Getting into alignment

The apex of so-called “positive thinking” is for your thoughts/mind to be in alignment with your innermost being. To that end, I’m putting together a series of principles or reminders to help me return to that state of alignment.

It’s a work in progress, but I thought it would be nice to share it and keep track of it in this space:

  1. if you’re feeling any negativity your thoughts are not in alignment
  2. misalignment can come from habits of thought/belief, or from focusing on external reality, which is a reflection of prior misalignment.
  3. to align it is necessary to have the intention of ‘allowing’ it, but most importantly to stop focusing on misaligned thoughts.
  4. further, detachment or ignoring of present reality may be required to allow thoughts to come into alignment.
  5. alignment is found in the absence of resistant, negative thoughts and hence in the absence of negative feelings too.

The themes of alignment, detachment, and misalignment can be found in mysticism across the great religions.

These principles incorporate the paradox that our lives improve when we stop trying to improve them. It’s our own focus on negative thoughts and beliefs that mars our experience of life.

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Feeling like a different person

There’s a saying in the Abraham Hicks material that “you can’t get there from there”.

It has a couple of different meanings, but the meaning I discovered recently is that in my quest for happiness I must at some point feel like a different person.

Living with depression and anxiety for so many years, it makes sense that feeling genuinely better would also be profoundly unfamiliar.

I was so accustomed to my baseline feeling of weariness and dread that going without it almost seems fake.

But the truth is that there’s no continuity from feeling terrible to feeling good. A change in mood is like becoming a different person, and for that reason it’s not possible for the depressed anxious version of me to go along for the ride.

I kept fixating on those negative feelings looking for a solution or some means of transmuting lead into gold. But that’s not how these things work.

Negative feelings are something we create in ourselves, a by-product of the misalignment between our inner being and the beliefs or thoughts we are focused upon.

Those negative feelings don’t need to change, it’s our focus and our thoughts and beliefs that need to change. Then the negative feelings will simply be gone.

It really does feel like becoming a different person after all.

Action and Distraction

If you feel bad and use action to distract yourself, then your action will produce a result that also feels bad.

That’s why my efforts to “problem-solve” my way out of anxiety and depression didn’t work. I used intellectual effort to try to escape those bad feelings, and the promise of an “aha!” moment, the feeling of clarity and understanding, became addictive like a drug.

I’m learning now that I can change how I feel just by changing my focus.

But how is changing focus different from problem-solving or other distractions?

The difference is that it starts with acceptance of how I feel right now, whereas distraction is an abandonment of feelings in favour of activity or stimulation.

Since my aim is to improve my baseline feeling, it makes no sense to abandon and lose track of it for the sake of temporary reprieve. It’s better to feel what I’m feeling (even if it feels not so great) and see if I can gently improve it.

Otherwise when distractions end, we are just back where we started, with the added pain of having been distracted and disconnected from ourselves all that time.

And that’s why life seems to go on so consistently despite the many things we do each day. When our actions end we are right back to the feeling that inspired them. Years can go by without much change to how we feel.

Unless your actions challenge and expand you, they won’t bring about deeper change – they remain mere distractions.

Can you be too positive?

No one has ever accused me of being too positive.

But I’m hoping that will change as I make more progress in my journey from cynicism to optimism happiness.

Last night I swept away some old beliefs that had sat like a deep chasm across my inner landscape.

My prior attempts at being more positive were hitherto hemmed in by that old negativity — I was convinced of a threatening malice in my world, and of my own powerlessness to defend against it.

Now that it is gone – now that I’ve ceased to keep it alive – the relationship between my thoughts and my feelings and subsequent experience of life is clearer than ever before.

It is obvious now that I should focus on finding thoughts that feel good, rather than struggling to control or manipulate external circumstances – since the existence (and my interpretation) of those circumstances hinges on the quality and direction of my thoughts.

So how do we change our thoughts?

The mechanism is obscure, but we do it all the time. We constantly reach for, and accept, thoughts about everything, but we rarely exercise our ability to hold back and be selective about the thoughts we accept.

Reflexivity: thinking about thinking

Today the weather is hot, and the first thought that comes to mind is that the heat is unpleasant.

