The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk Fall 2010

Originally printed in the Fall 2010 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation:Smoley, Richard."From the Editor's Desk Fall 2010." Quest 98. 4 (Fall 2010): 122.

RichardSmoleyIf there is an American religion, surely this lies at its core"”what William James called "the religion of healthy-mindedness," the belief that positive thoughts will not only triumph but can bend reality to their own shape.

The father of the religion of positive thinking was an obscure New Englander named Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802—66). Quimby started out practicing mesmerism, which attempted to heal by stimulating the flow of "animal magnetism" (something more or less like what we today would call chi or prana). But he soon found that the passes that mesmerists used to stimulate this flow were irrelevant to healing. He concluded that "all disease is in the mind or belief"; what really worked was healing patients' minds, which would automatically heal their bodies.

Quimby was remarkably successful, attracting many out-of-state patients to his Maine-based practice. After his death, his ideas"”which he came to call Christian Science"”lived on in the teachings of his most famous pupil, Mary Baker Eddy, who popularized the name and created a religion around it, as well as in subsequent movements such as New Thought, Unity, and Religious Science.

The twentieth century saw the gospel extended to financial success in Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich and Robert Collier's Secret of the Ages and in the writings of Florence Scovel Shinn. It reached mass audiences with Dale Carnegie's Power of Positive Thinking and the works of Norman Vincent Peale. Over the past decade we have seen another crop, including Esther and Jerry Hicks, whose books, such as Ask and It Is Given and The Amazing Power of Deliberate Intent, channeling the words of an entity called Abraham, sat on the best-seller lists for months. Rhonda Byrne's 2006 book and DVD The Secret, based on the Abraham materials, were stupendous best-sellers in their own right.

Thus the American appetite for positive thinking is enormous. But how much truth is there in this idea? Certainly it would be hard to deny its fundamental insight"”that thought is creative and can shape reality around itself, often in ways that can seem bizarre or even paranormal. And yet there seems to be something missing in the positive-thinking gospel. Sometimes it manifests in a lack of compassion, of which New Thought groups are often"”and rightly"”accused. (After all, if your thoughts are the only things that are affecting you, and you get cancer or have to file for bankruptcy, it's really your own fault, isn't it?) We see the same tendency in mass culture, with its eerie habit of pasting smiley faces over everything while tens of millions are suffocating in anxiety and depression.

Taken in a certain way, accentuating the positive can make you oblivious. Many esoteric teachings say that the ordinary state of human consciousness is a form of delusion. Much of this is due to a deeply ingrained tendency to see the present in the light of past preconceptions. Most of us, it's true, have a bias toward negative preconceptions based on fear and anxiety. Replacing these with positive preconceptions is no doubt a step forward, but even so a positive preconception is no more likely to be accurate than a negative one. Either way you are filtering the present through the mesh of some foreordained conclusion that your mind (usually unconsciously) has drawn.

To me, then, it seems mistaken to extol positivity as an absolute. It may be better understood in light of Aristotle's concept of virtue, which, he said, consisted of a mean between two extremes. Courage is a mean between cowardice and recklessness, and someone who is financially prudent stands somewhere between the miser and the spendthrift. So it is with positivity. As an unthinking, automatic response, it will lead us no further on the path to consciousness than will any other form of automatic behavior. There is a balance to be struck between a monochromatic pessimism on the one hand and a dazed cheeriness on the other.

Many spiritual teachings express this truth in one way or another. The Chinese tradition offers the yang and the yin, which form the theme of this issue. The Kabbalistic Tree of Life has three pillars"”Mercy and Severity on the right and left, with the Pillar of Mildness mediating between them. Knowledge in the true sense means seeing where and when it is appropriate to use mercy or severity.

I grant you that the world often seems to be a terrible place, where negativity threatens to overwhelm everything. But I would add that the answer to this apparent onslaught of negativity is not a blind or unthinking positivity. It is the insight to see the truth in a situation and, as the Buddhists say, employing the "skillful means" needed to set it right.

Richard Smoley