Friday, July 28, 2017

The Trap of Positive Thinking

I finally decided to address this topic because it keeps coming up in conversations with friends and acquaintances on social media, as well as my counseling clients.  It is a New Age idea which has managed to pervade nearly every spiritual tradition today and is variously called "positive thinking," "law of attraction," "manifesting," "word of faith" or "prosperity gospel." I've heard variations on the theme from Hindus, Christians, pagans and sometimes even Buddhists, who ought to know better.  It's particularly popular among people who consider themselves "spiritual but not religious" and those who are fond of quantum physics and want to believe that the Copenhagen Interpretation works on a macroscopic level, i.e. that our thoughts control external events in the material world.  Except it doesn't, and they don't.  And that's actually a good thing, as I will explain later.

Now, it is true that our thoughts and perceptions do "create reality" in a certain sense, namely our subjective experience of reality.  We know from physics that the "material world" objectively is comprised of patterns of energy, and what we perceive as "solid objects" are mostly empty space.  Our human nervous system interacts with those energy patterns and our brain interprets and organizes the data to create a coherent world, which we call the "consensus reality" that is shared by most non-psychotic people.  Additionally, our thoughts and feelings do affect our subjective reality in so far as we label experiences as "good" or "bad" and then react to those experiences.  We can choose how we will label and respond to the events in our lives and decide to be happy or sad.  We can use affirmations to motivate ourselves like Al Franken in the delightful movie, "Stuart Saves His Family" as he looks into the mirror and says:  "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!"  But, that is not what the proponents of Positive Thinking are talking about.

Rather, it is "magical thinking," the belief that thinking, affirming or saying something can actually make it happen in the external world.  Regardless of the tradition or name, it's the same basic idea:  Positive thoughts attract good things into our life, while negative thoughts make bad things happen.  When we think positively, say the right affirmations, or quote certain Bible verses, God or the universe will reward us accordingly with good health, prosperity, and whatever else we desire.  The downside to this belief is that when we suffer from any kind of misfortune, we have no one to blame but ourselves, because we must have attracted it by our negative thinking.  Therefore, it is vitally important to "stay positive" at all times lest we invite disaster.  Every passing negative thought evokes fear, which can only be overcome by obsessively micro-managing what in yoga we call "the Monkey Mind," the normal internal chatter that nearly everyone experiences, a task akin to whack-a-mole.

The Christian version of magical thinking, "the prosperity gospel" or "word of faith," treats the Bible as if it were a Magic Book containing spell-like verses, e.g. Mark 11:22-24, which when recited with just the right kind and amount of faith, will get us whatever we want.  "...Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."   One problem with this is, as C.S. Lewis has pointed out, it doesn't actually work.  At least, it didn't work for Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, nor has it consistently worked for anybody else in the last 2000 years.  So either He was lying, or something got translated wrong, or we are misunderstanding what He meant, or as the atheists say, it's all pure fantasy to begin with.
The other problem with "prosperity" theology is that it is heresy.  Now, I am by no means the Grand Inquisitor, this is not the Spanish Inquisition and I won't be torturing anybody by poking them with cushions in the comfy chair, but let's call a spade a spade.  The funny thing is, this heresy has become so popular that most Christians don't even question it.  In fact, mainstream Christians often accuse me of being "unbiblical" or a "not a real Christian" whenever I point out that it is an incorrect doctrine.  Even the President of the United States has adopted this theology and surrounded himself with pastors who promote it.  "God wants you to have that Mercedes Benz!  Amen!  Name it and claim it!"  Your ownership of the Benz is proof of your faith and being in a state of grace.  Whereas, if you're poor, clearly you are not blessed and you'd better straighten up and get right with the Lord.

Besides having no basis whatsoever in reality, magical thinking of whatever variety is a bad idea for a number of reasons, including:
1.  It is the ultimate "blame the victim" theory.  When things go wrong, people bear the additional burden of beating themselves up for "not being positive enough." This is particularly unhelpful for people suffering from depression.
2.  Obsessing over negative thoughts only gives them more power, creating anxiety and paranoia.
3.  It reinforces ego attachment to being happy when we get what we want, and sad when we don't, which as Buddhists know, is counterproductive.
4.  The constant internal battle to control one's thoughts requires a lot of energy that could be better spent doing something constructive, and besides, who is fighting with whom?
5.  It encourages almost narcissistic self-absorption in our own petty thoughts while the rest of the world is going to hell in a handbasket with wars, famine, etc.
6.  When positive thinking fails to manifest the desired outcome in the external world, we blame ourselves, resulting in a negative self-image; see #1 above.

