Seriously, anxiety?

Yesterday we had a birthday party for my five year-old boy.

Our baby girl is less than a month old, which made things a little more complicated.

But in all honesty it’s not the complications or the lack of sleep that makes throwing a birthday party difficult: it’s the anxiety.

I was anxious in the lead-up to the party, and of course I tried a number of things to reduce it.

Some of those moves involved “positive thinking”, and the most successful was to view the anxiety itself in a positive light…

You know the great thing about chronic anxiety? It’s really reliable!

You don’t have to worry about it, the anxiety will just be there in the background, doing its own thing.

When I’m busy planning a party, with a list of things to organise, it’s great knowing that anxiety can take care of itself.

It’s automatic. Like “Set and forget”, but it’s self-setting too!

Isn’t it comforting to know that you forget about your anxiety while you focus on everything else that needs doing, and it’ll still be there, plugging away in the background, ready for you whenever you need it?

Hurdles are relative

So that worked. What a surprise!

The party went really well.

And then the next day, I found my anxiety had reappeared, this time over the daunting prospect of…

…buying my son a sandwich on the way to school.

Well, I had to buy a sandwich, a banana, and pick up his drink bottle from his grandparents’ on the way.

That meant leaving home a little earlier.

Yet I was almost as anxious about this task as I was about organising the birthday party.

Or perhaps an alternative view: I was as uncomfortable with this morning’s anxiety as I was with the pre-party anxiety.

Anxiety tips its hand

Occasional situations like these are where anxiety reveals itself as a fraud.

Because it makes no sense that my anxiety should trouble me as much over this minor issue as it did over the relatively major one.

I mean, the party itself was not that big a deal either, but it obviously ranks far higher than running a couple of errands on the way to school.

What this suggests to me (and I’ve seen it a couple of times before) is that anxiety is a major con.

It’s a joke. It’s BS. It’s deeply suspicious.

It’s like a security system that can’t tell the difference between a home invasion and a stray cat crossing the front lawn, but still purports to protect you from danger.

What are you focusing on?

The underlying mechanism is still mysterious.

I think my focus in life is profoundly negative; such that instead of feeling better when stressors are overcome, I just feel temporarily less bad.

The way my anxiety behaves also implies that on some level I’m looking for things to feel anxious about, as if I’m getting some kind of reward from feeling anxious.

It’s even possible that anxiety itself is the reward. As weird as that sounds, it is a kind of excitement physiologically and mentally.

People like scary movies and scary rides; we enjoy thrilling games and stories; it’s plausible that anxiety itself is enjoyable.

It could also be familiar, or it could be a kind of “lesser evil” that promises to help ward off even worse experiences.

  • Being anxious about the party could be seen as a way of avoiding embarrassing oversights or poor planning.
  • Being anxious about running errands before school could be a way of avoiding being late.

It’s likely a combination of factors though, because in the many years of living with anxiety, no single answer has resolved it for long.

A positive alternative

I think what I’m missing is a positive alternative to anxiety – something to focus on and achieve that is more substantial than the mere absence of feeling anxious.

Taking a cue from “positive thinking”, one thing I did for the party was to give myself positive cues like “I wonder how much I’ll enjoy it?” “I wonder how many nice, funny, or enjoyable things will happen?” and “I wonder how much my son and his friends will enjoy the food and the games?”

I suspect there’s a global or baseline equivalent of those positive thoughts that applies to my overall focus in life.

In other words, just as I can shift my focus to positive cues on any given subject, I can probably shift my overall focus toward feeling good as a positive alternative to feeling anxious.

What might that look (and feel) like?

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What is reality, really?

The basic premise of “positive thinking” is that “your thoughts create your reality”.

One of the obstacles I’ve encountered is a narrow or limited interpretation of “reality”.

In the beginning I think I intentionally partitioned “the reality shaped by my thoughts” off from “actual reality”, because…well let’s face it: positive thinking material sounds like cringe-worthy new-age rubbish.

But at the same time I knew from philosophy of mind and psychology that our beliefs do shape our mood and our experience, and that our perceptions are highly malleable.

I also knew from personal experience that a change in belief or perception can have results that seem nigh-miraculous.

And because of my broader spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, I don’t have any trouble with the idea of actual miracles either.

But still, I maintained a kind of distinction between the “reality” I was seeking to change, and actual reality; and this distinction is problematic.

It’s problematic because if I can conceive of a reality apart from my all-encompassing experience of reality, then I can have thoughts and beliefs about that “real reality” that contradict or undermine what I’m trying to achieve in changing my thoughts.

So long as I hold on to a distinction between subjective and objective reality, there’s going to be some wriggle room or ambiguity in my work.

It’s the same as my recovery from my auto-immune disease. For a long time I investigated the psychogenic aspect of it, while still refusing to commit to a psychogenic cause. Once I finally accepted that the cause was psychological, only then did I make progress in overcoming the pain.

I only improved once I chose to believe that my physical symptoms were an expression of psychological stress.

So what is reality?

It’s a tautology, but I can’t experience anything beyond my own subjective experience.

Etymologically, “reality” comes from “res” which means “thing”.

Reality is just “all the things”.

