It’s a bleak Monday evening in lockdown, and I’m lying on my sofa watching “astral realm” travel tutorials on YouTube. I’m planning on visiting my ex-boyfriend’s dreams tonight, so I want to make sure everything goes smoothly.
“All you’re going to do is simply set an intention,” assures Tiara Alicea, a doll-like spiritual YouTuber with a soft, ring-lit glow. “Envision [the person you want to visit] in your mind, and give [the universe] a reason for visiting them.”
It sounds easy enough, so I close my eyes and think about how I’d like to appear. I have nothing to say to this ex-boyfriend, and I’m confident he won’t enjoy my visit, so I try to keep my messaging upbeat and inoffensive. Just a quick cameo, maybe; a passing hello and some generic well wishes.
“Universe,” I say out loud, to no one, “please pass on my apologies for being a selfish brat during our relationship. Also, please throw in some warm regards for these unprecedented times.”
I wonder for a moment whether creeping into someone’s mind while they sleep, without their consent, is an act of abuse. But I quickly swat the idea off. It’s just an experiment, after all: according to an increasing number of YouTube influencers, visiting people’s dreams is both easy and fine. So I go ahead with it and send him a message the next morning to check in. “Bit of a weird one, but did you have any strange dreams last night?” I ask, as casually as possible. He doesn’t reply.
The last few years have seen a surge of interest in spiritual wellness, with many big brands and influencers capitalising on the trend. On Instagram, especially, you can find plenty of women – hair luscious and skin dewy – espousing the healing power of tarot, crystals, magick and manifestation. It’s a seductive fantasy that’s easy to escape into, particularly when the world around you is falling apart.
But this trend has been taken to even greater extremes on YouTube. Over the last two years, the site has been overrun with a new kind of spiritual influencer, all of whom make grand promises about your mind’s capabilities. Many of their videos centre on love and heartbreak healing. By focusing hard enough, they argue, you can manifest an instant text from your ex, send them telepathic messages or visit their dreams. You could also, if you really wanted, make them fall back in love with you.
This “law of attraction” stuff isn’t new. Videos on the topic have been circulating YouTube for years. The only difference now seems to be its popularity among mainstream Western influencers. According to Google Trends, there’s been a sharp rise in people trying to “manifest a text” from their ex over the last year, with searches for “manifestation” growing in both the UK and the US.
The reception to these videos has been rapturous too, with many viewers leaving comments, often in block capitals, assuring their effectiveness. “OMG THIS WORKED INSTANTLY”, writes one commenter on a popular text manifestation video. “IT WORKED,” says another. “HE IS GOING TO BE MINE❤.”
Confused, I reach out to Kayla Michelle, a spiritual YouTuber with over 30,000 subscribers and a million views. As well as offering tutorials on text manifestation, she also shares videos on money attraction, “parallel reality” switching, and psychically changing your physical appearance. Like many influencers, she looks like a doe-eyed supermodel, and shares her wisdom in soft, soothing intonations. You want to believe her; she seems nice.
“Manifesting a text message works because everybody has an energetic field around their body,” Michelle explains. “When you have an emotional connection with someone you create energetic cords, and these cords are like a link to that person.” Reaching out to someone through visualisation and meditation, then, is like a “tap on the shoulder”, giving them a reminder to reach out to you. From there, it’s out of your hands. “They won’t text you unless they want to,” Michelle stresses. “Everybody has free will.”
Dream walking is also supposedly powered by psychic connection. “We are more than our physical bodies,” says Tiara Alicea, a spiritual influencer with over 37,000 subscribers. “We have many multidimensional, energetic bodies. And with practice and shifts of consciousness, we can tune into them at will.” One of these shifts of consciousness occurs as we go to sleep, she says, allowing us to “explore other worlds, dimensions, and parallels of reality with other multidimensional beings”.
Sounds impressive. Unfortunately, I have no luck with text manifestation despite multiple attempts, and my ex-boyfriend dream visit was an embarrassing failure. Undeterred, I try again over the next few nights, experimenting with friends, family, and old flames I’m still on polite speaking terms with. I have no success, though they all seem supportive of (and surprisingly unfazed by) my dream walking journey. “You’re welcome to give it another go tonight,” says one kindly.
The closest I get to success is when I try to visit a friend to congratulate her on recent career achievements. “I don’t dream,” she says, when I ask if she got the message. “But I might have felt it in my conscience. I did wake up feeling okay today.”
So why are so many of us resorting to these methods? What has driven us here? When I pose these questions to Petra P. Sebek, author of Spirituality in the Selfie Culture of Instagram, she points to a “crisis of religious authority”. Thanks to the consciousness-raising powers of the internet, we’re more likely to be sceptical of larger institutional religions, and also more exposed to esoteric alternatives. Our smartphones make it easier to experiment with our own personal rituals – such as visualisation and meditation – privately, on schedules that suit us. It makes spirituality less about community worship, and more about the elusive pursuit of personal growth.
And of course, there’s the pandemic. “COVID has awoken many fears in us, but also needs for consolation and comfort,” says Sebek. “People have started doing more yoga, mindfulness, breathing exercises – anything that they could do at home and which would help them to calm down, release fears and help them ‘be more in the moment’ again.”
Michelle agrees: “People had to stop, slow down, and be with themselves [when COVID hit]. And when you do that you may come to some realisations about life or yourself that you’re not comfortable with. And I think a lot of people wanted some sense of stability and connection.”
This spike of interest in “personal growth” spirituality is not all positive. In the case of YouTube’s “heartbreak healers”, it might even be damaging. As any relationship expert will tell you, you can’t force – or “manifest” – someone into loving you. If you’re fixated on winning someone back through telepathy, dream strolls, or text manifestations, it’s likely that you’re stuck in a pretty unhealthy thought cycle, obsessing over changing a situation when you should be moving on.
This kind of spirituality is also criticised for wildly oversimplifying life’s struggles. Not everyone can “good vibes” their way out of problems, and perpetuating the idea only bolsters some of capitalism’s most noxious myths. Not everything is down to your individual mindset; sometimes society and luck work against you, in ways that are completely out of your control. As a result, critics of this movement have christened it “toxic positivity”: forced, inauthentic happiness that denies the complexity of the human experience.
“Videos that focus only on encouraging positivity and positive emotions can make it seem like negative emotions should be suppressed or hidden,” argues Dr. Katherine Dale, a communications assistant professor at Florida State University. “Although they are often unpleasant, some negative emotions can play an important role in our wellbeing. Negative emotions can draw our attention to things that need to be addressed in our lives, and help us to grow.”
Whatever the implications, there’s no denying the appeal of these videos. We’re flocking to them in droves because we’re looking for answers – even if they are toxic, insane, or rooted in little to no scientific proof. For Michelle and Alicea, the overwhelmingly positive feedback to their videos speaks for itself. If it works for some people, why not let them enjoy it?
But for sceptics like Sebek, it’s a temporary salve. “People who think they can get anything they want just by thinking positively will be extremely disappointed sooner or later,” she says. “Authentic spirituality is not only about personal growth, but it is also about relation with other humans, with our society. It can’t be fully experienced in a personal bubble.”