Positive thinking for INFP/Melancholics

Last year in a fit of clarity I decided to finally read some positive-thinking material.

I cringed inwardly, having previously dismissed this material as over-hyped, delusional New Thought motivational rubbish (not too positive, was I?).

But I had a few experiences where it was obvious that my circumstances were reflecting my own inner state back at me, over and over again.

Relationships where the same patterns repeated endlessly no matter what I did; but the moment I changed my perspective, it was as if everything around me changed too.

(I discovered much the same dynamic in my approach to eating and diet: I thought I wanted to lose weight, but on closer examination I had complex motives and desires that were keeping me stuck.)

So I still cringe occasionally, but otherwise I’m enjoying the benefits of studying and applying the material produced by Esther Hicks, on positive thinking and the law of attraction.

Positive feeling for INFP/Melancholics

Although this material is accessible to everyone, it is perfect for INFP/Melancholics, because it focuses first and foremost on how you feel.

I’ve had half a lifetime of being told explicitly and implicitly that how I feel doesn’t matter at all. Feeling bad about objective reality is irrelevant at best and a moral failing at worst.

It seemed that introverted Feeling (Fi) and melancholic idealism were things that just wouldn’t (and couldn’t) fit into the objective world, and I’ve even argued here that we live in a world dominated by Sanguine, Choleric, and Phlegmatic values instead (that’s SP, NT, and SJ, in MBTI).

Feeling is judgement

It really sucks to feel bad all the time, and to believe on top of it that you must do your best to ignore these bad feelings, because…reality.

So how does positive thinking/law of attraction material make a difference?

For starters, it takes the judging function of introverted feeling seriously.

Your feelings are your “inner guidance system” that tells you whether or not the thoughts you are thinking right now are in alignment with your deeper desires and “inner being” (call it soul, true self, higher power, or whatever you like).

Feeling bad is therefore not a personal quirk or moral failing, it’s an indicator that you are thinking in ways that contradict your own genuine desires and your inner being.

And if you don’t heed the signals of how you feel, you will continue to experience circumstances that feel more or less exactly the same.

Turning life around

INFP/Melancholics are prone to depression and anxiety. Yet these are simply emotional indicators that we are, right now, focusing on thoughts that do not match our genuine desires, or our inner being.

Since our circumstances reflect what we are focused on, feeling bad means we are going to continue to feel bad.

It was no coincidence that having felt depressed and anxious for many years, I continued to feel depressed and anxious.

The more I tried to understand depression and anxiety, the more entrenched it became, because I continued to focus on it and look for reasons “out there”, in the world or in my own personality.

Eventually I concluded that depression and anxiety were an unavoidable outcome of someone with my temperament and personality living in “the real world”.

I became an expert at reinforcing my pessimistic view of the world, despite how bad it made me feel.

Nothing is more important than feeling good

My knowledge and experience in philosophy, religion, and all kinds of intellectual analysis were not very useful until I knew what I was looking for.

But now it’s obvious to me that we do in fact create our own reality, shape our own experience, by what we choose to focus on.

If you want to be happy, focus on things that feel genuinely good, or at least better than you currently feel, while trusting that your experience and perception will change as you begin to feel better.

This is a complete inversion of the “worldly” approach, which incidentally matches the inferior extroverted Thinking function (Te) of the INFP.

From a worldly/Te perspective, you can feel good when you accomplish your goals, and you should feel bad if you fail to achieve them.

But notice that as an INFP, this is my negative perception of “how the world works”. In other words, my negative view of the world is that it operates according to my inferior function, that people are only interested in accomplishments, achievements, and utility.

Suspicious!

Question your negative beliefs

Does the world really revolve around utility and accomplishments?

Does every single person on earth value achievement and efficiency above all else?

Is the whole world ruled by ruthless market forces?

No.

But in thinking this way, I sought out experiences that confirmed my thoughts, and I ignored or downplayed evidence to the contrary.

Playing the game of “Yes, but…”

Have you ever noticed what happens when you try to cheer up an unhappy person, or when someone happy tries to cheer you up?

You both play the “Yes, but…” game; only you play it in different ways.