We can’t disprove the subjectivist position that things only exist in our own experience of them, nor the skeptical position that we cannot know anything about reality beyond our experience of it, nor even the solipsist position that all reality might well exist only within my own mind.

Philosophers can argue about it, but we aren’t really looking for a philosophical position here.

What we’re looking for is the relationship between our thoughts, our feelings, and “all the things” of our experience.

What we want is to feel better, with the understanding that we have the power to change our feelings by changing our thoughts, and that this in turn will change our experience.

There’s only one “thing”

The testimony of mystics is that “all the things” are really just one thing — the expression and manifestation of a single divine being.

Our suffering and misery as humans comes from the identifying or “reification” of the one into many, and the attribution of independent existence and power to those many things – ourselves included.

Independence and separation give rise to thoughts of abandonment, of harm, of things going wrong. The moment we start thinking that we exist in a world of isolated things, we lose the freedom and grace of the divine spirit within us.

The metaphysical significance or “divine plan” behind delusion, sin, and evil varies between religions, but the important point is that it isn’t real, it doesn’t have independent existence; the divine alone exists.

When we think of reality as something “out there” with independent existence, and maybe (as my previous post explored) malicious or callous or corrosive to our well-being, we suffer.

We suffer just from thinking of it that way, let alone shifting our perception to seek out evidence that it is that way.

If I view “all the things” as existing out there, with their own independent existence and power, and I myself striving and struggling against them, then of course I feel bad.

What are “all the things” really? They are aspects of my experience, objects of my consciousness, forms and ingredients of this mysterious stream of awareness.

Do they really have their own existence, their own power?

Two realities become one

All my negative experiences have in common a kind of deference to external reality and power, a falling-back into the thought of things “out there” that aren’t the way I want them to be.

I view things as having their own existence and power, and therefore I imagine potential negative consequences if I don’t respond to them in the correct way.

Providence, grace, insight, wisdom, there are various names for it in different traditions, but altogether there’s a common understanding that the power of the divine, the one thing that actually exists, transcends and entirely overcomes the flawed sense that I’m an isolated human being struggling in a multifarious universe.

That’s why detachment, recollection, withdrawal from “worldly” concerns is a prominent theme in mysticism. But not for its own sake, only to allow us to come into alignment with the one.

In terms of “positive thinking” that means changing our thoughts to allow for providence or divine help to come to the fore in our experience, filling in all the gaps and drawing us into the flow that has always awaited us.

Practicing (un)Happiness

Working on improving my mood these past months has had some results, but in typical melancholic fashion I’ve resisted doing it systematically because I can’t ‘see’ the whole system clearly yet.

Nonetheless I’ve gotten to a point where I can slightly shift what I call my ‘baseline’ mood. My baseline mood is how I feel about life generally when I’m not focusing on any particular topic.

If I pay attention, I can imagine life being “perfect” exactly as it is right now, and how that would feel. Previously my baseline mood has been dominated by a sense that things are far from perfect, that there are many many aspects of my life that need to change before I can be happy.

But this is the kind of conditional happiness that can never be fulfilled. It’s systemic unhappiness, and I’m beginning to see that my automatic behaviour in everyday life keeps the dissatisfaction alive.

If you feel bad, you will more easily find things to focus on that perpetuate bad feelings.

If you feel good, you will more easily find things that perpetuate good feelings; but for now “feeling good” is the exception rather than the rule.

Expecting bad things to happen

Because I’ve been working on feeling that life is “perfect and getting better”, I’ve been more and more aware of the daily habits of thought and attention that contradict this feeling.

This is a good sign, because it means I’m no longer accepting these thoughts so easily. It’s as if I’ve been going along with a current, and now I’m turning in a different direction.

My baseline mood has previously been influenced by the expectation of bad things happening. Not terrible, awful, objectively bad events; more like repeated irritations, nuisances, and unthinking insults from a world that is essentially unsympathetic.

It’s the kind of feeling you might have if your home had been built and designed without any consideration for human habitation or comfort, and when you went to complain you were told “What did you expect?”

It’s the kind of feeling you might have if you went on to discover that this is just how homes are built…that it’s cheaper and easier and more convenient to build them like this, and everyone else accepts it.

They might have doors that don’t shut, windows that don’t open, uneven floors, kitchen benches too low, shower too small, and a thousand other gratuitous insults to basic use, but what did you expect? You would be a fool to expect any better.

That perspective doesn’t feel very good. The implication is that you don’t matter, that no one cares, and that your complaints are entirely invalid.

This is just the way it is, that’s all. Resisting, complaining, or wanting it to be different is a waste of energy at best and a moral failing at worst. Or so you think.

Do I need to add that this makes for a depressing experience of life?

Expecting good things to happen

Lot’s of people try positive thinking, imagining that if they repeat the right words or try to fake feeling good they’ll magically transform their life.

But if you consider my negative worldview as sketched above, you can see that it’s not just about good things or bad things occurring. It’s more about the deeper orientation of reality toward us.

If you think reality has a persistently corrosive effect on your experience then it doesn’t really matter what isolated “good things” happen to you.

