Stages of positive thinking

My journey into positive thinking has gone through a couple of different stages so far.

Decrease negatives, increase positives

In the first stage my focus was mostly on feeling less bad.

I tried to soften the impact of my most negative thoughts on a number of subjects, and at the same time inject more optimism into my life on other subjects.

The biggest positive of all was the thought that this positive-thinking stuff might actually work!

I liken this stage to being a beginner at any skill or hobby: a beginner tries to decrease the number and frequency of their most egregious mistakes, the kinds of mistakes that make them want to give up entirely.

At the same time, a beginner benefits from being inspired, star-struck even, by the greatest examples in their field. These positive examples inspire hope and optimism.

But a beginner really has no idea of the scope of the skill. They can’t even imagine how much time or effort will be required to gain proficiency. Even if they think the task is enormous, they really have no idea how enormous it is.

Watch your thoughts systematically

Eventually I had the feeling that I wasn’t making as much headway as I would like.

I’d seen some genuine improvements, but they were more haphazard than the material suggested they should be.

I mulled on this for a while. It had been perhaps six months since I really started, six months of unsystematic practice.

Finally it dawned on me that I really needed to work at this. When they said “every thought is either making you feel better or feel worse”, they really meant every thought.

I decided to make the effort to focus on every single thought, daunting though this may seem.

This is just like when the beginner realises they must seriously apply themselves in order to gain skill. It’s all very well to dabble in a skill or art and see occasional improvement following occasional inspiration, but eventually you want to see your efforts rewarded. You want to make real progress.

And the effort paid off rapidly.

I very quickly observed that indeed each and every thought either contributed positively or negatively to my emotional state, with a 1:1 relationship between thoughts and feelings.

The greatest byproduct of this close attention to thoughts was to rapidly reduce the severity of my negative thoughts.

Paying such close attention, my mind suddenly made the connection between the negative thought and the negative feeling, and automatically softened the thought accordingly.

Wanting more

It’s been a couple of weeks since I started observing my thoughts like this, and the results were impressive.

But gradually I began to feel as if I’d plateaued.

It’s great to reduce the severity of negative thoughts and feelings, but the absence of negativity is not the same as positivity.

Feeling neutral isn’t the same as feeling good.

Breaking the feedback loop

The explanation for this plateau appears to be a kind of feedback loop.

Reducing negatives is great, but if we are consistently focused on external reality as our point of reference, we will never advance beyond that point.

In learning a skill we would always be exposed to a teacher and peers who are more advanced, pushing us to improve our own performance.

But in positive thinking, your experience always reflects your own thoughts. Therefore, the answer is to let the quality of our thoughts improve without regard to external reality.

Don’t let external reality be the determinant of your thoughts or feeling. In practice this might mean taking the time to “meditate” and allow thoughts and feelings to improve, trusting that external reality will eventually catch up.

Otherwise, we will keep repeating the same quality of thought over and over, and experiencing the same quality of experience over and over.

Breaking the feedback loop is as easy as letting go of that focus on external reality. Why let the momentum of past experience determine how you feel?



Mindfulness for people who hate mindfulness

I tried mindfulness in the past. It didn’t work, and I developed reservations about the purpose and direction of mindfulness as a movement or fad.

I’m not alone in being critical. Edwin Ng wrote a great piece from a Buddhist perspective, critiquing aspects of the mindfulness movement:

this initial reception of sensorial and perceptual impressions with non-reactive awareness has to be followed through with the ardent application of what is described in Buddhist teachings as appropriate attention and the clear comprehension of the conditionality of phenomenal reality-selfhood…

In this way, mindfulness is guided by an ethical imperative which requires the practitioner to cultivate a wise and compassionate ethos of care and engagement towards self, others and the world. Mindfulness is, therefore, not exactly non-judgmental but rather entails an ongoing evaluative task of being heedful and discerning about the intentions driving the actions of body, speech and mind.