But I don’t have to stay with the first thought that comes to mind. I can choose one that feels better: it’ll be over soon. The sun is so beautiful. It’s great beach weather. I love how variable the weather is here. I’m so glad we don’t have terrible heat-waves anymore. I love how bright it is outside!

You can tell for yourself which thoughts feel better, and how much better they feel.

If you choose a thought that feels better instead of one that feels worse, you have successfully changed your thoughts and hence your feelings, and hence your reality.

So far so simple.

But what might happen in the midst of choosing a new thought is that you find yourself thinking about this process itself.

You might think: this is stupid, you can’t change anything just by thinking about it.

Or: this is hard work, I don’t want to have to do this all the time.

What’s happened is that choosing a more positive thought has brought out of hiding higher-order thoughts or beliefs.

And it turns out that these higher-order thoughts or beliefs also determine how you feel, and hence your reality.

So try as you might to feel better about the weather by changing your thoughts, if you have higher-order thoughts that say positive-thinking is a load of wishful thinking and self-delusion, you will continue to feel bad and nothing much will change.

The good news is that you can change your thoughts about positive-thinking itself just as easily as you can change your thoughts about the weather.

So can you be too positive?

Hence the title of this post: the idea that you can be too positive, or that being positive is a superficial attempt to delude oneself, these are themselves beliefs or thoughts that determine how you feel, and hence your reality.

There is no such thing as “too positive”, because the thought of being “too positive” is not a positive thought.

If you think there is such a thing as “too positive”, you are, by definition, being too negative.

The path of happiness

It’s been over a year since I decided to stop being a pessimist.

I finally let go of my embarrassment and intellectual vanity and began reading and listening to the Abraham material by Esther Hicks on how to change your thoughts and learn to feel better.

Esther and her late husband Jerry were the first to use the term “law of attraction” and their material was the inspiration for “The Secret” movie and book. Hence my reluctance to delve into it.

But it turned out that the Abraham material is far deeper, more nuanced, and metaphysically inspired than derivative “law of attraction” material would imply.

Law of attraction and Mysticism

What I like about the Abraham material is that it converges with the key points of the mysticism I’ve studied for years.

It’s not about using new age tricks to try to get rich, but about understanding our real nature, and the spiritual causation at work in our individual lives.

Intentionally avoiding traditional spiritual terminology to avoid preconceptions and emotionally laden ideas, it nonetheless aligns with the core principles of mysticism.

Feeling good matters

The Abraham material urges us to prioritise feeling good, observing that feeling good is the ultimate motivation behind all actions and desires anyway.

We want various things in life because we think we will feel good if we obtain them.

But as with other versions of mysticism, Abraham tells us that it is possible to feel good right now, even though we have not yet obtained our desired ends.

This is possible because our true nature is not limited to the physical body and mind we inhabit. We are connected, united with, or an extension of, a purely nonphysical kind of being that created and continues to create all of physical existence.

In more traditional terms, we are not just a physical being, but we have a greater spiritual self who is (depending on the tradition) identical to, or united with, God the creator.

“Feeling good” is therefore not merely a mental trick based on imagining we have already achieved our desired ends; it is the path toward our inner relationship with the divine being whom the various traditions tell us is love, bliss, and happiness itself.

That life will improve as a result of being happier correlates with the blessings and providence that come with closeness to God.

Seek first the Kingdom, and all these things shall be added unto you.

Just the two of us

Another point of convergence with older forms of mysticism is the idea of two selves.

The Abraham material depicts our physical self as the focal point for our inner being or spiritual self, which is an extension of God.

This is immediately reminiscent of the two selves of the Upanishads – the outer, worldly self and the inner self or Atman, which is identical to Brahman.

You can read about this two-self model from the Upanishads in my posts on two birds in a tree and the Mundaka Upanishad.

The Abraham material encourages us to “align” ourselves with our inner being, with the greater, nonphysical part of us that is the fulfillment of all our desires and the source of all existence.

We know we are in alignment because we feel better, and we can follow that path of relief and better-feeling to ever deeper levels of contentment and satisfaction.