“Positive thinking” is not some new power to be wielded against a callous universe; it’s more a realisation of the thoughts and feelings that make the universe seem callous – or compassionate – in the first place.

In every religious system reality itself is oriented toward the good, toward happiness, toward life. Evil, sin, suffering and death are metaphysically subordinate to good, happiness, life – and existence itself.

The idea that existence or reality itself is callous and unfeeling is not true, and the ensuing expectation that bad things will happen is likewise false.

This belief and expectation is instead  a form of resistance or delusion, and it is kept alive in our own minds with repeated efforts and re-iterations.

If we forgot to keep looking for bad things or disappointments, this belief and expectation would grow weak.

But instead we practice it more assiduously than anything in life, continually reasserting that the universe itself insists on your being unhappy.

You can try it for yourself: start looking for good things to appreciate in your life, and see how quickly your thoughts turn to problems, mistakes, fears, and failings.

Some people find it easy to practice correcting themselves at this level. For me – maybe for melancholics generally – it feels better to identify the underlying worldview and look to correcting that, before seeking to change the ensuing habits of thought.

Here my background in religious and spiritual systems helps a lot, because I already know intellectually that existence is fundamentally good. My negative belief can’t reconcile itself with my deeper knowledge…the negative can only persist because I tend not to give it my full attention.

Ghost in the Shell: what makes sci-fi immersive?

Spoilers (obviously)

It’s tempting after watching a disappointing movie, tv series, or adaptation to lay out exactly what was wrong with it.

I thought the Ghost in the Shell 2017 movie was a bad adaptation, but writing out a catalogue of the film’s faults felt a bit too negative.

So instead I thought I’d use the 2017 adaptation as an exercise in contrast – taking what I didn’t like about the movie to explore what made the original anime and the subsequent Stand Alone Complex series so good.

Immersion

Immersion is the sense of having fully entered into a fictional world.

I’ve always found the anime incarnations of GitS immersive, but it wasn’t until I saw the 2017 adaptation that I started to think about why.

Broadly, I think the anime incarnations enhance the viewer’s sense of immersion by adhering to the characters’ standards of normalcy rather than the viewers’. This is especially poignant in a science-fiction setting, where much of the technology that shapes the characters’ world is partly or entirely new to the viewer.

As such, we would expect to see characters interact with technology in ways that are normal for the characters, despite being unfamiliar to us as viewers.

In the anime incarnations, GitS characters tend not to refer to technology unless it is relevant to the plot. How many times have you heard references to Batou’s artificial eyes?

I can’t recall any instances. Batou having artificial eyes is treated as unremarkable by the other characters (both primary and secondary), even though it’s probably the most striking and visible aspect of cyborg technology for the viewer.

By contrast, the 2017 adaptation makes Batou’s artificial eyes part of the story. In the course of the movie Batou begins with his natural human eyes, is injured in an explosion, and has artificial eyes installed.

The movie includes a scene where the Major and Batou specifically talk about his new eyes, shortly after receiving them. Batou’s new eyes and the novelty of them become a talking point between him and the main character.

I suspect the intention was to use this scene to highlight the issue of identity, but in the process it undermined one of the most powerful sources of immersion from the anime.

To have a character with artificial eyes is pretty sci-fi…but to have them and never remark on them as unusual is an amazing way of telling us how advanced and widespread this technology and cyborgisation generally are in the world of GitS.

The anime incarnations implicitly tell us what is normal and what isn’t, by how the characters respond to things. It’s obvious in hindsight, but when it’s done well the viewer is drawn in further by the allure of jarring novelties that the characters and the plot treat as mundane.

Activate the spider-tank!

A smaller instance of the same problem is in the 2017 adaptation’s decision to refer to the tank at the end of the film as a “spider-tank”.

In the original anime they simply refer to it as a tank. As with Batou’s eyes, this implies that walking-tanks are normal in the GitS world.

The audience is thinking “it’s a tank…with legs!”, but the characters are acting as if this is completely normal, telling us that this technology is now pervasive.

Unfortunately the 2017 movie chooses to highlight the novelty of the tank by having characters refer to it as a “spider-tank”.

It’s as if the characters are agreeing with the audience “a tank with legs…dude, I’m as surprised as you are!”

In the future tanks have legs and soldiers often have artificial eyes — but the strength of that assertion is diminished if the movie treats these things as special, unusual, and noteworthy.

It’s like travelling to another country: there are so many small differences, dozens of everyday things that no one would even think to mention to you on arrival. It’s not as if they say “Welcome to China, btw people spit a lot here and it’s considered normal so no one even thinks about it!”

These immersion issues correspond to other differences between the anime incarnations of GitS and the 2017 adaptation. There are consistent choices to emphasise aspects of character and plot in the 2017 adaptation that, in my opinion, fundamentally detract from what makes GitS an appealing franchise in the first place.

It’s not just a question of Hollywood versus anime either. The recent Arise anime incarnation of GitS proved similarly disappointing to fans.

In my next post I’ll use the 2017 adaptation to discuss what makes the Major such a compelling character.

Is it okay to be happy?

In a couple of decades living with anxiety and depression I frequently wondered about the correlation between my mood and my view of the world.

