It is interesting to map the progress of philosophy. In the last half a dozen centuries we have been assailed with classicism and romanticism which contrasted the rational with the intuitive and the idealistic. But in recent times we have had to deal with the New Age movement.
Some have suggested that Freud was the one who seeded the New Age with his notion that our state of mind impacted our quality of life. Some argue that it came from the philosophical principles of George Gurdjieff, Helena Blavasky and the early Theosophical Society. Whether that is the case or not, in the late twentieth century the New Age Movement would soon build its own momentum and finally, in its more extreme forms, come to some outrageous conclusions.
Some of the proponents of the New Age would have us believe that we create our own reality. Such believers suggest that we are entirely responsible for our world, its triumphs and its tragedies. As I have pointed out before, this is built on a form of attribution theory. The writers of the New Age propaganda and its attendant self-help books are largely what we would consider, in conventional terms, “successful” people.
It is an inherent trait of humans that we seek to take credit for our successes and explain away our failures as being outside our own personal control. Consequently many such “successful” people maintain that they were personally entirely responsible for their perceived success. As a result they concoct (in retrospect) the techniques that they would have us believe they used to attain such success. (As I have often said, there are no such books titled I Am a Self-Made Failure!)
There is probably no great harm in their perpetuating such self-delusion except that the notion is often then taken up by others who are less “successful” and often more psychologically vulnerable.
In the wake of such “successful” people, inveigled by their self-serving philosophy we find many who are less “successful” and who take to heart the New Age philosophies propagated by the New Age proponents. Such folk begin to believe that they are personally responsible for their inadequacies in the world – be they their failure to have had stellar careers or the fact that they might have succumbed to cancer.
(On reflection I suppose that this is no worse than some of the conventionally religious who believe their trials are caused by their lack of piety or other religious failing.)
But the double jeopardy arising from this situation is that not only are these unfortunate afflicted but they see themselves as also guilty! So if I have cancer it means that I am not strong enough. If I didn’t get the job I wanted it was because somehow or other I was personally inadequate!
How we think about ourselves and indeed the world is hugely important for our personal wellbeing. But our salvation arises not so much from how we can manipulate the world but how we interpret the world. There are many things going on out there that are beyond our reasonable capacity to change, but what discretion is at our disposal is how we should interpret the world.
I remember the good Dr Phil telling me about something he had read. The author believed that she could, through the power of positive thinking, influence traffic lights so that as she approached an intersection she could ensure the lights turned green! One can only wonder what would happen if all drivers had such capability! Would all the lights from either direction then go green at once?
On the other hand there is some evidence that positive thinking can help. The study of psychoneuroimmunology indicates that our thoughts and emotions can have a direct influence on our immune system. The effect is not large but is detectable.
That the mind can affect the body is borne out by a huge body of material now linking the use of meditation and relaxation techniques to various physical benefits including reduced hypertension. But most disease is multifaceted and the causation complex. It might be possible to argue that positive thinking somewhat enhances our ability to resist cancer, but it is drawing a long bow to suggest that a dysfunctional mind causes cancer.
The psychological burden of someone enduring potentially fatal diseases such as cancer is certainly high enough without adding to it unnecessary guilt!
Putting health issues aside, the extreme proponents of New Age believe, as I mentioned above, that we create our own reality. Concomitant with that comes the notion we can be whatever we want to be. This seems to me to be a ludicrous claim. No matter how much I might wish it or how hard I might train, there is no chance that I might now at my age run a four minute mile! I know it is impossible (and it causes me no guilt to admit it) that I could never be a Renoir or a Beethoven. I concede (whether I should wish it or not) there is little likelihood that I will ever be a billionaire.
But the real point I want to make, is that despite all these shortcomings, I can see no earthly reason why I can’t live a meaningful life and attain a sense of personal well-being. I willingly concede, that with a few minor exceptions, I can’t manufacture my own reality. What I have come to know, and have seen demonstrated many times, is that whatever our physical circumstances the greatest and perhaps only freedom we have is to choose how we respond to our circumstances – what meaning we subscribe to them.
It is not as though I give no importance to my physical condition. Just like every one of my readers, I would prefer to be healthy, reasonably well off, surrounded by people I love and whose company I enjoy. These are things to reasonably aspire to. But I know that however positive my thinking might be, many of these are beyond my immediate control.
So the great fallacy of the New Age movement is not so much we can create our own physical reality but that such outcomes are necessary for our sense of well-being. The people to be most admired, I believe, are not those who are conventionally “successful” and believe they are the authors of their success, but those who have through no fault of their own been forced to live lives of great privation and insufferable difficulty and yet were able to maintain their equanimity, their dignity and a robust sense of personal well-being.
In the final analysis, I might not be able to choose my physical circumstances, but I can choose how I respond to them.