Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Optimism is not the same as magical thinking

I recently came across the following headline on Alternet, Don't Look on the Bright Side: Pessimism, Not Magical Thinking, Is What Will Save Us.

My immediate reaction was, “Optimism is NOT magical thinking.” I have written about this before, that religion, reduced to its essence, is simply an optimistic world view.

Religion means optimism. Faith means accepting that something is behind everything after all. That there is a meaning to existence, a purpose that has more depth than mere survival and the trivial enjoyments and pursuits that preoccupy the majority of people. Even an atheist has to find, accept or devise -- if for nothing more than practical reasons -- that there is some structure, some purpose to his own presence in the world. Science, for instance, cannot stand without a faith in the existence of structures and laws that are fathomable.

In a world where suffering is omnipresent, one needs a reason for living. Otherwise, the only logical option, in the face of inevitable suffering and death, is suicide. But religion is also realism. It does not deny or minimize the one absolutely incontrovertible fact about life, death -- jātasya hi dhruvo mṛtyuḥ.

The Perils of Positive Thinking: to think something makes it happen “megalomania, plus narcissism, plus solipsism.” Omnipotence of the mind related to a particular stage of infancy. Yoga-sutra and vibhüti-päda. Through saMyama. A whole science where the mastery of certain exercises in concentration can produce effects in the world of phenomena. Not drawing an absolute distinction. The world is a product of mind, a product of consciousness.
Fortunately, the alternative to optimism is not pessimism, which can be equally delusional. What we need here is some realism, or the simple admission that, to paraphrase a bumper sticker, "stuff happens," including sometimes very, very bad stuff. We don't have to dwell incessantly on the worst-case scenarios — the metastasis, the market crash or global pandemic — but we do need to acknowledge that they could happen and prepare in the best way we can. Some will call this negative thinking, but the technical term is sobriety. 
Besides, the constant effort of maintaining optimism in the face of considerable counter-evidence is just too damn much work. Optimism training, affirmations and related forms of self-hypnosis are a burden that we can finally, in good conscience, set down. They won't make you richer or healthier, and, as we should have learned by now, they can easily put you in harm's way. The threats that we face, individually and collectively, won't be solved by wishful thinking but by a clear-eyed commitment to taking action in the world.
Reaction to the power of positive thinking culture that has pretty much defined corporate America since the time of Norman Vincent Peale, to the point of being almost cult-like in its intransigeance. Ehrlichman includes the “prosperity gospel” preacher Joel Osteen and contrasts it with realism, and characterizes it as “fundamentalism, know-nothingism and magical thinking”

Barbara Ehrenreich, whose latest book (Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. is a critique of the “positive thinking” culture that in many ways defines the American ethos from its very beginnings, at least from the time of

Magical thinking means you want what you want when you want it. That is quickly recognizable as childish thinking, “I must have the moon. Give me the moon, right now. I want it.”

Magical thinking is a phrase used to express a particular "primitive" attitude to the world, i.e., the idea of mental omnipotence. For a modern psychologist, the idea of yogic powers, for instance, is a classical example of magical thinking. This is regressive and childish, because one thinks that by mind alone and not by work one can achieve wish fulfillment.
Others simply describe God as the natural order, the healing and renewing power of existence or the creative principle in life. Yet, despite all of these non-supernatural God forms many still attend religious services, draw inspiration from sacred texts and enjoy the benefits of a spiritual community… I understand why anti-religious atheists are so reluctant to accept the fact that being religious doesn’t mean belief in the supernatural.
The panentheistic position that God is not separate from the creation even while being more than the creation is something that jars the atheist, who wants to combat anything that is remotely beyond the purely empirical. Indeed, it is only recently that the mind's role in affecting phenomena through even passive perception, has become accepted as a factor in scientific observation. Heidelberg principle?

The evolutionary ideas promoted by Tylor and Frazier in the 19th century conceived of human progress from childhood to maturity, the primitive man thinking in childlike concepts such as magic or omnipotence of the mind, then through religion and finally reaches true maturity in scientific rationalism.

In their view, magic means the predominance of mere wishes, religion that of abnegation, science that of realism and rationality.

Maya means "magical thinking". Craziness is defined by some as repeating a failed method over and over again and still thinking it will work. And so we go on trying to find happiness through ego and sense satisfactions. That is not magical thinking? And if I say, "Stop the world, I want to get off!" And if I do so, then God will protect and maintain me, why not?

In fact, fundamentalist religion has thrown people of faith into confusion. The renewed rationalist critique of neo-atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens and so on has many, especially on the thinking, liberal side of the spectrum, confused about what religion and God are.

As it is in this world, but because you live in the optimistic reality, the teleological reality of God's ultimate purpose, which is to express love, to experience love, and to lead everything and everyone to love.

The famous Serenity Prayer by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr seems to summarize this realism nicely, without demanding any magical thinking. "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

That is why you take the good where you can. You isolate it and focus on that in your heart. As the ultimate reality. Not because you can or cannot see the so-called reality of evil and negativity as it is in this world, but because you live in the optimistic reality, the teleological reality of God's ultimate purpose, which is to express love, to experience love, and to lead everything and everyone to love.

In Candide Voltaire goes through all these reflections (and in his time the world was really cruel, much worse even than now: Inquisition, slavery everywhere, atrocities of all imaginable sorts) and vehemently questions Leibnitz's theodicy whose conviction was that everything is not only right, but is best in the "best of all possible worlds."

At the conclusion of his novella, Voltaire says that one must "cultivate one's own garden." He comes to some happy conclusion after all because those who survive are ones who, after going through the most horrible experiences, are able to focus on their respective talents and work.

Voltaire indicates that being idle is the worst thing that can befall a human being. It would seem that he is opening the way to Sartre's existentialism. Make your own purpose, your own reality.

Even if Krishna consciousness were totally false, because it is an ideal cause -- to spread love of God, the ultimate good, throughout the world -- it has a great deal of power and meaning even without an objective empirical proof. However, it vitiates its potential through the inconsistencies of its own literalism. But the basic insight is correct.

What is the point of action? Krishna advised Arjuna in Bhagavad Gita to act, for to act is to confirm one's existence and its meaningfulness. Consciousness without action is meaningless. But both action and consciousness are meaningless without love.

The inherent contradiction in any atheism that is not nihilistic is this: As soon as you attribute purpose or meaning to life, no matter what or how trivial it is, and even if you claim to be the independent author of such an attribution, you are in effect positing something that when taken to its logical extreme is God.

So I also say the same thing. What can be better than a love-based sense of reality? Not that we believe it is already there, but we work towards it. We purify the concept of love. We live it, we realize it. We push the cause of love forward. We are on Leibnitz's side without denying Voltaire. So ultimately you have to come back to Leibnitz. Even cultivating your own garden has no meaning without an ultimate, deity-based framework.

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