Mindfulness is Not Positivity.

Via on Aug 13, 2010

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?

Help.

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.

About Joslyn Hamilton

Joslyn Hamilton is a freelance writer living in beautiful Marin County, California. She is one of the co-founders of Recovering Yogi and also launched Creative Truth or Dare. Joslyn has an imaginary spice + skincare line called SimpleBasic. She is a functioning craftaholic and counts hiking, cooking, reading and rabid tweeting among her many chaste vices. Reach her directly at joslyn@recoveringyogi.com

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49 Responses to “Mindfulness is Not Positivity.”

  1. pushkin says:

    THANK YOU!

  2. Martin Stepek says:

    Hi Joslyn
    I came upon you and this article by chance – not the universe bringing us together or synergy or any other rubbish, just chance while searching mindfulness on google. Just want to say what a lovely refreshing article about which I agree 100%. Keep up the good work.
    Cheers from (the original town of your surname) Hamilton, Scotland
    Martin Stepek

  3. Scott says:

    LOVE this article! Thank you so much.

    YouAreIT.org

  4. Joslyn Hamilton says:

    Exactly. Thank you for putting that so well.

  5. Kim says:

    Interesting article, although I do not believe I have ever heard anyone compare mindfulness and positivity. They are two entirely different creatures. I do believe they can co-exist, I practice mindfulness and I am a positive person. However I would never confuse the two.

    People should act the way they are, not the way other people think they should, your true self will show through now matter how heavy a cloak you wear.

  6. Shawn says:

    Hallelujah! Praise the divine giver of good stuff and positive thoughts! I am a yoga teacher and some weeks I just can't stand all of the word-vomitous platitudes. I just want to scream in the middle of class, you are all going to die so suck up and deal! The yoga community is especially rife with these regurgitated chunks of loving goodness.

    Much of the abundance-speak and loving-kindess-bile, comes from what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (Shambhala Buddhist lineage) calls spiritual materialism. In order to feel like they are spiritual, people often try to act like they are spiritual, which includes wearing yoga clothes, chanting, speaking in certain ways. This, unfortunately, only leads to building up the ego, making people think they are spiritually evolved when in fact they are fragile eggs waiting to be Humpty-Dumptied by the next major life crisis.

    In addition to the ego getting in the way, the concepts of "abundance" and gratitude have been corrupted by American culture, which tends to turn everything into an object for making yourself feel better (e.g. drugs, alcohol, video games, sex, spirituality, charity, cars, houses). You can, however, express gratitude even when things are horribly wrong in your life–"sure I just lost my job, but I still have my health", "okay, I don't have my health, but I can still meditate." Likewise, abundance is not about having "stuff"; it is meant to encourage people to see that life already has an abundance of joy, compassion, love, challenges, etc. that open the mind and heart. So why does it matter that you can't buy a bigger house, throw down that contorted handstand like the super-bendy model on the magazine cover, or got the wrong coffee at Starbucks?

    As I have learned in yoga and in life, challenges, discomforts and suffering are opportunities for growth. If everything were perfect and we were abundantly overflowing with our greatest desires, we would be fat, lazy spiritually empty people (okay, more than we already are). I think Thich Nhat Hahn summarized it perfectly when he talked about suffering being needed to create peace and happiness. "Without suffering, you have no ways in order to learn how to be understanding and compassionate."

  7. Blake Wilson Blake says:

    You rock.

  8. 32000days says:

    I've found that practicing mindfulness and meditation (vipassana) has increased my experience of positivity and happiness in life, not in a naive and empty way, but in a "life can be tough, and bad stuff sometimes happens, so whattya going to do about it?" way. After all, Buddha noted that life was suffering, but he also pointed out that he had a path to ending suffering.

    Reality is reality, and sometimes bad shit goes down. Overreacting to said "bad shit" merely makes your experience of life worse. I'm interested in learning as many technologies and methods as possible – of which mindfulness definitely is one – so as to be in a state of happiness and peace as often as possible *regardless* of the circumstances of my life. Not in a naive, avoidant, Pollyanna way, but instead in an aware, conscious, and, dare I say it, mindful, way. Making my happiness unconditional is the goal here. If this approach makes me a New Age positivity junkie, then so be it… :)

  9. omiya says:

    That was wonderful. Finally, life the way it really is.