The positive person says “Yes, your situation has some difficulties, but there are positives to it as well…”

I acknowledge how you feel, but there are ways for you to feel better.

The negative person says “Yes, there are some things in life that seem okay, but there are negatives to it that you mustn’t ignore!”

If you’re intent on playing the game negatively, nothing and nobody can stop you. There’s no limit to the negative aspects you can discover in life if you really try. You can find, or create, down-sides to everything!

And for the same reasons, you can find, or create, a positive side to everything too. Even the very worst experiences strengthen your desire for something better.

One step at a time

I have to give full credit to Esther Hicks’ material for helping me change how I feel. It’s not just the basic principles, but also finer points like knowing that we can’t make a sustainable jump in feeling from “horrifically depressed” to “overwhelming joy”.

It can’t be done, and the desire to make these kind of leaps is in fact a form of self-sabotage.

But starting out with the intention to “feel better”, and taking small steps in feeling “less bad” is the way to slow down the negative habits of thought we’ve been practicing for decades, and make lasting improvements in our thoughts, our mood, and our whole experience of life.

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Practicing (un)Happiness

Working on improving my mood these past months has had some results, but in typical melancholic fashion I’ve resisted doing it systematically because I can’t ‘see’ the whole system clearly yet.

Nonetheless I’ve gotten to a point where I can slightly shift what I call my ‘baseline’ mood. My baseline mood is how I feel about life generally when I’m not focusing on any particular topic.

If I pay attention, I can imagine life being “perfect” exactly as it is right now, and how that would feel. Previously my baseline mood has been dominated by a sense that things are far from perfect, that there are many many aspects of my life that need to change before I can be happy.

But this is the kind of conditional happiness that can never be fulfilled. It’s systemic unhappiness, and I’m beginning to see that my automatic behaviour in everyday life keeps the dissatisfaction alive.

If you feel bad, you will more easily find things to focus on that perpetuate bad feelings.

If you feel good, you will more easily find things that perpetuate good feelings; but for now “feeling good” is the exception rather than the rule.

Expecting bad things to happen

Because I’ve been working on feeling that life is “perfect and getting better”, I’ve been more and more aware of the daily habits of thought and attention that contradict this feeling.

This is a good sign, because it means I’m no longer accepting these thoughts so easily. It’s as if I’ve been going along with a current, and now I’m turning in a different direction.

My baseline mood has previously been influenced by the expectation of bad things happening. Not terrible, awful, objectively bad events; more like repeated irritations, nuisances, and unthinking insults from a world that is essentially unsympathetic.

It’s the kind of feeling you might have if your home had been built and designed without any consideration for human habitation or comfort, and when you went to complain you were told “What did you expect?”

It’s the kind of feeling you might have if you went on to discover that this is just how homes are built…that it’s cheaper and easier and more convenient to build them like this, and everyone else accepts it.

They might have doors that don’t shut, windows that don’t open, uneven floors, kitchen benches too low, shower too small, and a thousand other gratuitous insults to basic use, but what did you expect? You would be a fool to expect any better.

That perspective doesn’t feel very good. The implication is that you don’t matter, that no one cares, and that your complaints are entirely invalid.

This is just the way it is, that’s all. Resisting, complaining, or wanting it to be different is a waste of energy at best and a moral failing at worst. Or so you think.

Do I need to add that this makes for a depressing experience of life?

Expecting good things to happen

Lot’s of people try positive thinking, imagining that if they repeat the right words or try to fake feeling good they’ll magically transform their life.

But if you consider my negative worldview as sketched above, you can see that it’s not just about good things or bad things occurring. It’s more about the deeper orientation of reality toward us.

If you think reality has a persistently corrosive effect on your experience then it doesn’t really matter what isolated “good things” happen to you.

“Positive thinking” is not some new power to be wielded against a callous universe; it’s more a realisation of the thoughts and feelings that make the universe seem callous – or compassionate – in the first place.

In every religious system reality itself is oriented toward the good, toward happiness, toward life. Evil, sin, suffering and death are metaphysically subordinate to good, happiness, life – and existence itself.

The idea that existence or reality itself is callous and unfeeling is not true, and the ensuing expectation that bad things will happen is likewise false.

