Positive Thinking, Realism and Pure Mind

Yesterday on Twitter, fustar posted a great video of an animated speech by Barbara Ehrenreich in which she takes apart the concept of ‘positive thinking’.

She argues that the culture of ‘positive thinking’ that tries to convince people that their very real problems will be solved if they simply adopt a positive mindset is delusional, cruel and dangerous. She deftly dismantles the idea that our thoughts can somehow physically change our environment – that by wishing for something we can somehow manifest it, and in doing so also demonstrates this can be a destructive act.

She’s right of course – you cannot manipulate your reality by simply thinking positively. I know – I think we all know – people who are like this. I know people who berate me for not being positive about certain things – almost to the point of suggesting they my apparent negative attitude causes the problems or at least supports them.

What stood out for me however was when she was talking about how things like quantum science is used to attempt to prove the power of positive thinking. She gave an example of a general argument:

Nothing is real. Nothing is true. Whatever you think, that’s how the world is. So, if you think positively you make the world positively according to this pseudo scientific explanation.

This, she implies is the general idea that

You can change the world with your thoughts.

What immediately leapt into my mind is the opening lines of “The Dhammapada” one of the oldest and most revered Buddhist texts.

It begins:

We are what we think.

All that we are arises with our thoughts.

With our thoughts we make the world.

Which appears on the surface to suggest a direct link between thought and the ‘world’.

It continues:

Speak or act with an impure mind

And trouble will follow you

As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

It also states:

Speak or act with a pure mind

And happiness will follow you

As your shadow, unshakable.

This too may seem to suggest ‘positive thinking’ – there appears to be a direct cause and effect between state of mind and positive or negative outcomes. This, however, is a misunderstanding and one which I think leads to Buddhism often being dismissed along with various self-help things, positive thinking or ‘new-age’ ideas.

There are a number of ways in which what the Buddha is saying is not endorsing the power of ‘positive thinking’.

One requires understanding of how reality is viewed in Buddhism. Many schools of thought, certainly in Mahayana Buddhism, argue that there is only mind. There is no objective reality ‘out there’ – all phenomena are nothing but mind, and all perceptions are mind. The only way to know things exist is with the mind, so there is no way of knowing anything beyond your mind, so the only reality is mind. So in a crude way, Ehrenreich’s sample argument that she dismisses that:

Nothing is real. Nothing is true. Whatever you think, that’s how the world is.

Is not entirely untrue from a Buddhist perspective, but only again in the most crude way. It is enough to say that the Mahayana viewpoint of reality stresses the non-duality of mind and ‘the world’.

This is, however, a hugely complex subject and one I am certainly not learned enough in to tackle in any big way – suffice to say that this view removes any kind of separation between perceiver and perceived, thus ‘with our thoughts we make the world’ becomes a much more literal statement. If you want to know more about this, I highly recommend “Contemplating Reality: A Practitioner’s Guide to the View in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism” by Andy Karr which is a really thorough explanation of the Buddhist view of reality.

In more practical terms however, I think what the Buddha is saying is not only not an endorsement of positive thinking, but indeed agrees with Ehrenreich’s argument. It also points out aspects of the debate that she does not touch on.

Having laid waste to ‘positive thinking’ and ‘negative thinking’ to boot, Ehrenreich’s ‘radical suggestion’ is ‘realism’. She argues that we should try to figure out what is actually happening in the world and see what we can do. We should not pre-tint our glasses as we gaze at reality – we should see it as it is and act accordingly. This is exactly what Buddhism teaches, and through the basic practice of mindfulness meditation encourages us to train in and cultivate. The Buddha formulated his great truths and the path to liberation by meditating and seeing reality how it really is. He did not ‘think positively’ and affect change – he inspected reality and discovered the truth. He was concerned with the here and now, and what was arising, through diligent awareness of the mind and body.

So, the Buddha does not urge us to ‘think positively’ – indeed the words he used were:

Speak and act with a pure mind.

Pure is not the same as positive. A pure mind is unblemished – it is not preconceiving anything but simply accepting reality as it is. We are then urged to ‘speak and act’ with this mind.

The Buddha then said that to do so :

happiness will follow you

As your shadow, unshakable.

You may argue – does this still not claim a physical reaction or positive gain from mental states? Note however that the Buddha said speak and act. These are physical actions with consequences in the real world. Thought alone is not enough. Ehrenreich’s position is that ‘positive thinking’ alone will not achieve anything – and she is right. But by acting in a manner which is inspired by a pure mind, the Buddha argues will have positive benefits.

If you go about your day with an angry mindset you will act accordingly – and those actions will bring trouble. Similarly, if you go about your day with a ‘positive’ mindset you may act in a way which is inappropriate, your perceptions and understanding fogged by a mindset which is preloaded and not in tune to reality.

The Buddha claims that happiness will come if you speak and act from a pure viewpoint – one in tune with reality. One could do this by following Ehrenreich’s advice.

Try to figure out what is actually happening in the world and see what we can do.

Both argue that we should inspect reality as-it-is, without false mindsets to influence us, and act accordingly.

In “Each Moment Is The Universe”, Dainin Katagiri puts it:

So before your mind starts to analyze, accept everything that exists as the contents of your life. Open your eyes and see all beings vividly, as they really are, right now, right here. That is called Right Seeing, the first step of Shakyamuni Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path. After that, with a calm mind, profoundly think what you intend to do. Then, whatever it is that you do, do it wholeheartedly.