Does "positive thinking" just maintain the status quo? Not so, says Sonja Avlijaš - it stops despair crippling us
An interesting column from Open Democracy's excellent Transformation section, exploring how "positive thinking became a recipe for attaining personal success and riches instead of a tool for social transformation. We now need to reclaim it", says academic Sonja Avlijaš.
An except below:
Many western interpretations of eastern thought—which seems to be where many ideas about positive thinking come from—tell us that our minds project the worlds we live in. This implies that people get what they deserve, whether this is due to the content of their conscious or subconscious thoughts. These same interpretations also tell us that we need to accept the world as it is in order to become truly happy and lead a fulfilling life.
As a social scientist and an activist devoted to social transformation, I found such an interpretation of eastern thought unacceptable, but had no clue how to think about it differently. Friends also confessed to me that they were afraid to take up meditation as a wellbeing practice because they thought it would make them accept the status quo, while they really believed in social change.
So as a meditation practitioner I was faced with a moral dilemma. Was I really encouraging the status quo by continuing my practice?
...Through my personal practice, I have learned that negative thoughts and emotions tend to paralyse me, and make me less likely to do anything about my situation. But once I manage to clear my head through meditation or other methods like playing the guitar, I feel re-energised, and more willing to engage with the problems of my community and the wider world.
Consequently, I’ve concluded that for me, acceptance is about learning how to liberate myself from the emotional burden of paralysing stress, sadness or anger so that I can be more, not less socially pro-active. This is what I think of as ‘positive thinking.’ It may not make me rich and famous, but it does give me more energy to fight for the causes I believe in, which in turn gives more meaning to my existence. It also makes me more accepting of my own limitations when I fail to perform according to my expectations, which reduces my overall anxiety and makes me more optimistic and pro-active in the longer run.
Therefore, acceptance has nothing to do with becoming indifferent to suffering. On the contrary, it allows us to act on suffering more effectively. Even though neoliberal capitalism has co-opted resilience and positive thinking as consumer goods which it can sell as quick recipes for success, we don’t need to ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater.’
By rejecting the idea of positive thinking and discouraging the use of powerful self-healing tools such as meditation we are actually reinforcing the disempowerment of those who are already socially and economically marginalised. We should be able to see through this hoax and together reclaim positive thinking in the name of social transformation.