What do you really want?

When working out my approach to diet, I arrived at a very strange and powerful moment.

I knew that losing weight was objectively simple: eat substantially less food, and your body will consume more of its own reserves.

And I was under the impression that I really wanted to lose weight.

So why didn’t I follow that objectively simple path?

Cognitive dissonance

I remember this powerful moment so clearly, the feeling of astonishment at uncovering a deeper level of my psyche, and the self-deception at play.

It seemed that my strong desire to lose weight was not as strong as I thought…or that it might be more accurately described as “a strong desire to be thinner without changing any of my behaviour”.

At that time I resolved the tension in my own mind by redefining “want” or “desire”.

A want or desire is an intentional state. It motivates us to action. Therefore if no action occurs it is not accurate to say we “want” or “desire”.

I like that idea

To make sense of my behaviour I changed my story:

I really like the idea of being lean, but I enjoy the pleasure of eating too much to change my behaviour and actually lose weight.

Do you see how powerful that is? It might sound like admitting defeat, but the alternative wasn’t “victory” but self-deception.

I had been telling myself “I want to lose weight, but it’s really hard”. Changing the story showed that I didn’t really want to lose weight in the sense of having the necessary motivation to change my behaviour.

Think about the things you want in life. I want to go to the bathroom -> so go. I want a glass of water -> so get one. I want to lose weight -> so eat less. I want to play the piano -> so practice.

If I want to play the piano but I don’t practice, then it’s probably more accurate to say “I wish I could play the piano, but I don’t want to do the requisite practice”, or “I wish I magically knew how to play the piano without having to go through the trouble of actually learning.”

The paradox

Paradoxically, changing my story to more accurately describe how I felt gave me more motivation to change my behaviour.

Realising that I didn’t want to lose weight made me want to lose weight, because I saw quite clearly that the path I was on did not lead to a good place.

If losing weight is easy, why does it feel so hard? Because we don’t really want to change our behaviour. Why would we?

Changing my story again

Redefining “want” to mean a motivational state that leads to action is a bit extreme. It could be equally true to say we have numerous conflicting wants or desires of varying strengths and intensities.

The real value in that story I told was the clarity, seeing myself clearly and seeing through my self-deception.

It was so empowering to realise that the path was not hard, I was just deeply ambivalent about walking it.

Do I want to be profoundly happy?

I’ve arrived at another powerful and momentous question, this time not about food and body weight, but my ability to be profoundly happy, feel profoundly good in this very moment.

My forays into mysticism and spiritual practice have shown me time and again that we have the ability to find true love and joy deep within us. The only thing that stands in our way is…our own reluctance to embrace it.

Admittedly there’s a lot of confusion and conflicting messages out there about spiritual practice, just as there is about weight loss and diet.

But I’ve studied enough to be satisfied that the path is actually very simple for me.

All that remains is the mysterious fact that I’m so reluctant to walk the path.

Facing our own resistance

The question is why?

Why would I not want to feel profoundly good right now?

So far the answers are

“That’s not what life is about”

“I need to face reality”

…and the ingrained sense that struggle is somehow more rewarding or necessary or unavoidable so you might as well face it.

This struggle is captured in various traditions, but the one that comes to mind is:

If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.

Clarity will yield desire

As with the weight-loss example, seeing clearly my own reluctance – that the path is simple, I’m just reluctant to walk it – will gradually build my desire.

After all, feeling profoundly good right now would be…profoundly good. And realising that the only obstacle is my own obstinacy is the quickest way to wear it down, change my mind, and soften my heart.

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Going with the flow

The lamp of the body is the eye: if thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.

Some contemplatives look outward and see the underlying flow, the pattern, the mystery governing all that is.

Some contemplatives look inward and find the divine being-itself within.

Whether inside or outside, they approach a unity of vision. Perhaps it’s just a case of where they first notice it, or where they are most at home returning to it.

Synthesis

I’m different from the contemplatives, mystics, and sages whose words I’ve read, because I’ve read all their words and put them alongside one another in my own mind.

Reading into different traditions from outside those traditions and looking for the underlying commonalities and themes, my perspective remains an individual one, not belonging to any single set of teachings.