This belief and expectation is instead  a form of resistance or delusion, and it is kept alive in our own minds with repeated efforts and re-iterations.

If we forgot to keep looking for bad things or disappointments, this belief and expectation would grow weak.

But instead we practice it more assiduously than anything in life, continually reasserting that the universe itself insists on your being unhappy.

You can try it for yourself: start looking for good things to appreciate in your life, and see how quickly your thoughts turn to problems, mistakes, fears, and failings.

Some people find it easy to practice correcting themselves at this level. For me – maybe for melancholics generally – it feels better to identify the underlying worldview and look to correcting that, before seeking to change the ensuing habits of thought.

Here my background in religious and spiritual systems helps a lot, because I already know intellectually that existence is fundamentally good. My negative belief can’t reconcile itself with my deeper knowledge…the negative can only persist because I tend not to give it my full attention.

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.

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.

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.

Law of attraction vs principle of reflection

I first came across the law of attraction years ago, during the hype around ‘The Secret’ book and movie.

It had some appeal, since I’ve always felt there was more to life and reality than our conventional experience. I’d studied philosophy, delved into mysticism, metaphysics, and psychology, and while much ‘New Age’ stuff is dubious, there’s a clear extension of themes and efforts from religious and spiritual traditions into the supposedly new realm of New Age material.

A few years back, while feeling far more cynical, I looked into the history of the New Age movement and found that much of it could be traced back to the New Thought movement, which in turn was a kind of esoteric re-working of Christianity. New Thought emerged from the same roots as Christian Science.

What bothered me initially about the law of attraction was that it didn’t seem to work, and I ended up quite skeptical of it.

But then a few years ago I began to notice something unusual in my life. I’d spent a lot of time introspecting and had become aware of certain patterns of thought, feeling, and behaviour in me.

Those patterns were quite familiar, but what changed is that I came to realise the more important events and interactions in my life were following the same patterns.

That in itself is not necessarily mysterious. What was mysterious was that when I recognised what was going on – that my experience of life was reflecting these inner patterns of thought and feeling – everything shifted.

Although it seemed that my external experience was making me feel anxious or sad or angry or frustrated, the truth was that I already had within me that pattern or dynamic of negative feeling, and I was somehow recreating it in my external experience.

I came to think of this not as “attraction” but as “reflection”, but the point is probably moot.

More recently I’ve discovered that the better exponents of the “law of attraction” are actually focused on the quality of our feelings moreso than the promise of getting rich and having the life you want.

Or more to the point, they argue that having the life you want is first and foremost about being happy, not about feeling dependent on external experiences to overcome your negative emotional set-point.

With a “trigger warning” for those averse to New Age/New Thought material, what I’ve found the most helpful is the writing of a woman named Esther Hicks. As far as New Age contexts go, Hicks is unapologetically far out there. But I have to admit that once I got past the cringe, I’ve found the underlying message to be extremely helpful.

The message, in essence, is to feel better. Feeling better is achieved by focusing on things that feel good instead of things that feel bad.

As someone who has spent most of his life feeling bad, I find this message breathtaking in its scope and significance. If you’ve followed my posts on introverted Feeling in the Myers-Briggs system, this approach is perhaps the ultimate Fi-dominant attitude to life.

If you’ve followed my posts on the idealism of the melancholic temperament, you’ll find that this approach to life fully embraces the melancholic genius, by depreciating “reality” in favour of the meaning and ideals that we yearn for.

Who would have thought that you could find happiness by focusing on the things that make you happy?

But whereas this might sound like willful ignorance or blindness to life’s problems, the knowledge that life reflects your own internal dynamic means that finding happiness is also the most effective way to improve your life and the lives of those around you.

I’ve seen in my own life that recurring negative patterns of experience are inescapable. We keep recreating them, because they reflect an unexamined and uncontested internal dynamic.

As I explored in my previous post: you could say of any persistently negative, recurring situation or feeling that even though you don’t like it or enjoy it, you do want it. It is the outcome or net product of one or more forgotten or unexamined desires within you.

