Yuval Harari talks a little in his book Sapiens about the (Western) New Age interpretation of (Eastern) Buddhist teachings:
New age cults frequently argue: ‘Happiness does not depend on external conditions. It depends only on what we feel inside. People should stop pursuing external achievements such as wealth and status, and connect instead with their inner feelings’. Or more succinctly, ‘Happiness Begins Within.’ This is exactly what biologists argue, but more or less the opposite of what Buddha said.
Although New Age ideas peel away one layer of futility and unhappiness — our focus on external expectation and achievement — they still tell us to focus on controlling the present moment. Rather than external expectations, they tell us to focus on controlling our own feelings.
The New Age approach may well contribute to making you happier — living on your own terms, untainted by external factors, will surely make you better attuned to what makes you happy. But really it misses the point.
Buddhist teaching isn’t focused on controlling inner feelings. In fact, it tells us that happiness is independent of inner feelings. If we attempt to control our inner feelings, we’re still craving and grasping at something. We’re still discontented, wanting better.
Buddhism teaches acceptance of the present — good or bad — and a lack of craving for ‘better’ inner feelings. Through meditation you become better able to focus on the present moment and accept it for what it is.
There may well be value in presenting Buddhism in a westernised way — if it makes it digestible for people who would otherwise overlook it, that’s got to be a good thing. It’s just vital that Buddhism’s biggest insight — that true contentment comes through acceptance, not grasping at either internal or external changes — isn’t lost in translation.
Also published on Medium.