The Problem with ‘Positive Thinking’

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We have been talking for a while about the freedoms that arise naturally out of the simple daily practice of meditation: Freedom from struggle, freedom from fear, freedom from the fortress of defensiveness. But it could sound as if we are actively trying to get away from struggling, fear or defensiveness, instead of just noticing them as they arise in our experience and fall away. So I want to be sure we are clear that when we try to escape, when we try to push away, when we try to achieve freedom, or try to hold onto fleeting glimpses of freedom we may experience, then the freedom is gone.

This is frustrating, I know. It’s like some kind of fun house mirror set up, where when we go after what we see, it disappears! This is not how it should be, we say. Things should be clear cut and straight forward. And perhaps we know from personal experience that we can achieve things by setting goals, that that is in fact the way life is. I certainly have set goals and achieved them. The very house we are sitting in was imagined, found and purchased in just that way. And there’s nothing wrong with undertaking such a project, experiencing it fully. It can be exciting, invigorating and fun.

But where we get into trouble is when we expect achieving any goal to set us free, make us truly happy or change the way we experience life in any fundamental way. We are just pouring our way of being from one container into another. Maybe the new container is bigger, prettier, more comfortable, or better in some other way. And perhaps the ways in which it is better cause us conditional happiness, that may last a while or may not, depending on our basic temperament. But no house, job, geographical setting or personal relationship will alter to any degree our conditioned set of responses to whatever experience arises in our lives. Changing the conditions is like changing the wallpaper on our prison cell. It doesn’t really change anything! And when we achieve a goal and then discover that nothing has changed on the deep level that we crave, we can sink into despair. This despair is only amplified if we believe that plastering positive messages all over our cell will set us free, when really they just mask the truth of our situation.

We can pour ourselves from one container to another, but we need to notice if we are vesting the experience with powers it cannot deliver. Setting goals and achieving them can deliver some degree of physical comfort and material well being, and these are valid uses of it, but to rely on it habitually for all our needs, emotional and spiritual, is setting ourselves up for suffering. Once we have a modicum of material stability, what we really want beyond that is the kind of freedom or happiness that comes from a different source.

So yes, pour all you want from one container to the other. Pour yourself into that new dress or pair of shoes and dance around in front of the mirror. Enjoy your cute self! But understand that what we are talking about when we look at real freedom is dissolving the container itself. This a joy that can’t be purchased, that can’t be achieved through goal setting or positive thinking.

We are all aware that there is a whole huge industry of motivational speaking set up to promote these principles of positive thinking. It promotes dreaming big, getting what we want by setting our sights, taking aim and achieving our goals. Sometimes people assume that Buddhism is about positive thinking. It’s easy to make assumptions and lump all the various self-help streams of thought together. But Buddhism is most definitely not about positive thinking. Buddhism is quite specifically about facing the truth of things head on. Whatever it is. Not in a confrontational way, but in a way that never shies away from the tough stuff – the uncomfortable, scary thoughts and feelings that can leave gun-toting musclemen quaking in their boots.

When we face whatever arises in our experience head on, we are interested in the facts of the situation. We have no interest whatsoever in changing the facts. A ‘positive thinker’ may look at the situation and immediately spot the silver lining. That’s fine. It’s there too, but Buddhists don’t want to skip over anything in a rush to get to the happy bits. Neither do we want to dig around in the muck. And if we have a tendency to focus on the negative, we can benefit from challenging ourselves to ‘incline our mind’ (as the Buddha says) toward what is that in our current experience that is pleasant, since otherwise we might not notice it. We really are just opening to whatever is, noting pleasant and unpleasant alike, and staying curious.

Our method is not to rush to judgment, sum up the situation, say, ‘Well, that’s that,’ and move on. We stay present for the whole experience. We sit with it. We make room for all of it in our awareness. We notice the subtle complexities, the multiple layers, the threads that run through it, the light and the shadow, and the truth. And even when we perceive the truth of something, we don’t dismiss it, saying ‘case closed’ with a sense of satisfaction. Instead we continue to stay present with whatever is until it changes or leaves of its own volition. Then we stay present with whatever arises in that moment. In each moment we simply stay present with the rich unfolding of experience.

You may say that the positive thinker cuts to the chase, gets to the good stuff, catches the gold ring. No argument there. But it relies pretty heavily on the positive thinker’s ability to recognize ‘good stuff’, doesn’t it?

Positive thinking puts energy behind embracing an ideal vision of how we want to change ourselves and our world to conform to that vision. That’s not Buddhism. Buddhism sees ideal visions as too rigid, too narrow, too limited, even if that vision is world peace and harmony. Now if you know anything about Buddhism, you will say, but wait, what about all the metta – loving kindness you send out into the world, “May there be every good blessing,” “May all beings be well,” and all that?