If you feel bad all the time, there is part of you that either wants to feel bad, or needs you to feel bad as a means of achieving something else that you want. Maybe you value your identity as a martyr or victim? You can’t have that identity without feeling martyred or victimised.

Maybe you like to feel that you’re part of a special minority who alone know the truth? You can’t have that unless you’re surrounded by an ignorant majority that reject your truth.

These thoughts might make you feel good, but only in the context of feeling bad. To feel unconditionally good is therefore impossible unless you give up these aspects of your identity.

My focus on feeling good has already shown me myriad ways in which I instead choose to feel bad. One of the most insidious is that I identify myself with a kind of inward struggle. Identifying with struggle is implicitly endless….if I see myself as one who finds answers or overcomes obstacles, I’ll spend the rest of my life finding questions I need to answer and obstacles I need to overcome.

The real answer is very simple. Just feel good.

For me that currently seems to involve equal parts letting go of negative thoughts and briefly analysing negative thoughts. Some seem to require a bit of patience and untangling, but I think it’s increasingly just a matter of letting go.

When I feel bad, do I really need to know why I feel bad? It’s far more important to know how to feel good.

And typically, actually feeling good helps you transcend the problem, making it all clearer in hindsight than you could ever make it by dwelling on the negative part of your experience.

A process for personal change

I’ve been thinking recently about the process I used to lose weight, as described in my book on weight-loss.

When I first set about trying to lose weight I did so with determination but also with confidence in my ability to solve problems in my own unique way.

Losing weight was just one application of a process I’ve slowly developed and refined. Maybe it’s a process uniquely suited to my own temperament and experiences, or maybe it has broader application for others?

Recently I decided to apply the same process to the goal of feeling good.

Why feeling good?

Like trying to lose weight, I’ve tried for a long time to feel good without success.  A combination of temperament and experience has made it seem more complicated or elusive than it ought to be.

By “feeling good” I mean a consistent and persistent change in my emotional set-point. I’ve been describing it lately as a shift from a pessimistic outlook to an optimistic one.

1. You can’t see the answer from where you are.

If you’ve been stuck in a persistent, negative experience for a long time, then you won’t be able to see the answer from within that experience. You have to recognise that the answer or solution will be something different and new; it will require a true change in perspective.

2. The goal itself is easy to achieve.

Goals like weight-loss and feeling good are easy to achieve. To lose weight all you need to do is eat significantly less food. To feel good all you need to do is focus on thoughts and experiences that feel good rather than those that feel bad.

Recognise the simple, practical solution to your problem, and the real culprit will rear its ugly head as you realise:

3. You don’t want to achieve your goal.

You might start with “I want to feel good, but I can’t or don’t know how.” Or “I want to lose weight, but I can’t or don’t know how.”

If you accept the simple, practical method in step 2, then this thought has to change.

Eg. “I want to feel good. I know that if I just focus on good-feeling thoughts I will feel good. But nonetheless I don’t.”

Eg. 2. “I want to lose weight. I know that if I eat significantly less food I will lose weight. Nonetheless I don’t.”

I think most people implicitly realise this conundrum, but instead of concluding “I guess I don’t really want to lose weight/feel good”, they instead conclude “I guess eating less/changing focus isn’t really the solution”.

But what is the solution? Denying the obvious solution just leads us into endless pursuit of fads or gimmicks and demoralising struggle. It’s far more valuable to accept the obvious solution, and accept that:

4. You may not like your experience, but it’s what you want.

I never liked being overweight, but as I worked through these steps I came to realise that part of me was resisting the simple solution of eating significantly less.

Why?

Because that part of me wanted to escape regularly into the immersive experience of eating.

Somehow, my mind hadn’t joined the dots between this part that wanted to eat, and the part that was unhappy with the side-effects of so much eating.

Likewise, parts of me are resisting the simple solution of focusing on thoughts that feel good. Intrusive negative thoughts are serving a purpose for some part of me. I want to focus on them, even though I don’t like the consequences.

5. A total change in perspective.

There’s a whole lot of ancillary realisations and shifts in perspective that supported and facilitated losing weight. For example, I realised early on that I couldn’t control my weight per se, I could only control my eating habits.

