I was alerted to the publication of a new book this week entitled “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” by Barbara Ehrenreich. I have yet to read the book; it seems that the author’s premise is that the concept of “positive thinking” (something you wouldn’t need if you trusted in a good outcome anyway) has often made us put faith in ideas that are dubious, harmful, and/or just plain wrong. Thinking positively is a very American trait, and tends to make us think we’re the greatest even when we’re doing something very stupid.
I don’t want to comment further on the book until I’ve actually read it. But the idea is intriguing, and it addresses something I’ve believed for a long time. When the book “The Secret” came out a couple of years ago, I cringed at its message regarding the Law of Attraction. It may be a generally reasonable guideline to assume that a positive outlook attracts good fortune. But the idea that your puny rationalizations can overcome the psyche are naïve—often the mind controls us, rather than the other way around. Trying to use the mind to control the mind just doesn’t work. The mind is much bigger than you think it is.
Let me give an example. A couple of days ago, I had a post entitled “A Week in the Life”. In that post, I discussed all of the things that occurred during the preceding week of my life. If you read the post, you’d realize that nothing happened that was so awful or cataclysmic. I realized that too—I realized it all week. Yet, that entire week, I was anxious, drained and edgy, as though I was fighting some major battle or dealing with some overwhelming catastrophe. I kept telling myself, “Get a grip—none of this is a big deal.” Did that help one iota? No. Feelings can take you over like a tidal wave, and all you can do is swim frantically and hope that you don’t drown.
Eventually I did get myself on an even keel again; not through positive thinking, but through meditation. The point of going back to regular meditation after falling off schedule was to re-center myself. The re-centering allows you to deal with ups and downs as they occur, not to pretend that there are no downs.
If positive thinking worked, then diets would be successful long-term, all of our endeavors would have the outcome we wish for, no one would want for anything—just as long as they had the right attitude. But it’s a little like the rationalization for prayer (and by prayer, I mean petitionary prayer).If I pray to God, and don’t get what I want, then God either doesn’t love me or doesn’t exist. It’s the same idiotic nonsense. Life isn’t about getting everything you want. In fact, life—to paraphrase Joseph Campbell—is primarily killing and eating, on its most basic level. Life itself is suffering. We don’t suffer because we have bad attitudes. We suffer because that’s the way life is. But, as it was once said, “be sure you are not suffering over your suffering”. It’s our response that makes the difference. Frequently we can’t change our state of mind regarding something, but we can change, or at least limit, our actions. You could be angry enough at someone to want to pummel them, but unless you like getting arrested, you probably will restrain yourself from doing it.
Today I was re-watching the episode on myth from Joseph Campbell’s “Power of Myth” series. Campbell suggests that the basic myths of the Orient versus the Occident really affect how a culture develops. The primary myth he discusses is the idea of God being part of creation/nature, or being separate from it. In the West, we tend to believe we are separate, that nature is somehow “corrupt” (the idea that one must be baptized to get rid of original sin reflects this idea). Once you have that separation, you now have “right” and “wrong”—one must strive to do what’s right, and avoid what’s wrong. But that’s less of an issue in the Eastern worldview. Everything simply is, and it is “good” in and of itself—even the “bad” things. Life is a game, and you play it, whether you’re dealt a good hand or a poor hand—you just try to play fair.