  10. Thanks, Joslyn. Enjoyed this very much. Here's my contribution to the same topic, making the same points you make above with a little different twist: Is Al Franken a Yogi?

    Bob Weisenberg
    ElephantJournal

  11. Thanks, Joslyn. Enjoyed this very much.

    Here's my contribution to the same topic, making the same points you make above with a little different twist: Is Al Franken a Yogi?. It starts with:

    Some modern self-help methods have given happiness seeking a bad name. I’m reminded of Al Franken’s hilarious spoofs on positive thinking on Saturday Night Live (looking at himself in the mirror saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me”.)

    Bob Weisenberg
    ElephantJournal

  12. Joyous Living says:

    wow…OK then next time I'm down I'll just think who cares we are all going to die anyway. — NOT… been there done that.
    I'm really sorry that I like to look on the bright side…I get where you are all coming from I really do…but JESUS is 'attacking' thinking positive really the answer it just all sounds so dismal and bitter and well suffering.
    I think positive everyday…and I will continue to do so….see my post on just that thought http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/08/mirror-mir
    Yoga Teachers are supposed to say feel good things…it's what class is for to lead you into a peaceful place…it's a freakin' hour or an hour and a half out most we are really sorry we can't give you a deeper philosophical answer in that time…keep coming back and maybe it will all add up.

    • ARCreated says:

      I'll keep telling my students to "be happy now" "to accept themselves as they are" I will continue to spew my vomitious niceities because the world is an ugly place sometimes and in that space there is a haven…and people need that haven. I will continue to live as "yogic" as possible and that means not judging people that aren't living that…
      Let them chant and inflate their egos and when their time is right they will come to their answers…
      Good Grief can't we just be happy for a moment? And sorry but dying is not an end nor is it a "bad" thing…so even if everyone is going to DIE that's just another step. So while I'm hear doing THIS I'd like to enjoy it.
      POOH POOH on your angy anti happy thoughts I can be mindful and positive. I do it all the time.
      I read the book synopsis – I think people have taken "positive thought" and twisted it a bit..It really is about "you may not get what you want, but you get what you need"

      • (Please see my response below.)

      • ADawnB71 says:

        I don't think she is condemning positivity. I think that when we don't honor our negative emotions, so to speak, or others don't, it causes us to feel that we are "bad", psychologically, instead of acknowledging them as okay, honoring them, and allowing them to pass through us. It can come across in a very condescending way when someone is babbling, "be positive", and discounting what you are dealing with.

    • Hi, ARCreated. I'm on the run, going to NYC to visit brand new grandson. So I have no time.

      But I wanted to just write a quick note of support. I can't speak for Buddhism, but healthy positive thinking is an integral part of Yoga philosophy, starting with the ancient Yoga texts, including the Yoga Sutra.

      I'll cite chapter and verse in a few days when I get back. A little bit of my thinking is in my response above (Al Franken), but I have lot more to say about it.

      Bob Weisenberg
      ElephantJournal

    • Daniel Shaw says:

      Yoga Teachers are supposed to say feel good things…it's what class is for to lead you into a peaceful place——-What!!! Really?
      Be careful with the word "good" and "Supposed" to. Sometimes as teachers trying to be bright, we start to develop and pass on compulsory positivity. Being honest in your teachings may be bringing up the truth of your reality that day, or even your life. Many people have dealt with trauma and hardship. By masking over that experience with brightness we never get to know the dark. Last year I came out to my students with the fact that I was severely depressed (partly because of the facade this community can press upon us with ("Rainbows and Flowers"). It was through sharing the darkness that I was dealing with, that i connected to the students on a much deeper, and profoundly peaceful level. We are not here to bring a "fix" or fast food satisfaction to the masses. If we miss out on the spectrum of experience by ignore the facts of life, we may walk by the deepest part of our practice without ever knowing.

  13. [...] In Buddhist thought, I’m okay just as I am. It’s all about self-acceptance, even if that sometim… [SEO: A good read, the article title is: Mindfulness is not Positivity. Discusses why Buddhism is [...]

  14. Hello again, Joslyn.

    Ok, I just realized that I have written two comments which totally contradict each other here. First I linked you to my Is Al Franken a Yogi? post, and said it makes the same points you make in your article. Then, in response to ARCreated just above, in which she passionately defends positive thinking, I tell her to look at the same Al Franken blog in support of her position!