I realised that there was nothing “wrong” with being overweight, considering that I was overeating. Overeating makes you overweight…that’s normal. So there was no point feeling bad about being overweight when in reality I should feel bad about my dysfunctional eating habits.

Likewise, it’s normal to feel bad when you focus on negative things. It would be weird to feel good about bad things, wouldn’t it?

We fixate on our feelings as if we can change them directly. But our feelings are actually responding to our point of focus, our thoughts and our beliefs. Focusing on bad things makes you feel bad, focusing on good things makes you feel good.

So fix your focus and your feelings will take care of themselves, just as your body will find its own balance if you stop overeating compulsively.

Being overweight feels bad, but really we should feel good about being overweight. If you could overeat compulsively and remain thin, there would probably be something drastically wrong with you.

So maybe we should also feel good about feeling bad, when we focus on negative things? Isn’t that a sign that your psyche is in good working order?

The real culprit is not your feelings, it’s your point of focus. Take your bad feelings as a sign that part of you wants to focus on something negative.

And if that’s the case, then you’re already where you want to be, right? You want to be somewhere you don’t like. Maybe you haven’t thought about it like that before. Maybe you have some misconceptions about how the world works. But this perspective shows that you really are in control after all.

I wanted to overeat, even though I didn’t like the consequences. I want to focus on negative things, even though I don’t enjoy feeling bad.

Being aware

I love looking at myself from this kind of perspective. It shows that I am actually in control, even when I really don’t enjoy my experience.

It’s a little disconcerting to find that parts of us are running on auto-pilot. I liken it to a computer with programs running in the background, consuming resources, conflicting with other software.

Until we go looking, we may have forgotten we set those programs running in the first place. We might wrongly assume there’s something wrong with the computer, that it’s too old or too slow, or that it’s just not compatible with the software we want to run now, or that the new software isn’t any good.

I think that once we become aware of the programs we’re running, the things we want but have forgotten about, then our mind can start to connect the dots. We realise there’s a trade-off, or better yet a trade-up.

If you learned to overeat when you were young, it might be because eating was your only accessible means of feeling good and having control over your experience. But when you’re an adult you have much greater scope for finding happiness and meaning in life.

The trade-off might be facing some of the negative feelings you’ve been escaping from. But the trade-up is repairing your relationship with food, bringing your body into balance, and finding healthier sources of enjoyment.

Likewise, you might focus on negative things because you thought you had no choice, or you thought it was important to be “realistic” or in the midst of negative experiences that seemed beyond your control, you sought to adapt to those negative aspects and find some consolation in them.

Perhaps you found it more bearable to feel like a victim? Or to harbour thoughts of resentment and revenge? Or to feel that you were persevering against enormous odds?

These might have been consolations at the time, but now that you know you can change your point of focus there’s a possibility of trading up. You don’t have to remind yourself constantly that you’re a victim, or that you resent life, or that you are still bearing up despite great adversity.

The only caveat is that you have to do so from outside the recurring patterns of thought, otherwise you’ll turn this effort into another instance of your negative experience. You need to first recognise that you want this negative experience, even though you really don’t like it.

Happiness and the motivation to change

I’ve been thinking a lot about the principle of reflection I’ve observed in my life lately.

The basic idea is that my experience of reality reflects my own deeper beliefs about reality.

For example, if I really believe that life is an endless struggle, then I will find that my experience reflects endless struggle.

Applying the principle in reverse: if my experience of life is an endless struggle, then on some level I must believe that this is how life is or should be.

In order for life to feel like a struggle, we have to want things that are unattainable, or alternatively we have to sabotage the attainable things we desire.

To be more precise, we have to feel like we want certain things, only to find that these things are unattainable either intrinsically or through self-sabotage.

For example, I used to think I wanted to lose weight. That’s fine if we define ‘want’ as a feeling. But if we define want as a motivational state – a state of mind that moves you to action – then it wasn’t true that I wanted to lose weight.

Paradoxically, when I accepted that I didn’t really want to lose weight, the sudden shock motivated me to do something about it.

By extension, I might think I want life to be easy, free, secure, prosperous, and satisfying. But if life instead feels difficult, miserable, hopeless, and full of struggle, then I need to question this apparent ‘want’.