I’ve always valued the search for truth, and part of that search was to understand anxiety and depression themselves. But what if this “search” is itself a symptom of anxiety and depression?

What if looking for answers is just putting a positive spin on endless rumination?

Depressive realism

Sometimes it seems like happy people live in a bubble, unwilling or unable to grapple with the grand humane and existential challenges of life.

The popular notion of “depressive realism” offers a kind of perverse satisfaction in being miserable: the idea that depressed people see the world more clearly, or that happy people are buffered from harsh realities by self-serving delusions of competence and optimism.

If you find it difficult to be happy, you can console yourself with the idea that happiness is just for dumb, superficial, or morally unserious people.

But is this kind of depressive realism any better than a sour grapes attitude toward happiness?

Ironically, this consolation is itself the fostering of a self-serving delusion aimed at making us feel better, as we pride ourselves on being both willing and able to face the harsh realities of life.

When life hands you lemons, sure, you could make lemonade…but a real man will just eat that lemon and grit his teeth against the sourness, because lemons are supposed to be sour!

Intentional optimism

In the past few months I’ve made a conscious effort to change the way I think about life, in order to improve my mood.

In the process it’s become clear to me that despite all the suffering implicit in decades of anxiety and depression, despite being desperately unhappy, I couldn’t honestly say that I wanted things to be different.

We all want to be happy, but our desire for happiness is typically framed and delineated by very strict conditions.

We want to be happy in certain ways, under specific criteria; we want happiness on our own terms, even if those terms are largely unconscious in daily life.

When I first considered changing my thoughts in order to improve my mood, I immediately worried about becoming “delusional”, like one of those dumb, superficial, happy people who lives in blissful ignorance of life’s deeper meaning and struggles

It was very important to me that I maintain a sense of my own realism, honesty, and clarity about the nature of life; so important that I was more comfortable being deeply unhappy than risking a change to my self-image.

I put limitations on my pursuit of happiness, limitations that turned out to be based on little more than crude stereotypes.

Crude stereotypes of happiness

If I was truly honest with myself, wouldn’t I have to acknowledge that those supposed “dumb, superficial, blissfully ignorant people” were just a fantasy?

In all those years of looking for answers, I hadn’t once gone out of my way to examine people who were actually happy, preferring to think that I understood what superficial, derogatory happiness looked like.

In fact, my own experience belies the notion that happy people are ignorant or deluded. I don’t know anyone who matches the caricature that exists in my own mind.

People who are genuinely happier than me tend not to go around thinking and talking about their depressing problems, but to cast that as a moral failing is misguided.

I’ve met others similar to me: deeply depressed, yet repulsed by the thought of having to “delude” themselves in order to feel better.

Such people would never have the audacity to claim that they are free from “delusion”. They might say that they try not to delude themselves, but it’s more a statement of values and ideals than an objective assessment of their overall knowledge and beliefs.

It’s as if we’ve tried and failed at just “getting along” in life, and instead of admitting the failure, tried to redefine the parameters of life itself until those who get along well are the ones who’ve failed the test of moral seriousness.

Temperament defines happiness

The problem is that we aren’t all the same in what excites us and makes us happy, and therefore we can’t and shouldn’t try to “get along” in the same ways.

Those of us who struggle most with anxiety and depression seem to have an (un)healthy dose of what ancient proto-psychologists called melancholic temperament.

Melancholics are excited by meaning and ideals, and not much else. Yet we inhabit a society full of people who find happiness and fulfilment more easily accessible – in the pursuit of power and prestige, the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, or in simply being left alone to do their own thing.

Meaning and ideals are hard to reconcile with a world ordered to more tangible and readily accessible pursuits. That alone is enough to explain a depressed and anxious outlook.

But if we can at least recognise that meaning and ideals are what motivate and fulfil us, and that we are not all motivated by the same things, then we can dispense with attempts to universalise happiness and justify our own preoccupations.

In other words, it is not superficiality that makes others happy; they are happier (in general) because they have greater ease in identifying and accomplishing the things that make them happy.

Likewise, we are not less happy because of our bold embrace of harsh truths and discomforting realities; we are less happy (in general) because we have not succeeded in identifying and accomplishing the things that make us happy, and have in fact gone to the other extreme of denying our need for meaning and ideals.

Putting meaning and ideals first

I think the most important thing is to recognise what it is that makes us happy as individuals – whether that be meaning and ideals or something else – and seek to enlarge that aspect of our life.

For melancholics the initial challenge is working out that it is meaning and ideals that excites us, and the subsequent challenge is learning how to approach meaningful things for the sake of the meaning they provide.

I used to study philosophy, but I couldn’t really articulate that it was the search for meaning that drove me to it. So I tended to go along with other people’s perspectives of what philosophy is and why it is meaningful or important.

There came a time when I ceased to find philosophy meaningful. And it turned out that I didn’t really care all that much about the other aspects of philosophy that people find valuable. I didn’t really care very much about critical thinking or rationality or asking big questions or seeking answers generally.

Ironically this makes a melancholic surprisingly pragmatic in a way that can even resemble a choleric. A melancholic is like a choleric whose ambition is finding meaning, and everything else is subordinate to that goal.

