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?


How not to heresy

Embed from Getty Images

I got caught up this morning in a piece on the ABC titled “Why should we believe unbelievable religion?”

So what does he make of the feeding of the multitude tale, when Jesus reportedly fed 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish?

‘In my view nobody at the time would have read that particular miraculous feeding literally,’ says Tacey. ‘In other words, they sat at his feet, he provided spiritual nourishment and it was as if they were fed with loaves and fishes, and then there were 10 baskets full in the end to collect.’

It’s one thing to find such an interpretation more satisfying or credible than the miraculous version, and I can sympathise with people for whom the standard interpretations of Christianity seem insufficient.  But despite the caveat “in my view”, I bridled at the subsequent “nobody at the time”. Unless by “in my view” the speaker means “I prefer to believe that…”, it strikes me as insufficiently humble for someone explicitly breaking with a long-standing tradition to not maintain the weakness of their own position.

After all, the root of ‘heresy’ is ‘choice’; why not own up to it as a choice, instead of trying to pass it off as the obviously and self-evidently preferable, more intelligible, and more spiritually rewarding interpretation?

Yet for all their efforts to disentangle the historical Jesus from the web of mythic stories about him, have these scholars offered Christians a Jesus they can believe in?  If miraculous stories involving Jesus are merely reworked stories about Moses, do they leave Christians with a more appealing focus of faith?  Tacey thinks not.

‘They’re the ones who I think are in danger of ending up emptying Jesus of all his spiritual significance, so that he simply becomes a community health worker or something like that,’ he says.

Of course: my personalised heresy that I developed in the context of a post-Christian society and my specialised and eminently democratic skill-set as a professor of literature with a background in Jungian psychology is in every way superior to the interpretations favoured merely by the credulously devout of the past twenty centuries.

It makes perfect sense that a professor of literature might find more meaning in miracles as metaphors than in miracles as miracles. However, it is one of the more intriguing aspects of Christianity that it embraces the supposed dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, binding the two together in a great and unfathomable mystery.  It is, for instance, by no means novel to read into the feeding of the five-thousand a metaphor of spiritual food. Indeed, as the short form of the forthcoming Corpus Christi sequence states:

In figúris præsignátur, Cum Isaac immolátur: Agnus paschæ deputátur Datur manna pátribus.

It was prefigured in types: when Isaac was immolated, when the Paschal Lamb was sacrificed, when Manna was given to the fathers.

It’s not that tradition doesn’t recognise the metaphors, just that it doesn’t hold with the modernist certitude that metaphors must only be metaphors, that an event can’t be both real and symbolically meaningful at the same time. It is, ironically, a much less nuanced perspective to hold either that the miracles have no greater significance, or that they are so full of significance that they can’t possibly have happened.

Personally, I don’t understand why some people are so wedded to the conviction that miracles cannot have occurred as they are claimed to have occurred. What’s the big deal? It’s as though they’ve been told that faith itself must hinge on belief in second-hand accounts of miracles, and hence find themselves riven by existential doubts, like a born-again Christian trying their hardest to feel appropriately saved.

Skepticism alone doesn’t account for such doubts.  A skeptic is free to doubt the existence of miracles, but they’re equally free to doubt the staid pseudo-skepticism that insists that miracles are not possible. Again, it shouldn’t be such a big deal to admit the possibility.  What kind of person has a world-view and identity contingent on the insistence that the biblical accounts of miracles are false?

I won’t pretend to understand people’s emotional or ideological baggage around miracles – whether they’ve been force-fed a false piety, or long to rehabilitate their spiritual life in the good graces of some kind of anti-supernaturalist clique.  Listening to the broadcast itself, Tacey contrasts his parents’ view of the bible as a “history book” with his own eventual discovery of it as “a long sacred narrative poem”; but he makes somewhat inconsistent references to his own perspective being on the one hand “not for everyone”, while on the other hand claiming that “official” Christianity has erred in taking any of Jesus’ teachings literally.

The irony is that Tacey extols the ability to live with uncertainty rather than having everything nailed down, yet in his discovery of metaphoric scriptural interpretation turns adamant that a metaphoric interpretation is the only valid one.  He accepts that Jesus did exist and was crucified, but that his life was subsequently converted into a metaphoric or parabolic story in its own right, and eventually converted by literalist Western Europeans into a series of lies told for God.

Tacey doesn’t see this interpretation as diminishing Christianity, but perhaps only because he is in the grip of a false dichotomy: the scriptures are either literally true with no metaphoric significance, or they are metaphorically true and not to be taken literally.  Yet as far as I am aware, there exists a substantial orthodox tradition of viewing the scriptures as true both literally and metaphorically.  In fact you could go so far as to say that the tying together of spiritual significance with real events is kinda the whole point of Christianity.