Some forms of mysticism present us with two selves, and encourage us to live through the inner, spiritual self rather than the outer, worldly self.

Other forms of mysticism depict the same journey as a transformation of the one self, dying to the worldly self and being reborn as a spiritual self.

I think it’s the same thing in practice.

Only one thing is necessary

If you’re not familiar with Christian mysticism, it can be as varied and arcane as the Eastern stuff, but ultimately the same dynamic is at play.

Here is Meister Eckhart in full swing:

As surely as the Father in His simple nature bears the Son naturally, just as surely He bears Him in the inmost recesses of the spirit, and this is the inner world. Here God’s ground is my ground and my ground is God’s ground. Here I live from my own as God lives from His own. For the man who has once for an instant looked into this ground, a thousand marks of red minted gold are the same as a brass farthing. Out of this inmost ground, all your works should be wrought without Why.

In the past I interpreted such passages as derogatory of the external world. But that’s because, à la the Abraham material, the world I was creating was a perfect match for the pessimism and resistance already within me.

Isn’t it fitting, then, that I should find the answers I was seeking in the “foolishness” of embarrassing, New Age-sounding, positive-thinking material, instead of in the ancient esoteric tracts of mysticism and philosophy?

From this I have learned to embrace and accept feeling good, to prefer thoughts and perspectives that make me happy, rather than dwelling on ones that feel bad.

Because I was already such a pessimist in the past, I interpreted the various mystics as saying that we must entirely abandon the world, become dead to it, in order to find true happiness within.

I’m no longer a pessimist. I’ve worked hard to change my thoughts and allow myself to feel good, and now it seems obvious that the path to true happiness would be…a happy one!

A Spiritual Reality

Ours is a spiritual reality.

We are spiritual beings, and though we inhabit bodies our bodies do not describe our limits.

Spirit is obvious, yet so obvious it can be denied if we fixate only on the material aspect of our experience.

Like watching a movie and forgetting there’s a whole film crew just out of view. We suspend disbelief and convince ourselves that the objects of our senses are all that matter.

When he tries to extend his power over objects, those objects gain control of him. He who is controlled by objects loses possession of his inner self.

Zhuangzi

A spiritual reality doesn’t follow the laws we have ascribed to life, the conventions and limitations of “the world”.

Spiritual reality inverts the relationship between inner world and outer: our innermost being is one with the creative power behind all things.

We might spend our days struggling to arrange things to our liking, but the deeper part of us is united with the singular being that created all those things, holds them in existence, and governs them.

There are effectively two “selves” within us: the self who experiences reality as a limited, physical being, and the self who is one with the creator.

Our goal is to reconcile or align the two; bring peace, love, and joy to the smaller “self” who has suffered so long under the illusion of separateness, powerlessness, and mortality in an uncaring world.

Our innermost being feels only love and joy, suffers no fear or anxiety, sees eternity and knows the pure, endless sufficiency of the creative power.

Our spiritual work is to relinquish the falsehoods accrued by our outer self and seek refuge in the abundance of our inner being.

Don’t go outside your house to see the flowers.
My friend, don’t bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
inside the body and out of it,
before gardens and after gardens.

– Kabir

And then what?

This is where I used to get stuck.

Withdraw from the outer self and enjoy the vision of your innermost being…but then what?

Even though I knew the theory, in practice I couldn’t help but return to the limited, constrained, and conventional view of reality.

I clung to a polarised view of spiritual vs physical, contemplation vs action.

I devalued the physical world in order to focus more on the spiritual, and yet that polarisation proved unstable.

And illogical: if the spiritual is all, how can the physical undermine or confound it? If the outer self is so much less than the inner self, why does it dominate?

I might enjoy a wonderful vision of spiritual reality, but then it was time to return to the real world.

And the whole time I thought I was being impractical, but it turned out I wasn’t being radical enough.

When Peter walked on the water, it was his fears that sank him.

In my case, the very question of “what now?” shows I still had fears, and a kind of faith in the physical world, even though I professed to believe in a spiritual one.

Does happiness come from outside, or from within?

Is this a spiritual world or a material one?

Did God create everything, or did everything create God?

