Whenever I hear some spiritual guru proclaim that all you gotta do is "just think happy thoughts!", it makes me want to pop him one upside the head and see how long he can keep on thinking his "happy thoughts."
Take as an example Miguel Ruiz’s bestselling Four Agreements, which exhorts readers to “Be impeccable with your word; don’t take anything personally; don’t make assumptions; always do your best.” The degree of profundity or usefulness of this advice is beside the point; it does a disservice to the reader. No effort was made to explain why it’s impossible to be impeccable with your word (in a society based upon lying to other people and yourself); not to take things personally (when all your social training is pointed at inflating your self-importance); not to make assumptions (in a society which discourages thinking for yourself, or thinking at all); or why it’s impossible to do your best (in a society which teaches you to cringe helplessly and wallow in self-pity). In other words, fluffy writing just adds more guilt to the burden of self-hatred which people are already carrying by making people blame themselves, rather than their hypocritical society, for their unhappiness. Fluffy writing may sound soothing because it’s simplistic; but it’s of no real help to anyone.
Who is thinking happy thoughts? The evangelizing proselytizers with their toothpaste-advertisement grins and their used-car-salesman spiels? If those people were truly happy in their hearts, would they be running around trying to make other people like them (in all senses of that word)? Being in denial is not the same thing as being happy. NOBODY (except maybe a few lamas meditating in caves in the Himalayas maybe) can control their thoughts. People can most certainly run away from their issues by distracting themselves, but that is not the same thing as controlling thoughts. It's like masturbation was in the Victorian age – everybody was doing it while paying lip service to denial; and then feeling ashamed of themselves for being so "perverted". Similarly, people are being lied to about "just thinking happy thoughts" – and then are made to feel worse about themselves because they are incapable of accomplishing this unattainable feat.
It's all a lie – this "Positive Thinking" baloney, like so much New Age cant (oh yeah, that's another one: "never say can't!"). If you are not happy inside, then 1) it's impossible to think happy thoughts (unless you're in denial); and 2) thinking happy thoughts isn't the way to change your mood in any case (it works the other way around: when you are able to control your moment-to-moment mood – or better said, relax into indifference – THEN your thoughts naturally tend to be happy). What creates your reality is your underlying mood, not what you tell yourself (not your thoughts).
The pundits of Positive Thinking have their cause-and-effect backwards. And they exacerbate people's problems by blaming them for being unable to control their thoughts – as if society doesn't heap enough blame and shame on people as it is ... now in the New Age people have to blame themselves for being unable to accomplish the impossible. To expect that YOU – l'il ol' nose pickin' and pastin' it under the furniture YOU – should be able to control your thoughts (and then chide yourself when you fail to live up to this ridiculous expectation) is completely absurd. Positive thinking is just another of society's lies designed to make you feel crummy about yourself.
People need to be told that it’s okay if they are unhappy; that everybody in our society is unhappy, and any appearance to the contrary is just that – an appearance. This is another of our materialistic society's dirty tricks: constantly telling people "See – those guys over there who bought our useless products are happier than you are! Go for it!" Having us compare ourselves to other people is stupid, since everyone's karma is so different. And since our superficial society forbids us to talk openly about anything that really matters, we rarely know what anyone else is truly feeling inside in any case.
This is not to say that people don’t have to take complete personal responsibility to get themselves out of the messes they find themselves in. Just that there’s no need to feel guilty for not fulfilling society’s expectations (including being able to “think happy thoughts”), since society’s expectations are impossible to fulfill; moreover, the rewards for fulfilling them aren’t even worth it. This realization is the first step on the spiritual path.
Clue Number 1: Your image of what the spiritual path is all about is wrong – absolutely wrong. Completely off the mark. Not even close. When you finally do get "there", you'll realize that the things which you thought were of the essence, aren't; and the things which are, weren't part of your thinking at all (they were too subtle, so you overlooked them at the time). What spirituality is all about has to be felt in your heart, not conceptualized. When don Juan finally explained his teachings to Carlos Castaneda (just prior to his leaving him forever, at the end of Tales of Power), he told Castaneda that he had been deliberately misleading and sidetracking him all along during the apprenticeship, keeping Castaneda's thinking mind focused on irrelevancies, and making light of the issues which were indeed the crux. This is because the thinking mind only gets in the way on the spiritual path. The thinking mind is of utmost importance in getting along in society, but it is actually a hindrance in pursuit of the spiritual, which is why don Juan averred that the best sorcerers were either completely stupid or completely crazy. Isn't it true that in our society the most spiritual people (most open-hearted) are usually either retarded or lunatics?
Clue 2: If you find the spiritual path enjoyable, you ain't on it. The spiritual path sucks – and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Do you suppose St. John of the Cross was just kidding around when he spoke of the Dark Night of the Soul? On the spiritual path, as in the gym, no pain means no gain. Why do you suppose that gurus such as Sri Yukteswar and Gurdjieff and don Juan (and don Juan's teacher don Julian) were so abusive to their disciples (except for the disciples who were pretty selfless to begin with)? Why do you think don Juan recommended finding a petty tyrant – an oppressor who spits on you and stomps your self-esteem into the mud – as the most important element of spiritual training? Self-importance is not eliminated by having other people envy you or pat you on the back and tell you how great you are; or by having all your fantasies and daydreams come true. It's eliminated by having your self-images – everything you crave and strive to uphold – trampled into the dirt.
The spiritual path lies in the diametrically opposite direction from the path society has conditioned you to travel. The spiritual path – the deconditioning process – involves prying your grasping fingers loose from everything society has conditioned you to cling to. This is not pleasant at all. Moreover, nobody is going to give you any reward or recognition for your spiritual accomplishments: depending on your karma (people who are pretty selfless to begin with have it easier than the rest of us), probably most people around you will do everything in their power to frustrate you, be jealous of you, or belittle your efforts. As don Juan told Castaneda, "A warrior has no honor, no dignity, no family, no name, no country; he has only life to be lived, and under these circumstances, his only tie to his fellow men is his controlled folly." Anybody who is really on the spiritual path (unlike the happy-thought thinkers) is usually crucified by society and the people around them.
The point is that the true spiritual path is entered by facing things squarely as they are (not by denying your reality by "thinking happy thoughts" or otherwise running away from yourself); and then by just accepting your situation – giving up the ghost, stopping all the struggling and fuming, getting off your own case and other people's case and God's case. There are no shortcuts on the spiritual path. There definitely are techniques; and it is necessary to find congenial techniques which you can practice daily, to focus your intent. But there is no way to change anything by snapping your fingers or taking a workshop or just thinking happy thoughts.
To tell someone who is in great pain to “just think happy thoughts” is like telling someone without legs to just get up and walk. Deconditioning and reconditioning your mindset requires a tremendous amount of time and endurance – it’s not something you can “just do”. It’s also why magicians aver that there is no point in even considering undertaking the task until you are completely desperate. True spiritual growth is basically just a matter of exhaustion, of complete wipe-out, of coming to realize the futility of it all. But there is no way to hurry anything up. No way. The sooner you give up trying, or lying to yourself by "thinking happy thoughts", the sooner true change will happen.