If I wanted life to be easy and free and so on, then I would act towards those goals. I would at the very least have a plan and a course of action with definable progress along the way.

If I don’t have those things, then in what sense do I really want to be free, happy, and fulfilled?

To get a little more personal: I always had a vague goal of wanting ‘answers’ to life. But if I really wanted answers, shouldn’t I at least be clear-minded about the questions?

When I grappled with the issue of weight loss, it turned out to be quite complicated and full of self-delusion and conflicting desires. At face value I wanted to lose weight, but beneath the surface I was quite complacent about it and not really motivated to change my behaviour.

So it’s not immediately clear what I want from life either. I can only really say at this point that the most obvious answers are probably not correct.

I’ve distilled this down to a useful heuristic: when you find yourself stuck in persistent negative situations, consider the possibility that you are exactly where you want to be.

This might seem absurd, but what we don’t realise is that our psyches are complicated. There are layers of belief and motivation inside us.

For example, I might want to be a successful writer, and do my best to achieve that goal. But years earlier, perhaps when I was a teenager or a child, I decided that it was best to stay on the sidelines and avoid the limelight.

I never challenged or changed that belief, I just went on living and adding new layers as I went. So now as an adult my desire for success in various aspects of life is implicitly curtailed by my pre-existing and still operational desire to avoid the limelight and live life on the sidelines.

The end result is struggle and disappointment, but even so the struggle and disappointment must be part of the picture. On some level I’m comfortable with struggle and disappointment, because they concord with my beliefs about life.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

I don’t think there’s a single, simple answer to it either. Or maybe I just don’t want there to be a simple answer.

But at the very least it’s good to recognise that your unfulfilled desire for success may be the outcome you want deep down after all.

If you merely wanted to be successful, you would surely gravitate foremost to things you could easily succeed at. You would be mindful of your past successes. You would live and breath success, and avoid any enterprise where success seemed tenuous or uncertain. You might still suffer setbacks and failures, but you wouldn’t cling to them.

The weight-loss example is brilliant: all you have to do in order to lose weight is eat dramatically less. But we don’t do that, because we don’t really want to lose weight, or because our motivation to lose weight is far weaker than our motivation to lose ourselves in the pleasure of food.

It seems obvious with weight loss because moment-by-moment we are either eating or not eating, and it’s totally in our control.

But the same is true in other aspects of life – in our thoughts and feelings we are either oriented toward or away from our goal. It may be more subtle than putting food in your mouth, but I don’t think it’s necessarily less effective.

It’s terrifying and confronting to recognise that your supposed wants and desires are only a facade. But terror and confrontation are great sources of motivation! That’s why the weight-loss book I wrote about my experience is not for everyone. It ended up being very confronting.

Sometimes we need to be confronted with the truth of our situation. If you spend your life failing at finding happiness, then it’s worth considering if you really want happiness in the first place. Many of us would have no idea what to do with ourselves if we were happy. We’d quickly find a problem or a crisis or a new struggle to drag us back into our more comfortable misery.

It sounds paradoxical, but the strong feeling I have of wanting my life to change is only a feeling. The proof is that I haven’t done anything differently, despite my apparent frustration and unhappiness.

If we define ‘want’ as a motivational state – a state of mind that results in action – then clearly I do not want life to change. As I note in the end of my weight-loss book, the thought “I want life to change” or “I want to lose weight” is really a form of self-delusion designed to distract us from what’s really going on in our minds.

Because if you admit to yourself that you don’t want life to change, that you want life to continue as it has been, the obvious question is “Why?” Why would you want life to continue in a way that you obviously don’t enjoy?

Looking at it this way forces you to own your role in making life the way it is by performing the same kinds of actions over and over with the same motives, beliefs, and feelings. Hopefully it raises in you a genuine motivation to understand, a curiosity as to why you are perpetuating a way of life that you don’t enjoy, to such an extent that you even delude yourself with thoughts of change.

Before I lost weight I thought the benefits would all be aesthetic. I was surprised to find that the greatest changes were in my relationship with food, and my overall sense of well-being.