I think that’s what drives my interest in mysticism, philosophy, and religious practice and thought. I’m looking for a pure meaning that can encompass and imbue all of life.

How to unlearn conditional happiness

I recently told a friend struggling with feeling appreciated that:

No one can appreciate you more than you appreciate yourself.

But I think there’s probably a better way to explain it, albeit a less pithy one.

What I was trying to say to my friend was that it doesn’t matter how hard he tries to get others to appreciate him. His sense of appreciation is limited by how much he appreciates himself.

If you are unwilling to appreciate yourself, respect yourself, love yourself, value yourself, then no amount of seeking those affirmations from others will succeed.

I know this is a bit of a cliche, but it’s no platitude.

We have the capacity at any time to regard ourselves more positively, but instead we defer this positive self-regard, setting conditions for ourselves to attain it.

Most theories suggest that we have a natural approval for ourselves as children, but are conditioned to lose it as we grow up.

As we attach to our parents or carers, we learn how to relate to ourselves from how they relate to us.

A self-absorbed, unavailable parent who can’t put aside their own frustrations to show love and comfort to their child teaches the child to apply the same conditions within themselves.

“I can’t show you love and affection because you spilled your milk, or because you won’t listen to me, or because I have more important things on my mind”

So the child learns that love and affection are conditional…they are only forthcoming when the conditions are just right.

The parent has the capacity to let go of their concerns and give the child the love and affection he or she needs. But they choose not to, albeit under the influence of their own weighty internal conditions.

Likewise, we ourselves have the capacity to let go of our concerns and conditions and give ourselves the love, affection, respect, appreciation, and other qualities we desire.

Have you ever looked at a happy, well-adjusted person and wondered “How dare they?” How do they let themselves off so easily? How do they treat themselves so well when they haven’t done anything to merit it…at least not by our harsh standards.

Or perhaps you assume they must have done something to earn it. They must be special or different, or perhaps you are the one who is different in some deficient way?

But the truth is that the capacity is there in all of us, to love ourselves, treat ourselves well, with respect and kindness and…whatever is required to feel happiness and joy in our lives.

That’s what we most desire from others. But it’s a paradox: the only way to get what we want from others is to accept it first in ourselves.

Otherwise we will sabotage our own efforts – either by trying too hard and too desperately, or by picking the wrong people, or the wrong timing, or going about things in completely the wrong way.

You may not walk around thinking it consciously, but implicit in your desire for others’ love and approval is the recognition that then you will be able to feel good in yourself.

And that’s what creates the paradox. You refuse to feel good now because you believe you’re not good enough or deserving enough. You haven’t met the conditions you internalised while growing up.

Then you meet someone and you think “if this person loves me, or appreciates me, or approves of me, that will mean I’m good enough now!”

So the other person becomes the condition of your own self-approval. It doesn’t really work though, because self-approval is intrinsically unconditional. External factors are irrelevant.

When your parents or carers mistreated you, their excuses were irrelevant too. It’s because they were irrelevant that they cannot be resolved, and if you’re lucky, you will have observed these never-ending patterns of behaviour in people’s lives.

You can start to witness that people who find excuses for mistreating you go on to find more and more excuses. People who love to complain have a knack for finding things to complain about. People who live in misery carefully avoid things that might draw them out into happiness.

And if you can see it in others you can probably see it in yourself too, the artful way you flirt with calamity or keep yourself in a state of anxiety. It’s immersive and it feels “real”, but every now and then you can see the genuine multiplicity of options that surround you, the unfathomable range of directions your life could go, and how suspicious it is that you nonetheless keep it firmly on a single track.

That doesn’t mean you’re doing it “wrong”, it just means you can change when you’re ready, when you want to.

The best part of that change is to realise you can give yourself, enjoy for yourself, the wonderful positive feelings that you thought had to wait until conditions were met.

“If you want to make God laugh…”

I really hate the saying “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”.

Maybe it’s a melancholic thing, but like the idea that “God is testing you”, I feel it places thoroughly unlikable anthropomorphic qualities on what is, for me, sacred.

“God is laughing at you while you’re doing your best” is how I take it. And by implication, the person who kindly shares this nugget of wisdom is taking some vicarious pleasure in God’s wry view of your struggles.

And as for “God is testing you”, try: “God isn’t sure about you, so he’s giving you an arbitrary kick in the guts just to see how you take it.”

Nope.

Some people might get a kick out of that (I’m told some Cholerics love to feel they’re rising to a challenge) but for a melancholic, arbitrary changes in the game do not go down so well.

If God is testing me, then he’s always testing me. If God is blessing me, then he’s always blessing me.

For some people the path is straight and narrow, and for others the burden has to be light and the way easy.

But that’s not really what this post is about. Plans, yes. Theology, no.

We’ll leave that topic with the observation that the original Yiddish is more succinct, and more importantly it rhymes:

Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht

Which apparently means “man thinks, God laughs”.

Why does God laugh? Better to ask why we need to be told that God laughs.

We need to be told, because we often find that our plans go awry, and our thoughts betray us.