I am sure at least one person will object, "But it does work!  It works for me.  I manifest what I want all the time" or, "God gives me whatever I pray for."  Well, if in fact this is true and you're not merely delusional or in denial, all I can say is, "good for you!"  However, for the vast majority of people, it's hit or miss.  Were this not the case, their lives would certainly be very different.  Everybody who manages to "stay positive" would have excellent health, the perfect mate and children, a job that they love and pays well, the car, the house and everything else they need or want.  I don't see that happening in the real world even among the most "positive" people I know.  And I used to be one of them, as discussed in a previous blog post, until I received my degree from the School of Hard Knocks.  It should also be pointed out that plenty of "negative," un-spiritual or even downright mean people are healthy, wealthy, and sleep like a baby on satin sheets laundered by their low-paid illegal immigrant servants.

So no, your thoughts do not create external reality.  What a relief!  But, what if you suffer from depression or persistent negative thoughts?  The first step is simply to stop beating yourself up.  As I tell my counseling clients:  "It is OK to feel whatever you are feeling at any given moment."  Really?!  Yes!  Contrary to what you've been told by the Positivity Police, your emotions, happy, sad, and everything in between, are a valid and rich part of the human experience.  As Khalil Gibran wrote, "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."  Thoughts and feelings come and go; no need to cling to them, push them away or obsess over them.  Are you sad now?  Give yourself permission to fully experience it.  Have a good cry if you want.  This too shall pass and you will be happy again in the future.  Are you happy now?  Be thankful, and enjoy it while it lasts, because it's temporary.  As the George Harrison song "Crackerbox Palace" says, "Some times are good, some times are bad, that's all a part of life."

The only lasting happiness is the deep inner Bliss that comes from a consistent spiritual practice, enabling us to connect with the Divine in the center of our being.  This is like the quiet depth of the ocean which remains undisturbed despite the storms and waves on the surface.   For the yogi or the mystic, this is always available regardless of what may be going on in the ups and downs of life's endless drama. 

People trapped in the Positive Thinking paradigm often ask me what to do about negative thoughts.  Well, as stated above, it's usually not necessary to "do" anything because the Monkey Mind is easily distracted and will soon move on to the next shiny object that grabs its attention.  But, if you are troubled by persistent or obsessive thoughts, it can be helpful to use a mantra, prayer or favorite scripture verse, just like we do during meditation.  Instead of focusing on the negative thought, which will only give it more power, mentally say your mantra.  E.g. for Hindus, "om namah Shivaya" or "Hare Krishna."  "As Above, So Below" is well known among pagans.  A popular one for Christians is the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." A good Bible verse is, "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world."  If you repeat the prayer with sincere devotion, it will eventually echo in your heart at all times.  

Some Christians believe that the devil puts negative thoughts into their head, and are therefore particularly anxious whenever these arise.  There is no consistent agreement among theologians in this regard, but if there is a devil, this theory only gives him more power.  It may even be one of his greatest tricks because on top of the original negative thought, your mind is now occupied worrying about the devil and what you fear he may be doing.  Personally I think people give the devil way too much credit.  Psychology would suggest that human beings are more than capable of generating negative thoughts all on our own.  In any case, you are engaging in a battle which has already been won by Christ.  You could remind the devil of this, and tell him, "I rebuke you in the name of Jesus!"  However, again, you'd be wasting time arguing with the devil instead of talking to God.

Letting go of the attachment to positive or negative thinking, or really to our thoughts and desires in general, is so very freeing.

My own approach to all this is to stay focused on God and leave everything in His hands.  When I wake up the first word on my lips is "Jesus."  I pray, "Lord, I give to You this day and always, all of my thoughts, words, deeds and feelings.  May You be glorified and may all beings be blessed."  If I had nightmares, I give them to Him.  If I have anxiety, I give it to Him.  I repeat the Jesus Prayer as needed and it keeps going in the background, to bring to attention at any time during the day.  If your mind is occupied with God there's no room for anything else.  And frankly, it's a helluva lot less work than the exhausting and ultimately futile struggle to micromanage every single thought that the Monkey Mind generates.  And then I get up and "Do what needs to be done," mindful that God is the only doer.


  1. I think you missed the point. Should not have been "Positive thinking" but rather "Sanitizing your thoughts". Try that instead of focusing on this or that diety.

    1. Not sure which "point" you think I missed. This article specifically addresses the Positive Thinking/ Manifesting paradigm. But, "sanitizing your thoughts" is essentially the same thing as "obsessively micro-managing the monkey-mind," with the same drawbacks. Resting in Divine Union, actively doing what needs to be done while remaining nonattached to the outcome, works great for me. To each their own. Thanks for your input.