August 14, 2010

Mindfulness is Not Positivity.

Let’s just put it this way: The Secret was definitely not written by a Buddhist.

Here in the spiritually capricious Bay Area, I hear this sort of empty self-help jargon all the time:

Manifest what you want with good intentions!”

“Cultivate an attitude of abundance!”

“Think positive and things will turn out great!”

And one of my personal favorites: “It will all be alright in the end. If it’s not alright; it’s not the end!” As one of my recent dharma teachers pointed out, in reality it’s not all going to be alright in the end, because in the end, without exception, we’re all going to get sick or old, and die.

Which is actually fine, in its own way. But you get the point.

This sort of platitude word-vomit is a means to placate ourselves into believing that life is really not all that hard if we don’t want it to be. Suffering? What suffering? In Buddhism, we call this sort of mindset delusion.

Which is why I find it fascinating that the platitude spewers are often the same ones showing up at sanghas and listing “Buddhist” as their religion on Facebook. This confuses me! Buddhist teachings—at least the ones I’ve come across in my admittedly limited experience—do not instruct one to “think positive.” In fact, quite the opposite. In Buddhism, we are taught to look at our thoughts, feelings, and emotional experiences without judgment, and without trying to change them. Buddhism is not about acquiring abundance, riches, happiness, or any goals at all. Buddhism is not future-thinking in that way, and it’s definitely not about The Law of Attraction.

This is why Buddhism resonates with me as a philosophy and as a lifestyle. In Buddhist thought, I’m okay just as I am. It’s all about self-acceptance, even if that sometimes looks a wee bit ugly. Life is struggle, after all, and we’re messy creatures inclined to negative emotions at times.

That doesn’t mean that I’m averse to working on myself.

Quite the opposite. Self-growth is of vital importance to me and I practice it a little bit every day. On the other hand, sometimes I just get in a bad mood, and might, for instance, feel like stabbing someone through the eyeball, so to speak.

The appropriate Buddhist reaction to this would be: “Note to self, I want to stab someone through the eyeball today”… without judging myself for the urge. (Although, to be fair, stabbing someone through the eyeball is not Right Action, and thinking about it is not even Right Intention.)

When I say to someone, “You know, today I just really feel like stabbing so-and-so through the eyeball,” and they say to me, “I have just the solution. You need to cultivate a better attitude of positivity and abundance!!!!!” do you know what that does not do?


That’s right, it doesn’t help.

Personally, I’m more inclined to side with conscious realists like Barbara Ehrenreich, who recently wrote a whole awesome book about the negative side of positive thinking: Bright-Sided. If you’re not the book reading type, then perhaps you’ll take the time instead to visit this brief excerpt on NPR.

I totally honor and respect that for some people, turning that frown upside down is a really great way to deal with being upset. And for others, a practice of gratitude and abundance-thinking does indeed do the trick. And if you’re into The Secret, have tons of fun with that, and I’ll try to keep it zipped.

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