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Barbara O'Brien

Wisdom and Foolishness in Social Media

By May 14, 2012

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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.

Comments
May 16, 2012 at 9:03 am
(1) Shi Faxing says:

I am sorry, but this may be off-topic.

I’d like to solicit your opinion as a senior buddhist on “the law of attraction” which I ran into on social media.(trying to make it related to the article)

Many thanks~

May 16, 2012 at 9:43 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Shi Faxing — the “law of attraction” would be a good topic for its own blog post. Thanks for suggesting it. The short answer is that as I understand it, the LOA is not really what Buddhism teaches, exactly.

May 17, 2012 at 6:01 pm
(3) Kevin says:

Hi Barbara,

I completely agree and at the risk of sounding dramatic I will say that I am not sure we as a society really understand where this is heading.

I recently saw a graphic that had a picture of a well known actor, Dennis Haysbert, (Allstate and David Palmer from 24), with text off to the side that said something like “I will bet that as you read this the words sound like my voice in your head.” This took me back for a second as it underscored the real power these messages can have in shaping someones conceptual reality. How quickly can an idea can be spread from a “respectable” source even if that source had nothing to do with it and may not agree with it?!

This is exponentially more powerful and much less regulated than the propaganda deliver methods of the past. TV is at least somewhat regulated and requires quite a few resources to reach a million people. Now any individual with access to a computer and a Facebook account can quickly spread a misleading twisted message to millions of people across the globe. I cringe when I see a Dalai Lama image with text next to it. Talk about possible manipulation!

It didn’t help that I was in the middle of reading “Contemplating Reality” by Andy Karr at the time :)

Anyhow, it cannot be changed, just recognized as another faulty input…

May 17, 2012 at 6:50 pm
(4) John Bogiatzis says:

Goodness me!

Barbara this post is one of your best yet!!!

The excerpt from Brad Warner was one of the most elegant summaries of key Buddhist teachings. The points raised and the examples / imagery just blew me away!

How true and yes how difficult this state of pure awareness is to reach. It’s almost a paradox within a paradox. Something that as one believes they are beginning to understand are still only scratching the surface.

May 18, 2012 at 10:03 pm
(5) Yeshe says:

I don’t think that one has to be other than oneself to realise no-self. As yourself, you’re already no-self. You just have to realise it, not be other than yourself. Because, since there’s no self, how could there be other than self?

July 1, 2012 at 10:15 pm
(6) Dave says:

My meditative practice has lead me to the wisdom of infinity. There is no self/no-self, no good or evil,no anxiety or depression (samsara and nirvana). It is beyond such concepts as these mentioned topics.

I say that it is beyond good and evil. And to reinforce my perspecitive…I will explain myself. Good can not exist without evil and vica verca. There is not one person that can define true goodness without referring to evil in some way. How can someone determine pure goodness without knowing impure evil? If goodness were to exist separately, then we as humans would have long ago purged ourselves of such ignorance…but this is not the case.

So my meditative practice takes me beyond such concepts to infinity and beyond conception. True peace, love, and compassion reside here. Peace, love, and compassion are not in sayings, teachings, preachings, etc…they are already present in your heart. This practice just brings it out.

I do disagree in the fact that in the long run…dharma is the complete medicine for all mental nerosises. I know because it changed my heart and mind. But I do advocate that it is good in the present moment to follow doctors, therapists, and Sangha so that one develops in the appropriate way. These realizations are meant to be gradual, subtle, and gentle.

Thanks for the post and for us to be able to comment upon it.

July 26, 2012 at 7:21 am
(7) Randall King says:

This post seems to suggest that whoever offered that saying was diagnosing someone clinically depressed, and I hardly believe that to be the case. The author seems to be hyper-sensitive to quotes and is merely drawing attention for the sake of profitless venting by publicly bludgeoning “general pointers”.

I’m not a fan of Chopra myself, but can realize that he waters down alot to generate interest in a field that most people would find worthy mulling over. It works, and it sells. The mindshare and eyes are there.

Bringing in a non-duality view to blast Chopra’s sayings is all well and good for those seriously engaged in their spiritual search, but is of no use to those deeply entrenched in the cartesian subject-object duality model which human mind are most certainly conditioned into.

Again, not that the author isn’t making some necessary points. But she could do it all by toning down her own toxic rhetoric.

July 26, 2012 at 1:47 pm
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

This post seems to suggest that whoever offered that saying was diagnosing someone clinically depressed, and I hardly believe that to be the case.

I don’t believe that to be the case, either. I’m saying that sometimes glib little sayings are too glib for their own, or anyone else’s, good. It’s a generalization that really isn’t true and in some cases does more harm than good. And, again, Lao-tsu never said that. Somebody just made it up.

Regarding Deepak Chopra, if you were paying attention you would notice I am merely quoting Brad Warner on that matter. I happen to agree with Brad Warner, but if you want to argue the point, see Brad Warner.

Bringing in a non-duality view to blast Chopra’s sayings is all well and good for those seriously engaged in their spiritual search, but is of no use to those deeply entrenched in the cartesian subject-object duality model which human mind are most certainly conditioned into.

Pay attention. This is a Buddhism site. It is dedicated to being seriously engaged in non-duality. We do not support entrenched cartesian subject-object duality models here. Those who wish to stay stuck in their entrenched cartesian subject-object duality models should find another blog to comment upon, ’cause we don’t do no entrenched cartesian subject-object duality models in these parts, buckaroo.

