Last month Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul and an expert on emotional freedom, self-esteem, and positive thinking, posted some advice on Huffington Post (here it is ). In “Emotional Health in Down Times: 5 Steps to Staying Positive and Productive,” Canfield offered the following: 1. Keep dreaming big, 2. Believe in yourself, 3. Stop complaining, 4. Turn paranoia on its head, and 5. Use affirmations to build self-confidence.
This is standard fare from the “be all, have it all, do anything you want” gurus who claim that if you are absolutely positive about everything, especially yourself, the sky is the limit. I don’t quibble with the underlying premise that we create our world through our thoughts and emotions. Attitude and goals certainly do matter. But I do have a problem with the infantilizing psychology of this advice, with the assumption that we can have more and more and more without regard for the details because “the universe” will just work them out for us, and the belief that we can transcend, that is rise above, everything that we don’t like about ourselves or the world by simply chanting phrases like “I am love.”
I imagine (yes I know this will seem a bit negative) that Canfield would claim that I am afraid of my own success or happiness, clinging to the deluded notions of a culture that insists on endings and failure, misinformed, or wrapped around the finger of my inner critic. But I don’t think so. There’s no light without a shadow, no up without a down, and I don’t trust any philosophy that lacks complexity because it’s well, fundamentalist, even if it spins out images of shiny new cars and blossoming love relationships and world peace, and uses words like “harmonize” instead of “blasphemy.” Fundamentalism is a one-sided dogma of any sort and this glossy philosophy of relentless optimism smacks of it.
Here’s my theory. We, even those of us who should know better, have gotten ourselves into this tremendous mess, economically, environmentally, politically, and spiritually because we don’t know how to accept limits. The entire cosmos it seems, operates in a series of cycles but for some reason here in the US of A, even whispering the possibility that bust might follow boom, that housing prices might come down, that infinite growth is cancerous, is defeatist, negative, and downright un-American. We don’t know how to admit defeat and take it as one of life’s common occurrences. We can’t accept that it’s not all personal, that the world doesn’t revolve around us. We look for simple answers and quick fixes and silver bullets and choose sides in the face of ambiguity, paradox, complication, and contradiction. The growth we need now isn’t in the GNP. It’s in struggling through those things, not pretending that they don’t exist. It’s in working together on a common vision, not refining a personal dream in front of the bathroom mirror. This is not negative. This is not harder. It is more mature.
Here are my 5 steps to emotional health in these down times:
- Stop shopping. Stop jumping on the hamster wheel of consumer desire. Stop feeding the economic machine that is threatening to run us all over. Stop accumulating stuff you don’t need, especially so-called cheap stuff that is anything but, once you factor in the sweat and poverty of the folks who made that gizmo, the industrial byproducts, the wasted materials, and the space in the landfill. If you stop shopping you may find time to dream, real dreams, not dreams about the stuff you could own. Or you might write a song, or a poem, or plant a tree. And note, since we’re all a bit short on cash these days, this is a less expensive way to live as well.
- Do something for someone else. Who’s happy? The people who don’t spend every waking minute dwelling on themselves. Being in service, giving a gift (make it yourself), extending a kindness, even smiling and making real eye contact with every being you encounter in the course of your day---any of these will bring more satisfaction and love into your life than meditating on either your possible success or your past failures.
- Practice gratitude. You’re here, alive, breathing, trying, learning.
- Get politically active. As Edward Abbey said, “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” Empower yourself and show up on behalf of something you care about, even if it’s two minutes twice a week to sign an email petition (I must warn you, this can lead to more involved, and invigorating activities). Put your money where your mouth is and say something other than “I am worthy of love, joy, and success” or “I am smart.” You know, we’re not all smart. And some of us can be annoying assholes. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have something to offer, something much easier to access, appreciate, and experience in action, as part of a community. In a democracy, regular political participation (that’s more then every 4 years and doesn’t include ranting at the television or computer screen) is a responsibility and a necessity. Take yourself and the needs of this country and of our planet seriously and stop being victimized.
- Go for a walk. Yes, outside. Move your body, wake up your senses, stimulate your imagination, open your heart, and relax all at the same time. Despite all of our troubles, it’s a beautiful world.