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The Law of Attraction and Buddhism
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
- Buddha, in the Dhammapada (Shambhala Pocket Edition)
These first lines of the Dhammapada have often been quoted by teachers of the 'Law of Attraction' as proof that all the world's great spiritual teachers have taught this idea in some form. For those not yet familiar with it, the Law of Attraction (or LOA for short) is the general theory that our thoughts - conscious and unconscious - attract people, events, and situations into our lives. In essence, LOA asserts that we are the creators of our own reality. Or, as Bob Proctor, one of the teachers featured in the bestseller The Secret, puts it: "Everything that's coming into your life, you are attracting into your life. And it's attracted to you by virtue of the images you are holding in your mind. It's what you are thinking. Whatever is going on in your mind, you are attracting to you."
On the surface, this statement seems remarkably similar to the start of the Dhammapada, and many people have drawn parallels between LOA and Buddhist teachings on karma. In the Nibbedhika Sutra, the Buddha expands on this, saying, "Intention (cetana), monks, is karma...Having willed, one acts through body, speech and mind." The Buddha makes clear that our thoughts and intention, not just our actions, shape our karma and determine our current state, including the general situation of our life.
However, differences arise between Buddhism and Law of Attraction teachings when it comes to the application of this knowledge. Although there are variations in Law of Attraction teachings, in general, the message is 'change your thoughts and you can change your life.' Whereas the Buddha's message might be summarized as 'free yourself of identifying with your thoughts and you will free yourself from suffering.' LOA teachings emphasize getting what you want in life by directing or aligning your thoughts with those things, while the Buddha emphasizes observing and analyzing your thoughts, in order to free yourself from the desires and aversions implicit in them.
In this regard, Buddhism is about getting beyond desire, while Law of Attraction teachings seem to reinforce our desires. In terms of daily 'practice', Law of Attraction teaching emphasize positive thinking, and creating systems around us (visualization boards, etc.) that will help us to manifest the lives we want. By contrast, Buddhist teachings emphasize mindfulness and acceptance of what is, instead of a constant focus on outcome, so that we can be free of suffering right now, not at some future point when we have the life we want. In fact, the Buddha's life story as it has come down to us demonstrates the futility of ever attaining lasting happiness through the fulfillment of desire. Growing up, the Buddha's every desire was fulfilled by his father, in the hopes that his spiritual nature would never awaken. But this didn't lead to happiness for Buddha - only when he left home, engaged in extreme renunciation, and then gave that up too and found 'the middle way', did he attain enlightenment.
Of course, both Buddhism and Law of Attraction teachings have many variations, and there are LOA teachers that profess it is more of a spiritual law, best applied to helping us manifest greater peace, not material abundance or the perfect mate. And Buddhism also has many variations, including Vajrayana Buddhism, which emphasizes connecting with representations of enlightenment through meditation on mandalas, deities, and Buddhas. Connecting to these representations is believed to speed a practitioner's progress by shifting his or her own awareness into these states. In a way, this is similar to Law of Attraction teachings - that by connecting with enlightenment, you will shift your own awareness to a level better able to 'attract' that itself.
So overall, there are a lot of similarities and differences between Law of Attraction teachings and Buddhist teachings. The common first step in both sets of teachings is noticing our thoughts, and becoming mindful of their origins, and how they impact us. In this sense, mindfulness and self-awareness are important first steps in almost any personal growth or spiritual process. As the Dhammapada says, 'All that we are arises with our thoughts', so taking the time to really notice what is passing through our minds is the first step in the journey towards happiness, within whatever spiritual framework you are working with.
Please come share your own thoughts on the Law of Attraction and Buddhism in the BellaOnline Buddhism forum.
Content copyright © 2013 by Lisa Erickson. All rights reserved.
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