Manifestation is a sparkling concept that we all want to believe in. It suggests that anyone can have anything they want in life if they simply change their mindset. The concept that positive thoughts can usher in good fortune is neither novel nor new; in fact, it has been shared by ministers and mystics for hundreds of years and is continuously circulated in the public sphere by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins, and even Donald Trump. That manifestation imparts itself so strongly into mainstream spirituality seems harmless. After all, it’s helpful and important to be clear about the kind of life we desire because that clarity shapes our values, decisions, and relationships to all things material, including money. However, there’s a troubling trend arising around manifestation: Self-appointed spiritual leaders are commodifying the practice on Instagram—and eluding accountability.
Take influencer Kathrin Zenkina, for example. She claims that her manifestation-focused courses, such as the $1,998 Rich Babe Academy, help people achieve their “impossible” dreams by overcoming their limiting beliefs around money to stop self-sabotaging themselves and achieve wealth. As she shared in an October 2020 reel with her 189,000 Instagram followers (champagne and Louis Vuitton bag in close reach): “In 2016, I started my business with $25,000 in debt and living on my grandma’s couch. All I had at that time [sic] was a VISION & belief that my dream life was possible. Since then my biz has made over $6 million and every single thing I have imagined has come true. Back then I could barely afford a plane ticket. Now I’m sleeping in first class. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF BABE. You’re seconds away from a breakthrough.”
Zenkina regularly implies that her techniques can help anyone extract millions of dollars from thin air, and she’s not alone. Lauren Eliz Love, who sells the Six Figure Biz Babe course, recently explained how she created her multimillion-dollar brand, Business Babe: “Over the last four years I’ve gone from $60,000-plus in consumer debt, unable to afford a pair of leggings at Target, to now running a million-dollar business that allows me to own two homes, buy my dream car, and create passive revenue of more than $50,000 per month.” Both women strategically share their rags-to-riches stories to garner trust in audiences. They also highlight their lavish lifestyles to remind spiritual seekers that there’s no limit to the financial abundance one can manifest, and in doing so, they echo the narrative that underpins all manifestation teachings: Monetary abundance equals worth. Manifestation influencers like to say that the only thing standing between a person and their dreams is mindset, but this principle only works for the select few who already hold the right cards. It can’t be applied universally because there are too many other forces at play: white supremacy, misogyny, and poverty all present obstacles so large that thinking prosperity into being is laughable at best.
There is nothing (aside from being millionaires) that makes Zenkina and Love qualified to sell the promise of a better life. It’s easy for people like them to step into roles of spiritual leadership on Instagram because, now more than ever, millennials in particular want something meaningful to believe in outside traditional institutions. According to the Pew Research Center, 20 percent of adults in the United states are unaffiliated with a religion. Yet within this group, more than one-third of individuals consider themselves spiritual but not religious, and two-thirds believe in God. “When they say they are not looking for a faith community, millennials might mean they are not interested in belonging to an institution with religious creed as the threshold,” according to Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, authors of a Sacred Design Lab report on modern spirituality titled “How We Gather.” “However, they are decidedly looking for spirituality and community in combination, and feel they can’t lead a meaningful life without it.” It’s also true that those searching for meaning are doing so in more social, public realms, Dr. Kieran Flanagan and Rev. Peter C. Jupp wrote in their 2009 book A Sociology of Spirituality. When people reject the dogma of religious institutions but also seek a churchlike community, they may be seeking that kind of community on social media, a space where most of us already spend a significant amount of time.
But how did manifestation become the primary gospel of social media’s spirituality boom? It can be traced back to The Secret, the 2006 film by Australian filmmaker Rhona Byrne. The movie demonstrates the concept of manifestation through interviews with more than a dozen well-known spiritual teachers and success coaches, including Esther Hicks, who has claimed to channel manifestation principles from the “infinite source,” which she calls Abraham, since the late ’80s. Jack Canfield, author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, also appears in the film, along with James Arthur Ray, the self-help expert–turned–felon who was convicted of negligent homicide after three people died at his spiritual retreat in 2009. The Secret received acclaim from the beginning: The DVD grossed $66 million and its companion book topped the New York Times Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous best sellers list. The Secret ascribes magnetic power to human thoughts: By focusing on the things we want, we can match our own frequency with that of the universe (the ideal circumstance for attracting our desires).
This discussion of energy, magnetism, and the human brain is seen by many as pseudoscientific. Other skeptics note that it’s simply impossible for everyone to get what they want. For instance, what if everyone started visualizing winning the lottery? My first encounter with manifestation was The Secret, just like many other millennials seeking answers outside of organized religion. Enamored with the idea that my thoughts could change my reality, I embarked on a spiritual quest that culminated with a monthlong 300-hour yoga-teacher training in Florida, where I was exposed to a wealth of practical knowledge, like anatomy and pose alignment, along with modern spiritual teachings, like manifestation. We spent each morning reading a page from a book titled The Magic, one of Byrne’s The Secret spinoffs, which uses daily gratitude exercises as a tool for manifesting abundance. Byrne starts Day 5 in the 28-day guidebook with a simple explanation of financial hardship: “If there’s a lack of money in your life, understand that feeling worried, envious, jealous, disappointed, discouraged, doubtful, or fearful about money can never bring more money to you, because those feelings come from a lack of gratitude for the money you have.”
