday, I contracted encephalitis and spinal meningitis, and nearly died before reaching 30. Thus was my most potent lesson in the Law of Attraction: our power to create our reality.
In our culture, reality is held to exist "out there," a single, concrete world, waiting to be discovered apart from our individual biases and subjectivity. This position is called "Objectivism."1 We are taught that reality exists independent and apart from us, and we must react and adapt to it, or be crushed beneath its impersonal wheels.
The emerging field of social cognitive science has shown this to be a false conclusion - there are as many interpretations of reality as there are selves to perceive "reality," and none of them are completely unbiased or free from subjectivity.
Every worldview is a reflection of the individual who believes in it. Belief creates reality.
We all filter our experience of "reality" through our own belief systems, and then interpret our experiences by their light. This is often know as the Law of Attraction or the Power of Intention. My unexamined childhood belief that there was no point in living past thirty nearly did me in. Luckily for me, I was able to recognize the errors of my ageist ways, and applied the same determination and reality creation mechanism to make what my doctors called a "remarkable" recovery, which included learning how to talk and walk again.
Each individual exhibits different 'selves' in different environments.2 We are a very different self when we are with our parents than we are with our best friend. When I am in a 'good mood,' all things seem to conspire to enhance my day, but when I am in a 'bad mood,' it seems the world has arrayed itself for the utmost annoyance. Which is true? Both? Neither?
Is the world truly out to help and nurture me? To thwart and limit me?
Or is the world itself totally apart and distinct from my interpretation of it?
We never can really know what reality is "out there" without reference to our own subjective experiences and biases - our own self and beliefs. Without our subjective biases and beliefs, we have no criteria or framework with which to evaluate or understand the raw data of experience. What we believe about reality and ourselves determines and colors what we perceive "out there" as reality, as our beliefs filter our knowing into pre-established forms and patterns.
We cannot know that which we have no concept for; without a pre-existing framework with which to recognize new experiences, then raw sense data remains just that - raw and unknown. And our belief in an "objective" reality further alienates us from our deeper selves and our communities, as attempts to remove personal bias and 'political incorrectness,' to 'fit in' in a world not of our making or choosing.
This splinters our awareness as the supposedly 'objective' individuals, we try to divorce ourselves from our unwanted negative feelings and interpretations in order to play the game and 'get along' in a cold-hearted system, which cannot acknowledge our uniqueness. This further contributes to the growth of the unconscious shadow, as unwanted feelings and thoughts, generated by unexamined beliefs, are repressed and rejected. As the shadow grows in potency, fed by this negative psychic energy, the risk of its eruption into and overwhelming of the conscious mind grows in the dark, unexamined corners of the unconscious.
At this point, I would like to introduce the term Epistemic Responsibility, by which I mean taking responsibility for all of the consequences of an individual's beliefs. Epistemology is the study of what we know and believe. So Epistemic Responsibility is taking responsibility for the reality you have created through your beliefs and interpretations of events.
'Reality' as we experience it, is a product of interpretation. How we interpret our world is totally dependent upon our beliefs, assuming that we all possess a radically free will, in that we are free to choose what we believe. And our beliefs become the filters through which we interpret which realities we experience.
All beliefs create outcomes, whether acknowledged or not, intended or not, foreseen or not. True maturity and participation occurs when we recognize this and take seriously the choosing of which beliefs to which we subscribe. When we take conscious responsibility for all of the consequences of our beliefs, conscious and unconscious, intended or not, we become epistemically responsible.
Epistemic responsibility can be expressed in a whole range of degrees, from the totally unaware but self-involved individual (such as your garden variety party-obsessed teenager or redneck)at the low end to the fully mature and Self-actuated individual who accepts total responsibility not only for their own belief outcomes, but who actively works to help others recognize and husband their own self-beliefs (such as a Christ or Buddha, paragons of epistemic responsibility).
Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum, sometimes consciously aware of our beliefs, values and choices, yet at other times blissfully unaware of our deeper motivations and goals. When we are unaware of or do not acknowledge how our beliefs shape our experiences, we are at their mercy, and are powerless to exercise our full range of choice. We become controlled and limited by unconscious belief systems that hijack our emotions and perceptions as we relinquish our capacity for rational choice. These belief systems were developed in our past to help us cope with some life challenge. But often, when we don't periodically review and revise our beliefs, many of these beliefs structures can be outdated, mistaken or inadequate. These beliefs can inspire inappropriate responses in the present, because they are attempting to compensate for some lack in the past. Epistemic responsibility requires periodic review and frequent tweaking.
Belief systems are always connected with strategies to avoid things that were painful in our past. But what was a good compensating strategy in childhood or at puberty is seldom effective in adulthood. Hence, the need for periodic review and revisions of our beliefs is not only helpful to our health and well-being, but is absolutely liberating as old limiting beliefs are released and transformed.
Epistemic Responsibility states that we can and must observe, analyze and consciously choose which beliefs we want to guide our lives. Current research in social cognitive science supports this view, pointing to how our beliefs attract the very reality we expect to experience (AKA the much-discussed Law of Attraction). To not take on this responsibility is to refuse to claim humanity's greatest gift - the gift of full and vibrant spiritual maturity.
Epistemic responsibility carries a strong indictment of 'spin,' bullshit, hypocrisy and deliberate lying to gain one's own ends3, as this indicative of an imbalanced belief system that holds that the hypocrite, liar or spinner's goals and intentions somehow trump the value of the truth and the autonomy of others, a wide-reaching charge in a world saturated in advertising and polarized agendas. This idea has broad implications for ethics in general.
We all have countless beliefs, many of them contradictory and conflicting, while some beliefs are just downright self-destructive. Usually, we only reflect upon our beliefs in times of crisis - when, for whatever reason, our beliefs have failed us.
Rarely do we reflect upon the beliefs by which we steer through the seas of life without being forced to such reflection by pain and dire need. Any scion of bureaucracy will recognize this as crisis management - notoriously the worst style of management in terms of both efficiency and efficacy. When our lives flow smoothly, we have no pressing need to review our belief systems for inconsistencies and out-moded beliefs, so very few people bother to put forth the focused effort to examine the cohesiveness and efficacy of their beliefs. Mid-life crises, traumas and life-threatening illness are the most popular occasions for a subjective epistemic review and revisions, forcing us to re-visit past decisions and events in a new perspective.
When we do re-evaluate our beliefs under the pressure of the crisis du jour, we often make hasty assumptions and judgments that we must later correct. Everyone knows that decisions made under stress and duress are of notoriously poor quality, yet this is the preferred method of personal and collective belief management espoused by our culture.
The accumulated result of thousands of years of this approach is record levels of stress and stress-related illnesses, as well as a cultural cycle of escalation of rhetoric in almost every sphere of life, as knee-jerk and extreme reactions become the order of the day. Time, energy and resources are wasted in useless over-reaction in the personal daily lives of individuals as well as at all levels of social and political interaction.
The true subject of self-knowledge is beliefs about the self, because this determines and limits our capacities. When I don't know who I am, I don't know what I believe, and so I will change my beliefs to suit the needs of the moment without considering the implications or long-term repercussions. And if I don't know what to believe, then I don't know how to be in the world or how to relate to others. If I do not know these things, then any talents and skills I may have will be greatly undermined, as will my self-esteem.4 Without the full benefit of my talents, skills or self-esteem, it is very difficult to be happy, much less to defend myself against the assault of peer pressure and media generated values. I will acquiesce to whatever sounds good, destroying integrity and self-esteem as I re-make myself to try to fit in and be happy. But I won't really know how to be happy, as I won't know what is appropriate for me and what is wrong for me. So I will accept the decrees of media experts and advertisers, in the hopes that they know me better than I know myself.
Many Americans work long hours, estranging themselves from their families, or bankrupt themselves with over-extended credit, trying to buy the confidence and happiness they feel lacking in their lives by purchasing the latest product, getting another procedure or buying the biggest sport-utility vehicle, or through that most particularly post-modern form of personal relationships: serial monogamy, in which one dysfunctional relationship is replaced by another once the old one becomes too painful or complicated. The current economic recession has made things even worse, as we struggle just to make ends meet.