I’ve tried to see “the way” described in Daoist and East Asian Buddhist literature, the mysterious unity dynamically at play behind all phenomena.

I’ve also tried to see the divine essence in my innermost being, either there, or near there, a presence of love and light and transcendent joy that is our true identity, whether it is described as a union with God that occurs through grace when we turn toward Him, or as a pre-existing unity with the divine that has been obscured by ignorance and illusion.

Finding God within themselves, they look out and see God in everything, just as the sages who saw everything following “the way” then knew to look within for their own intimate connection with it.

Reconciling the external and the internal

When I looked outward I could see the mysterious patterns of “the way” but it did nothing to change me.

When I looked within I felt the love and joy of the divine in my innermost being, but “the world” remained impassive and impervious.

I had a strong sense of the divide between myself and “the world”.

But through slowly improving my mood, recognising the legitimacy of desire and how my experience reflects my beliefs and expectations, I’ve found that I can bridge that divide.

By both turning toward the divine in my innermost being and then looking for the mysterious pattern in the external world, I’ve found that they are one and the same thing, mutually reinforcing, and unifying my whole experience.

I have to actively do both. Actively turn toward the spark of love and joy that resides deep within us, and, when secure in that, look to the sense of pattern and connection and flow in the outside world.

Go with the flow

The flow is difficult to describe. I get it by paying attention to my field of experience as a whole. For example, when driving we can pay attention to any number of things but we ought to be aware of the other users of the road around us.

If we were sitting by the side of the road at a busy intersection we might be able to look at the many vehicles as taking part in the greater flow of traffic. We could get a feel for the flow that transcends but is present in the multitude of vehicles and drivers and passengers and their individual actions and behaviours.

Can you do that while you yourself are part of the traffic?

The Zen monk Takuan Soho described this aspect of the way like so:

“When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all the others. When the eye is not set on one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there.”

Creation unfolds moment by moment, and there’s a correlation across all things in the one moment, just as much as there is continuity of one thing across many moments.

Attending to this correlation or flow points us intuitively towards the invisible “way” that governs the flow.

This “way” is the proper object of attention externally, just as the divine spark within us is the proper object of attention internally.

In other traditions this flow or way might be described as God’s will, or the sense of God’s presence in all things. Perhaps it takes different forms for different people.

It still takes practice. I find that fears and worries and grasping for certain outcomes obscures my sense of the flow. At the same time, there’s an inner reluctance to turn toward the love and joy within me, which is puzzling but points to the various traditions’ interpretation of torpor or sloth or an unwillingness to embrace the joy that is available to us right now.

Yet there is also immense consolation in the direct experience of union as the sounds of traffic, my baby daughter wriggling in her bouncer, the tweeting of birds, and the pulsing of my own heart-beat converge with the deep and mysterious sense of love and joy within me.

God in our innermost being: Mundaka Upanishad

For those who are interested, the Mundaka Upanishad depicts precisely the relationship between innermost being and the outer self described in my previous post.

MANTRA NO. 1:
Two birds living together, each the friend of the other, perch upon the same tree. Of these two, one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, but the other simply looks on without eating.

MANTRA NO. 2:
In the self-same tree the individual (bird) is drowned in grief because of delusion and impotency. When it beholds the other (bird), viz., the adorable Lord, it realises its own glory and gets freed from sorrow.

MANTRA NO. 3:
When the knowing individual has the vision of the intelligent creator, the Lord, the Purusha, the Brahman which is the source of all, then it shakes off both merit and demerit, and having become taintless, attains to supreme equality with the Lord.

MANTRA NO 4:
In all beings this one supreme life manifests itself. Knowing this, the wise one does not speak of anything else. Having his sport in the Self, bliss in the Self, and action in the Self, he is the best among the knowers of Brahman.

MANTRA NO. 5:
The Atman is attained through truth, penance, correct knowledge and Brahmacharya (self-control), observed continuously without break. The Atman is beheld within in the form of light and purity by the austere ones who are freed from all kinds of sins.

MANTRA NO. 6:
Truth alone triumphs; not falsehood. Through truth the divine path is spread out by which the sages whose desires have been completely fulfilled, reach to where is that supreme treasure of Truth.

MANTRA NO. 7:
That which is supremely expansive, divine, of unthinkable form, subtler than the subtle, much farther than that which is far, and at the same time very near, shines and is seated in the Central Being of those who have the consciousness of That.

MANTRA NO. 8:
It is not grasped by the eye, not even by speech, nor by the other senses. It is not possible to know it through mortifications or deeds. He who meditates upon it with absolute purity (Sattva) of mind, as the partless Being, beholds it through the serenity attained in knowledge.

MANTRA NO. 9:
This subtle Atman should be known with the purified mind into which the Prana with its fivefold aspect has entered. The mind is pervaded completely by the functions of the Pranas together with the powers of the senses. In this purified mind this Atman is revealed.

MANTRA NO. 10:
Whichever region is thought of by the mind and whatever desires the man of purified mind desires, that region and those desires he obtains. Therefore, one who wishes to have prosperity should worship the knower of the Self.

Distilling the search for God

Roughly 20 years of searching for answers I can distill to a simple report:

God/the divine/the transcendent dwells in our innermost being.

But our individual self can choose to focus on it, or not.

It is the summum bonum, the creator, the beginning and the end, self-existent being itself; and it is also love and joy to us.

We focus outwardly on the world, hoping to achieve and procure love and joy – happiness – for ourselves through various actions and ends.

But since the source of all things dwells already in us, looking out to “things” while neglecting the source is why we experience repeated suffering and confusion.

My mistakes

Turning inward and despising the outer world is a mistake. God doesn’t despise the world, so how can you turn towards God while hating his creation?

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

But this doesn’t mean pretending that evil is good.

The plumbing in our home is a bit funny. You can turn on the hot tap and it will run warm, then go cold, before becoming truly hot.

If you turn off the tap because it gets cold, you’ll never allow the really hot water to flow.

In fact you want to open the tap as much as possible, and just let the cold water go, all the sooner to enjoy the heat again.

The key is trusting and knowing that the heat will come, even if it has to first push out a whole lot of cold water sitting in the pipes.

Faith, Hope, and Love

The God who dwells in your innermost being is the creator of all that is. There is nothing higher, greater, more powerful, or more eternal than that.

Yet we experience a multiplicity of things “the world” that seem to exist on their own and obey their own rules.

If God is love, why do we suffer?

We suffer because we turn away from God in our innermost being, and try to share our attention with other ‘gods’ or idols, or simply fears and doubts.

That is why faith, hope, and love are so important, because they are how we translate God in our innermost being into the outer world of our experience.

Faith, hope, and love are what it feels like when there is no resistance in us to the divine flowing out from our innermost being into the world.

While these three have layers of meaning, in a personal spiritual context faith is the knowledge, trust or certainty that God in our innermost being is in complete and perfect control of all that is, and that only our resistance colours the perfect creation God wills for us.

Hope is desire and expectation. It is the belief – despite how the world might appear – that our desires will be fulfilled, that the love, joy and happiness we seek are being met.

Love is considered the greatest of these three because love is the nature of God. Both the nature of the divine, and His disposition toward creation, and hence when we adopt an attitude of love toward creation we are embracing God’s own attitude. We are united with God’s will.

Love is God Himself, while faith and hope are antidotes to the doubts and fears that we have created in our world. Love without faith and hope would be difficult to muster.

For me, faith and hope mean that nothing is impossible, and the fulfillment of Love can expand out into my experience, my reality.

It helps to know also that there are already people for whom this is reality. I may not have met them yet, but I know that they exist.

The path forward

Magnify the divine in my innermost being. Turn towards it continually, and cease focusing on anything that detracts from it, knowing that such detractions exist only in my own divided focus.

There is no other power, no other path, no other goal than the God in my innermost being. There is nothing and no one else to turn to. And everything else I might turn to, I do so only in search of the love and joy that is already there within me.

It is the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field, the kingdom for which all else is given up, and through which all else is gained.

Retrospective on a spiritual journey

A conversation with my brother prompted me to reflect on my spiritual beliefs and perspective. It’s not something I’ve shared with anyone at depth, partly because no one has been interested, but also because I’ve been in “observer” mode for so long, collecting data and perspectives and not wanting to make grand declarations of ultimate truths.

