A Buddhist’s rethinking of the Law of Attraction
As a pragmatic Buddhist, I felt a lot of skepticism when I first encountered the Law of Attraction (LOA). Many things I’ve seen really stretch my credulity. But the more I think about it, the more I see nuggets underneath the hype that make sense to me, if reformulated a bit. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Buddha was a Law of Attraction proponent, I do think there is some common ground to be found between the two.
We create our worlds through our thoughts
In short, LOA says we create our worlds through our thoughts. It’s not just our conscious thoughts – but perhaps even more so our subconscious and inchoate beliefs, attitudes, and feelings. So let’s say for example, we think we don’t have enough money and take a miserly view toward what we do have. In Western literature, we have the Ebenezer Scrooge archetype. In the Buddhist world we have what are called “hungry ghosts.” Both characters hold the belief that there is never enough, and are never satisfied. (We probably know some people like that!) And there are a thousand different ways they interact with their worlds that telegraph their attitudes in subtle ways. People respond in kind, further reinforcing their belief that there isn’t enough to go around.
LOA says the reverse is true, too. If we go around smiling, feeling like life is abundant and that there’s much to be grateful for, we will act with openness and generosity of spirit. And people respond to that in kind. No doubt it was this sort of observation that formed the starting point for the Buddha’s famous teaching from the Dhammapada:
“Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows even as the cart-wheel follows the hoof of the ox. … If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.” 1
How do we find happiness?
As a starting point, I think it’s safe to say everyone is seeking happiness. But what exactly will bring us lasting happiness? And how do we go about finding it? That’s where the views start diverging.
What I find troubling about some LOA perspectives is the advice to pursue whatever “feels good.” The wildly popular movie The Secret goes so far as to say ANYTHING we think will make us feel good is fair game – a million dollars, a dream house, a sexy red sports car. It goes on to imply that each of us has some sort of supernatural power to make the world do our bidding, suggesting that we each are the center of the universe. It also implies that spiritual growth is all about fun, lightness, and pleasure as we jump from one blissful experience to the next.
Let’s bring this all back down to earth. In my experience, what “feels good” is a pretty faulty indicator of what’s in our best interest. All we need to do is remember the last time we indulged in a gallon of ice cream or four shots of tequila to know that. And I’m sure we’ve all experienced what usually happens after we get that one thing we wanted so much. The grass quickly starts looking greener on the other side.
The Buddha’s advice
So how DO we go about pursuing happiness? The Buddha gave us another of his famous lists to help us with this. He advised us to look for things that conduce to dispassion, detachment, a decrease in worldly goods, frugality, contentment, solitude, energy, and delight in good.2
So let me unpack this a bit. In the context of LOA, I would very loosely interpret his criteria to mean something like this:
- Dispassion and detachment: Does the thing we want fan our small-minded emotions and self-centered desires? If so, it won’t lead to happiness. This isn’t a matter of good or bad, right or wrong. It’s simply because we aren’t the center of the universe, and living with that incorrect assumption will inevitably smack the unhappy truth right into our faces.
- Decrease in worldly goods and frugality: Are we expecting worldly goods and money to create happiness for us? If so, think again. As above, this isn’t so much a moral issue, but the simple truth that everything changes. What was once a source of happiness will inevitably fade away, again smacking the truth in our faces.
- Contentment and solitude: Does it conduce to superficiality and distraction? If so, look elsewhere. What’s implied by the advice to turn away from the things above is the truth that nothing outside ourselves is a reliable source of happiness. We need to find the courage and quietude to look within. When we abide in the stillness of the present moment, we’re at our place of greatest potential and creativity. Free of self-indulgent thoughts, free of fear or wanting. Completely aware of and open to what IS. Think about it. It’s the only place from which we can move forward productively. And that open-mindedness is the most pragmatically positive frame of mind with which to do it.
- Energy and delight in good: Does it energize us and give rise to a deep sense of goodness in our innermost heart? This is really the ultimate test. Looking forward, if we put our energy and intentions into being a positive influence in the world, our positive energy will reflect back to us and snowball. We’ll know we’re on the right track because our happiness grows.
Keep in mind that being completely open to the present moment isn’t always going to be fun and pleasurable. We all go through times when life is difficult – whether it’s troublesome relationships, chronic illness, significant loss, and the like. Our inner lives can be difficult too, with depression or anxiety, for example.
I can honestly say from personal experience that sometimes the best route to happiness is to stay with that darkness. Sometimes our greatest obstacle is within ourselves – the limits we place on ourselves out of a need to be in control, to know everything, to feel secure. There is tremendous power in learning to sit with the discomfort and uncertainty, and letting go. Yes, we see that all things change. But more than that, by bravely walking through it, we begin to see what we need to see. We begin to transcend our own fears and self-limiting views to reach a higher and, dare I say, wiser place. We each have our own unique path to walk in order to grow as an individual, and this is a vital part of that process.
My reinterpretation of LOA
So let’s not confuse happiness with “feeling good.” The word usually ascribed to the Buddha is “contentment”, which is a quiet sense of well-being and equanimity that comes from within. It’s a deep trust in the greater forces of the world of which we are a part. It’s a respectful awareness that we don’t act alone – that our every thought and deed is part of an interconnected web of humanity and life overall. It’s a knowing that everything we experience teaches us something valuable and helps us grow. And that by continually striving to be a positive influence in the world, we make it a better place not only for ourselves, but for everyone around us as well.
So this is my reinterpretation, as a Buddhist, of the Law of Attraction. I expect I’ll be writing more on this topic in the future, but in the meantime, I welcome your comments.
Other related perspectives on LOA:
The Spirituality of Narcissism
by Stuart Davis
I’ve got a secret: the Law of Attraction is a lie
by Jonathan Fields
1. The Dhammapada, chapter 1, verses 1 and 2. Translation by Sangharakshita, available for free download at www.sangharakshita.org.