The most common motivator in life is fear. We get and stay in unsatisfying jobs out of fear. We stay stuck in abusive relationships and situations because of fear. We are afraid because we believe that we can't handle life without that person, that title, that salary, that property.... We are afraid that we are not "enough" to deal with the challenges of life on our own terms because we don't know who we are, so we don't know what our capacities or terms are. A belief in helplessness and victimization limits our awareness and capacity to respond to situations and relations.5
When obsessed with the crisis management of one's own life's dramas, things like citizen participation in government and community involvement seem very distant and insignificant, as civic participation carries a high price of personal investment of time and attention. Yet, it is only on the foundation of citizen participation and community involvement that democracy thrives. The threat to democracy arises when a significant percentage of the population falls prey to this growing malaise.
I argue that it needn't be that way - if we aspire to more efficacy and efficiency in commerce and government, how much more should we aspire to in the psychic management of our personal lives? And if it possible to teach the skills required, then it is incumbent upon us to learn these skills and pass on them on to our students, especially in public education, as a matter of public mental hygiene. Current research has shown that the more self-knowledge an individual acquires, the more stability, empathy and integrated a self-concept is developed.6
Unlike other creatures in the animal kingdom, humans do not rely heavily upon instinct for clues how to interact and be in the world. We receive this social knowledge from the family and culture into which we are born, and that knowledge can vary widely in many ways. The 'everyday reality' that we live, move and have our being in is socially derived. Sociologists note the plasticity of human nature that allows for such diversity as is found in the multitude of cultures around the world. Humans can believe and adapt to almost anything.7 This human capacity for adaptability has kept us alive as a species throughout the millennia in an amazing range of conditions and environments.
Problems with this system of handing on family and cultural beliefs can originate when the belief systems handed down through the ages by family and culture are mistaken, outdated or miscommunicated.
But conflicting beliefs can cause the worst fracturing and splintering of the individual, sparking identity crisis and possible debility, as the individual struggles with divided loyalties (consciously or not). The beliefs we pick up "on the street" in our life experience may conflict with the belief system we accepted as children, or we may be forced by circumstances to do something we feel is morally wrong, but cannot avoid doing, either through duress or weakness. The persona we embody at work may violate our deepest values, but we may have another set of beliefs that plays upon our fears of invasion, exclusion and poverty, that urges us to continue to act in conflict with our values "or else."
We may not realize there is even a conflict until we have played out the whole script dictated by the contending beliefs. Often, it is only after the beliefs have run out of gas do we look back as we pick up the pieces and see how our beliefs precipitated our experiences (especially those insidious beliefs that we hide from ourselves). Beliefs about the self tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies - "as you believe, so shall you do."8 But seventy to ninety percent of our beliefs about ourselves are unconscious, and therefore beyond our control until we actually take the time to examine them.9
Only in retrospect do we come to understand how we have hidden our true beliefs from our conscious mind, yet enacted them inerrantly nonetheless. Indeed, much of the stuff of which soap opera and contemporary life are comprised comes from exactly these kinds of belief conflicts, both on the individual level and at the cultural level - a failure of taking epistemic responsibility.
Yet, many conflicts can be resolved merely through the conscious recognition that we hold certain beliefs that conflict, and through the conscious selection of which beliefs we choose to enact in our lives - by taking epistemic responsibility for the reality we have created through our beliefs and the choices that followed.
Both contemporary psychological research and the ancient wisdom of many cultures teach us that we can access our beliefs and belief systems from a meta-level, examine and weigh which beliefs we will continue to endorse and subscribe to and which beliefs require extinction, the goal always being greater integration and functioning of the self.
As current research in the field of Social Cognitive science shows (and the ancient knowledge has always known), some beliefs - especially those regarding the self - have demonstrably predictable results. In other words, some beliefs about the self and the individual's place in the world are empirically proven to be more beneficial to the overall health, well-being and effectiveness of individuals, and other beliefs has been empirically proven to be more erosive to the individual's health, well-being and effectiveness.
In essence, this research tells us that the greater the degree of integrity and self-knowledge (the more epistemically responsible), the better adjusted and happy the individual - the more self-examination of beliefs that an individual does, the better for their own selves and for the relationships with the other lives they touch, spreading out into the community and society at large.12 The more epistemic responsibility they have claimed, the more effective they are in creating the kind of reality they find appealing (Law of Attraction).