In the end I discovered that my negative expectations about “physical reality” had spiritual ramifications.

I persevered under the mistaken premise that physical reality represented a “problem” for which spiritual insight was the solution.

I kept searching for answers, by unwittingly reiterating the question, over and over again.

And so the true answer is to stop asking the wrong question. Ours is a spiritual reality – it just is.

Not in contrast to how everyone thinks the world works; why should I care (and how would I know?) what everyone thinks?

The point, a spiritual point, is what I think: and embracing a spiritual reality means no longer affirming a physical reality as the problem I have to solve, or the prison I need to escape.

Spiritual reality is not an instead of, or in contrast to. It just is, and is all that is.

Pride and humility for melancholics

It’s telling that in Conrad Hock’s spiritual advice for the four temperaments, he extols melancholics to cultivate faith in providence, whereas humility he prescribes for cholerics:

The choleric must combat his pride and anger con­tinually. Pride is the misfortune of the choleric, humility his only salvation. Therefore he should make it a point of his particular examination of conscience for years.

The choleric must humiliate himself voluntarily in confession, before his superiors, and even before others.

Ask God for humiliations and accept them, when inflicted, magnanimously. For a choleric it is better to permit others to humiliate him, than to humiliate himself.

Given how dominant cholerics are, perhaps this explains why pride and humility are such central themes of religious teaching and cultivation?

Ever since Cain slew Abel, people have been muttering “f***ing cholerics!” under their breath. There’s a reason why choleric issues get so much attention.

Rethinking spiritual priorities

I’ve devoted a lot of time to unpacking the spiritual theme of pride, because it holds such significance in religious traditions.

In theory we all suffer from pride. Augustine identified it as the root of all sin, and Cassian poetically captured the devil’s fall from heaven as the fault of pride, mistaking his own glory for something self-created rather than the gift of his creator.

But there’s something very melancholic about fixating on the wrong spiritual diagnosis and running with it.

And while everyone is susceptible to pride in theory, and while pride itself can legitimately be defined in very broad terms, still it doesn’t mean that humility is the correct spiritual antidote for a melancholic.

Humility or pessimism?

I think I was drawn to the idea of humility, because in its theological context it means “seeing one’s true dependence on God”. For a melancholic, this can appear very attractive because we are prone to pessimism and despair anyway.

When your ideals have been systematically crushed, it’s tempting to embrace “humility” as a form of consolation, making a virtue out of giving up.

But puncturing pride just isn’t the same priority for melancholics as it is for cholerics.

We melancholics are supposed to instead have faith in providence, telling ourselves “things are not as bad as they seem”. And the underlying logic of providence is, to a melancholic, almost distressingly positive:

God loves you, and God is in control of everything. The creative power behind all existence wants you to be happy. Your entire experience is a work of love aimed specifically at you.

So as the beatitudes remind us: chill the **** out!

Mistaking happiness for pride

If you were to take seriously God’s love and providence, it might bring you dangerously close to feeling good about life.

You might even feel a strange inner glow that could, if you’re not careful, be mistaken for pride.

We think of pride as being “full of oneself”, and “self-satisfied”. So as not to take any chances, we therefore err on the side of being empty of any and all positive feeling about ourselves.

But to avoid confusion, I suggest we instead ignore the issue of pride completely. Keep it simple: Providence + Love => Happiness

If God cares about our happiness, isn’t it okay for us to care about our happiness too?

If God loves us, isn’t it okay to love ourselves as well?

This is the point where all the pride talk would normally strike us down.

Love yourself? Ha! What an ego! Full of God’s love? I can tell you’re full of something. You think you’re special? Such arrogance…you’re supposed to hate your life in this world, remember?

But assuming we’re all melancholics here, we need to accept we are not the intended audience for that.

Pride talk aimed at cholerics is like trying to protect your home from a raging bushfire.

Pride talk aimed at melancholics is like tipping a bucket of cold water on the warm embers that might have stopped you freezing to death in your sleep.

Isn’t it okay to be happy?

We’re told that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and I’ve always interpreted it one way only: that we should all put ourselves last, and if we are sincere then our sincere humility will be rewarded in the next life.

