There is nothing inherently neoliberal about ‘positive thinking’. But neoliberal capitalism is very good at co-opting everything that goes against it, repackaging it and re-selling it for a profit. This is 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.
Some advocates of positive thinking tell us that an optimistic attitude can take us far. With the right mind-set and enough self-love, anything is possible, so the story goes. Even the least privileged person can accumulate sufficient emotional and psychological strength to confront the cruelties of capitalism, ‘lean in’ and succeed despite the odds. Your thoughts are your destiny. You need only buy enough self-help books to show you the way to self-realisation.
Critics of this approach are furious. They argue that the positive thinking movement is a western, white, middle-class phenomenon which serves to justify rampant inequality, racism, sexism, and all the other obstacles that people face in modern capitalist societies. They also believe that it feeds neoliberal capitalism and helps it to thrive, because it distracts people from their socio-economic reality by making them believe that their biggest problem in life is their own mental attitude. The underlying message is clear: if you are failing, then it must be your fault. Next time, try harder.
To me, this debate is rooted in an illogical and artificial choice between working on our emotional and spiritual strength and well-being—following which we will somehow become happier and more accepting of the system which is organised to exploit and oppress us; or not working on our emotional wellbeing, and thus feeling even more miserable, disempowered and unable to change things for the better.
In the first scenario, we are blamed for enabling further oppression, both of ourselves and others. In the second we are so exhausted from our daily frustrations and negative emotions that we don’t have the time or energy to work for social transformation. This kind of false binary thinking is unnecessary and unhelpful. But is there a better way forward?
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? Then I discovered initiatives such as Decolonising Yoga which discuss how spiritual thought and practice can reinforce oppression and racism. They made me realise that I was not alone in my discomfort towards the idea of acceptance that is so often associated with spirituality and positive thinking. This was encouraging, so I continued my exploration.
Then I suddenly put all the pieces of the puzzle together while watching a documentary series on Vietnam in which a number of Buddhist monks, and most notably Thích Quảng Đức, were shown burning themselves alive during the 1960s in acts of political protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the American-backed South Vietnamese government of the time. Why would Buddhist monks self-immolate for political reasons in Vietnam, or elsewhere, if eastern thought was telling us that our minds were solely responsible for our circumstances?
Wasn’t eastern thought supposed to be about accepting the world as it was? If these monks were willing to die for social change after devoting their entire lives to the spiritual practice of acceptance, there must be something terribly wrong with the western, capitalism-infused interpretation of that word.
As spiritually developed as these monks were, they were still living in the war-torn Vietnam of the 1960s. War was a fact, just as I will always be an Eastern European woman and my passport and accent will sometimes speak louder than my words, however much I build my own emotional strength and capacity to generate positive thoughts. Oppressive power structures are tangible indeed. But there is also a plethora of scientific evidence to show that our thoughts influence both our internal and external realities. How can we reconcile these different perspectives?
The idea that we are able to influence some but not all aspects of our existence can even be explained within the framework of eastern spiritual thought, with a little help from the ‘depth psychology’ of Carl Jung. Jung’s work tells us that, in addition to the personal conscious and unconscious elements of the psyche, there is also a collective component, a supra-structure of our collective (or transpersonal) unconscious. This is the key difference between Jung and Sigmund Freud, and the reason for the professional rupture between the two psychiatrists.
Freud did not believe in the collective component of the psyche but Jung did, and consequently saw the whole of humanity as psychologically interconnected, similar to much of eastern and indigenous thought. If we inject Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious into the idea that the world is a projection of our minds, then we can begin to accommodate the possibility that the oppressive structures of inequality that we experience in daily life reflect our collective unconscious, which we can’t affect simply by changing our own individual thoughts.
However, even if those thoughts are just a drop in the ocean of the collective unconscious, positive thinking at the personal level remains a powerful input for social transformation. And the more of us do it, the more difference we can make. 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.