Matter Over Mindlessness: Neo-Buddhism No Cure for Harvard’s Depression

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In its usual capacity as scholastic trend-setter, Harvard University unleashed a strange phenomenon on academia last year: amid the marble halls and ivy thickets, visiting professor Tal Ben-Shahar attracted a record population of Harvard students to a class about “squeezing lemons into lemonade.” In the spring 2006 semester, the course-called “Positive Psychology”-weighed in at 855 students, becoming Harvard’s most popular class. Ben-Shahar’s course may or may not accurately represent the Positive Psychology movement growing in America today, but it does represent another intellectual phenomenon that appears to be spreading like wildfire in the West; namely, the religious mysticism of the East. Ben-Shahar quotes the Dalai Lama and the Buddha extensively throughout his course and teaches books inspired by Buddhist thought and practice, such as “Destructive Emotions: A Dialogue with the Dalai Lama” and the Dalai Lama’s own article “The Monk in the Lab.”

Shahar’s injection of Eastern mysticism into a modern Western classroom represents a broader trend that has been spreading for decades. According to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, the count of Buddhists in America grew by 170% between 1990 and 2000. In 1960, there were 200,000 Buddhists in the States. Today, the number is conservatively estimated at 1.5 million, with converts of non-Asian origin accounting for about one third. And the number of so-called “night-stand Buddhists,” who attend weekly meditation meetings and admire the Dalai Lama as a significant spiritual leader, is vastly higher.

What compels so many Americans to seek the guidance of Eastern religion, or so many Harvard students to register for Ben-Shahar’s unabashedly “zany” class? Shahar’s lecture notes, which are publicly accessible on the Web, report that depression in America today is 10 times higher than in 1960, and that, in a recent survey, 80% of Harvard students admitted to having been depressed at least once during the past year. And psychology only reinforces this reign of unhappiness, argues Ben-Shahar, by focusing on pathology rather than offering practical, positive guidance. Neo-Freudian theories of psychology inevitably focus on the negative, he says, since man in their view comes built in with base instincts and genetic limitations that bar him from achieving any positive change in life.

Shahar, however, rejects this view. Day 9 of his syllabus asks, “Can we change?” and day 10 answers: “Yes, we can change!” This promise attracts swarms of students to his conversational “self-help” course. And it virtually mirrors Buddhism’s promise to its adherents. According to an article by Jan Nattlier in PBS.org, the “single factor most often credited by converts” is “an existential longing for a road map for personal change.” Buddhism outlines “clear-cut instructions for dally religious practice,” which range from “chanting to meditating to receiving initiation from a guru.” And it offers the “promise that the conscientious observance of these practices will result in a profound change in one’s spiritual condition.”

How, specifically, is this change achieved? Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths preach that the “cessation of suffering” and the achievement of “Nirvana,” the ultimate state of Enlightenment and joy, must come from within-from a mental focus on one’s inner self and away from “thirsting” for impermanent pleasures such as “health, possessions, and even one’s own life” (the Second Noble Truth). It is not in the achievement of one’s real-life goals and desires that Buddhism seeks to aid its practitioners, but in the reprogramming of their inner mental state to erase external desires.

Ben-Shahar, while not preaching the literal core principles of Buddhism in his Positive Psychology course, similarly offers few psychological tools for dealing with life’s real challenges. He teaches instead that changing the mind’s “perspective on reality” is what counts. “Happiness,” Shahar says, “is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account. “Beliefs shape reality,” he says; therefore, “Psychology shouldn’t act on reality, but create reality.” External factors, like grades and material wealth, only cause us stress and lower our self-esteem, says Shahar in class 5; the “power of the mind” enables us to overcome such factors, by cultivating happiness “within.” Toward this end, he advocates Buddhist meditation and “fake smiles” as means to cultivating positive feelings. It seems that, in Shahar’s view-and certainly in the classical Buddhist view-we can change not how we live or what we do in external reality, but only our inner perception of it.

Could such advice seriously be implemented? Imagine that a Harvard freshman, inspired by Ben-Shahar’s course, accepts the Buddhist doctrine in practice. Instead of cramming all night to pass the upcoming biology exam, he will close his textbook once the stress ensues and instead take a meditative stroll around campus. When he fails his exam, he will tell himself it doesn’t really matter; external factors cannot interfere with his sense of inner worth. After he fails the semester, and his parents refuse to fund his education further unless he improves his grades, he lets himself express his anger-giving himself “permission to be human,” as Shahar puts it. So he sleeps in the next morning to give himself time to “cool off”-perhaps missing his interview for a summer internship that would bolster his career prospects (and pay for rent). When he is out of money and his academic merits are shot, and his job at Wal-Mart starts to bore him silly, he will try to “cope” with his feeling of ineptness and his waning eagerness to act; but alas, such “negative feelings” will only mount. Life will not squeeze itself into his lemonade glass, no matter how “positive” his mindset. Faced with the painful consequences of his actions on his life and goals, his mindset, too, will deteriorate.

Practiced consistently, this “mind-over-matter” philosophy derived from Eastern mysticism cannot serve as a guide to happiness, but only as an excuse for inaction. Reality is not “in the mind of the perceiver”: no matter how hard one focuses inward, one cannot cure a toothache or build an airplane by meditation. To change the external circumstances of your life, you must take external actions.

Nor can one simply turn away from external reality. Happiness is the result of real achievements. If the Harvard freshman sees his GPA slip, and knows it will diminish his chances of a rewarding job, no amount of meditation will help him “feel good” about the failure. Only real action can improve his situation. When an athlete overcomes a seemingly impossible barrier by “believing in himself,” or a professor overcomes his fear of public speaking-both cited as examples of “mind-over-matter” by Shahar-real work must in fact be done to affect the reality of the situation. An athlete has to build endurance in his muscles and invest money in top-notch trainers; the professor has to prepare interesting and solidly structured lectures that will engage his audience, produce a positive response, and thus increase his confidence over time. And that requires plenty of focus on “external factors”-on the objective demands of one’s task and the actions one must take to meet them.

Yet those demands are not known automatically. The task of setting and achieving goals is difficult; like any learned skill, it requires principled guidelines. Today, having been failed by the neo-Freudian psychologists, students and Americans at large are seeking that guidance from academically legitimized Eastern mysticism-and are betrayed.

Caught in the jaws of this two-pronged beast-the neo-Freudian psychologist who tells them they are impotent to alter grim reality, and the neo-Buddhist practitioner who tells them they can alter their awareness only by becoming unaware (that is, by turning away from reality)-no wonder too many of today’s college students are depressed. If they wish to find true guidance for living a “fulfilling and flourishing life” in the external world-the only place it can be lived-what they need is not neo-Freudianism or Buddhism, but a theory that unites mind and matter, and promotes mindful action over mind-numbing passivity. What they need is Ayn Rand’s ethics of rational self-interest.

Gena Gorlin is a junior attending Tufts University and the New England Conservatory

Posted by on February 3, 2007. Filed under Culture, Philosophy, Winter 2006-07. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry