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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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.

How to “positive”

If you’ve been following recent posts: the premise of “positive thinking” material is that our feelings and experience of reality reflect or mirror the quality of our thoughts.

If our thoughts are more positive then we feel better, and our reality changes accordingly.

The conventional view of life is the opposite: reality happens first and our thoughts and feelings react to this reality.

It’s not just a different sequence, it’s also much messier.

So for the sake of a cleaner and more meaningful view of life (not to mention happier), we can observe it from the standpoint of thoughts->feelings->reality.

Change your thoughts and you change your world.

But how? And why? And also what?

What is positive?

Looking closer at the positive thinking material, we might need to adjust our schema a little.

Because it turns out that our thoughts are also a reflection, in the same stream of causation as our subsequent feelings and reality.

You don’t control your thoughts directly, rather you receive them as a by-product of your focus or attention.

That’s why you can change the verbal content of your thoughts, yet still feel the same way about them and experience the same reality subsequently.

“I feel happy” can be just empty words.

There’s a potential disconnect between the verbal or sensory content of a thought and the… the… the what?

This is where things get slightly tricky.

Prior to our thoughts it’s very indistinct as to what is happening. It’s a non-physical realm and there’s nothing sensory or even conceptual to grab hold of.

So people who talk about this stuff are left trying to stick a label on it, a label that will never be entirely appropriate.

Positive thinking material tends to use words like “energy” and “vibration”. These are metaphoric labels drawn from a folk-level understanding of contemporary physics.

Traditional religion tended to use words like “spirit”, which is another metaphor drawn from a folk-level understanding of metaphysics and biology.

In either case, the label is used to designate an invisible something that exists prior to thought, and from which thoughts, feelings, and external reality come forth.

So we could say “Lord, send out your spirit, and renew the face of the Earth” with the old psalms.

But for many people these words have negative associations and are loaded with misunderstandings, social and familial baggage.

If you study theology you find out that words like “Lord” are also metaphors. Labels like “God” are attempts to designate something that transcends our language. Indeed, there are whole branches of theology and philosophy that discuss these issues.

Yet the pattern is there. It is a call for God to “renew the face of the Earth” through his spirit. It’s a call for one intangible thing to use another intangible thing to change reality for the better.

Terms like “energy” and “vibration” have their own baggage, but much much less than the traditional terms (for now).

You can find people explaining that what we call “God” is in fact “pure positive energy” or “the highest vibration”. We are (somehow) extensions of this energy. Yet we have the capacity to choose where to put our attention.

So within us is this pure positive energy, yet most of us spend our lives focusing on things that are less positive, or of a “lower vibration”.

Our thoughts, feelings, and reality are a reflection of this point of focus, and its positivity relative to the pure positive energy in us.

That might sound terrifyingly “New Age”, though technically I think it’s “New Thought”.

But the underlying pattern is basically the same as saying that the Holy Spirit now dwells within you, or that it is Christ who lives in you, or that you are remaining in God’s love, and all the associated observations and injunctions regarding what to think about, the movement of the will in God’s love, the fruits of the spirit, and so on.

What’s gone wrong?

There’s a line from Romans I really like:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

What’s gone wrong is that we have lost our connection with our source, with God, and so we live our lives conforming to the pattern of the world.

In positive thinking terms, we have turned our focus to our reality, which is an inversion of the true order.

Our reality is supposed to be the last reflection of our point of focus, the “energy” we are focusing on prior to thought. If we start focusing on our reality, then we get stuck in a kind of feedback-loop.

This is conventionally clear in instances of mental illness like anxiety and depression. When people are depressed they often lack the energy, motivation or desire to engage in activities that would otherwise make them feel a bit happier. Over time, chronic anxiety and depression can lead people to empty their lives of any sources of relief or happiness.

People’s empty or narrow lives can then contribute to their anxiety and depression, since they’ve eliminated anything that might have offered hope or reprieve.

That’s what happens generally when we conform to the pattern of this world, or wrongly treat reality as the determinant of our thoughts and feelings.

How to “positive”

For me it seems clear that I can direct my attention or point of focus to something that feels more “positive”. It’s a very small, subtle mental change.

But what I tend to do instead is focus on my experience, falling back into that feedback loop which keeps me trapped thinking the same kinds of thoughts, having the same kinds of feelings, and the same kinds of experiences.

