Now that I've got a Facebook fan page to maintain I'm spending a lot more time on Facebook. I think about half of the posts from friends that scroll down my "home" page are pictures of babies or pets, or graphics with inspirational sayings. Sometimes they are pictures of babies/pets with inspirational sayings.
Most of these sayings are innocuous. Sample: "Be yourself. Everyone else is taken." Some are nice reminders -- "Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured." --Mark Twain. But occasionally I see a supposedly wise saying that rubs me the wrong way.
Here's one such saying, picked up on Facebook, and then I'll explain why it bothers me on several levels.
"If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present." -- Lao Tsu
First -- I assume "Lao Tsu" is an alternative spelling for Laozi or Lao Tzu. I'm very familiar with the Tao Teh Ching (or Daode Jing), the only text attributed to the probably mythical Laozi. I've read several different translations of it, and I am certain nothing resembling that quote appears in the Tao Teh Ching. Maybe some other well-known sage said it, but not Laozi.
Second -- I don't think it's true, or at least not true for everybody, all the time. I was particularly irritated by use of the word depressed. Depression is a common emotion, but it's also the name of a crippling mood disorder that requires careful medical management. And I can say from my own hard experience that clinical depression is not merely the result of "living in the past." It's not like that at all, actually.
Glib little sayings like this are not helpful to people struggling with a real mood disorder. It's saying that if you were just more disciplined and could think the right thoughts, you wouldn't be so messed up. It's an unskillful thing to say to someone who is actually depressed, and for whom the present is a cruel and terrifying place.
From a Buddhist perspective, the focus on "you" pulls the quote even further out of whack. Brad Warner has a post critiquing a tweet by Deepak Chopra that deals with the same issue. The tweet:
When you reach pure awareness you will have no problems, therefore there will be no need for solutions.
Sounds profound, huh? But Brad Warner says,
"Pure awareness, whatever that is, or God (my preferred term), cannot be the object of you, cannot be the possession of you, it isn't in your future, it isn't something you can ever possibly reach. It will not solve all of your problems. It couldn't even if it wanted to. It's a fantastic dream that can never come true.
"This doesn't mean everything is bleak and horrible and hopeless. It just means that approaching it in terms of you and the things you want to get cannot possibly work. It can't work precisely because thinking of things in terms of you and what you want to get is exactly the thing that blocks it."
By the same token, as long as it's you living in the present moment, you're unlikely to be completely at peace. The Buddha taught that serenity comes with realizing the ephemeral nature of the self. As Dogen said,
To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening. [Genjokoan]
However, I do hope people keep posting pictures of their pets and babies on Facebook. Those never get old.