The Substance of Things Hoped For
Searching for Neville Goddard
By Mitch Horowitz
The words of spiritual teacher Neville Goddard retain their power to electrify more than thirty years following his death. In a sonorous, clipped tone that is preserved and circulated on tapes made during his lifetime, Neville asserts with complete ease what many would find fantastic: Our thoughts create the world, and do so in the most literal sense.
Neville Goddard was among the last century’s most articulate and charismatic purveyors of the philosophy generally called New Thought. He wrote ten books under the solitary penname Neville, and was a popular speaker on metaphysical themes from the late 1930s until his death in 1972. Possessed of a self-educated and uncommonly sharp intellect, Neville captured the sheer logic of creative-mind principles as perhaps no other figure of his era.
Neville’s way of thought is extolled today by major-league pitcher Barry Zito, and some say it influenced the ideas of Carlos Castaneda, Aldous Huxley, and others. And yet little is known about this teacher who exerted so unusual a pull on the American spiritual scene of the mid-century.
A Philosopher Born
Details of Neville’s early life are few – and are mostly self-proffered. But this much is evident: Neville Lancelot Goddard was born in 1905 on the then British-protectorate of Barbados to an Anglican family of nine sons and one daughter. A 1950s gossip column described the young Neville as “enormously wealthy,” his family possessing “a whole island in the West Indies.” Other suggestions are far more modest. At various times Neville depicted his own English childhood home as comfortable, but hardly lavish.
He came to New York at the age of seventeen to study theater – a move that would lead to a successful career as a vaudeville dancer and stage actor. Yet Neville described himself as often living hand-to-mouth, working for a time as an elevator operator and a shipping clerk.
His ambition for the stage began to fade as he encountered a remarkable range of spiritual ideas – first with self-styled occult groups, and later with the help of a life-transforming mentor. In his lectures, Neville describes studying with an Ethiopian-born rabbi named Abdullah. Their initial meeting, Neville says, had an air of kismet:
When I first met my friend Abdullah back in 1931 I entered a room where he was speaking and when the speech was ended he came over, extended his hand and said: “Neville, you are six months late.” I had never seen the man before, so I said: “I am six months late? How do you know me?” and he replied: “The brothers told me that you were coming and you are six months late.”
According to Neville, the two studied Hebrew, Scripture, and kabala together for five years – planting the seeds of the philosophy of mental creativity that Neville would develop.
Neville says his first encounter with creative thought came while he was living in a rented room on Manhattan’s Upper West Side during the winter of 1933. The young man was depressed: his theatrical career had stalled and his pockets were empty. “After twelve years in America, I was a failure in my own eyes, ” he later said. “I was in the theatre and made money one year and spent it the next month.” The 28-year-old Neville ached to spend Christmas with his family in Barbados; but he couldn’t afford to travel.
“Live as though you are there,” Abdullah told him, “and that you shall be.” Wandering the streets of New York City, Neville thought from his aim – as he would later urge his listeners – and adopted the feeling that he was really and truly at home on his native island. “Abdullah taught me the importance of remaining faithful to an idea and not compromising,” he later remembered. “I wavered, but he remained faithful to the assumption that I was in Barbados and had traveled first class.”
One December morning before the last ship was to depart New York that year for Barbados, Neville received a letter from a long out-of-touch brother: In it was $50 and a ticket to sail. The experiment, it seemed, had worked.
Neville discovered what would eventually become the hallmark of his teaching: It was imperative to assume the feeling that one’s goal has already been attained. “It is not what you want that you attract,” he would later write; “you attract what you believe to be true.”
Feeling is the Secret
Neville grew convinced that Scripture was rife with this idea that man had tothink from the end. He called it the state of “I AM” – this being a mystical translation of the name of God. Man could attain any goal, he reasoned, provided he adopted the feeling of it in the present. Neville reinterpreted each episode in Scripture as a psychological parable of this truth. In a typical example from his first book, Your Faith Is Your Fortune, he took a fresh sounding of the tale of Lot’s wife, who turns into a pillar of salt after looking back upon the city of Sodom: “Not knowing that consciousness is ever outpicturing itself in conditions round about you, like Lot’s wife you continually look back upon your problem and again become hypnotized by its seeming naturalness.”
In his eyes, all of Scripture was nothing other than a blueprint for man’s development. “The Bible has no reference at all to any person who ever existed, or any event that ever occurred upon earth,” Neville told his audiences. “All the stories of the Bible unfold in the minds of the individual man.” Neville depicted Christ not as a living figure but, rather, as a mythical master psychologist whose miracles and parables demonstrated the power of creative thought.