Since I’m working on “positive thinking” at the moment, I thought I’d take a closer look at the relationship between desires and conditions, and how the former makes us feel good, while the latter makes us feel bad.

Desires make you feel good, conditions make you feel bad.

I’ve been following a forum where people are discussing positive thinking material, and what often happens is that people join up with a desire that they want fulfilled, something they describe as a deep yearning and source of joy, yet at the same time an obvious source of misery.

What’s going on in these people (and in most of us) is that they’ve identified something they want, desire, or prefer, and this naturally makes them feel good at the thought of it.

But we tend not to stop there. We tend to include in that desire or preference other conditions. We set conditions in part because we think “this is how the world works”, but moreso because the conditions tend to deflate and diminish our desire until it matches how we already feel.

For example, if I’m miserable living in a small house, I’d understandably have a corresponding positive desire for a bigger house to live in.

This desire is a good thing, and it should be a source of inspiration, hopefulness, and enjoyment. I can feel good thinking about a bigger house even though my house is still small.

However, since I’m already feeling miserable in my small house, this implies I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on things that make me feel bad.

Maybe I spend ten or so minutes each day shaking my head in frustration at lack of space, or thinking in disappointment of all the things I can’t do due to space constraints.

It’s not easy to practice feeling frustrated and disappointed, and then practice feeling inspiration, hope and enjoyment.

That’s why I’ll most likely view my desire for a bigger house through the lens of my negative thoughts and feelings about my current circumstances.

Instead of feeling good about the thing I desire – a bigger house – I’ll find a way to feel bad about it. I’ll turn it into “the bigger house I can’t afford”, or “the bigger house I need right now” or “the bigger house in the right suburb”.

It might seem like I’m being realistic in my desires, or more specific, but in fact I’m adding conditions to what I desire in order to make me feel worse about it; in order to resist it.

Thinking about a bigger house feels good, because it is a naturally arising desire or preference brought about in response to my present situation.

Thinking about the associated conditions feels bad, and is in fact totally unnecessary.

How to separate desires from conditions

The way to separate desires or preferences from the conditions we impose on them is to work out what you really want and why you want it.

It’s amazing how far we can delude ourselves about what we really want.

According to the positive thinking material, we only ever want anything because we think it will make us feel better. So as a reductionist answer we could say that all we really want is to feel better, and if setting conditions makes us feel worse, we should stop doing that.

But we can also use this “feeling better” idea to understand what aspects of our desired outcomes are real, and what aspects are false conditions we’ve imposed.

So for example, what is it about a bigger house that will make me feel better?

Is it really just about space?

Unlikely, because even in our very small house we haven’t made efficient use of the available space!

In fact there are a number of little themes tied in to it.

Feelings of ease, of being settled, of having “made it”, of having something to show for oneself, of being more hospitable, of being able to explore various skills and hobbies, of having more beautiful surroundings to relax in, of being able to build fun things…

So the actual desire is not as straightforward as it seemed. It seems that only a fraction of it is about a house per se, and much more of it is about how I see myself or how others might see me.

Why your current situation is ‘perfect’

Ironically, the desire for a house turned out to be partly a genuine desire, and partly a condition set for other, unrelated, desires.

For example, I might want to be more hospitable, but being a disorganised person living in a small house means I’ll either have to do a lot of tidying every time people come over, or learn not to care about having a messy house.

More directly, is there really any reason I can’t feel “settled” now, regardless of the size of our house? Why does “settled” mean “unmoving”? Plenty of people move house numerous times in their lives and it never stops them feeling “settled”.

The same goes for feeling at ease, feeling like I’ve “made it” (what does that even mean to me?), and feeling like I have something to show for myself.

The truth is that these are things you can feel already. They’re actually not related to objective outcomes like home-ownership. They’re subjective, and we decide for ourselves the conditions we put on them.

And the irony is that if you don’t let yourself feel any accomplishment at your minor achievements, you’ll probably never let yourself achieve something “major” by your own estimation.

If you reject here and now subjective feelings of ease, being settled, or feeling comfortable with your own choices and accomplishments, then you will definitely sabotage any attempts to really “earn” those feelings.

Because the feelings can’t be earned. They come easily and naturally for people who aren’t hung up about them…just like the other things that come easily and naturally to you, the things you likely take for granted even though others struggle with them.

The truth is that your current situation is ‘perfect’, because it matches how you feel about yourself already.

The conditions you set upon your desires are ways of stopping you from achieving them…you make your desires “impossible” or “unlikely” or “out of reach” because you’ve already decided that the corresponding good feelings are out of reach for you.

So work out what you really want, and why you want it. Look at how you really want to feel, and see that you can feel most – if not all – of it right now, without regard for the conditions you tried to set for feeling good.

Fear of getting it wrong

I’m continuing to clarify my understanding of the process.

So to start with, let’s assume you’re unhappy with aspects of your life. Initially you think you are unhappy (feeling) because of these unwanted aspects of your experience (reality). This itself is a thought.

Then you encounter some positive-thinking material, which claims that in fact you’re misunderstanding cause and effect. The material claims that it is the direction of your focus that is causing you to have particular thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

“Direction of your focus” is admittedly vague, because it’s describing something that is prior to thought, feeling, and experience, and is (I suspect) something that does not of itself have recognisable qualities or attributes apart from its effects.

