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Is All This Positive Thinking Getting You Down?

09/06/2011 03:01 pm ET | Updated Nov 06, 2011

I grew up during the '70s in a small town with huge spiritual significance to the New Age inclined. Mount Shasta is said to be inhabited by aliens, Atlanteans, Sasquatch, panthers that morph into saints and more. My parents were tuned in, dropped out, building their own log cabin and planting gardens. Graduates of UC Berkeley, they weren't particularly New Age inclined.

Nonetheless, I grew up steeped in New Age belief, ritual and influence. My first job was working at a health food store owned by the Saint Germain Foundation. All of the dollar bills had to face the mountain. Members wear colors assigned to specific days each week. Thousands of pilgrims arrived every summer for festivals and healing in the sacred meadows of the mountain. Patchouli is the scent of my childhood. My fourth grade teacher lived in a teepee.

To this day, people continue to come from all over the world to bask in the spiritual power (and possibly alien influence) of the mountain. The main street is lined with crystal shops. Once inside, one may purchase sage, drums, incense, crystals of various provenance, volumes of primarily self-published books and artwork depicting Saint Germain and various other "ascended masters" in all of their violet and gold glory. Ancient mysticism is cobbled together (and not neatly, really) with groovy modern interpretations. Did you know that the Aztecs and the Atlanteans were friends? Whoa, man!

In the mainstream, however, all of this "new age" thinking was highly marginalized. Sure, there was the occasional Shirley MacLaine, mystic Carlos Castenada or gentle, groovy Richard Bach, but on the whole, New Age beliefs were, well, goofy. And weird.

Then came a bridge between New Age and the mainstream. The era of the self-help book spawned yet another wave of gurus, books, cruises and coffee mugs with slogans. A bit unfairly, "self-help" became and remains a euphemism for "lame", "navel-gazing," "narcissism" and "pathetic." But is it "pathetic" to want to help oneself and to feel better? Well, it depends. The era of the victim clashed with the previous era of just realizing, man, that we are one, we have lived before, we live with magic and we are probably not alone -- this is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.

But the last several years have seen an enormous come back of New Age thinking, repackaged as positive thinking. You know, glass half full kind of stuff, sans a necessary belief in wise aliens hidden in plain sight or visitations by ascended masters in purple garb.

"The Secret" and Oprah together created a sort of happy maelstrom and mainstream romance with the power of positivity. Movies like "What the Bleep Do We Know" delved deeper into the metaphysical relationships between thoughts, energy and quantum physics.

You create your own reality. Thoughts become things. Breathe, believe, receive.

Cleansed of suspicious New Age kookiness, positive thinking has spawned a not-so-cottage industry with gurus like Marianne Williamson, Esther Hicks, Michael Dooley, Michael Beckwith, Louise Hay, Jack Canfield, Eckhardt Tolle, Doreen Virtue and Dr. Wayne Dyer selling books, tapes, t-shirts and week long cruises hand over fist.

Positive thinking is very big business.

Certainly these accelerated, hyper-stimulated times, when the world seems in crisis on every front, creates a strong need for positivity. Religion is for people who fear hell, spirituality is for those who've been there, as is oft quoted in positive thinking circles. We don't need no organized religion, we just need to focus on feeling good. All the stinkin' time.

Trying to focus only on the good, only on feeling better, leaves one 100 percent responsible for each and every outcome. Lost your job? You manifested that. Ugly divorce? Soul agreement from another lifetime. Terrible economy? Collective manifestation. Broke? Because you don't believe you deserve money. Look into the mirror and say that you love yourself. You're good enough, you're smart enough and doggone it, people like you, as Stuart Smalley lisped on SNL.

It is not hard to see why simply loving oneself, meditating, focusing on an "attitude of gratitude," on abundance and energy is so deeply appealing right now. Things have gotten serious in this world, and it's terrifying. We must find some explanation, we must cope with the brutal news of the day, the factions and nuclear proliferation, the Taliban and technology, the ADHD, vanilla-chai-latte, 3D world we have created for ourselves. Free floating anxiety is rampant.

For me, from a philosophical and pragmatic point of view, thinking positively and focusing my attention on as much good as possible just makes sense. But is it really the way for everyone?

What happens when one stuffs one's sad, angry, hopeless, negative thoughts? When one interrupts oneself in the midst of venting only to be terrified that in merely speaking of it, one has doomed oneself to more and more of the same? Thoughts become things, as Michael Dooley says. Oh no!

Let go. Let it pass. Life is an illusion, positive thoughts are thousands of times more powerful than negative ones. Just work your way up the ladder of feeling -- even one step above abject pain to maybe something like humiliation or wanting revenge is a higher vibration, these positive thinking gurus would say. Just keep your vibration as positive as is possible in the moment, and good things will come to you. In fact, like a magnet of attraction -- they must.

I put forth to you that I believe this, hook, line and sinker. And yet, in the past six years of my life, I have had a great number of misfortunes. Personal life, financial life, professional life. A number of waves have hit me, despite my positive thinking. So -- is this stuff working?