If we seriously mean to equip ourselves with the means to live healthy and happy lives, then shouldn't we utilize the benefits of this science? How is it that we spend countless money and time to educate ourselves and our children, with the intention of preparing to take our place in the world, without ever being taught how to get along with ourselves, much less get along with others?
I contend that it is incumbent upon us to utilize the knowledge already present within each of us, as well as that discovered by current scientific research, to develop more beneficial beliefs about our selves and our place in the world, to become fluent in epistemic responsibility.
What is worse about this chronic human condition is the observation that most of this type of behavior is entirely unconscious. No one can force anyone to believe anything - that is the primary principle of Epistemic Responsibility - radical free will.13 Each individual, regardless of circumstances or status, has complete control over their own interpretation of their own experiences. No belief can ever be imposed, even under duress. All beliefs must be subjectively accepted in order to be activated in the psyche. Acceptance of beliefs can be bribed, evoked, seduced, mistaken or ill-founded, but it can never be forced against an individual's will. Within our own psyches, we are absolute despots, and we rule our little kingdoms accordingly, for our own and others' good or ill.
Do not confuse this inner freedom with individualism or subjectivism.
Individualism is a basic value in our culture, spurring the invention and innovation for which this nation is famous. However, there is a dark side to individualism as well, for along with the rise of individualism experienced in the West in the last five hundred years, we have also experienced a sense of loss of meaning, often manifested as a nostalgic looking back to a past perceived to be superior to the current experience of alienation and corruption - "the good old days...."
All of the currently wide-held belief systems in the world evolved in isolated indigenous cultures, in which other cultures were seen as primarily enemies and rivals in rural and agricultural contexts, and not as neighbors to be tolerated and included. With the rise of globalization and multiculturalism, these provincial and traditional ways of approaching the world are sorely threatened, as all the old social boundaries are cracking under the pressures of social relativism.15
Philosopher Charles Taylor identifies three "malaises of modernity": the first is the aforementioned loss of meaning and moral horizon. While modernity has had many major achievements, such as quantum leaps in travel, communication and medicine, individualism is a source of anxiety, as well as gratification. Although the individual is freed from many past constraints of an inherited social status and family profession, we have lost our traditional moral horizons. These moral horizons delineated the old ways of making sense of meaning beyond the purposes of any particular individual.16 The loss of these traditional horizons meant the loss of a larger context in life. Isolated individuals cannot generate this larger context; it must be created by the combined efforts of groups, communities and cultures.
As a result of this loss of moral horizon, the individual is sometimes held to be the sole author of the values that generate self-beliefs through acts of volition. This view holds that the act of choosing is what imparts value, as it is believed there is no meaning beyond that affirmed by the individual. Taylor holds that this type of individualism drains the world of meaning.
In seeking to be above subjectivity, science has contributed to this split in its pursuit of an objective reality, creating a mechanistic worldview that traditionally has excluded any expressions of larger purpose. This gives rise to Taylor's second "malaise of modernity," the rise of instrumental reasoning, in which circumstances are manipulated to fulfill desires. Under this view, science is believed to be valuable for the sake of control and profit, and not for any enlightenment or moral force it may bring to bear on human life.
The primacy of instrumental reasoning puts major emphasis on statistics and outputs, both in institutions and in thought. In our capitalistic culture, market phenomena are often the ultimate determinate of policy. Market functions are used as the justification of decision once unthinkable throughout the Western culture, especially now in the United States, during "the Great Recession."
Some Americans see their government as serving the role of protector of the market economy. But many a political regime has fallen due to failed economic strategies. Along with economic forces, technology dominates our culture as our "magic bullet" to solve all problems that arise.17 But we are still in need of critical evaluation of the relative benefits of technology. We have yet to delineate its limits and how best to use it, we have not yet claimed epistemic responsibility for the outcomes of our scientific developments. Moral issues about topics once considered science fiction, such as cloning and genetic engineering, are increasingly being decided by in the stock market, as well as our nation's courts and legislatures.