It’s a little like consciousness. You know you are conscious because of the objects and experiences that you are conscious of. The eye cannot see itself, the knife cannot cut itself.

The material I’m using (Esther Hicks/’Abraham’) suggests that we can and should assess our point of focus on the basis of the ensuing feelings. In other words, if our aim is to feel better, then we should focus on thoughts (or the energy prior to thought) that causes us to feel better.

I’ve outlined elsewhere why I think this is a reasonable thing to do, even to the extent of downplaying the “realism” of our thoughts in favour of how good we feel.

The problem is that we tend not to focus in a way that feels good. Even when we read this material and agree with it, we still find ourselves feeling bad, focusing on things that make us feel bad, and then all too often feeling worse because we’ve “failed”.

The emotional quality of thoughts

Our thoughts aren’t merely descriptive, they are also emotionally salient.

Two people might think “life is a struggle”, but one feels bad about the thought while the other feels excited and motivated.

Likewise, I can think “my feelings are my own fault/responsibility” and feel demoralised by it, or feel empowered by it.

So although “false” beliefs can have negative effects, so can “true” ones. Cynical and depressed people can easily wedge themselves between seemingly unassailable truths about the world, and the path out of that cul-de-sac might look like self-deception or delusion.

Sometimes these issues arise in philosophy…like if a coach tells an athlete “you can do it!” when he thinks they can’t do it, but suspects that the encouragement will motivate the athlete to perform better…this kind of scenario isn’t really captured in a simple binary of true/false.

A question of focus

Going back to the process in question:

The suggestion is that we’re mistaken about cause and effect. The suggestion is that our point of focus determines the thoughts we have, their emotional quality (our feelings) and our subsequent reality.

Personally, I’ve always approached religious/spiritual systems through the lens of “what am I doing wrong?” Yet ironically the implication is that this negative focus keeps me stuck exactly where I have been stuck, on the impression that I must be doing something wrong, with the corresponding effects of this negative focus.

Typically the teachers of this material advise that it’s not necessary to fully understand how these things work, but in my case I’m inspired by the thought of understanding the mechanisms at play.

That said, the same principles apply to my attempts to understand it: focus on the negative, on how little I understand and the sense of struggle….or focus on how much I’ve already understood, how enjoyable it is to work it out and put it into practice, and how exciting it is to still have puzzles to solve.

You can’t get it wrong

Which brings me to the principle or observation that “you can’t get it wrong”, which is especially pertinent to me given my focus on “the problem” and “what am I doing wrong?”

You can’t get it wrong, because cause and effect is driven by your focus. You get to choose what you focus on, so if you are experiencing struggle and strife, that is entirely the product of your focus. You’re getting exactly what you’re focusing on.

That doesn’t sound very comforting to me, and likely not to you either. But there’s a little more to it.

Struggle and strife and other forms of negative experience build within you a more powerful desire for the opposite. So even if you continue to focus negatively, you aren’t “failing” or “losing”, you’re experiencing a stark contrast that adds to a proportionately powerful desire for something much better.

In a metaphysical context where true harm is impossible, there’s not anything to be afraid of ultimately.

There’s not a single spiritual system worth its salt that invokes fear as an ultimate motivator or death or evil as a metaphysically powerful entity. Existence itself is divine, so what are we afraid of?

Of course “getting it wrong” might be a particular sore point for me and not for you. Different experiences produce different desires, but there will be an analog in there somewhere. Maybe it’s “losing control” or “failing” or “being useless”.

Redefining the problem

If we go back to the start and refrain “let’s assume you’re unhappy with aspects of your life”, we’re now in a slightly better position to see that there’s nothing wrong with that.

Nothing wrong with being unhappy?

That sounds paradoxical, and maybe it is. Maybe the paradox will resolve itself such that you’re no longer unhappy because you’re now realising that everything is perfect and there’s no failure here.

Or maybe you’ll “forget” the paradox and go back to being unhappy in your focus for a while longer.

You might even decide “yes! I have to resolve the paradox!” and throw yourself into a state of unsatisfying struggle.

Ultimately, the direction is positive. Whether you’re going negative and building up your desire for something more, or you’ve had enough already and are changing direction, the ultimate end is a positive one.

Abiding insecurity

I need continual reminders that maintaining a positive focus requires partial detachment from the reality around me.

Remembering that our focus is reflected in our thoughts, feelings, actions, and reality, it follows that true change begins with a change in our focus.

But too often we try to change our focus, using reality as a gauge. This is a bit like trying to lose weight and staring at your reflection for immediate signs that it is “working”, and getting discouraged when there’s no immediate change.

The relationship here is even more significant: if you begin to focus on your present reality, your thoughts, feelings, and your subsequent reality will follow suit.

The positive-thinking material therefore suggests a degree of detachment from the reality around you. Not only that, it suggests coming to view the change in focus itself as the desired outcome, with the understanding (but not the grasping or clinging) that reality will eventually change.