But in the context of pride and temperament I think it should be taken both ways: if you are first, you should put yourself last. If you are last you should put yourself first.

“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low.”

Don’t just topple the mountains, but raise the valleys too. If you are proud you should learn humility, but if you are a miserable unhappy melancholic you should at least consider that feeling good and putting yourself first is not a sin after all.

The proof of this is that real humility will bring greater happiness to a choleric. Their pride does not bring them happiness, it brings them frustration and vexation and anger.

We might look at egregiously arrogant cholerics who project success and happiness, but we know that their arrogance is hungry and grasping.

What more proof do we need that the genuine feelings of love, self-acceptance, and self-respect in us are not pride at all, but the fulfillment and grace of our own melancholic journey?

How the internet is driving the fractionalisation of society

In my latest article on Mercatornet I reflect on the growing fractionalisation of society, facilitated and driven by the internet:

In the recent past everyone watched more or less the same TV shows. Now we can enjoy such a diversity of content that kids in the same class at school can effectively inhabit different planets of entertainment, just as their parents inhabit different worlds of news and online opinion.

There are still many points of convergence, but the option to not watch Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey or the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is more viable than ever.

Linear TV focused our attention on a limited range of options, just like the two-party political system effectively concentrates genuinely diverse political views on a near-binary set of options.

The rise of the internet means that people can now air their diverse political views, whether it be weird and wonderful theories or simply the degree of personal support or opposition for a candidate.

And it’s not just a process of “airing” what is already there. Exposure to diverse opinions engenders greater diversification. We change, reflect upon, amend and consolidate our opinions as we realise how and why other people agree or disagree.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/often-in-error-never-in-doubt-how-the-internet-is-driving-the-fractionalisa/21802

The Lamp of the Body is the Eye

This phrase is usually interpreted as a metaphor where the eye is likened to a lamp.

But what if it is the other way around?

The standard reading

In the typical reading, it seems obvious that the physical eye is being likened to a lamp.

The eye shows us what is around us in the same way a lamp lights up our surroundings.

It seems straightforward. So what is the purpose of the metaphor? Is Jesus giving opthalmological advice?

The lamp of the body is the eye, if therefore the eye is clear the whole body will be full of light.

If “lamp” is the metaphorical component, then “eye” should be the literal component…but since no one thinks he was talking about literal eyes, the standard interpretation is that he’s referring either to the “mind’s eye” and hence to clear-mindedness, or “single-mindedness towards God”.

In the standard view, this passage is a metaphor within a metaphor, and it’s not entirely clear what is being said. Since the next immediate passage refers to an eye that is “evil” and a body that is full of darkness, the whole framing is reduced to “don’t be evil.”

In this reductionist ethical context the metaphor doesn’t add much value. He might as well have said “good and bad are like light and darkness, be good rather than bad, ok?” Or at best: “being good is like having good eyesight, and being bad is like having some kind of eye disease that makes you go blind.”

Rethinking the metaphor

So what if it’s the other way around instead? What if “lamp of the body” and “light” refer to something concrete and real that is then elaborated on via the metaphor of the eye?

The lamp of the body is like the eye…

If so, what is the lamp of the body?

The lamp of the body is that which “lights up” our bodies. It is what we call consciousness or the mind.

In this sense, consciousness is like an eye – the mind’s eye. We can direct it, we can focus it.

This eye can be “clear”, from the Greek haplous which literally means “without folds” and is often translated as simple or single.

And if it is single, the whole body will be full of light.

In other words, if you make your consciousness single, it will fill your whole body.

The final line warns that:

If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

Which doesn’t make literal sense since darkness and light are opposite.

It’s another metaphor. What it refers to is that consciousness, the light within us, is not “all or nothing”.

Rather there are degrees of concentration or intensity to it.

This is something attested to universally by contemplatives and meditators from all traditions: the “normal” mind or consciousness can become imbued with a higher or more intense or more pure consciousness.

The light within us can be full of light, or it can be (comparatively) darkness.

To those who have some, more will be given, and to those who have nothing even the little that they have will be taken away.

Am I right?