Positive thinking, law of attraction believers across the spectrum of same would answer that in a variety of ways:

  • You are dealing with karma from another life. You have to clear that karma.
  • You are manifesting change and heartbreak because you don't fundamentally love yourself or feel you deserve the "good."
  • You have chosen this life, this path, in order to teach your soul important lessons that it wanted to learn in this life. Thusly, there really is nothing going wrong at all.
  • You are only focusing on what isn't working but in reality, great things are also happening, things along the lines of grace, wisdom and humility.

Just over one year ago, my brother Peter killed himself. For me, it was a huge crisis of positive thinking faith. Had I manifested that? What about the terrible shock and grief? How was I to feel better or put a positive spin on that?

As the owner of dozens of positive thinking books and an avid listener of Hay House Radio and Esther Hicks CDs, I had all the tools and supplies to work my way through the grief, but I discovered the only truly affective balm was the passage of time. One excruciating day at a time. But while that time passed, in between sudden bouts of hot, wrenching tears, I tried to feel better by grazing among the books and tapes I own. For me, it was better than the alternative: living completely surrounded by unquenchable pain. I was helping myself.

I found comfort in meditation, in the letting go that this type of free-floating spirituality encourages. It isn't good or bad, my brother's death -- it just is. And his spirit, his energy, his chi, his whatever, has moved on. I do believe in life after death, because two moments in my life led me to: a lecture by Dr. Joseph Chilton Pearce about the mysterious and so far never witnessed or recorded moment, when a baby's heart siphons enough electric spark from its mother to begin beating, and the death of my ex-husband's grandfather, while in the same room with him. If energy never dies, it only shifts form, then when Harry stopped breathing where did that energy go? I felt it, up in the corner of the room looking down on us. Or did I? Witnessing death is an awe-inspiring, goose bump experience. The experience changed me.

Right now, like 99 percent of us, I have at least five or six issues in my life right now that I could feel pretty terrible about. You know the feelings: worry, fear, hopelessness, anger. But given that I have a choice between freaking out and carrying on as positively as I can, I'm choosing to carry on with hope and faith that things will work themselves out. In part, I am aided by the fact that I am 47 years old and, well, things have always worked themselves out, one way or another. I know this, you know this.

So what about the plethora of positive thinking books, gurus, channels and aisle after aisle of self-help filled to overflowing with this new boom time for its authors? Are they snake oil salesman?

Surely, some are. Common sense would dictate that during times of great stress, various magicians appear with ways to feel better. It was ever thus. There have been many crisis times in the history of humanity and various mystic beliefs that have risen to meet those times by giving comfort -- and raking in money. Are all the positive thinking, law of attraction gurus charlatans? I don't think so. Some are, some aren't. And even those that are, if they make you feel better, in what way have you been cheated? Be judicious, do what feels right to you, and know that you simply cannot feel good all of the time.

With pain comes growth, and all of that. And with growth comes an increasing sense of peace. Life happens. The good and the bad, the up and the down. The good times wouldn't be as good without their necessary counterpart.

Surely, one should never march headlong into any belief system and abandon one's own sense of self, and of what feels right. Yes, there are those more vulnerable to belief systems who for whatever variety of reasons cannot distinguish between what serves them and what they are serving.

The positive thinking movement of the late '90s and aughts is a reaction to the rapid changes and tension all over the world. Things are moving fast, and we need to hang on to something to make sense of it. It is a cyclical return to New Age thinking of the late '60s and early '70s -- a mishmash of mysticism and magical thinking -- that was a reaction to the horror of Vietnam, the confusion of the sexual revolution and the sick-making lies of Watergate.

If we have learned anything in past generations, it is to keep our eyes wide open to the tides and trends of our times. There is nothing new under the sun. In essence, positive thinking is a return to common sense. Is the glass half full, or is it half empty? I don't know about you, but the half empty glass doesn't make me feel inspired.

It doesn't take a genius to notice that:

  • Feeling optimistic gives you more hope and energy.
  • Focusing on what you like rather than what you don't like fills your days with more cheer. (Who wants to become grumpy Mrs. Cratchett?)
  • Having a belief system of whatever kind helps tame the chaos of the world and make it more manageable.
  • Wanting to feel better helps you avoid the trap of self-pity and helplessness.

Being that we only have this one, wild and precious life as you and as me, right here and right now, striving to overcome, to lift one's spirits, to find and experience that which is good, satisfying, funny and loving is, for me, the only choice.

Whatever gets you there, gets you there. We tend to complain about the way corporations and politicians have brainwashed us and taken away our choices, but in doing so, we have succumbed, collectively, to a helpless mentality -- one in which even those with wise and comforting words for us give us permission to not reflect and think critically about just where, exactly, this philosophy is coming from.

No, I can't feel good every single moment of every single day. I accept that part of my humanity. But I'm a wise consumer; I don't buy every CD and every book about positive thinking. I just do what works and feels good most of the time. The world is not coming to an end. When you feel bad or negative, this will not heap more negativity onto you. You just, on the whole, strive to be happy. Is this selfishness or self-centered living? I know that when I am happy, I am nicer to other people. When my needs are met, I am more giving. When I feel hopeful, I'm more likely to take a risk or try something new. For me, the alternative is unbearable.

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