So it’s a bit of a surprise (but obvious in hindsight) to realise that people don’t know what my perspective is, let alone whether they agree with it or not.

This is probably a good indicator (if one were necessary) that I’m not an INTP, because an INTP ought to be pretty clear about their own perspective as a conceptual framework.

Where my search has taken me

Beginning at about age 15 I read a copy of Anthony De Mello’s “Awareness” which introduced me to the concept of mysticism or personal spiritual development as the inner core of Christianity, and of religion generally.

On the most basic level, De Mello (an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist) was pointing out that outward religious observance is empty without interior spiritual development.

From that starting point I set out to find out more about mysticism. These are the key figures and texts I explored over the following decade:

Christian

The Cloud of Unknowing

St John of the Cross

Catherine of Siena

Evelyn Underhill

The Philokalia/Desert Fathers

John Cassian

Dionysus the Areopagite

Meister Eckhart

Albert the Great

Thomas Aquinas

Brother Lawrence

Julian of Norwich

Bede Griffiths

 

Sufi

Jallalludin Rumi (not just the poems)

Hafiz

Hazrat Inayat Khan

 

Sikh

The Guru Granth Sahib

 

Hindu

The Bhagavad Gita

The Upanishads

Advaita Vedanta

Sankara

Ramana Maharshi

Kabir

 

Taoist

Dao De Jing

Zhuangzi

Liezi

Wenzi

Hua Hu Jing

Liu Yi Ming

“The Secret of the Golden Flower”

 

Other Chinese

The Analects

The Book of Changes

The Book of Rites

The Doctrine of the Mean

The Great Learning

Mencius

Wang Bi (Neo-Daoist)

 

Buddhist

Hui Neng (The Platform Sutra and other commentaries)

Dogen

Takeda Sokaku

D.T. Suzuki

Blue Cliff Record

The Diamond Sutra

The Heart Sutra

The Dhammapada

Assorted Pali resources

Naropa

Chogyam Trungpa

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Lama Yeshe

Dzogchen

 

New Thought/New Age

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Don Miguel Ruiz

Eckhart Tolle

U.G. Krishnamurti

Carlos Castaneda

A Course in Miracles

Neale Donald Walsch

Caroline Myss

Esther Hicks

 

Other

Joseph Campbell

Joel Morwood

 

In no particular order, and I’ve forgotten some, as well as omitting secondary sources that would have included other less well-known figures and texts.

Reflection

In addition to this eclectic mix of texts (some I hated, some I loved), I undertook tertiary studies in philosophy as part of the same search, though I eventually realised that philosophy was the wrong place to look for answers.

Initially I had no interest in theology, because I’d accepted the “via negativa” notion that we can’t really say anything substantial about the divine, but also because my earliest exposure to theology was a book by Teilhard de Chardin, which is a bit like having your first exposure to music be a free jazz performance.

Eventually through my work in ethics I discovered the natural law tradition, and from that the Aristotelian-Thomistic approach to metaphysics and theology, and from there got a bit of an understanding of the neo-Platonist tradition too.

(My unfinished PhD study was in the intellectualist versus voluntarist traditions in the West, and the possible application of those themes to the neo-Daoist philosopher Wang Bi.)

Along the way I avoided stuff that was too esoteric (Tibetan Buddhism leans that way, “A Course in Miracles”), too boring (the Vedas), too focused on outward observance (sorry Islam), or just too peripheral to the core subject of union with the divine (Carlos Castaneda….someone recommended him, but it was a poor recommendation).

So you can view this search as a massive, long-term effort in sifting and sorting through everything and anything that I felt or somehow knew intuitively was getting right to the heart of the mystery.

It’s not that hard…it’s obvious that John’s Gospel is the most mystical of the four, right?

Question time

Starting from scratch in my search for answers, I ended up facing a lot of questions that others have also faced along the way.

For example, the basic one of “does God exist?”

Honestly that was a pretty easy one, and I answered it pragmatically: if there’s no divine thing out there, then nothing matters and there’s no deeper truth or answers to be had, so I might as well just die. The desire for answers doesn’t logically necessitate the existence of answers, but it does practically guarantee the search. Next question!

“Is God a person?”

This was much trickier.