I think this is the difficulty I encountered in practicing mindfulness. It’s generally promoted as non-judgemental awareness, but I think people are either misunderstanding what non-judgmental means, or merely repeating a principle they don’t literally apply to their own practice.

Non-judgmental could mean “don’t beat yourself up for having bad thoughts”. In other words, don’t judge if judging adds another layer of reaction to your awareness.

But mindfulness can’t be truly non-judgmental in the sense of not preferring some states of mind over others. At the very least, mindfulness practice must prefer being mindful over being unmindful.

Mindfulness and positive thinking

I’ve begun using mindfulness as part of my positive thinking work, because I finally understood that the relationship between thoughts and feelings is immediate.

In other words, if I’m feeling bad it’s because I’ve just had a negative thought.

Today I walked past the mechanic and felt bad, because my mind turned to the thought of when I need to get my car serviced, and from there to a general thought about all the hassles and responsibilities I have in life.

That train of thought is guaranteed to make me feel bad, and produce a greater sense of life’s burdens in me.

But if I’m mindful, I’m paying attention to each and every thought I have, and noticing the immediate emotional reaction to it.

Esther Hicks’ material refers to this as our “emotional guidance system”, which tells us whether our thoughts are in alignment or out of alignment with our desires and the perspective of our “inner being”.

Without getting into the metaphysics of that system, the point is that your emotions are always giving you immediate feedback on the direction your thoughts are taking you.

The self-aware mind

What happens in mindfulness is that the mind itself becomes aware of the connection between thoughts and emotional feedback.

I began paying attention to my thoughts – all of them, one after the other – and to my surprise it was as though my mind began regulating itself, diminishing the intensity of negative thoughts as the correlation between thought and feeling became clear.

If we are not aware, we don’t see the connection, and we persist in focusing on thoughts that make us feel worse and worse.

Hicks explains that if you put your hand on a hot stove you know immediately what is wrong and pull your hand away. That we don’t do the same for negative thoughts is due in part to lack of awareness of cause and effect, and in part to the insistence of others that such thoughts are necessary, realistic, and somehow virtuous to hold.

So practicing mindfulness in the context of positive thinking really is valuable, because it amounts to a highly focused and disciplined application of the basic principles. You wouldn’t consciously put your hand on a hot stove, and you won’t consciously focus on thoughts that make you feel bad either.

Nice, Western, Consensus Buddhism

Stumbled upon a couple of very interesting posts critiquing Western Buddhism:

Nice Buddhism

Niceness is a sleazy business. It is an unstated bargain: “I’ll overlook your bad behavior if you overlook mine.”

It is often kind to overlook other people’s bad behavior—but not always. There are times when the right thing is to point it out politely; to object firmly; or to suppress it violently.

The second half of the bargain is self-protective. “I’ll be nice to you because I’m afraid I won’t be able to cope, emotionally, if you draw attention to my selfishness.”

Within Consensus Buddhism, there is a huge emphasis on emotional safety. It’s non-confrontational, unconditionally supportive, peaceful, supposedly-inoffensive. This may be appropriate for children, or for people who are severely emotionally damaged. It’s repulsive and ridiculous as an approach for grownups.


From the same author, a little more intense:

What got left out of meditation

Buddhist meditation methods have been forced through a series of filters over the last 120 years:

  • Christianity: Everything offensive to Victorian Christian morality had to be removed, in Asia, in the 1800s.
  • Scientism: Meditation has to claim to be compatible with “science” and “rationality.” Popular ideas about what’s “scientific” have changed in the West over the past 150 years. What’s left of meditation has survived challenges from each version.
  • Romantic mysticism: Westerners thought the goal of meditation was a spiritual experience—oneness with all beings, maybe—through attention to the self. Meditation methods that weren’t about spiritual experience, or not about the self, got dropped.
  • Late 20th-century morality: Meditation had be eco-granola-consensus-therapy-correct in the 1970s through ’90s.

