The biggest indicator of a failed philosophy reduces to a simple matter: How well does the philosophy in question address change? It is easy enough when times are good to concoct or coerce a philosophy that allows one to explain the world in terms of enjoyment. One can, for instance, see one’s own enjoyment as an entitlement, and see those who are not fortunate enough to be enjoying themselves as recipients of punishment which is hitherto concealed or unknown in origin. This works very well for a person until their own life becomes filled with adversity, when they must account for why they are suddenly suffering. Many fundamentalist religions adhere to such strictures. Many new-age beliefs also have their own forms of this.
One of the reasons Buddhism is enduring is because it makes a blanket statement about the nature of life. Life is suffering. In other words, if you AREN’T suffering yet, good for you, but wait a little longer. Even children catch fevers. If you are fortunate enough to be in a position wherein you are NOT currently suffering, excellent. The Buddha, however, derives a formulation for living life such that suffering is reduced or eliminated. If one is not adhering to something like his system, the corollary follows, then one will find one’s self likely suffering sooner or later. Craving, according to the Buddha, is the gateway to suffering. Very frequently, this concept is relayed as desire, but desire is not necessarily what is meant. For instance, desiring a glass of water is fine. Craving water relentlessly and in an unbalanced way is a problem.
The Bible attempts to account for life being a big wad of suffering in part due to the nature of mankind. Once upon a time, man and woman enjoyed paradise. There was only one rule. Man and woman broke the rule, and from that point on, there were no more free lunches. Life became something of a blessing and a curse. The blessing kicks in when one realizes something akin to a Buddhist path. The curse kicks in when one craves and desires and becomes selfish.
What many of these systems do not make entirely clear is that the world on the OUTSIDE might reward someone who does the “wrong thing”. For instance, there are many, many successful , greedy people. They are successful EXTERNALLY. Internally, however, because of their unbalanced behavior, they are likely in a state of extended suffering or torment. One day, their business goes under. One day, someone more greedy than they are takes their stuff. Since their worth and success was defined solely externally, their suffering is immense when this “bad thing” happens. More than a few people killed themselves when the Great Depression asserted itself as an example.
One of the more alarming trends to me of a New Age variety of this is the Law of Attraction. There are many who would teach that if you desire something ardently enough that you will get it. This is somewhat true. What it fails to take into account is that desire ITSELF becomes a problem, because often when you get what you “want” you find that you don’t REALLY want it after all. Happiness was there all along, but your desire was in the way. One does not need to attract a single thing in order to be content. If one is content, many occasions may rise such that they can express joy, but the occasions themselves are not DESIRED ends. For instance, one may ardently wish for a lover, get with that person, and discover that what they attracted wasn’t REALLY what they thought it was. Instead, their desire was a projection of something they needed to own in themselves.
The vast majority of the time, those who are successful do not “make it happen” . It is more that they mold themselves into something which allows success to almost morph around them. Every path is different, and every quality needed in order for a person to be whatever it is they need to be is different. One person might get where they ought to be through pure aggression. Another might find that they need to be as gentle as a lamb. There is no “universal key” to success. The key is in rounding out one’s self–and developing whatever qualities need to be developed. When that happens, the rest of reality almost seems to bend to that person. From their perspective, they might say they “worked their way up”, but in reality, what they were doing was “working their way up” on the outside such that on the inside they could cultivate certain qualities that, once locked in, allowed them to be whatever it was that they are.
So, for instance, in older magic practices, a magician would do a ritual on the outside so that through the motions of doing the activity on the INSIDE he could realize something about himself. Christian churches often use just this mechanism with reference to communion. Removed from the trappings of Christianity, we would call such an act magical involving transubstantiation. In specific, we would class such an act as something not entirely different than voodoo wherein one has a doll that represents certain aspects of a person. We might refer to such magic as simulacra magic, or magic that attempts to accomplish some end by noting a one-to-one correspondence with something else. Hence, the bread is Jesus’s body, the drink his blood. The point to be made, though, was that the ritual was not particularly helpful if it became empty. Ritual was an outward manifestation intended to provoke an inward state. In Christianity, the communion is supposed to “lock in the Jesus-likeness” of those who participate in the rite. In actuality, it probably does this little anymore because people have lost the reason for its existence. They go through the motions without actually inwardly contemplating what they are doing, and why.
Regardless, the magician could not be sure whether the changes he made as a result of his ritual would show up on the outside in physical reality, or within himself, and at some point he would stop making the differentiation because the two were opposite sides of the same coin anyway. In the same way, when we stop desiring, we often find that we shift internally AND externally seemingly out of nowhere. Was it the outside that changed or the inside? Perhaps it is far simpler–all is mind, insides and outsides. The more one realizes this, the more that whether one is doing ritual work on the outside or inside matters little. The Law of Attraction and a consciousness effort made to invoke it interfere ironically with the Law of Attraction. The mere act of desiring begins to tarnish the mirror of the mind. In order to know what would make us happy, or what we want, we would have to have the knowledge of ourselves first on an intimate basis–from the highest possible version of ourselves. Since few people in humanity ever achieve this state, all we know is what we THINK will make us happy, but we do not know it, and we may find our desires lead us astray. An enduring philosophy like Buddhism lasts because it hits upon universal truths. New Age fluff comes and goes, because it simply will not stand up to the test of time. Suffering finds us all, sooner or later.