Many people who are interested in comparative religion conclude that a personal God is an anthropomorphic concession to the simple-minded who can’t handle abstract concepts.

But it depends what you mean by “personal”. When the Christian tradition itself tells you that anthropomorphic characteristics are just an analogy, and goes on to define “person” as “an individual being of a rational nature”, all the “simple-minded” objections evaporate.

Like Hieromonk Damoscene, author of Christ, the Eternal Tao, I concluded that to be a person (by this definition) is greater, not lesser, than an impersonal divine being.

“Is Jesus divine, or another ‘great teacher’ like Buddha?”

This is another amusing one, because comparative religion types tend to argue a la John Hick that the divinity of Christ is a metaphor, that Christ was really just a “great teacher” like the Buddha. You almost want to add “not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

But I had to conclude in the end that the depiction of Christ in the Gospels bears little to no resemblance to Buddha as a teacher. If he was just a teacher, Christ really didn’t do enough teaching.

If he was a teacher, he failed miserably. But the coherence of his comments regarding his unique relationship with God the Father only make sense if Christ is unique. And his significance makes sense only if you look at the events of his life, death and resurrection.

Compare the Gospels to the Dhammapada and you have to conclude that either Jesus was not a very good teacher, or it wasn’t about his teachings per se.

Besides, it’s not as though the unique nature of Christ is the only stumbling block in comparative religion. The complexity of the trinity and Christ as logos is an excellent complement to the seemingly unnecessary complications of the Laozi on metaphysics.

Christian metaphysics offers a potential lingua franca for understanding the Buddhist focus on “emptiness” (the contingency of creation and negative theology), as well as the peculiar insights of the Taoists on “the way” (the logos) Yang and Yin (substantial form + prime matter?), and glimmers of Isiah’s prophecies in abstruse passages like:

“Only he who has accepted the dirt of the country can be lord of its soil shrines; only he who takes upon himself the evils of the country can become a king among those what dwell under heaven.”

An individual path

It’s hard to discuss this stuff with other people because they’re not coming from the same starting point of a personal search, nor have they necessarily covered the same ground along the way.

So I’ve come to accept that mine is necessarily an individual path, and that’s great. It ties in with my greater understanding of temperament (Melancholic-Phlegmatic), my intellectual formation, and even my family history.

I’m probably a little defensive when discussing religion with others, because I’m agreeable (Big 5 trait) and prefer to avoid conflict, plus I guess I intuitively expect that others won’t understand where I’m coming from, doubleplus I haven’t practiced communicating it to others so where would I begin?

Ultimately I think it’s perfect for a melancholic to find his own way. I think everyone is finding their own way, even if “their own way” includes choosing to follow others. I’ve tried following others as well, but it turned out that we were never really on the same page to begin with!

I’m very open to ideas (Big 5 trait) so I tend by default to try to understand where other people are coming from, and if necessary then describing where our paths diverge. All this time in philosophy and theology and comparative religion have made it second-nature for me to ask “what do they mean by this?”

I mean, you don’t have to go far to find radically divergent perspectives on what ought to be fairly simple questions. When Muslims worship Allah, are they, from a Christian perspective, worshiping the same God from a different (less complete) perspective, or are they pointlessly worshiping a non-existent being because their theology isn’t right?

When Buddhists say there is no God, are they denying the Christian God? Are there really any Buddhists well-versed enough in Christian theology to definitively answer this question (and vice-versa)?

But ultimately I’ve returned to the realisation that I’m not really in this for the analysis. My melancholic temperament has led me to search through an intellectual lens, but I’m not fulfilled by intellectual play. It’s always been a means to an end, or rather, a search for the ideal.

I accept that the truth I’ve searched for is much more than a set of intellectual propositions. Some of those propositions fill me with the deepest joy when I contemplate them, but it’s the joy, not the propositions I’m after.

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.

What is reality, really?

The basic premise of “positive thinking” is that “your thoughts create your reality”.

One of the obstacles I’ve encountered is a narrow or limited interpretation of “reality”.

In the beginning I think I intentionally partitioned “the reality shaped by my thoughts” off from “actual reality”, because…well let’s face it: positive thinking material sounds like cringe-worthy new-age rubbish.