The collective desire for belonging and truth, plus the ease with which one becomes trusted online, is what makes the commodification of manifestation on Instagram so insidious.
She adds, “Whoever has gratitude [for money] will be given more, and she or he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have gratitude [for money], even what she or he has will be taken from her or him.” My feelings about Byrne’s financial teachings fluctuated between annoyance and shame. I was frustrated that I was being blamed for my lack of wealth, yet I secretly wondered if it really was my fault. It was easy to convince me and my classmates that manifestation could absolve us of financial problems because we were at yoga school—an institution we’d chosen to guide us in our search for meaning. Still, as someone asking the age-old question “What does my life mean?,” I was disappointed. Manifestation offered the same answer as capitalism, which relies on the thread between wealth and worth. Anchored by the sense of individualism that the American dream is composed of, manifestation suggests that you can have anything you want; therefore, you should want to be rich. Influencers such as Zenkina and Love have few barriers to entry when sharing such messages because social media lacks the protective guidelines outlined by faith-based establishments. “They’re disconnected from the many ways that traditional religion asks for and extracts accountability from its leaders,” Sue Phillips, a ministry innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School and cofounder of the Sacred Design Lab, told Bitch. “That’s one of the things traditional religious institutions do…. They evaluate the authenticity of leaders and their right to speak about the wisdom of the community. It’s a vetting process.”
Long-established spiritual institutions appoint leaders based on education and experience—and are supposed to adhere to a code of ethics that includes a commitment to serving the community responsibly and truthfully. While some organized religions and evangelists regularly fleece their followers, there is even less regulation when it comes to these modern-day snake-oil salespeople on Instagram, where there are no rules or guidelines to determine who gets to uphold the extraordinarily important role of evangelizing. Those who are disillusioned with the concept of manifestation but still trying to find meaning in online spaces have every right to ask questions about the motives of those who share spiritual teachings. “One of the positive things about a wider array of people being able to access an audience is the kind of democratization of spiritual and religious leadership,” Phillips said. But without a collective protocol to determine whom we trust to answer life’s greatest questions, we also forget to consider the motives of those who ask for money in exchange for the hope of a better life—and whose interests their gospel serves. In fact, it’s the personal motivations with which these luminaries spread manifestation that keeps them detached from authentic spiritual service. “It’s not spiritual or religious leadership when the goal is pecuniary advantage,” Phillips said. “The currency of followers and clicks and likes and swipes—it’s so antithetical to the vast wisdom humans have generated about what true spiritual and religious leadership is.”
The collective desire for belonging and truth, plus the ease with which one becomes trusted online, is what makes the commodification of manifestation on Instagram so insidious. What seems to be an overwhelmingly positive force—a remedy for the loneliness and longing so many of us feel—is only part of what Instagram influencers are really selling. If positive thoughts create desirable realities, negative thoughts create undesirable realities. This means that anyone who subscribes to manifestation also makes the agreement that, should their life not manifest exactly as they wish, it is no one’s fault but their own. This makes manifestation particularly crushing to people who experience anxiety and depression because it asks them to take full responsibility for their struggle to consistently exhibit hopefulness—even though it’s scientifically proven that mental-health challenges are caused by a highly complex combination of factors beyond one’s control, including chemical imbalances, genetic inheritance, and life circumstances, among others. People who struggle with anxiety and depression are often overwhelmed by the lack of control over their lives and the things that happen. This makes them vulnerable to the idea that thoughts have the power to create desirable realities, because it empowers them with authority over everything that happens.
When things don’t go as planned (as they often don’t in life), the same manifestation principles that are meant to inspire impose a blanket of shame. Manifestation influencers can simply project these ideas into the digital ether, and then, without consequence, close their apps and walk away. Rejecting narratives from those who are not explicitly serving the greater good is important for shaping how spirituality functions in modern day. “In a landscape where young people are less and less likely to have a religious home, the sayings of yoga teachers and dinner-party hosts may be treated like pastoral wisdom, even if they are not intended to have such gravity,” Thurston and ter Kuile add. “These kinds of developments necessitate skillful, sensitive, and ethical leadership that goes beyond organizational savvy.” When the idealistic promise of manifestation inevitably falls short, it is the seeker most in need of purpose and belonging who suffers. As mainstream spirituality continues to be shaped by social media, criticism of those who profit from the search for meaning is fundamental to protecting not only our own well-being, but the future of truth itself.