Otherwise you may experience a repeated feeling of discord or insecurity as your attention drifts back to the reality around you which neither fully reflects your prior positive focus, nor can ever be the true fulfillment of your desire.

Detachment plays a similar role in mysticism. Seek first the Kingdom of God and his Righteousness means that we cannot be truly satisfied by anything less than God himself. Only the divine can bring fulfillment, and like the positive-thinking material, it is understood that we will never reach the limits of satisfaction in this lifetime.

In other words, we will always be pursuing a deeper and more satisfying focus on the divine.

The second half of the saying is that all these things shall be added unto you.

“All these things” refers to our earthly needs…the aspects of reality that worry us. So we are told not to worry about them, that our Father knows all our needs, that everything will be taken care of.

The aim of both mysticism and the positive-thinking material is to learn to recognise positive focus, or focus on God, as the desired end. A mystic might say it is God we are searching for in our many and varied worldly pursuits.

As God said to Jeremiah:

You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. ‘I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.

The exile is a spiritual one, because we attend to the passing world, conforming ourselves to its patterns as though it were the ultimate reality.

To live for sons and wealth,
For belongings and health,
O Kabir, is to be like the bird
Which during one night’s stay
Starts loving the tree.

So detachment is necessary. Not to separate us from an “evil” world, but to keep us fixed and focused on the right path. Our world will reflect this focus, our thoughts, our feelings, our actions and our reality will all change to accommodate the new mind or new spirit in us. It will be like a “new creation”.

And in that detachment you draw deeper and more fully on the divine. You’re forced to accept that real fulfillment lies in that focus, that spiritual disposition, that “positive energy”. Drawing on it more purely, where else could you go or stand or want to be?

In recognising that your thoughts, feelings, actions, and reality all flow from your point of focus, you recapitulate creation itself, where all things flow from the divine. You put what is “least” right to the fore, the mysterious thing that seems smallest, weakest, empty, yet from which all existence flows.

Imagine you’re relaxing

I wanted to lie down on the couch.

I’d been sitting at the computer for a couple of hours, and I really really wanted to go and stretch out and relax on the couch.

The couch was right there…12 feet away.

But then I thought…

Huh. 

What if I focus on the good feeling of relaxing on the couch, rather than actually doing it?

What are the limits of my ability to focus on relief and relaxation as the desired outcome of lying on the couch?

After all, lying on the couch is a neutral action. You can lie on a couch and feel stiff and terrible, just as you can say the words “I feel good” while feeling horrible.

I want to lie on the couch because I believe doing so will relieve tension and discomfort from sitting for too long.

But is it necessary to get up and go lie on the couch in order to feel that?

As a test or experiment, I thought I’d find out how couch-like I could feel without actually getting up and going to lie on the couch.

Oh man.

It turns out I’ve never really appreciated lying on a couch as much as when I didn’t actually lie on it.

The process of getting deeper and deeper into couch-like relaxation revealed hidden resistance.

For example, in the past I’ve hurt my back numerous times, and so I have an ingrained fear of arching my back unsupported in case I pull a muscle in my lower back.

It’s a protective habit, but it means I’m walking around with this guarded tension in parts of my back.

Why can’t I relax without lying on the couch? It turns out I can, I’m just not used to it.

This weird little experiment of declining to recline demonstrates that I can evoke feelings of relaxation and letting go, without taking the action that I usually associate with those feelings.

It also suggests that action can sometimes stand in the way of truly changing how I feel.

Deceptive activity

The action of lying down might relax me to some degree, but it also stops me learning how to relax without lying down, which is far more valuable to me.

After about ten minutes focusing like this, I went and lay down. Surprisingly, it was harder to relax lying down than when sitting. It was harder to relax because lying down hadn’t truly relaxed me, it had just taken away the pressure.

I wasn’t learning to let go, I was just relieving the worst of the burden.

In this sense, action can be counter-productive at times.

It can relieve the pressure that would otherwise motivate us to change our behaviour – like learning how to properly relax.

It can also confuse us as to what we really want.

For example, I thought I really wanted to lie on the couch. But it turned out that I really wanted to feel relaxed and relieved…and by resisting the more obvious course of action, I learned that I could feel relaxation and relief even in an uncomfortable position.

Isn’t that exciting? That means it wasn’t even really about the position or the action (or lack thereof), but about something in my mind from the beginning.

If I can use my mental focus to relax, then presumably it was my lack of focus, or my focus on something else, that caused my tension to persist in the first place.

Doesn’t that imply that I can feel relaxed and relieved of pressure whenever I like?

This idea of mental relaxation through visualisation is nothing new. I’ve heard it before many times but never succeeded in applying it.

I think that might be for melancholic reasons.

Simple tricks or techniques to relax (or for any purpose) tend not to appeal to melancholics because of our deep desire for meaning.

That’s why I’ve only used this technique successfully now, because it fits into the broader context of how one’s experience of reality, feelings, and thoughts, flow from one’s point of focus.

I think this serves as a useful experiment in “positive thinking”.

In the process of changing my focus I discovered that I didn’t want what I thought I wanted, that my usual course of action was usually only a half-measure at best or counter-productive at worst, and it also brought me renewed excitement and curiosity as to the broader applications of this technique.