But at the same time I knew from philosophy of mind and psychology that our beliefs do shape our mood and our experience, and that our perceptions are highly malleable.

I also knew from personal experience that a change in belief or perception can have results that seem nigh-miraculous.

And because of my broader spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, I don’t have any trouble with the idea of actual miracles either.

But still, I maintained a kind of distinction between the “reality” I was seeking to change, and actual reality; and this distinction is problematic.

It’s problematic because if I can conceive of a reality apart from my all-encompassing experience of reality, then I can have thoughts and beliefs about that “real reality” that contradict or undermine what I’m trying to achieve in changing my thoughts.

So long as I hold on to a distinction between subjective and objective reality, there’s going to be some wriggle room or ambiguity in my work.

It’s the same as my recovery from my auto-immune disease. For a long time I investigated the psychogenic aspect of it, while still refusing to commit to a psychogenic cause. Once I finally accepted that the cause was psychological, only then did I make progress in overcoming the pain.

I only improved once I chose to believe that my physical symptoms were an expression of psychological stress.

So what is reality?

It’s a tautology, but I can’t experience anything beyond my own subjective experience.

Etymologically, “reality” comes from “res” which means “thing”.

Reality is just “all the things”.

We can’t disprove the subjectivist position that things only exist in our own experience of them, nor the skeptical position that we cannot know anything about reality beyond our experience of it, nor even the solipsist position that all reality might well exist only within my own mind.

Philosophers can argue about it, but we aren’t really looking for a philosophical position here.

What we’re looking for is the relationship between our thoughts, our feelings, and “all the things” of our experience.

What we want is to feel better, with the understanding that we have the power to change our feelings by changing our thoughts, and that this in turn will change our experience.

There’s only one “thing”

The testimony of mystics is that “all the things” are really just one thing — the expression and manifestation of a single divine being.

Our suffering and misery as humans comes from the identifying or “reification” of the one into many, and the attribution of independent existence and power to those many things – ourselves included.

Independence and separation give rise to thoughts of abandonment, of harm, of things going wrong. The moment we start thinking that we exist in a world of isolated things, we lose the freedom and grace of the divine spirit within us.

The metaphysical significance or “divine plan” behind delusion, sin, and evil varies between religions, but the important point is that it isn’t real, it doesn’t have independent existence; the divine alone exists.

When we think of reality as something “out there” with independent existence, and maybe (as my previous post explored) malicious or callous or corrosive to our well-being, we suffer.

We suffer just from thinking of it that way, let alone shifting our perception to seek out evidence that it is that way.

If I view “all the things” as existing out there, with their own independent existence and power, and I myself striving and struggling against them, then of course I feel bad.

What are “all the things” really? They are aspects of my experience, objects of my consciousness, forms and ingredients of this mysterious stream of awareness.

Do they really have their own existence, their own power?

Two realities become one

All my negative experiences have in common a kind of deference to external reality and power, a falling-back into the thought of things “out there” that aren’t the way I want them to be.

I view things as having their own existence and power, and therefore I imagine potential negative consequences if I don’t respond to them in the correct way.

Providence, grace, insight, wisdom, there are various names for it in different traditions, but altogether there’s a common understanding that the power of the divine, the one thing that actually exists, transcends and entirely overcomes the flawed sense that I’m an isolated human being struggling in a multifarious universe.

That’s why detachment, recollection, withdrawal from “worldly” concerns is a prominent theme in mysticism. But not for its own sake, only to allow us to come into alignment with the one.

In terms of “positive thinking” that means changing our thoughts to allow for providence or divine help to come to the fore in our experience, filling in all the gaps and drawing us into the flow that has always awaited us.

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.

Abiding insecurity

I need continual reminders that maintaining a positive focus requires partial detachment from the reality around me.

Remembering that our focus is reflected in our thoughts, feelings, actions, and reality, it follows that true change begins with a change in our focus.

But too often we try to change our focus, using reality as a gauge. This is a bit like trying to lose weight and staring at your reflection for immediate signs that it is “working”, and getting discouraged when there’s no immediate change.

The relationship here is even more significant: if you begin to focus on your present reality, your thoughts, feelings, and your subsequent reality will follow suit.

