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?

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Why are melancholics tired all the time?

Melancholics are tired pretty much all the time.

Why is this?

Well, firstly we need to remember that melancholics are unexcitable, but with long-lasting impressions.

Being unexcitable translates directly into having “low energy” for most things in life. When something doesn’t excite you, it’s hard to be motivated or enthusiastic or any of the other mental states we associate with not being tired.

Having long-lasting impressions means we’re often preoccupied. We can’t just “go with the flow” because we have our own pre-existing velocity. These long-lasting impressions also take energy. It means instead of waking up in the morning and saying “what a wonderful new day! I wonder what today has in store?” you wake up with a sense of direct continuity from the day before….and the day before that.

You don’t get to forget, and so you don’t get to feel refreshed.

So that’s two causes of tiredness in a melancholic. By contrast, a choleric shares our long-lasting impressions, but is easily excited. That means the choleric gets a lot of energy from life.

On the other side, phlegmatics are as unexcitable as we are, but they don’t form long-lasting impressions. They get to forget. Each day can be a new day where they rediscover all the same unexciting things they rediscovered yesterday, fresh and new.

That’s why melancholics are predisposed to tiredness and fatigue. But in addition to the direct effects of temperament, the melancholic is also liable to develop character traits that contribute to tiredness and fatigue.

For example, a melancholic is more likely to respond to a hostile environment by suppressing their responses. Growing up, a melancholic is more likely to err on the side of caution, holding back and second-guessing their instincts in order to adapt to their circumstances.

The result is that the melancholic is at risk of developing a facade or fake-self, a mode of interpersonal interaction that restricts and denies their natural impulses. Melancholic caution and slowness lead to habitual self-doubt and a self-centred approach to conflict resolution. The melancholiic looks first to how he can change himself to resolve the conflicts in his world.

I think the melancholic, more so than the other temperaments, risks denying his own spontaneous impulses and excitability even further. The melancholic risks arriving at rules of behaviour that may be effective but deny his or her own self.

This self-denial might feel noble, ascetic, or superior, but because it conflicts with the melancholic’s deeper self, their already scant resources are further limited and squandered simply to maintain this complex internal dynamic, this inner tension.

In summary, we are unexcitable and find it hard to refresh and let go. On top of that, we’re liable to tie ourselves in knots trying to fit into our environment rather than changing the environment to suit ourselves. Our limited energy is depleted in fighting against ourselves.

In my experience, it’s simply not possible to become as energetic as a sanguine or a choleric, nor as placid as a phlegmatic.

But we can at least recognise our natural limits, and more importantly we can try to reduce the inner conflicts and tensions that drain our energy before we even start our day.

To this end, it helps to know that our true self is good. In most religions and philosophies, human beings are either born or created good, but something goes wrong along the way.

The point is that we don’t need to add new layers to our personality. We don’t need to tie ourselves up further. We need to get rid of layers, and untie the knots, trusting that what lies beneath it all will be whole and true.

Ultimately, these layers and knots are based on falsehoods and misunderstandings. That’s why knowing the truth will set us free.

Melancholic learning styles

I’ve had a few people turn up here searching for problems that a melancholic might experience in learning.

I tried writing a reply, but the attempt to be thorough killed my motivation.

So there’s the first clue: motivation for a melancholic is vital.

I learn best when I have a single burning question to answer, an intuition to explore, or an idea to develop.

So I really get Confucius:

The Master said, “Ts’ze, you think, I suppose, that I am one who learns many things and keeps them in memory?”

Tsze-kung replied, “Yes,-but perhaps it is not so?”

“No,” was the answer; “I seek a unity all pervading.”

An alternative translation refers to a single thread that binds all of his knowledge together. That’s what melancholics need, I think, at least when we’re trying to learn.

A single thread

A few weeks ago after martial arts practice, I asked a friend about his learning process.

His explanation of how he learns was completely foreign to me.

He said that the martial art we learn is made up of lots of different components that need to be developed in parallel. When he focuses on any given component he can tell that out of ten repetitions, some will be better than others. That gives him a clear sense of how he needs to improve. He simply knows what direction to head in.

By contrast, I find it confusing to think of lots of different components that each needs strengthening. I prefer to think of these components coming together to form a coherent whole. And this means having a highly-developed theory of how the martial art works. I seek a unity, all pervading.

Likewise, the idea of simply recognising when one repetition is better than another is outside my experience. I don’t know what direction to head in unless I have a theoretical framework to guide the way.

Why do I need strong theoretical support for a physical activity?

Well, remember that the melancholic is characterised by being unexcitable, with enduring impressions. It’s hard to learn anything when you aren’t excited, and that’s why melancholics need a strong motivation in the form of a question, an idea, or a problem to solve.

Without these things, the pointlessness and tedium of study and practice becomes unbearable. It is so much harder to retain 100 pointless facts, than to solve an interesting problem, even though you might learn the same 100 facts along the way.

With physical activity the approach to learning is similar. Instead of pointless facts, we have an array of sensory data that makes no sense without a theoretical context (like a question or a problem) to help us shape and frame it.

Without a theoretical framework, all the information from my body streams in like a torrent, and I can’t tell what is relevant and what isn’t.

There are days at training where my whole theory has burst like a bubble against some countervailing revelation from my teacher. I try going through the motions, but it feels as though I have no idea what I’m doing.

After a while I remember the parts of the theory that haven’t been shattered. I slowly piece it back together and try to reconcile it with the new data. Eventually I’m back on track.

From an outsider’s point of view it would look like I’ve suddenly forgotten years of training in an instant.

So that’s one aspect of the melancholic learning style. It sounds pretty bad.

The positive side of it is that once you’ve mastered your theoretical grasp of the subject, you know it inside-out. You can take it places no one else may have even thought to take it. And you can quickly see the connections and the contrasts with other theories, systems, and ideas.

In other words, whatever you have learned becomes a part of the greater all-pervading unity.