Only something extremely bland could pass all these challenges. That’s what we’re left with: modern “mindfulness meditation.” It’s relentlessly nice and couldn’t possibly offend anyone’s ideological sensitivities.


Cynical and amoral: the dark side of the mindfulness fad

My latest piece at MercatorNet looks at the dark side of mainstreaming mindfulness meditation:

I’ve met and worked with people who are deeply into this kind of meditation and promote it at the middle-management level. The scary thing is that they aren’t even completely cynical; they genuinely believe in the near-magical benefits of meditation, and see no problem in advancing Google-inspired programs in their own corporate territory. They see mindfulness and meditation in uncritically elevated terms, and are equally uncritical of the corporate structures of which they are a part. Meditation will save the world, but it turns out there’s nothing bad to save it from.

On the virtues of cherry-picking

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Matthew’s extensive comment in response to my Yoga post raised some interesting points and deserves an equally considered reply:

The irony of all this talk of cherry-picking is that the actual picking of cherries is surely a tedious and taxing task that requires the virtues of fortitude (so as to keep going) and temperance (so as to not eat all the cherries straight away).

But I take your point, though I ought to clarify that I never expect anyone to actually take up what I’m advising, whether it be making their own beer or realising that atman is Brahman.

At the same time, I would be remiss in suggesting that I am more virtuous than my contemporaries. So at minimum, I am writing for the pleasure of recognising that some things have a deeper meaning and a greater significance, yoga being one of them.

As the immortal sage Bruce Lee also wrote/quoted/paraphrased: when the wise man points at the moon, the fool sees only the finger.

Now, people can cherry-pick, but we take for granted some element of wisdom in their cherry-picking: that at least they are picking what they want, or at best they are picking something of value to them.

Yet stretching is not easy, it is painful and difficult. Why do people pick it? Have they been told to pick it? Have they been impressed by advocates of stretching who have promised great benefits? Have they tried it and found it deeply satisfying or beneficial?

I suspect the first point is that it (Yoga) looks exotic. In addition it is praised as beneficial. Subsequent experience shows that it is difficult, yet rewarding (either physically rewarding or rewarding in the “hey look at me I’m doing Yoga!” sense).

But in addition, I think we’re all told by multiple sources from an early age that flexibility is important and valuable. It’s a deeply ingrained message that we should aim to be able to touch our toes at any point in life, and Yoga seems to epitomise that goal; like running marathons epitomises fitness and endurance.

I think that the value you are calling ‘cherry-picking’ has likewise been extolled by multiple sources from youth. We idealise it as freedom and autonomy, and respect the person who ‘takes control’ and improves himself through his own choices and actions; who lives a rich and enjoyable life; a person who – importantly – is not bound by anything unpleasant or odious or unwanted.

The virtues extolled by traditional Yoga appear to conflict with this ideal. Few want to cherry-pick “stop picking cherries”, without some promise or other condition of reward. Look at Bikram: he’s incredibly wealthy, powerful, and famous thanks to his physical mastery of Yoga asanas. If he committed himself as fervently to the abstentions and observances, he would not be able to enjoy his wealth, power and fame. But for some reason, people do not look at his physical mastery as an imposition. They don’t look at the opportunity cost of all those hours of stretching and training. They don’t think fearfully of how much laziness and sloth and leisure time he has had to sacrifice. How much enjoyment he has lost and pain he has endured.

So if I may reverse the equation: we are all fools looking at the moon, and we don’t realise we only see it because it has been pointed out to us.

Every religious and spiritual discipline that I have come across contains the same essential points of abstention and observance, discipline and virtue. And in the past, or in the limited circles of religious adherents, exemplars of these disciplines are praised and the benefits of these disciplines are known and understood.

Zhuangzi wrote: Where lusts and desires are deep, the springs of the Heavenly are shallow.

But what the hell are the springs of the Heavenly, and why should I care? My lusts and desires are the backbone of my identity, and the thought of purposefully diminishing them is about as appealing as abandoning friends and family to go live in a tin shed in some godforsaken desert.