The positive-thinking material therefore suggests a degree of detachment from the reality around you. Not only that, it suggests coming to view the change in focus itself as the desired outcome, with the understanding (but not the grasping or clinging) that reality will eventually change.

Otherwise you may experience a repeated feeling of discord or insecurity as your attention drifts back to the reality around you which neither fully reflects your prior positive focus, nor can ever be the true fulfillment of your desire.

Detachment plays a similar role in mysticism. Seek first the Kingdom of God and his Righteousness means that we cannot be truly satisfied by anything less than God himself. Only the divine can bring fulfillment, and like the positive-thinking material, it is understood that we will never reach the limits of satisfaction in this lifetime.

In other words, we will always be pursuing a deeper and more satisfying focus on the divine.

The second half of the saying is that all these things shall be added unto you.

“All these things” refers to our earthly needs…the aspects of reality that worry us. So we are told not to worry about them, that our Father knows all our needs, that everything will be taken care of.

The aim of both mysticism and the positive-thinking material is to learn to recognise positive focus, or focus on God, as the desired end. A mystic might say it is God we are searching for in our many and varied worldly pursuits.

As God said to Jeremiah:

You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. ‘I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.

The exile is a spiritual one, because we attend to the passing world, conforming ourselves to its patterns as though it were the ultimate reality.

To live for sons and wealth,
For belongings and health,
O Kabir, is to be like the bird
Which during one night’s stay
Starts loving the tree.

So detachment is necessary. Not to separate us from an “evil” world, but to keep us fixed and focused on the right path. Our world will reflect this focus, our thoughts, our feelings, our actions and our reality will all change to accommodate the new mind or new spirit in us. It will be like a “new creation”.

And in that detachment you draw deeper and more fully on the divine. You’re forced to accept that real fulfillment lies in that focus, that spiritual disposition, that “positive energy”. Drawing on it more purely, where else could you go or stand or want to be?

In recognising that your thoughts, feelings, actions, and reality all flow from your point of focus, you recapitulate creation itself, where all things flow from the divine. You put what is “least” right to the fore, the mysterious thing that seems smallest, weakest, empty, yet from which all existence flows.

Your world is a reflection

I came across a Goethe quotation:

All that happens is symbol, and as it represents itself perfectly, it points to the rest.

Which, if I’m right, is close to my own observation that all the elements of my experience reflect meaningfully my own inner life.

Chasing it down, I came across this book which seems to affirm my interpretation of the quotation, adding another from Coleridge:

For all that meets the bodily sense I deem

Symbolical, one mighty alphabet.

I’ve witnessed on numerous occasions that my experience mirrors, reflects, or symbolises my “inner world” for want of a better term. Accordingly, attempts to change the outer world without changing the inner world tend to fail.

We can end one relationship and end up in another just like it. We can sell a house with too many limitations and find that our new house has its own limitations that elicit the same unhappy feelings in us.

Except they don’t elicit those feelings, they mirror them.

I’ve been reading a bit of “positive thinking” and “law of attraction” material, looking for further insights into this pattern I’ve discovered for myself.

Much of it concurs in practice with aspects of contemporary psychology and philosophy of mind. There are also overlaps with religious philosophy and theology, which is not so surprising considering that these “New Thought” movements grew from Christian roots.

What I’d like to do with this post is clarify my own perspective, combining things I have read and things I have observed, for the sake of improving my own experience.

What’s going on?

As stated above, my experience or “outer world” tends to mirror and reflect my “inner world”.

This reflective quality lies in the emotional salience of experiences conforming to the emotional register of my inner world.

For example, I’ve struggled for years in learning a martial art. The outward struggle to learn the art corresponded to negative emotions in my inner world.

The conventional view is that I felt bad because I couldn’t practice the way I wanted to practice or achieve my personal goals.

But the truth is that both the outer experience and the inner emotion were a reflection of my own thoughts about training, martial arts, my self, and my personal goals.

Thoughts and emotions

Your emotions are a natural response to your thoughts or beliefs.

We feel fear when we think something bad is happening or about to happen.

We feel sorrow or sadness when we think something is wrong and we can’t fix it.

We feel anger when we think something has been unjustly perpetrated against us.

We feel love when we think something is good, in proportion to its goodness.