How can we be sure that the market will make the wisest choices for humanity's best interest? Both systems theory and meme theory hold that once a system is set in motion, its primary goal becomes the continuation and growth of the system, not the goals for which the system (or bureaucracy) was originally created, which then are demoted to secondary goals.18
The third of Taylor's "malaises" is the threat to our freedom and democracy when citizens only focus on themselves and blot out the rest of the world. This leads to shrinkage of interest in democratic processes and participation in the world at large. In a post 9/11 world, we can see that this cultural self-absorption has serious implications for our national security, and comes with a high cost. Democracy requires a high investment in participation, but if only special interest groups can be bothered to show up for town meetings, primaries and caucuses, if only committed partisans run for public office, then our democracy is in jeopardy. If we do not claim epistemic responsibility for the effects of our beliefs about both government and scientific developments, somebody else will be more than happy to fill in that power vacuum. And we might not agree with their priorities and methods.
If I am not alive to the wellsprings of my own culture and selfhood, then I will be tempted to think that my participation is unimportant and that my own amusements and dramas are more critical and gratifying. I might even be tempted to think that my own epistemic responsibility consists only in my own personal desires, and has no bearing on the world at large, even though I am unwittingly creating it with every thought and choice.
This opens the door for the fulfillment of Tocqueville's prediction of 'soft despotism' setting in, that is, the degeneration of meaning and participation in self-government, as everything is run by the big machines of government and industry, with little citizen control.19 While the government may seem democratic and moderate, perhaps even responsive, it is still a form of tyranny if the people are isolated from the forces that govern their lives.20
As the old traditions face growing challenges, fundamentalism, extremism and terrorism emerge as a knee-jerk protective response. In a world of seven billion, such cultural responses are maladaptive and require readjustment. It stems from a polarized belief system of "us versus them," handed down through the ages. Any form of exclusivism, individual or cultural, originates from a fear of limited resources and not getting enough.
On the subjective level, almost all individuals hold unexamined maladaptive beliefs that lurk below the level of consciousness, an identity time bomb waiting for the right moment to explode open the self-beliefs. These beliefs may have once been adaptive in a particular situation, but have outlived their usefulness, have been taken out of context or have become twisted and compulsive.
Good contemporary examples of this phenomenon are: the parochial school lesson that all sex is dirty, that, in adulthood, prevents the individual from enjoying a healthy sex and family life; or the chubby child who becomes the bulimic young adult because they equate food with comfort and confuse thinness with their ability to be loved. All of these cry out for the remedies of epistemic responsibility.
Throughout the ages, self-beliefs were shaped within the cultural contexts of family, religion and personal experience, and the achievements of the ancients attest to the efficacy of this natural evolution of the self-beliefs.
But, as the above commonplace examples show, this method of self development is not without flaws. Low social status and poverty, physical imperfections or not being a member of the privileged caste are well-known psychological origins of low self-esteem, depression, substance abuse and crime. Humans as well as animals have their pecking orders. Unwanted and neglected children grow up to commit crimes, seeking the attention denied them in childhood.21 Most of social and personal histories turn on the interacting influences of such unexamined beliefs playing out their inexorable conclusions.
What was true throughout history is doubly true now, with the rise of multiculturalism and the disappearance of the middle class. Now, we get our beliefs from the media as much or more than from the traditional sources of family, religion and personal experience. Often, we replace our own beliefs with the words of media "experts," media darlings and ideologues whom we have never met or spoken with personally and who have no knowledge of our personal existence, much less our situation, without our considering whether or not the expert's advice is suitable for us personally. Peer pressure keeps us from expressing our true natures, as we fear ridicule and ostracizing.
If you go to a kindergarten class and ask, "How many of you are dancers?" the whole class would respond affirmative. But if you put the same question to a group of sixth grade children, you will get only a few respondents whose parents happen to send them to dance classes. If you ask the same question of a group of college age students, only those few serious students of professional dance would dare to call themselves "dancers." We come to define ourselves as we think others see us, often diminishing our potentials and capacities as we see ourselves through increasingly narrowing lenses.
As a culture, we have forgotten how to evaluate and choose for ourselves what we want to believe. Instead, we substitute media images for heroes and role models, attracted to the appearance of perfection, but we eagerly devour gossip of our role models downfall, fueling a kind of cynicism that holds heroes in such low esteem that we dub anyone who has provided a professional service or survived a trauma to be a hero. As the pedestals of our role models and heroes hit the ground, we see that they, too, are all too human and their vaunted ideologies are mere utopian fantasies.