    So, which is it, Bob?

    I was in a hurry when I wrote both of those responses. Now that I've had some time to think about it more carefully, I believe that my support of ARCreated, in favor of positive thinking, is closer to the right response, although there is certainly some clear support for your view, too.

    But in my Al Franken blog I carefully make a distinction between healthy positive thinking and unhealthy positive thinking. (None of this has anything to do with your remarks about Buddhist philosophy in your blog, just positive thinking as it relates to Yoga philosophy and positive thinking in general.)

    My Al Franken blog now seems like such a direct response to your blog, and largely in support of ARCreated's objections, I'm going to reproduce it here (although you really should go to my site just to see the pictures of Al Franken then and now):

    Is Al Franken a Yogi?

    Some modern self-help methods have given happiness seeking a bad name. I’m reminded of Al Franken’s hilarious spoofs on positive thinking as Stuart Smiley on Saturday Night Live (looking at himself in the mirror saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me”.)

    “Positive thinking” is a somewhat tricky issue for Yoga philosophy. Yoga is based on determinedly seeing things as they really are–”pure awareness” and all that. But the simple truth of the universe, according to Yoga, is so wondrous that Yoga philosophy can look like a massive dose of “positive thinking” to the casual observer.

    Most positive thinking is actually seeing truth that’s hidden, or it is just creative imagining. Those kinds of positive thinking are completely in sync with Yoga.

    On the other hand, any “positive thinking” that is a distortion of reality is counter to Yoga and unhealthy.

    As an example, I might improve my tennis game by imagining I’m Roger Federer. (Imagination is not untruth!) But I’m in deep trouble if I start thinking I really am Roger Federer.

    Simply put, the truth is pure Yoga. Any kind of self-deception is the antithesis of Yoga.

    I would define “self-deception” as simply anything you believe that is, in reality, untrue, particularly things you believe about yourself. A simple example―”I’m not good enough to write this essay”, or, more seriously, “I’m not worthy of being loved”. In self-deception like this, positively thinking yourself out of these falsehoods is simply recognizing the truth, and good for you.

    On the other hand, positively thinking you can jump off a tall building and fly is definitely not good for you. Most examples are not so easy, of course. But figuring out which are which goes to the heart of mental and Yogic health.

    Getting back to Al Franken, the truth is that he probably is good enough. He probably really is smart enough. And doggone it, people probably really do like him. So I think his positive thinking, while hilarious, is both healthy and Yogic!

    (Postscript–It may be too fine a point for a tongue-in-cheek piece, but a truly Yogic Al Franken would not be looking into a mirror and trying to convince himself that he’s good enough, etc. He would be meditating and simply RECOGNIZE these things about himself through heightened awareness. And, of course, ironically he wouldn’t care anymore because he would have achieved a state of egoless bliss!)

    Bob Weisenberg
    Elephant Journal

    • ARCreated says:

      Bless you!!! In self-deception like this, positively thinking yourself out of these falsehoods is simply recognizing the truth, and good for you.

      I guess this is how I see the situation. But I even take it a step further (I think my time with Douglas Brooks and Carlos Pomeda has def. colored my thoughts) See I get a little frustrated with "spirtual superiourity". The idea that "my" ideas are better than yours. That what you do is "wrong" —- it starts to feel more like religion than spirit. And this sort of denouncing the "power of positive thought" always feels like that for me "we are smarter and more advanced and you are delusional" But are we? as Bob says when we uncover the beauty and power of who we really are that is coming to the truth? The world may suck on some levels but the "reality" is beyond this plane so even if we are all bastards hurting each other here on earth — beyond that we are spiritual beings that are complete and perfect and wonderful….(more)

  15. ARCreated says:

    And here is where the spiritual materialism lives for me.

    In my loosely based tantric non-dualist understanding I don't see "pleasure" or "enjoyment" or even "material wealth" as anti-thetical to spirituality. In my estimation this thing called LIFE isn't always about getting out of it…it's not a bad thing to be avoided or rid of…I see it has this wonderful game/playground. And it's OK for people to drive a nice car and have a nice house and own things…it's OK for them to even o ver indulge in the pleasurs of life when that is the point of their experience at that time.