I could not have predicted what being thin would be like. In that sense I really didn’t know what losing weight meant until I accomplished it. It’s no wonder I couldn’t really ‘want’ it in the first place.

What helped me in the end was knowing that my relationship with food was dysfunctional and seeking to ‘work it out’. That might be a more constructive approach generally: recognise that things aren’t right and try to understand where they’re going wrong.

 

 

 

 

Addiction and pornography: rediscovering virtue in the internet age

It’s been a while folks. Inspiration is a mysterious and fickle thing.

My latest article at MercatorNet examines the underlying nature of addiction, and how it inhibits our greater happiness and enjoyment of life:

This disproportion between the object of addiction and the pleasure or enjoyment we derive from it is characteristic of all addictions. When the pleasure and pain we feel at the presence or absence of the object far outweighs its objective value or significance, something is clearly awry.

Becoming sexually excited by images and videos may be the quintessential addiction of the internet age, but it is also deeply absurd because images and videos per se are not sexually exciting.

Taking a drug to experience “ecstasy” might be popular too, but it is absurd because there is nothing intrinsically ecstatic about ingesting a tablet.

On this level, addictions are always absurd. In the first instance they break the relationship between reality and pleasure, leading us to seek pleasure in unreal and absurd stimuli.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/addiction-and-pornography-rediscovering-virtue-in-the-internet-age

 

Getting to the bottom of pride in practice

I’m trying to get to the bottom of pride in practice.

At this stage, I think pride involves a mistaken belief that feeling good about ourselves constitutes real happiness.

Pride motivates me to pursue certain objects and avoid others on the basis of how these things make me feel about myself. It can be subtle, and sometimes it’s hard to separate how we feel about the object, from how the object makes us feel about ourselves.

For example, you enjoy someone’s care and affection, but you also enjoy how their care and affection make you feel about yourself.

The problem is that pride – how we feel about ourselves – is empty. It consists of the most transitory, fleeting thoughts and impressions that temporarily binds together our experience of reality with our self-image, conflating the two for one intoxicating moment.

This passing alignment of subject, self-image, and object is impossible to maintain, and chasing it becomes an exhausting pursuit.

Look at it this way: to be with someone you care about, you only have to be with them. But to hold onto the good feeling about yourself that comes from that person’s care and affection, you need to keep actively thinking about it – and about yourself.

But the more you think about it, the more accustomed to it your mind becomes. It stops feeling special. You need to enhance the stimulus. Worse still, the very nature of the original special event is that it took your mind away from thoughts of yourself. You cannot self-consciously lose yourself.

It’s like experiencing a wonderful surprise, and then trying to relive the moment of surprise again and again, because you self-consciously like how “being surprised” felt.

When it comes to pride, we’re dealing with a set of beliefs or cognitions that induce an emotional response in us, which we then seek to reproduce again and again. It’s as if we’ve short-circuited a cognitive function that was designed to help us survive and thrive in the real world.

Pride entails a positive emotional response to beliefs that imply in some way “I am great”. As various spiritual traditions have taught, the cognitive component rests on a subject “I”, and an object “greatness”. The emotional component is a natural response to the object “greatness” albeit mistakenly attributed to the subject “I”.

As we have discussed in previous posts, pride is all about seeking to be in control of our own happiness, and to take credit for our own greatness, or to try to own greatness in ourselves. Spiritual traditions invariably decry this as a delusion or a sin, and seek to strip us of a false and ultimately destructive sense of being in control, or being responsible for our own existence, happiness, and so on.

In other words, they seek both to devalue the subject “I” and correctly attribute the object “greatness” to God, or the void, or whatever you would like to call it.

The end result is that the human being releases their obsession with the subject “I”, and experiences the corresponding emotion of awe as a natural response to the greatness of existence according to the divine order of which they themselves are an expression.

The nature of our deluded state is that the preoccupation with “I” inhibits our experience of awe at creation. Our momentary experiences of awe break through the limitations of the “I”, but we immediately seek to take control of them once more. We end up trying to make ourselves, through the lens of “I”, the object of awe.

In everyday life this quickly degenerates from the pursuit of awe to the pursuit of relative happiness.