We feel joy when we think those good things are present.

Conventional psychological therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy attempt to teach people to challenge and correct their thoughts and beliefs and thereby reduce anxious and depressed emotional responses.

But conventional methods tend to focus on the truth-value of thoughts. The idea is that external reality is prior; our beliefs should accord with external reality. People suffer anxiety and depression because they have developed unhelpfully negative thoughts that do not match external reality.

This approach has a lot of merit. But in a modern psychological context mental health and mental illness are largely determined by one’s capacity to function in everyday life. Many people fall through the cracks because they are able to function, even if they are not happy.

For a melancholic especially, this idea of making one’s thoughts more realistic is liable to increase rather than decrease depressed and anxious emotions. A melancholic can’t “realistically” live without idealism and meaning, yet that idealism and meaning is implicitly rendered subjective and arbitrary by a “realist” approach to cognition.

People are afraid of being “unrealistically” happy. But that fear is itself a response to thoughts about reality coming back to bite you in the arse because you were feeling undeservedly happy.

Getting past the emotion-thinking circularity

The better “law of attraction” material, such as Abraham/Esther Hicks, focuses not so much on “how to get your stuff”, but on how to change your thoughts consciously in order to enjoy a better emotional state, with the subsequent promise that external circumstances will shift accordingly.

Hicks refers to emotions as a “guidance system” that helps you determine whether or not a particular thought is in alignment with your “inner being” or “Source energy” or God, and hence also in accord with your genuine desires.

Hicks emphasises that the point is to feel good or feel better, not to be realistic or true. If given the choice between a “true” thought and a thought that feels good, we should choose the latter over the former.

There’s merit to this advice, because our capacity to determine the truth-value of our thoughts is tenuous in the first instance, and even more so when we are experiencing negative emotions.

So focus on thoughts that “feel good” or “feel better” at least, and as a result you will begin to feel better and eventually feel good. As you begin to feel better, the thoughts accessible to you will also change for the better, creating a virtuous circle of better feeling thoughts.

But for people who are accustomed to suppressing emotions, there’s a heightened risk of simply overlaying negative emotions with positive ones, or further suppressing negative emotions.

That’s why Hicks advises not to attempt to change one’s emotional state too rapidly. You can’t go from depressed to joyful in an instant.

Care is warranted, and for me it helps to get away from the circularity of assessing thoughts by how they feel, in order to accomplish a change in feeling.

One way to diminish this circularity is to recognise that we can’t control our feelings. Our feelings or emotions change automatically. For me, this mirrors my realisation with weight loss: body weight is an indirect outcome of food intake and exertion. Being overweight should not be viewed as a problem, because it is (in most cases) a natural and healthy response to unnatural and unhealthy behaviour.

By analogy, we should not view our negative emotions as bad or problematic. Our negative emotions are good and natural and healthy, assuming they are in response to negative thoughts and beliefs.

What this means is that we can let go of the fixation on how we feel, trusting that our emotions will take care of themselves provided we take care of the thoughts we are thinking.

How do we assess thoughts?

If that is the case, the question then arises: how do we assess our thoughts if not on the basis of how they feel, or their purported truth-value?

In mysticism we see an especially melancholic impulse to take the highest and most profound spiritual state, and from that stand-point resist any lesser thoughts.

This is presented in some sects as taking up the deeper states of meditation and carrying them into everyday life. In Christian mysticism it is the spirit or Christ in us that purifies and transforms the “outer man” and the external world.

In the Hicks material, better-feeling thoughts are implicitly closer to the perspective of our “inner being” or “Source” or God. In light of this, we can suggest two approaches to assessing and changing one’s thoughts: by ascending step by step according to which thoughts feel better, or by finding an approach to a transcendent, numinous spiritual state, and letting that state transform or repel incommensurate thoughts.

In fact Hicks does suggest both approaches, ranging from working to improve one’s thoughts on specific subjects, to focusing on subjects that are already informed by positive thoughts, to finally meditating without thought in order to have no resistance.

It’s plausible that different personality types or temperaments may find different approaches more conducive. Regardless, I have to admit that my all-or-nothing tendencies and my past interest in mysticism incline me to some form of the latter option.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”