  16. Joyous Living says:

    "The goodness of your heart is such that it wants your mind to have beautiful thoughts."

    - Gurumayi

    • RAS says:

      The strangeness of that sentence is that Gurumayi seems to think that the heart and the mind are two different things.

  17. Hi, Joslyn.

    I hope you won't mind if I write a strong rebuttal to the ideas in your blog. Ever since ARCreated's comment and my response with the Al Franken blog above, I've been thinking about this more and more.

    The more I think, the more problems I have, particularly when I see 223 people jumping on the anti-positive thinking bandwagon, an extraordinary number for any blog.

    Here are my thoughts:

    1) In Yoga philosophy, at least, and I what I know of Buddhism, getting old and dying IS perfectly OK, not an occasion for getting all upset and wringing one's hands as you do in your blog. This positive attitude toward dying would certainly be considered positive thinking in itself by any objective observer.

    2) What could be more positive thinking than a religion like Buddhism that has as its primary purpose "an end to suffering"?

    3) Buddhism is not, as far as I can tell, about non-judgment alone. Isn't that just a stepping stone to the truth? The end-point of strict "no-mind" meditation would be utter neutrality, not the love, kindness, and peace Buddhism is noted for. These are in themselves positive thinking judgments. Non-judgmental meditation is just a way to clear our minds so we can make better judgments when we act, not so we can make NO judgments. When Buddhism does make judgments, as it most certainly does, contrary to your account, it starts with a very positive-thinking orientation, starting with its very positive view of human nature itself.

    4) My knowledge of Buddhism is limited (10-12 books and countless hours of discussions with serious Buddhists), and I've never practiced it, but how is it that techniques like "loving kindness meditation" are not positive thinking? Pema Chodron's books, in particular, are filled with can only be called positive thinking approaches to managing one's consciousness. Here again, non-judgmental meditation is only a stepping stone to seeing the world more clearly so we can, in the end, fill our minds with the right positive thoughts.

    4) I'm told it's not representative of some forms of Buddhism, but the only source document I've ever read, the Dhammapada, is decidedly about positive thinking. It explicitly tells us that we are what we think, then proceeds to tell us in great detail exactly what we should think and even how we should feel. It's completely about mind control, even advocating withdrawal from society so we can better control what gets in there. How is this any different qualitatively from positive thinking?

    5) It's completely wrong to label all positive thinking as materialistic. Some is and some isn't, just like Buddhism itself.

    6) Stereotyping positive thinking is no different than stereotyping Buddhism. Positive thinking is a very wide field ranging from profound philosophy to the "Gimme-gimme" label you seem to want to hang on all positive thinking.

    7) Positive thinking of the healthy kind has an enormous positive impact on millions of peoples lives. For many it IS their spirituality. And deriding it as a whole makes no more sense than deriding Buddhism as a whole.

    Time to get some other opinions. I'm certainly hoping that some of the many knowledgeable Buddhists, some of whom have undoubtedly enthusiastically checked the "Like" button on you blog, will tell me how I've wildly misunderstood Buddhism.

    I'm honestly very open to that. Please speak up if you're out there! This is the way I learn.

    Bob Weisenberg
    ElephantJournal

    • integralhack says:

      Wow, Bob. Great response and I think I agree with all your points. Joslyn obviously has positive intentions in her article and it made me think of another great article by Kathryn Budig: "Why It's Okay to Not Be Nice:" http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/04/why-its-ok

      I think that Joslyn and Kathryn are both asking for us to "keep it real" in our expectations for change and in our interactions with others, respectively. In other words, the smile in reaction to misfortune and the saccharine-sweet reactions to another's bad behavior aren't always the necessary or best response. I think this is a great message for Buddhists and yogis.

      In this regard, I do agree with Joslyn's main point–that oversimplified positive thinking such as that promoted by The Secret deserves a scowl and can even be dangerous (I've written about that here: http://www.yogabuddhist.com/blog/the-law-of-attra… ).

      On the other hand, as you point out, yoga and Buddhism are all about change and cultivating good qualities. Part of cultivating good qualities is to *try* to be mindful and positive, but in a thoughtful and aware way. We just shouldn't be "ignorantly positive." When I think of ignorant positive thinking, I get an instant visual of George W. Bush on an aircraft carrier in his flight suit with the slogan "Mission Accomplished" behind him.

