My journey into positive thinking has gone through a couple of different stages so far.
Decrease negatives, increase positives
In the first stage my focus was mostly on feeling less bad.
I tried to soften the impact of my most negative thoughts on a number of subjects, and at the same time inject more optimism into my life on other subjects.
The biggest positive of all was the thought that this positive-thinking stuff might actually work!
I liken this stage to being a beginner at any skill or hobby: a beginner tries to decrease the number and frequency of their most egregious mistakes, the kinds of mistakes that make them want to give up entirely.
At the same time, a beginner benefits from being inspired, star-struck even, by the greatest examples in their field. These positive examples inspire hope and optimism.
But a beginner really has no idea of the scope of the skill. They can’t even imagine how much time or effort will be required to gain proficiency. Even if they think the task is enormous, they really have no idea how enormous it is.
Watch your thoughts systematically
Eventually I had the feeling that I wasn’t making as much headway as I would like.
I’d seen some genuine improvements, but they were more haphazard than the material suggested they should be.
I mulled on this for a while. It had been perhaps six months since I really started, six months of unsystematic practice.
Finally it dawned on me that I really needed to work at this. When they said “every thought is either making you feel better or feel worse”, they really meant every thought.
I decided to make the effort to focus on every single thought, daunting though this may seem.
This is just like when the beginner realises they must seriously apply themselves in order to gain skill. It’s all very well to dabble in a skill or art and see occasional improvement following occasional inspiration, but eventually you want to see your efforts rewarded. You want to make real progress.
And the effort paid off rapidly.
I very quickly observed that indeed each and every thought either contributed positively or negatively to my emotional state, with a 1:1 relationship between thoughts and feelings.
The greatest byproduct of this close attention to thoughts was to rapidly reduce the severity of my negative thoughts.
Paying such close attention, my mind suddenly made the connection between the negative thought and the negative feeling, and automatically softened the thought accordingly.
It’s been a couple of weeks since I started observing my thoughts like this, and the results were impressive.
But gradually I began to feel as if I’d plateaued.
It’s great to reduce the severity of negative thoughts and feelings, but the absence of negativity is not the same as positivity.
Feeling neutral isn’t the same as feeling good.
Breaking the feedback loop
The explanation for this plateau appears to be a kind of feedback loop.
Reducing negatives is great, but if we are consistently focused on external reality as our point of reference, we will never advance beyond that point.
In learning a skill we would always be exposed to a teacher and peers who are more advanced, pushing us to improve our own performance.
But in positive thinking, your experience always reflects your own thoughts. Therefore, the answer is to let the quality of our thoughts improve without regard to external reality.
Don’t let external reality be the determinant of your thoughts or feeling. In practice this might mean taking the time to “meditate” and allow thoughts and feelings to improve, trusting that external reality will eventually catch up.
Otherwise, we will keep repeating the same quality of thought over and over, and experiencing the same quality of experience over and over.
Breaking the feedback loop is as easy as letting go of that focus on external reality. Why let the momentum of past experience determine how you feel?