Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Spawn of Transcendental Meditation: Toxic Positivity

I stumbled on a review of book about the dark-side of positivity on modern American culture. An excerpt:

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt: New York
Hardcover, 256 pages, $12.42
October 2009

In the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, positive thoughts were flowing out into the universe in unprecedented volumes, escaping the solar system, rippling through vast bodies of interstellar gas, dodging black holes, messing with the tides of distant planets. If anyone--deity or alien being--possessed the means of transforming these emanations into comprehensible form, they would have been overwhelmed by images of slimmer bodies, larger homes, quick promotions, and sudden acquisitions of great wealth.

But the universe refused to play its assigned role as a "big mail order department." In complete defiance of the "law of attraction," long propounded by the gurus of positive thinking, things were getting worse for most Americans, not better.

Happy talk is killing us. Faux cheerfulness is blinding us. Optimism is making us delusional. And America is knee-deep in the happy happy joy joy, always looking on the bright side of life schtick, has been from the 19th century on, and Barbara Ehrenreich is, to put it mildly, so over it.

While "positive thinking" has been a part of the American scene at least since Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich, it seems to have reached epidemic proportions in the modern New Age, fundamentalist Christian, self-help, and related movements.

Perhaps, to some extent, influenced by the American strain of "positivity," the Maharishi almost certainly would have agreed with Hill's most famous mantra: "What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve." (Paul Mason writes about the negative impact on the TM Movement of Maharishi's admonition to "tell the sweet truth" in his biography of Maharishi.)

The dark-side of American positivity, as Ehrenreich is reported to discuss in her book, is a "blame-the-victim" mentality: Everything that happens to one is caused by one's thoughts and beliefs, including cancer, poverty, depression, genocide, ....

In the Transcendental Meditation Movement, this belief also led to a phobia about "negativity." In my experience, true believers reacted with horror to any doubts, complaints, reports of TM not working, bad news -- and most especially "negative" persons. The net result was people who were in any kind of discomfort (and talked about it, foolishly), were not only not offered help -- they were shunned!

I wrote on the old Trancenet, that when I was in the grip of this belief, if I saw a man lying in the street, not only would I not try to help, I would cross the street to avoid picking up his "stress" or "negative karma."

Many, if not most, groups that critics label cults have similar doctrines, such as Scientology's "pulling it in" (explained in the first comment rejecting a puff piece about Scientology). Sometimes referred to as Lifton's "doctrine over person," it's easy to see how this concept benefits a toxic group: it's a thought-stopper that blocks any doubts, it tends to isolate any critics or doubters and keeps them from infecting the faithful, it increases dependency on the leader and the group, it redirects any doubters' justified anger away from the leader and towards punishing themselves, it tends to force dissenters out of the group and marginalizes them.

It seems to me that this positivity-as-anti-negativity is/was rampant in the TM Movement. And it is perpetuated in TM's spin-offs: Ravi Shankar's Art of Living, Deepak Chopra, "Dr." Johnny Gray, Beverly Barbara DeAngelis, a host of others, large and small.

As a therapist, I have no problem with positivity. (I am greatly influenced by the "strengths-based perspective.") A realistic, positive appraisal of one's strengths, accomplishments, values, and dreams seems to be a minimum requirement for self-esteem and, thus, mental health. And, it seems to be a pre-requisite to even contemplating change or action leading to new success. I've never known anyone to succeed who is convinced they will fail.

On the other hand, I have no problem with "negativity." How can we grow and change without some understanding of the challenges we face?

The problem with either positivity or negativity is when they are out of balance. When they become obsessions -- or phobias.

Guilt and shame, which so many of us privately experienced in TM and similar groups, are not good motivators. They are frequently toxic, destructive, corrosive.

And blind positivity readily leads to unrealistic expectations -- even delusion, as some of us discovered.

Or so it seems to me. I look forward to your thoughts in the comments below.


Cross-posted on Facebook

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