This whole passage is either a moderately esoteric teaching about contemplation or an unnecessarily complicated metaphor about being a good person.

I prefer the former interpretation because it makes more sense to me. People with exposure to meditation or contemplative prayer should see what I’m getting at.

I haven’t found many others espousing the same interpretation, perhaps because esoteric or mystical perspectives on scripture tend to be either deeply private and idiosyncratic or heterodox.

But this passage is one that has always called to me, and I’m increasingly aware that my need to justify my point of view with seemingly objective or impartial reasoning doesn’t serve me.

So take it or leave it. It makes perfect sense to me.

What do you really want?

When working out my approach to diet, I arrived at a very strange and powerful moment.

I knew that losing weight was objectively simple: eat substantially less food, and your body will consume more of its own reserves.

And I was under the impression that I really wanted to lose weight.

So why didn’t I follow that objectively simple path?

Cognitive dissonance

I remember this powerful moment so clearly, the feeling of astonishment at uncovering a deeper level of my psyche, and the self-deception at play.

It seemed that my strong desire to lose weight was not as strong as I thought…or that it might be more accurately described as “a strong desire to be thinner without changing any of my behaviour”.

At that time I resolved the tension in my own mind by redefining “want” or “desire”.

A want or desire is an intentional state. It motivates us to action. Therefore if no action occurs it is not accurate to say we “want” or “desire”.

I like that idea

To make sense of my behaviour I changed my story:

I really like the idea of being lean, but I enjoy the pleasure of eating too much to change my behaviour and actually lose weight.

Do you see how powerful that is? It might sound like admitting defeat, but the alternative wasn’t “victory” but self-deception.

I had been telling myself “I want to lose weight, but it’s really hard”. Changing the story showed that I didn’t really want to lose weight in the sense of having the necessary motivation to change my behaviour.

Think about the things you want in life. I want to go to the bathroom -> so go. I want a glass of water -> so get one. I want to lose weight -> so eat less. I want to play the piano -> so practice.

If I want to play the piano but I don’t practice, then it’s probably more accurate to say “I wish I could play the piano, but I don’t want to do the requisite practice”, or “I wish I magically knew how to play the piano without having to go through the trouble of actually learning.”

The paradox

Paradoxically, changing my story to more accurately describe how I felt gave me more motivation to change my behaviour.

Realising that I didn’t want to lose weight made me want to lose weight, because I saw quite clearly that the path I was on did not lead to a good place.

If losing weight is easy, why does it feel so hard? Because we don’t really want to change our behaviour. Why would we?

Changing my story again

Redefining “want” to mean a motivational state that leads to action is a bit extreme. It could be equally true to say we have numerous conflicting wants or desires of varying strengths and intensities.

The real value in that story I told was the clarity, seeing myself clearly and seeing through my self-deception.

It was so empowering to realise that the path was not hard, I was just deeply ambivalent about walking it.

Do I want to be profoundly happy?

I’ve arrived at another powerful and momentous question, this time not about food and body weight, but my ability to be profoundly happy, feel profoundly good in this very moment.

My forays into mysticism and spiritual practice have shown me time and again that we have the ability to find true love and joy deep within us. The only thing that stands in our way is…our own reluctance to embrace it.

Admittedly there’s a lot of confusion and conflicting messages out there about spiritual practice, just as there is about weight loss and diet.

But I’ve studied enough to be satisfied that the path is actually very simple for me.

All that remains is the mysterious fact that I’m so reluctant to walk the path.

Facing our own resistance

The question is why?

Why would I not want to feel profoundly good right now?

So far the answers are

“That’s not what life is about”

“I need to face reality”

…and the ingrained sense that struggle is somehow more rewarding or necessary or unavoidable so you might as well face it.

This struggle is captured in various traditions, but the one that comes to mind is:

If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.

Clarity will yield desire

As with the weight-loss example, seeing clearly my own reluctance – that the path is simple, I’m just reluctant to walk it – will gradually build my desire.

After all, feeling profoundly good right now would be…profoundly good. And realising that the only obstacle is my own obstinacy is the quickest way to wear it down, change my mind, and soften my heart.