While Neville could quote from Scripture with photographic ease, one is left with the impression that he sometimes strained to fit all of it within a psychological formula. But there is no questioning the power that Neville brought to Scriptural analysis: in his hands, Scripture became a living book, pulsating with relevance and purpose. “Today,” he wrote, “those to whom this great treasure has been entrusted, namely the priesthoods of the world, have forgotten that the Bibles are psychological dramas representing consciousness in man; in their blind forgetfulness they now teach their followers to worship its characters as men and women who actually lived in time and space.”
The Ethics of Creative Thought
Another innovative aspect of Neville’s teaching is the ethical analysis he brought to mental science. In a powerfully rendered pamphlet called Prayer, which was later reissued in his 1966 book Resurrection, Neville takes measure of whether imagination can be used to harm another.
The subject has no power to resist your controlled subjective ideas of him unless the state affirmed by you to be true of him is a state he is incapable of wishing as true of another. In that case, it returns to you, the sender and will realize itself in you … A person who directs a malicious thought to another will be injured by its rebound if he fails to get subconscious acceptance of the other.
Never accept as true of others what you would not want to be true of you.
A truth as old as time, perhaps, but one that Neville saw literally enacted by the power of thought.
It is uncommon, at least today, for New Thought or Religious Science writers to raise questions of ethics or consequence in connection with one’s wish. In using the law, one might ask, what part of me is manifesting, and for what purpose? Am I conscious of my motives? To Neville, the law operates in a neutral, amoral way – but consequences befall those who harness it for ill:
One of the most prevalent misunderstandings is that this law works only for those have a devout or religious objective. This is a fallacy. It works just as impersonally as the law of electricity works. It can be used for greedy, selfish purposes as well as noble ones. But it should always be borne in mind that ignoble thoughts and actions inevitably result in unhappy consequences.
The Metaphysics of Creativity
Neville was not content to rest his teaching upon anecdote and parable alone. In some of his most elegant and convincing writing, he defined a metaphysical justification – an internal logic – for the workings of mental science. In Prayer,Neville spoke of the “universal law of reversibility:”
Mechanical motion caused by speech was known for a long time before any one dreamed of the possibility of inverse transformation, that is, the reproduction of speech by mechanical motion (the phonograph). For a long time electricity was produced by friction without ever a thought that friction, in turn, could be produced by electricity. Whether or not man succeeds in reversing a force, he knows, nevertheless, that all transformations of force are reversible … This law is of the highest importance, because it enables you to foresee the inverse transformation once the direct transformation is verified. If you knew how you would feel were you to realize your objective, then, inversely, you would know what state you could realize were you to awaken in yourself such feeling.
If one follows Neville’s line of thought, what emerges seems almost too good to be true: Believe that you already possess your goal, and so you will. “Man moves in a world that is nothing more or less than his consciousness objectified,” he concluded. If so, one might ask, why has this imperative been discovered by so relatively few?
Does it Work?
In a little-known book from 1946, the occult philosopher Israel Regardie took measure of the burgeoning creative-mind movements, including Unity, Christian Science, and Religious Science. Regardie paid special attention to the case of Neville, whose teaching, he felt, reflected both the hopes and limits of New Thought philosophy. Regardie believed that Neville possessed profound and truthful ideas; yet he felt these ideas were proffered without sufficient attention to training or practice. Could the everyday person really control his thoughts and moods in the way Neville prescribed? In The Romance of Metaphysics, Regardie wrote:
Neville’s method is sound enough. But the difficulty is that few people are able to muster up this emotional exaltation or this intellectual concentration which are the royal approaches to the citadel of the Unconscious. As a result of this definite lack of training or technique, the mind wanders all over the place, and a thousand and one things totally unrelated to ‘I AM’ are ever before their attention.
Neville offered his listeners and readers meditative techniques, such as using the power of visualization before going to sleep. But Regardie reasons that, as a dancer and actor, Neville possessed a unique control over his body that his audience did not share: “Neville knows the art of relaxation instinctively. He is a dancer, and a dancer must, of necessity, relax. Hence I believe he does not fully and consciously realize that the average person in his audience does not know the mechanism of relaxation, does know how to ‘let go.’”
In experimenting with Neville’s philosophy myself, I placed an empty bud vase on my dining-room table, and – for a period of days – imagined a rose in that vase. I set no parameters on how it would get there, but simply envisioned the texture, smell, and color of that rose. No rose appeared. And yet, when in a completely different feeling state, I envisioned winning a door prize that was offered in an auditorium filled with several hundred people. I won. My feeling state, Neville would argue, was the key. Perhaps I sincerely desired the second item and not the first. It may also be so that my emotions were randomly more open, my body by chance more relaxed in the latter episode. And herein lies one of the potential frustrations of Neville’s philosophy: Few understand – or can manipulate – their emotions or sensations in the face of contrary truths or the vicissitudes of mood. Stick your finger with a pin, and try imagining the taste of an ice cream sundae.