      Thanks to Joslyn for writing this thoughtful article and to Bob for his thoughtful response!

      -Matt

    • Joslyn Hamilton says:

      Bob,

      Thanks so much for your strong (yet thoughtful!) rebuttal.

      The point I was hoping to make in a sort of flippant way in the article is that the "the Stepford-like positivity movement" (as NellaLou so eloquently called it above) doesn't seem to go deep enough to really grasp the nuances that Buddhism so beautifully balances.

      Directing our thoughts in a constructive, peace-able, and compassionate direction——and practicing metta——are such useful and spiritually progressive practices. Simply spewing out the jargon of the positivity movement and calling it a day are not so much. In the Bay Area one encounters endless shallow spiritual lingo without a lot of foundation or commitment behind it.

      I loved the article that you posted recently: “The Downside to Down Dog” by Kelly Grey, and particularly this one line about what yoga (and, by extension, the spiritual life) really is:
      "I believe it to be in the Mexican mother-in-law who knows absolutely nothing about yoga and is a bit overweight and struggles with her health, but has handmade tamales waiting for you every morning for breakfast simply because she found out you love tamales."

      So beautifully put. And yes, I'm mostly just interested in "keeping it real." (Thanks, integralhack.) Which is why I'll be the first to admit that I am only a mere mortal and not a real Buddhist at this point.

      • Hi, Joslyn. Thanks for being so receptive to hearing my ideas.

        I certainly have the same distaste you do for platitudinous spirituality. It's just that I have experienced that kind of fluff from Buddhists as much as followers of say, Wayne Dyer.

        I've also observed that one person's platitude is another's life-changing mantra.

        Another interesting factoid–positive thinking is so accepted now in medical circles that it is included on the Mayo Clinic website, which has very stringent research standards:

        Positive thinking: Reduce stress, enjoy life more

        And apparently it predates Buddhism in Tibet:

        The Tibetan Art of Positive Thinking

        Thanks for you very thought-provoking blog.

        Bob Weisenberg
        ElephantJournal

  18. Buddhism does include affirmative teachings about positive thinking. Metta-bhavana practice comes to mind. And dedicating merits. The opening verses of the Dhammapada are another well-known example. Another is the notion of Samma Sankappa, translated as Right Intention or Right Thought, as one of the eight parts of the Noble Eightfold Path.

    The kamma of cultivating positive thoughts here and now can be a powerful impetus toward awakening. And this truth is in no way weakened by the wisdom practice of recognizing the underlying nature of these thoughts as impermanent and not-self phenomena. An effective Dhamma practice includes the skillful use of positive thinking, at those times when thinking occurs.

    Thoughts are like actions. They are expressions of kamma. If you keep on engaging in harmful actions, and if you call yourself a "Buddhist," you probably would try to change your actions so that they would become more compassionate. Likewise with thoughts. It is possible to train the mind. With best wishes.

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  26. Auki says:

    The fundamental problem with positive thinking is that many people use positive thinking to maintain a state of denial about certain problems and challenges which it is NOT OK to be in denial about. The problems and challenges of living on this planet need our best effort, care and creativity… not our positivity!!!

  27. Randolph says:

    terrific picture next to your bio Joslyn

  28. Michelle Marchildon says:

    We are of one mind. Wait a minute, is that Buddhist?

  29. Benosmom says:

    What I needed today! Thanks!

  30. Haley says:

    It is spelled "all right": two words. Please respect grammar if you're going to publish a newsletter. Thank you.

  31. ADawnB71 says:

    Thank you! So tired of this condescending baloney … yes, I believe in trying to do your best, but it is very hurtful and dishonoring of others experiences and emotions to not value their negative aspects of life so to speak. You can't positive away your bills or you end up in Delusion-ville.

  32. Joslyn Hamilton says:

    Wow! Thanks for sharing that story. That is great. I agree there is a lot more to this discussion than my brief and flippant missive above. Many books could probably be written about it.

  33. integralhack says:

    Great response and message, Greg. Great to have you back.

    -Matt

  34. YogiOne says:

    Ha Ha. Correlation is not causation. Failing to grasp this is #1 of the 12 impossible beliefs before breakfast.

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