The solution seems to be firstly to recognise that I’m doing this. Second, to remind myself of the correct order:

Focus -> Thoughts -> Feelings -> Reality

And not the other way around.

Finally, when I’m reminded of this, I feel a certain kind of detachment toward my reality.

It feels like I’m taking my reality a little less seriously, a little less intently.

That’s because my focus has changed to something that is not yet reflected in my reality, but will be in time.

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.

I think that’s why there’s always an element of faith or trust required. Or perhaps just the realisation that you’re stuck in a feedback loop and would like it to change?

God, happiness, participation and transcendence

Transcendence and participation.

Those are two modes by which the divine is described relative to the world, everyday life, our ordinary reality.

Transcendence means that the divine is totally distinct, separate, and apart from reality.

For me this corresponds to the sense that there is nothing in life that approaches the meaning and significance of the divine. Not even close.

Participation means that although God transcends the world, the things of this world still participate in his being and his perfection to varying degrees.

There are different ways of defining participation, but for me this corresponds to the sense that emotions like love and joy are closer to God than emotions like fear and anger.

God may be transcendent, but things are still either closer to, or further away from him.

This is significant because people who grow up with a strong sense of the divine may, like melancholic idealists, end up disparaging the world as falling short of the divine in every possible way.

The world doesn’t have enough meaning, joy, purpose or love in it.

And our sense of divine transcendence keeps us locked in this perspective, because the gap between it and our everyday reality seems just too great.

Can we close the gap?

I believe we can. This is implied in the statement “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you”.

It doesn’t negate or diminish the things of this world, but puts them in their rightful place.

My recent discoveries of the relationship between thoughts and emotions and my experience of reality show that the melancholic despair of finding meaning in this world is particular and individual.

The divine is not alienated from everyday life, nor is it withheld in isolation from our daily experiences, our emotions and our thoughts.

We participate in the divine not only in prayer or meditation but also in our thoughts throughout the day, the thoughts that shape how we feel, how we perceive, and what we experience.

The strictly transcendent view of the divine is very much “hiding a lamp under a bushel”, or putting new wine into an old wine skin.

But sorrow and misery – or rather the thoughts that create those feelings – are unlikely to dissipate just because we spend time thinking about a transcendent God.

Those thoughts need to extend to the aspects of life where we suffer or mourn or are frustrated, bored, angry, weary and need rest.

Your world is a reflection

I came across a Goethe quotation:

All that happens is symbol, and as it represents itself perfectly, it points to the rest.

Which, if I’m right, is close to my own observation that all the elements of my experience reflect meaningfully my own inner life.

Chasing it down, I came across this book which seems to affirm my interpretation of the quotation, adding another from Coleridge:

For all that meets the bodily sense I deem

Symbolical, one mighty alphabet.

I’ve witnessed on numerous occasions that my experience mirrors, reflects, or symbolises my “inner world” for want of a better term. Accordingly, attempts to change the outer world without changing the inner world tend to fail.

We can end one relationship and end up in another just like it. We can sell a house with too many limitations and find that our new house has its own limitations that elicit the same unhappy feelings in us.

Except they don’t elicit those feelings, they mirror them.

I’ve been reading a bit of “positive thinking” and “law of attraction” material, looking for further insights into this pattern I’ve discovered for myself.

Much of it concurs in practice with aspects of contemporary psychology and philosophy of mind. There are also overlaps with religious philosophy and theology, which is not so surprising considering that these “New Thought” movements grew from Christian roots.

What I’d like to do with this post is clarify my own perspective, combining things I have read and things I have observed, for the sake of improving my own experience.

What’s going on?

As stated above, my experience or “outer world” tends to mirror and reflect my “inner world”.

This reflective quality lies in the emotional salience of experiences conforming to the emotional register of my inner world.

For example, I’ve struggled for years in learning a martial art. The outward struggle to learn the art corresponded to negative emotions in my inner world.

The conventional view is that I felt bad because I couldn’t practice the way I wanted to practice or achieve my personal goals.

But the truth is that both the outer experience and the inner emotion were a reflection of my own thoughts about training, martial arts, my self, and my personal goals.

Thoughts and emotions

Your emotions are a natural response to your thoughts or beliefs.

We feel fear when we think something bad is happening or about to happen.

We feel sorrow or sadness when we think something is wrong and we can’t fix it.