“Of all the metaphysical systems with which I am acquainted,” Regardie concluded, “Neville’s is the most magical. But being the most magical, it requires for that very reason, a systematized training on the part of those who would approach and enter its portals.” Absent this training, Regardie reasons, “His system is in reality strictly personal.” It may work for him but not others.
Living in the Material World
Is Regardie’s a fair criticism? Certainly evidence exists to the contrary – much of it offered by Neville himself. In his 1961 book The Law and the Promise, Neville provides a plethora of vividly rendered case studies of people who achieved success using his methods. As one reads these passages, however, another impression emerges. Student after student is concerned with ardently material goals: a new house, a new car, a new suit, cash in the pocket. Is this, one wonders, the aim of spiritual practice? Do these principles come down simply to get-rich methods? In an unpublished lecture from 1967, Neville draws an intriguing counterpoint:
What would be good for you? Tell me, because in the end every conflict will resolve itself as the world is simply mirroring the being you are assuming that you are. One day you will be so saturated with wealth, so saturated with power in the world of Caesar, you will turn your back on it all and go in search of the word of God … I do believe that one must completely saturate himself with the things of Caesar before he is hungry for the word of God
This passage sounds a note that resonates through many of the spiritual traditions of the world: One cannot renounce what one has not attained. To move beyond the material world, or its wealth, one must know that wealth.
The Law – and the Legacy
Neville never achieved the fame or reputation of some of his contemporaries, such as Norman Vincent Peale and Ernest Holmes. Still, at the height of his career he reached many thousands of seekers. In New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, he addressed crowded church pews and packed auditoriums. He had a radio program and, for a short time, an inspirational television show broadcast from Los Angeles in the mid-1950s. His books and pamphlets were sold at lectures, and he freely allowed students to tape his addresses without charge – tapes that continue to informally spread his message today.
In the last twelve years of his life, he took his philosophy in a radical new direction – one that would cost him some of his popularity on the positive-thinking circuit. Neville spoke of a jarring mystical experience he had in 1959 in which he was reborn as a child from within his skull, which opened as a womb. (In the Bible, Golgotha translates as skull). In a complex interpretation of Scripture and personal experience, Neville told of “the Promise:” that each of us is Christ waiting to be liberated through metaphysical realization. Our imagination, literally, is the God-seed. He took Psalm 82:6, “Ye are gods,” as the literal truth of man’s condition.
In his lectures, Neville shifted his focus to this story of mystical rebirth. His audiences, however, seemed to prefer the earlier message of self-affirmation. They began to drift away. Urged by a speaking agent to abandon this theme, “or you’ll have no audience at all,” a student recalls Neville replying, “Then I’ll tell it to the bare walls.” His popularity would partly rebound as he settled into teaching a mixture of both the mystical and creative-mind aspects of his philosophy. Though when he died, reportedly of a brain aneurysm in 1972, there was no obituary to mark his passing, even in Los Angeles where he had made his home.
Whatever his mixed fortunes – and perhaps because of them – Neville was one the last century’s most remarkable spiritual impresarios. He remained true to the principles on which he founded his career, yet dared to move beyond them without regard for convention or popular acceptance.
For all the recent talk of America being a faith-based nation, it was this iconoclastic foreigner who lived out the promise of religious freedom in a manner, perhaps, that a Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine would have smiled upon. Through the force of intellect and self-study, Neville developed a personal theology, and barnstormed through auditoriums and churches on both American coasts winning followers. Here was a man who stretched his wings in the winds of a nation that was open to religious innovation. It is in Neville that one finds a truly American spiritual figure: an innovator, a nonconformist, someone who dared to live by the inner light of his ideas.
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Feeling is the Secret: Neville in His Own Words
“The Lord of hosts will not respond to your wish until you have assumed the feeling of already being what you want to be, for acceptance is the channel of His action.
— from The Power of Awareness, 1952
“Leave the mirror and change your face. Leave the world alone and change your conceptions of yourself.”
— from Your Faith is Your Fortune, 1941
“If a man look upon any other man and estimates that man as less than himself, then he is stealing from the other. He is stealing the other’s birthright – that of equality.”
— as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, 1951
“Do not try to change people; they are only messengers telling you who you are. Revalue yourself and they will confirm the change.”
— from Your Faith is Your Fortune, 1941
“Fools exploit the world; the wise transfigure it.”
— from Prayer as reprinted in Resurrection, 1966
Email Mitch at :firstname.lastname@example.org.