The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – what are these but the triumph of good ol’ American optimism over common sense, or indeed, any kind of sense at all? Global financial crisis – caused by the incredible unthinking belief that Capitalism can solve anything, a belief sold to you by the ones who benefit. And global warming; it’s either not happening (because I can’t bring myself to think something so negative) or if it is, technology will fix it. Or at least, we can build a shelter to survive in. Yeah!
It’s not a new thing. Positive thinking, as a recent critique has shown, has a long history, especially in America. How can it be that we have all fallen for it? Are we simply too happy, and therefore, gullible? All the “science” and psychology has gone to telling us what we wanted to know: happiness is good. Are Buddhists to blame for buying into the “happiness” paradigm. I’m guilty of it myself! Maybe I should go and mope for a while about how I’ve helped end civilization.
Buddhism has been successfully marketed as a ‘positive’ psychology. In this it is, of course, precisely in line with the modern developments in Christianity, as promoted by the right wing evangelists. Historically, Christianity was often an extremely negative psychology, which relied on reducing the individual to a worm in the sight of God, so he could be exposed to the saving grace of Christ, or more to the point, the Church. Such negativism came under scathing criticism in the latter days of the Church, and in implicit acknowledgement of the accuracy of the critique, modern Christianity has largely abandoned the guilt-sodden, sin-obsessed ways of the past. But the happy-clappy services of the modern evangelists are no ancient tradition, stemming no further back than post-Puritan America.
Buddhism tells people that they are responsible for their own suffering – so hey! Why worry about social conditions, poverty, or discrimination… This is, of course, counteracted by the strong emphasis on compassion in modern Buddhism, but we can’t deny that the narcissistic ‘me and my happiness’ forces are present, and powerful.
In point of fact, however, real Buddhism is strikingly balanced; for every positive there’s a negative. My favorite Dhammapada verse:
What is laughter, what is joy, when the world is ever burning?
Shrouded by darkness, would you not seek the light?
Whenever we idealize happiness, we alienate a sad person. Yes, Buddhist meditation texts speak often of happiness, but they also acknowledge the ‘spiritual depression’ (nirāmisa domanassa) that arises as one contemplates the wondrous dhamma that one has not yet attained.
Art is terrific to bring you down from those fakely happy feelings. Try a really, really sad song, or a story about a deal with the devil that goes wrong in the worst way, or (and i owe this recommendation to my friend Giles) a relentlessly bleak post-apocalyptic film.
If none of these work, there’s always that daily horror movie right there on your TV – the 6.30 news.
Let me know your favorite tips for getting in touch with the depressing truth.