Yet the Patanjali Yoga sutra refers to them as “afflictions”:

2.1 Austerity, the study of sacred texts, and the dedication of action to God constitute the discipline of Mystic Union.

2.2 This discipline is practised for the purpose of acquiring fixity of mind on the Lord, free from all impurities and agitations, or on One’s Own Reality, and for attenuating the afflictions.

2.3 The five afflictions are ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and the desire to cling to life.

2.4 Ignorance is the breeding place for all the others whether they are dormant or attenuated, partially overcome or fully operative.

2.5 Ignorance is taking the non-eternal for the eternal, the impure for the pure, evil for good and non-self as self.

2.6 Egoism is the identification of the power that knows with the instruments of knowing.

2.7 Attachment is that magnetic pattern which clusters in pleasure and pulls one towards such experience.

2.8 Aversion is the magnetic pattern which clusters in misery and pushes one from such experience.

2.9 Flowing by its own energy, established even in the wise and in the foolish, is the unending desire for life.

2.10 These patterns when subtle may be removed by developing their contraries.

2.11 Their active afflictions are to be destroyed by meditation.

Clearly Patanjali didn’t understand that the purpose of meditation is actually to heal your body, make you rich, give you peace of mind, and stop you complaining about your employment conditions.

Securing our attachments, defending against our aversions, consolidating our ignorance, and celebrating our egoism: this is the ‘Yoga’ of modern life; – stretching optional.

Stuck in my head

In the literature on temperaments I’ve read that melancholics seem to be less coordinated, less ‘at home’ in their bodies, and more prone to illness and minor ailments.

Even before I came across the temperament theory, I’d concluded that as someone who thinks a great deal, spending so much time “in my head” upsets things like balance, coordination, proprioception, and my awareness of minor aches and pains, tension, thirst, and bad posture.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I spend nearly every waking moment thinking. And while I’ve tried various methods to ‘quiet’ my mind in line with generic meditation advice, I think that such advice is not necessarily appropriate for a melancholic idealist philosopher.

After all, I’m not just thinking about what I’m going to have for dinner. My mind is inquiring, analysing, speculating, and critiquing. My mind composes speeches, stories, articles and even conversations; it welcomes inspiring new ideas and elaborates on intriguing problems and dilemmas. It’s always working, and while it can be exhausting, I feel I’ve found the right kinds of creative directions for this mental energy.

So while I used to think this constant thinking was excessive and needed to be shut down, I now see it as a skill and a creative process that needed to be trained, disciplined, and given appropriate work to do.

Nonetheless, there are times when being so ‘head-centred’ becomes too much, and I’ve found over the years that it’s possible to shift the focus away from thoughts and towards other aspects of embodied awareness, such as the aforementioned proprioception, breathing, or just the feel of my feet on the floor. But more important is the sense of dimming the focus on my thoughts, of deciding that my thoughts are not important for the time being, and I won’t miss anything by letting go of them for a while.

We talk about lowering our centre of gravity, but this is more like lowering the centre of awareness. As strange as it sounds, it has an immediate impact on perception, making everything around me seem a little more real and substantial. It’s as though being focused on one’s thoughts and dwelling in abstraction leaves the world feeling somewhat unreal.

The world of thoughts is a valuable one, but this conflict between thinking and being troubles me. It leaves me wondering what a true balance would look like; am I really overdoing the thinking, and is it undermining my health in ways of which I am oblivious? If you’ve ever had the experience of getting up from a computer desk after hours craning over a keyboard, you’ll understand that we can easily lose touch with bodily discomfort when engrossed in mental activity. How much more so if we spend most of each waking day lost in thought?

That’s a telling idiom after all: no one ever claims to find themselves in thought. Am I, a thinker, more myself when I am thinking? Or am I just someone who’s gotten used to losing himself in entertaining, instructive, ever-more-engaging thoughts?