The Preface My Chinese Readers Never Got to Read

What I would have told readers in China — if the government hadn’t censored me

This must be the season of censorship — or of hope for something better. As I watched the extraordinarily brave democracy protestors in Hong Kong, I found myself reminded of a foreword that a Shanghai-based publisher asked me to write for the Mandarin edition of my book One Simple Idea, a history and analysis of the positive-thinking movement. But government censors gutted about one-third of the book, including my introduction of American metaphysics to Chinese readers, and my attempt to compare it with Eastern traditions. Below I provide what I wrote in hopes of a day when no idea can be deterred or erased.


The Simple Idea that Changed the World

Preface to the Chinese Edition

Humanity has faced many urgent questions over the past century: What is the best way to structure a society? What economic system is the most humane and effective? Is ecological meltdown avoidable?

One of our most pressing questions, however, is deeply personal — it can be answered only by inner experience: Does what we think determine the course of our lives? Are thoughts causative?

The belief that thoughts are destiny is the core principle of what I call the positive-thinking movement, a modern psychological and spiritual belief system that has shaped the cultures of self-help and business motivation, and has deeply influenced Western politics, medicine, and business.

Although this book is primarily a work of history — of how a “simple idea” revolutionized today’s world — each chapter and character portrait offers a practical method, which the reader can test in his life. My deepest hope is that you will apply — and challenge — some of these ideas to determine whether, or under what conditions, they work. Usefulness is the ultimate test of philosophy.

The civilizations of China and other Eastern nations are much older than most Western cultures; hence, some of the modern insights in this book may seem to have antecedents in Eastern philosophies, such as Taoism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. And there are, indeed, confluences between ancient wisdom and modern psychology and metaphysics.

When American readers say “positive thinking” and Chinese readers say “universal principles” they are expressing very similar ideas. Most American seekers believe that affirmative thought places a person into the flow of natural laws and forces, allowing one’s projects and plans to unfold with harmony and vigor.

But most of the American pioneers of positive thinking were unschooled in cultures beyond the small towns and cities where they lived. Most of them were self-educated. They read the Bible, some psychological and medical texts, perhaps a smattering of religious theory and theology, and little else. They were not scholars, but independent explorers and adventurers. The architects of mental metaphysics tested their ideas primarily through personal experiments.

In writing this book, I came to feel a deep affection for these intrepid thinkers. Many were born in the nineteenth century — an era that bridged traditional religious belief and modern psychology. The early positive thinkers believed that religious insight and psychology could be bound together to produce a workable spiritual system of personal achievement, sometimes called “New Thought,” and known to later generations through books such as The Power of Positive Thinking and The Secret.

The key principle of the movement has remained the same over time: Your thoughts and emotive states, whether by psychological or metaphysical means (or both), determine the quality of your life, from health to wealth.

Such claims are sharply divisive. Millions embrace the notion that our thoughts possess some power of attraction, a belief stoked in self-help books, motivational seminars, and by media personalities, such as Tony Robbins and Oprah Winfrey. Critics damn this notion as a childish fantasy, which distracts us from the real economic and social forces at work in our lives.

But in some important instances, as explored in my final chapter, “Does It Work?” modern medicine and science have validated or given partial credence to the claim that thoughts are causative. The insights of the early positive thinkers prefigured some of today’s most talked about scientific theories and advances. The fields of placebo studies, neuroplasticity, behavioral science, and — most controversially — quantum physics, have deepened and expanded our questions and conceptions of the mind’s possibilities.

Arguments about positive thinking will not be settled anytime soon — or perhaps ever. As I began by saying, the ultimate value of these ideas must be determined in the experience of the individual.

Chinese and English-speaking people obviously inhabit very different cultures, but I am convinced of an enormous commonality among individuals who are searching for ways to fulfill their highest potential. People who passionately seek out practical ideas — ethical, metaphysical, motivational, or any combination — are almost always able to sit down together and experience an immediate bond, and a shared stake in comparing philosophies, methods, and discoveries.

As you read this book, I want you to feel that you are having an exchange with a friend. Although I may not know your name or personal circumstances, I share the questions and sense of inner striving that may have brought you to this book. I hope its ideas draw us together in understanding — and stimulate you to explore your own self-potential.

Finally, I encourage you to approach the ideas of mental metaphysics in the spirit of one of my personal heroes, martial artist Bruce Lee, who wrote: “Research your own experience; absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is essentially your own.”

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

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