As far as my view being toxic — interesting that a suggestion to be sensitive and compassionate instead of glib is considered “toxic.” So do you spend your spare time kicking dogs and taking candy from babies? You sound rather toxic yourself.

September 21, 2012 at 6:39 pm
(9) prodigy says:

Actually, the quote, “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 is exactly correct. I have had anxiety, depression and panic for years and it is very simple to see that constantly living in the present is peace. You would know this if you have had any of the above issues. To prove it, what makes you finally relaxed after depression, anxiety or panic? You might not know, but I can tell you from years of studies that it is the moment you are at peace. You can prove it to yourself by even remembering that when you started to feel better, you noticed that you were doing something, maybe as simple as writing something down, cleaning up a spill, anything that makes you notice the NOW, which is “living in the present”. It’s hard for some to see that the solution is that easy, but it is. You just have to retrain your mind to accept it and form a habit.

September 21, 2012 at 9:00 pm
(10) Barbara O'Brien says:

prodigy — living in the present is fine; I’m a Zen student, and that’s what we do. But genuine depression is not “living in the past.” Some people might do that, but that was never an issue in the case of my depression. The motto is way too glib and way too dismissive of the reality of genuine clinical depression. People with profound depression cannot be cured merely by refocusing their attention. It helps, but a combination of mindfulness, medical care and the correct medication is much more effective.

Plus, Lao tsu never said any such thing.

December 6, 2012 at 11:29 am
(11) George says:

Thank you for your article! While it’s true that Lao Tzu never said any such thing, over-generalizations (not misattributions) have their place and usefulness. As a long-time teacher of meditation and tai chi, I know this well. We also know that anything can be deconstructed in unflattering ways to “prove” that it’s worthless, whereas in fact it may have some worth. Depending on the time, place and context, either quote (“Lao Tzu” or Chopra) may provide just the comfort or inspiration that someone may need.

December 9, 2012 at 10:26 am
(12) Nicole says:

I just want to say that this particular quote has really helped me lately in coping with some difficult times. I would consider myself a pretty spiritual person and familiar with many teachings and quotes but this one being so simple yet so powerful can have a real impact in ones life. Being depressed is referring to regret, not clinical depression. i would also add that is not referring to mourning, that is a natural process. If you are going through a divorce and you are depressed, then you are probably wondering where you went wrong, what could you have done different.. You could also be anxious because you wonder what will your life be like now..
I’m am not currently going through a divorce but I am certainly in a situation where I could let myself be overcome by depression and anxiety but I am not allowing my mind to be my own worst enemy. While I would do things different if I could go back in time, the fact is that I cannot. I could worry myself crazy and lose sleep every night worrying about the future, but what good would that do? I can only do what I can TODAY to better my life. That will in turn create a brighter future. This quote may have not been written by Laozi, but whoever did is certainly speaking truth..And in all honesty it common sense.

December 9, 2012 at 10:29 am
(13) Nicole says:

I just want to say that this particular quote has really helped me lately in coping with some difficult times. I would consider myself a pretty spiritual person and familiar with many teachings and quotes but this one being so simple yet so powerful can have a real impact in ones life. Being depressed is referring to regret, not clinical depression. i would also add that is not referring to mourning, that is a natural process. If you are going through a divorce and you are depressed, then you are probably wondering where you went wrong, what could you have done different.. You could also be anxious because you wonder what will your life be like now..
I’m am not currently going through a divorce but I am certainly in a situation where I could let myself be overcome by depression and anxiety but I am not allowing my mind to be my own worst enemy. While I would do things different if I could go back in time, the fact is that I cannot. I could worry myself crazy and lose sleep every night worrying about the future, but what good would that do? I can only do what I can TODAY to better my life. That will in turn create a brighter future. This quote may have not been written by Laozi, but whoever did is certainly speaking truth..And in all honesty it common sense.

December 9, 2012 at 11:02 am
(14) Nicole says:

I would also like to add questions..

Why would the accuracy of this quote even be such a big deal write about?.
My god .. There are more than enough ridiculous things in social media to pick from!

Secondly-
the topic of emotional / chemical disorders ..
While clinical depression is not just as simple as “snap out of it”, I do believe we have more control over such problems than we realize. And I am speaking as someone that has suffered from depression throughout my entire life.. And including other mood disorders. We do have the power to heal ourselves. We don’t have to be victims of diagnosed illnesses. Through self talk we can begin healing. There might not be a “cure” for depression, bipolar or ADHD but we can learn to COPE. In our society we tend to make things more complicated than need be. I’m not even against medication if needed, but we can all agree that we have become a pill pooping society..
Lastly..when people are severely depressed, it is a fact that majority of the time, the seeds of depression are events. The emotions and reactions to these events turns into a storm of depression, swallowing your spirit and leaving you in darkness. The same goes with anxiety.. You may have hormonal imbalances or a tendency to suffer from severe anxiety, but what brings on a severe panic attack is the accumulation of thought. No psychologists or medication can really help if we don’t help ourselves.

December 9, 2012 at 11:18 am
(15) Barbara O'Brien says:

Why would the accuracy of this quote even be such a big deal write about?.

I have deep respect for the work attributed to Lao tsu and hate to see it cheapened this way.

Nicole, I’m glad the quote helps you, but try to understand that for people in other circumstances it’s something of a slap in the face. The most cruel thing you could do to someone who is genuinely depressed is tell them to just cheer up already and think correct thoughts. It doesn’t work that way. And what you have written about depression is ignorant and cruel. Do the world a favor and don’t assume you understand something you obviously have never experienced.

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