We feel anger when we think something has been unjustly perpetrated against us.

We feel love when we think something is good, in proportion to its goodness.

We feel joy when we think those good things are present.

Conventional psychological therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy attempt to teach people to challenge and correct their thoughts and beliefs and thereby reduce anxious and depressed emotional responses.

But conventional methods tend to focus on the truth-value of thoughts. The idea is that external reality is prior; our beliefs should accord with external reality. People suffer anxiety and depression because they have developed unhelpfully negative thoughts that do not match external reality.

This approach has a lot of merit. But in a modern psychological context mental health and mental illness are largely determined by one’s capacity to function in everyday life. Many people fall through the cracks because they are able to function, even if they are not happy.

For a melancholic especially, this idea of making one’s thoughts more realistic is liable to increase rather than decrease depressed and anxious emotions. A melancholic can’t “realistically” live without idealism and meaning, yet that idealism and meaning is implicitly rendered subjective and arbitrary by a “realist” approach to cognition.

People are afraid of being “unrealistically” happy. But that fear is itself a response to thoughts about reality coming back to bite you in the arse because you were feeling undeservedly happy.

Getting past the emotion-thinking circularity

The better “law of attraction” material, such as Abraham/Esther Hicks, focuses not so much on “how to get your stuff”, but on how to change your thoughts consciously in order to enjoy a better emotional state, with the subsequent promise that external circumstances will shift accordingly.

Hicks refers to emotions as a “guidance system” that helps you determine whether or not a particular thought is in alignment with your “inner being” or “Source energy” or God, and hence also in accord with your genuine desires.

Hicks emphasises that the point is to feel good or feel better, not to be realistic or true. If given the choice between a “true” thought and a thought that feels good, we should choose the latter over the former.

There’s merit to this advice, because our capacity to determine the truth-value of our thoughts is tenuous in the first instance, and even more so when we are experiencing negative emotions.

So focus on thoughts that “feel good” or “feel better” at least, and as a result you will begin to feel better and eventually feel good. As you begin to feel better, the thoughts accessible to you will also change for the better, creating a virtuous circle of better feeling thoughts.

But for people who are accustomed to suppressing emotions, there’s a heightened risk of simply overlaying negative emotions with positive ones, or further suppressing negative emotions.

That’s why Hicks advises not to attempt to change one’s emotional state too rapidly. You can’t go from depressed to joyful in an instant.

Care is warranted, and for me it helps to get away from the circularity of assessing thoughts by how they feel, in order to accomplish a change in feeling.

One way to diminish this circularity is to recognise that we can’t control our feelings. Our feelings or emotions change automatically. For me, this mirrors my realisation with weight loss: body weight is an indirect outcome of food intake and exertion. Being overweight should not be viewed as a problem, because it is (in most cases) a natural and healthy response to unnatural and unhealthy behaviour.

By analogy, we should not view our negative emotions as bad or problematic. Our negative emotions are good and natural and healthy, assuming they are in response to negative thoughts and beliefs.

What this means is that we can let go of the fixation on how we feel, trusting that our emotions will take care of themselves provided we take care of the thoughts we are thinking.

How do we assess thoughts?

If that is the case, the question then arises: how do we assess our thoughts if not on the basis of how they feel, or their purported truth-value?

In mysticism we see an especially melancholic impulse to take the highest and most profound spiritual state, and from that stand-point resist any lesser thoughts.

This is presented in some sects as taking up the deeper states of meditation and carrying them into everyday life. In Christian mysticism it is the spirit or Christ in us that purifies and transforms the “outer man” and the external world.

In the Hicks material, better-feeling thoughts are implicitly closer to the perspective of our “inner being” or “Source” or God. In light of this, we can suggest two approaches to assessing and changing one’s thoughts: by ascending step by step according to which thoughts feel better, or by finding an approach to a transcendent, numinous spiritual state, and letting that state transform or repel incommensurate thoughts.

In fact Hicks does suggest both approaches, ranging from working to improve one’s thoughts on specific subjects, to focusing on subjects that are already informed by positive thoughts, to finally meditating without thought in order to have no resistance.

It’s plausible that different personality types or temperaments may find different approaches more conducive. Regardless, I have to admit that my all-or-nothing tendencies and my past interest in mysticism incline me to some form of the latter option.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”