Learning to feel better

It’s been a while since I last posted. We’ve been a bit preoccupied with our new baby, and some days my ability to put words together seems to have deserted me entirely.

In the meantime I’ve been working more on positive thinking, and experimenting with how changing my thoughts can change my feelings and my whole experience of life.

Thoughts that feel good

Being interested in mysticism and spiritual traditions gives me a different perspective on this stuff.

But in a way, thinking about God, ultimate reality, metaphysics and so on becomes just another interesting topic that I can feel good about.

It’s very easy to feel good when thinking about the divine being that underlies all reality, and ultimately the metaphysical implications of (good) positive thinking material seems easily reconcilable with my own understanding derived from comparative mysticism.

So at the moment I seem to be relying on two processes or ways of improving my thoughts.

The first is to take that transcendent, divine perspective and see that “Everything is perfect exactly as it is”.

The point of this is that if you appreciate everything as perfect, you get better at doing that, whereas we usually focus on the problems and irritations in life, which means we’re highly practiced at finding faults.

The positive thinking stuff points out that if we practice finding faults then we’ll continue to find more faults, create more faulty situations, and fail to see how situations are actually perfect for us.

But if we start looking for things to appreciate, we become more skilled at finding things to appreciate, creating appreciable situations, and increasingly fail to see faults and obstacles in our lives.

Typically we avoid doing this, because we assume that reality is a fixed, objective thing “out there”, and our experience is more or less an accurate reflection of that reality.

I used to think this as well….or at least, I acted as though it were true despite my broader theoretical understanding.

But in the past few months I’ve proven to my own satisfaction that it isn’t true at all.

I’ve found that if I change my thoughts – my actual thoughts – on a given topic, I feel differently about it, and mysteriously my experience of that topic changes in ways that I would have thought defied reality.

In brief, things have gone better, because I changed my thoughts in ways that made me feel better.

Obviously I don’t mean that I simply told myself falsely optimistic things and tried to believe them. That doesn’t work.

Thoughts that feel better

What I’ve been doing instead is identifying the thoughts that I genuinely think about a particular topic, and stating them as clearly and as negatively as I fear them to be.

When I do this, part of my automatically comes to my defense, as if bringing those negative thoughts into the light of day shows how incomplete and unwarranted they are.

Sometimes the negative thoughts have turned out to be excessive… For example, thinking “I can’t work out the answer to this problem!” makes me feel bad, but if I think “I haven’t been able to find the answer so far…” then I feel just a tiny bit better about it.

This “tiny bit better” isn’t enough on its own, but at the same time I can choose to take it as evidence that the process works.

It provides evidence that I am able to improve my mood by focusing on more positive thoughts.

That thought in itself is more positive too, and gives me a feeling of hope.

And since I now feel a bit better, I have access to other thoughts that feel better still.

“I haven’t been able to find the answer so far…” “but I’m working on it now with a new approach and a better understanding”, for example.

Again, it’s not a case of just saying stuff that sounds better, if it doesn’t actually feel better then it’s not going to do anything for you.

The whole point is to feel better, after all.

A practiced skill

So I’ve been using these two basic methods: finding thoughts that feel better than my current thoughts, and focusing on a transcendent sense of appreciation, that “everything is perfect exactly as it is”.

The latter works because I believe it on a theoretical level, so it too is an example of focusing on better-feeling thoughts. The reason why this alone is not sufficient is simply that I don’t spend every waking moment on the subject of metaphysics and divine reality.

As my skills increase with practice, I find I’m gradually closing the gap between this transcendent view that everything is perfect exactly as it is, and my views on a range of other subjects.

I’m now much more aware of when I, or other people, focus on things that make us feel bad.

Now that I have the choice to feel better, it’s so much more obvious when I instead focus on the negative.

I’ve also found that I have more of a tendency to look at things according to how I feel about them, rather than the “reality” that is supposedly informing those situations.

For example, if I’m worried about how a brewing process is going, whether I made the right choice with my recipe, I once would have sought reassurance by going over the procedure and revisiting my decision-making process.

Now I’m more likely to notice that this worry doesn’t feel good, and become conscious of where I’m putting my focus. Am I focusing on not screwing up the brewing process and the many ways it could go wrong? Well no wonder it feels bad. Why not focus instead on the final product and wonder how good it is going to taste?

Again, this is not a case of wishful thinking, it’s a deliberate choice to change my focus, emboldened by the knowledge that the resultant experience is far far more malleable than we imagine.

Telling yourself “it doesn’t matter, how you think won’t change the outcome” is simply not true.

Be good to yourself

Underlying all of this is an intention or decision to feel better, and to put feeling better at the forefront of your concerns.

That’s one of the things that struck me when I examined some of my negative thoughts….before I even thought to rebut it or provide counter-arguments, I was struck simply by how cruel and unwarranted the negative thought was.

If someone said your most negative thoughts to you, you’d be taken aback by the hostility and apparent malice or lack of empathy within them. But we tell ourselves these things all the time.

That’s why the choice to feel better and make that the measure of your thoughts and focus is such an important first step.

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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.

Dieting Tips

Trying to reinvigorate my diet after letting it slide for a few months, I’m slowly remembering the key points.

Firstly, normal diets attempt to “cheat” in some way. They control quantities, but allow you to eat whatever type of food you like. Or they control the type of food, but let you eat as much as you like of those types. These diets avoid the pain of refusing to indulge your appetite.

Secondly, we like to indulge our appetite because it allows us to escape from painful, dull, or otherwise unpleasant experiences of reality. Escaping from such experiences means we do not address the underlying disquiet or suffering or lack of enthusiasm in our lives. It is important to recognise that flavours, mouthfeel, texture, temperature, rituals and even the physical activity of eating can all be used as a distraction from reality.

Thirdly, food is not intrinsically enjoyable. The experience of eating is something we create actively with our own minds. Enjoyment requires attention, energy, and a degree of complicity as we actively savour and relish the eating experience.

This approach to dieting is painful and powerful because it goes right to the heart of the problem: identifying eating as a means of escaping from unpleasant aspects of reality.

For most of us, being overweight is an expression of our escapism.

Yet such escapism is self-defeating. The physical and psychological suffering will come back to haunt us in the form of illness, shame, and more unpleasant experiences. Escapism simply defers the pain, and deferring the pain is painful in its own right.

The thought of never again escaping into food and eating can be terrifying, and raises the prospect of a life empty of the significant enjoyment provided by food. But as the third point identified, this enjoyment is actually provided by our own minds, not by the food itself. Food merely provides us with an opportunity to focus on something that is safely detached from the unpleasant and complex problems and feelings we are trying to escape from in the first place.

The truly painful thing is that we cannot imagine living without the constant escape provided by food.  The actual amount of food required for us to continue living is very small, relative to what we typically consume. And yet the thought of giving up eating-for-enjoyment terrifies us.

Most of us feel bad when we see our own overweight bodies in mirrors or photographs. And there’s a push in society to stop feeling “ashamed” of our bodies, and to reject the unrealistic ideals provided by media and marketing. We’re told to love ourselves as we are.

This is good advice, but if we are eating to escape then we are not loving ourselves as we are. I used to feel bad when I saw how overweight I was, but when I think about dieting and escapism, I begin to see the fat as representative of how frequently I am escaping into food. I start to see it not as some horrible imperfection or source of shame, but as letting myself down by avoiding the unpleasant realities or thoughts or feelings that motivate the escapism in the first place.

Dieting seems extraordinarily hard because we imagine ourselves having to endure the painful realities of life without our favoured escape. But those realities remain painful precisely because we keep trying to escape them. It’s less painful to eat than to acknowledge that we feel life is going nowhere. But it’s far, far healthier and more empowering to acknowledge such fears and feelings than to escape into the temporary distraction of food.

What do we wish to become: someone good at escaping, or someone able to face our fears? This diet is, after all, not really about dieting. It’s about facing the fears, the stagnation, the difficult thoughts, feelings, and memories* we’ve been trying to escape.

*Some people’s realities are more painful than others’, and I’m obviously not a doctor, not even in philosophy, so don’t be afraid to seek professional help when dealing with painful, traumatic, or otherwise difficult experiences.