If "nice guys finish last," then it is foolish to adhere to the traditional values of honesty and humility. So, where are we to turn for a model of human integration and potential?
We can and do choose what we believe in everyday. We do it whether we are aware of doing it or not. We are doing it all the time, whether we choose our beliefs wisely or whether we are deplorable at managing our belief systems.
"If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice," says the old Rush song. We cannot avoid choosing our beliefs.
With Epistemic Responsibility, I am advocating a more conscious approach to the whole choosing procedure, which usually is only done in times of crisis. What I am proposing does not contradict any of the major world religions - in fact, in my opinion, it rather fulfills and deepens existing faith without imposing dogmas or doctrine.
The heart of what I am advocating is the conscious examination and choosing of beliefs about the self utilizing scientifically proven techniques to shed erosive self-beliefs.
Most Law of Attraction teachers focus on the creation of new beliefs, which is good and necessary. But it is not sufficient to create the reality you desire. Through the periodic review of existing beliefs required by epistemic responsibility, you can weed out those beliefs that undermine and cancel out any new beliefs you are seeking to install. The unhelpful and destructive beliefs must be eliminated before true progress can be made in positive beliefs. As stated above - No one can force another to believe what they don't want to believe in. Even if our bodies are enslaved and imprisoned, our minds are still our own. But very few people ever stop to consciously consider and choose what they believe about themselves, even after they have accumulated experience that proves their self-beliefs to be insufficient or even debilitating.
Everyone past a certain age has at least one story of self-sabotage due to fear or lack of faith in oneself, even those deemed highly successful by society's standards. If we are lucky, some of us may accumulate enough such wisdom in middle or old age to see past such fears and insecurities and to go after the lost opportunities, such as taking up a musical instrument for fun in middle age, going back to college and completing an unfinished degree after retirement or jumping out of airplanes at the age of eighty. But if there are any means of ameliorating the suffering and wasted potential of self-ignorance at an earlier age, isn't it our moral obligation to learn and disseminate this knowledge of epistemic responsibility?
There are many social and political implications tied up in this is well, for how high is the quality of our electorate if the masses of Americans are too caught up in avoidable subjective psycho-dramas to actively participate in their communities and nation? How objective and well-considered are the decisions of an electorate and congress fueled by greed, adrenaline and fear, governed by personal crisis management techniques? How engaged can the chronically depressed be? On a socio-economic level, the loss of potential creativity and productivity to depression and neurosis in this nation is staggering to consider.
Therefore, I argue that it is in everyone's best interest to educate the ourselves and our children in self-beliefs in general and the techniques of epistemic responsibility to choose and implement beneficial self-beliefs in the place of destructive and uncoordinated self-beliefs.
3 Harry Frankfurt differentiates between bullshit and lying. Bullshit occurs when individuals are called upon to discuss subjects they know little about, not necessarily with malicious intent, while lying is the deliberate deception of others for self gain. (Frankfurt, p. 6 - 13)
20 Taylor identifies a vicious circle of political helplessness: "... for the more fragmented a democratic electorate is in this sense, the more they transfer their political energies to promoting their partial groupings... and the less possible it is to mobilize democratic majorities around commonly understood programs and policies. A sense grows that the electorate as a whole is defenseless against the leviathan state; a well-organized and integrated partial grouping may, indeed, be able to make a dent, but the idea that the majority of people might frame and carry through a common project comes to seem utopian and naive. And so people give up. Already failing sympathy with others is further weakened by the lack of a common experience of action, and a sense of hopelessness makes it seem a waste of time to try." (Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, p. 113)
21In a controversial finding, economist Steven J. Levitt claims that the dramatic drop in crime rates in the mid-1990s was the result of the absence of a whole generation of unwanted babies, with the advent of legalized abortion. Levitt and Dubner, p. 139
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Taking Charge of Your Beliefs
Epistemology and Skepticism
What We Can and Cannot Know about Absolute Reality
Law of Attraction
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Taking Charge of Your Beliefs
Epistemology and Skepticism
What We Can and Cannot Know about Absolute Reality
Law of Attraction