Strange, isn’t it? It’s not necessarily that we don’t recognize that there is energy that can be directed. (Though Buddhists disagree among themselves about the existence of such energy, and belief in it doesn’t seem to be an absolute requirement. You can be ‘a secular Buddhist’ like teacher/author Stephen Batchelor.) The majority of Buddhists acknowledge the existence of a universal energy, but see the problem with directing the energy in a narrow selective way instead of generous universal well wishing for all life. It’s just way too limiting! It sets up a narrow trough of possibility. We do not send out phrases such as, “May my daughter do well on her test today, may the stock market rise, may I get that job.” We say “May the merits of our practice be for the benefit of all beings, may all beings be well, may all beings be happy.”
Buddhists value all of life, the great manifestation of life in all its myriad forms. Yet most Buddhists also sense that there is more than just this earthly human existence, that this existence is a gift in whatever form we receive it, that to be born into this life is a rare and wondrous experience to be savored, appreciated and then released when it is over. For this life that seems finite is just a phase we’re going through in the infinite dance of universal energy of which we are all an integral part. (And if you are aren’t comfortable with the idea of universal energy, you can still recognize that in nature, death is not the end of any life form’s existence as it cycles through and is transformed into more life.)

Because we value the experience of earthly life itself, we recognize that preconceived judgments about what makes a successful life are limited, erroneous. The positive thinking movement is often focused on becoming wealthy. Grasping at wealth is one of the habits of mind Buddhists notice when it arises in our experience, and we notice also how much suffering arises out of any assumption we may have that great wealth brings great happiness. (Did I just hear you say, Oh good, Buddhists like to be poor! More for us!?)

Stop and think about your own experience, whether the course of your pocketbook’s fullness or emptiness has matched your own sense of fullness or emptiness throughout your life. For most of us, the two have no correlation. Our happiness is not dependent on our bank account. Yet, even so, because it is so easy to go unconscious, we may still buy into the idea that adding extra zeros to our bottom line will make us happy. It’s an assumption that corporations enforce at every turn, because corporate workers are operating under the same delusion.

Positive thinking is considered a transformative power. No doubt it is. Yet focusing our energy on the power to change ourselves or our circumstances from what they are to what we believe to be better camouflages the truth. The truth is, as Jon KabatZinn so aptly coined, ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’

All the positive thinking in the world may change things but when we get to that changed place, we will still be us, still interacting with the world in the same way, still finding it unsatisfactory and in need of changing, because that is our habit of mind.

Buddhists instead prefer to sit with what is, noticing our habit of mind. As compassionately as possible, sitting with the causes and conditions of our lives, the flow of emotions, thoughts and sensations, and from that deep place of sitting performing actions that are loving and compassionate: that’s the Buddhist way.

Positive thinking gets in the way of the great unfolding of life. That is mostly because none of us really have sufficient imagination to set a goal to positively think into being anything that would be near so wondrous at what actually happens in our lives. The narrow focus of the goal keeps all other wondrous avenues through which we might stroll out of our view. We’re on a specific track, a specific wave length, and nothing else appears within our scope. With our eye on the prize, we miss a world of wonder for the sake of the end destination that we may not be able to enjoy when we reach it because we are out of the habit of enjoying what is.

We are limited by our view of ourselves, who we are in the world. We want something: happiness, freedom, love, and we set our sights on it. A.H. Almaas, the (non-Buddhist, but respected by Buddhist teachers) Diamond Approach™ founder, gave a wonderful analogy. Think about the larva that transforms into a butterfly. How could such a creature ever conceive of becoming a butterfly? That would be absurd to imagine anything so completely different! Maybe if it were into imagining the future, into goal setting, it would imagine being a bigger larva, a happier larva. But a beautiful flying creature? How absurd!

Just like that larva, we are inherently limited in our ability to imagine the transformation possible within ourselves. And the striving, goal-setting mind set is really an encumbrance. If we don’t allow our lives to unfold naturally, giving whatever arises our full attention, then we are likely to be clinging to the chrysalis that held so much promise, not realizing that if we let go, we could fly.

One comment

  1. Wonderful post, I have been musing on this very subject myself, as I am drawn to both kinds of teachings…I think you identified quite well the place and value of positive thinking, and also the limitations and underlying issues with constantly being in a 'goal-oriented' state…and the freedom that Buddhist practice yields…Lisa (mommymystic – couldn't use openid or name/url when commenting today for some reason…)


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