Sunday, June 26, 2011

Thoughts on New Thought

New Thought is an umbrella term for a variety of people and groups who promote positive thinking and the Law of Attraction. One of the most (in)famous examples is in the movie/book The Secret.

The Law of Attraction claims that we attract everything we have in our lives, for good or ill. If you're at all familiar with the self-help industry, you've probably heard this claim before. You may even have an acquaintance who talks about "manifesting" or "putting something out to the Universe."

I have a friend who's really on a kick with this stuff, so I decided to read up on it. I even watched The Secret. The movie makes some pretty outlandish claims, although they're in line with the Law of Attraction if you take it to its logical conclusion. For example, some of the commentators in the movie talk about how people both attract and cure illnesses with their thoughts. Another commentator says that once you master the Law of Attraction, the universe becomes your catalog.

While these claims sound absurd on their faces, I want to address them. Even with the most ridiculous ideas, I think it's important to say why they're actually ridiculous. It's satisfying to dismiss something out of hand because it sounds silly, but many world-changing ideas started out sounding silly, so I prefer to deal with ideas on their own terms.

New Thought actually has some ideas in common with well-known Hindu/Vedanta teachings. Both groups discuss karma and reincarnation. Both groups discourage identification with the physical body and encourage affirmation of positive ideas. For a Vedantic perspective, I recommend this article, particularly the section "Assert Yourself," by Swami Swahananda of the Ramakrishna Order (full disclosure: this is the organization behind the various Vedanta Societies).

Swami doesn't make claims as bold as in The Secret. In fact, I'm pretty sure Vedanta would discourage the idea of treating the universe as a catalog, since it goes against principles such as nonattachment. You might disagree with Swami's ideas about Spirit and Divinity, but I think the worst you can say about them is that they're unprovable.

If it's true that we attract everything into our lives, that implies some serious victim blaming when bad things happen. Of course, just because an idea is harsh doesn't mean it isn't the truth. However, this article in the New York Times implies that scientific validation for the power of positive thinking doesn't look good. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the benefits could be attributed to the placebo effect.

All that said, I do think that state of mind matters, but not in the sense that you can make the universe your catalog (can you tell that this idea really bothers me?). Psychological approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy focus on changing the way you think about situations, and they can be helpful. I can definitely think of instances in my life where changing my attitude about a situation ultimately changed the situation. However, the attitude change was what was important; the situational change was incidental.

This is where I think The Secret really gets it wrong. The commentators put a lot of emphasis on results, and I think that misses the point. I think the real benefit of a positive attitude is the ability to adapt to whatever situation life throws at you. Have a positive attitude, even visualize what you want, but don't forget to put in some hard work, and know that getting what you want often has less bearing on your happiness than your ability to adapt.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


I have cut all ties with the various freethought/atheist groups I have previously participated in. Sharing a similar answer to one particular question just isn't enough anymore. I got the distinct feeling that my presence didn't matter to anyone in these groups and that nobody was really interested in me as a person. Longtime readers of this blog may recall I have suspected this for some time, but it finally got cemented for me recently.

One major problem with the main group I'd been attending was that the others never let me finish a stream of thought. I understand that some interruption is part of the necessary give-and-take of conversation, but with me it happened every single time.

The other major problem was that I was tired of being treated like my interests didn't matter. While it was OK for some to talk about their musical preferences, mine were treated scornfully. The sad part is that the scorn wasn't even accurate--the "critic" had his facts all wrong about the artist in question. There's more than a bit of irony in someone constantly talking about how he makes decisions based on facts getting it so wrong here.

My views on the supernatural haven't changed. But I'm not going to spend my time with people who clearly don't respect or value me. I don't care how many issues we agree on.

I'm not sure where I go from here. Despite my lack of belief in the supernatural, it seems pretty clear to me that I haven't had good luck with what attempts there have been at freethought-based communities. While I don't want to be one of those atheists who doesn't contribute anything to the larger community, it feels like said community isn't interested in my contribution. It's safe to say I'm debating how much I wish to continue to identify as atheist.

By contrast, I feel like the people in the Vedanta Society have my back. For instance, I told someone in the Vedanta Society that I'd been obsessively listening to the artist I mentioned earlier, and while he didn't seem familiar with them, we still had a nice conversation about music's power to affect people and just how hard it is to succeed in that field.

When I got laid off from my job last year, one of the other devotees offered to pay for my ticket to a fundraising luncheon the Society was having. I told him if it came to that, I'd pay him back as soon as I started working again. He told me not to worry about it and that if I really felt the need to do something, I could just make a donation to the Society.

Some of the big atheist blogs have mentioned this before, but I want to reiterate: people often aren't in houses of worship entirely because they intellectually support what is taught there. It's a sense of community and obligation to fellow human beings that keeps them there. People want to be treated like they matter. If you don't do that, your group will not be successful in the long term, no matter how many theological/political/whatever questions you answer correctly.