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?

 

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More dieting tips

(Following on from the previous post)

It’s important to make the link between unhappiness and frustration at being overweight, and the pleasure and mindlessness of escapist eating.

Most of us feel bad about being overweight. We don’t like our appearance, or what it says about our relationship with food or how we relate to ourselves.

But we usually only feel bad when we notice our appearance. We quickly forget about it, which in itself implies escapism. Overweight people are rarely constantly unhappy.

Yet the unhappiness and dissatisfaction at being overweight is a powerful motive for change. In fact, we might go so far as to say that most overweight people are insufficiently unhappy or dissatisfied with their appearance. Most of us feel sudden pangs of embarrassment or dismay, but it passes.

If we were serious about losing weight, improving our appearance, and changing our relationship with food, we would cling to that unhappiness, embarrassment and other negative emotions like a gift. But instead we endure them briefly, feel bad about ourselves, get distracted, and end up losing ourselves in the pleasure of eating once again.

Those negative emotions are always stalking you anyway, why not put them to good use? Bring them to the forefront of your mind. The next time you feel dismayed or ashamed of being overweight; the next time you recognise that rolls of fat are unbecoming; the next time you find yourself frustrated at clothes that no longer fit, take that dissatisfaction and dismay and hold on to them at least as far as your next meal.

Hold on to those negative emotions the next time you approach your food, and refuse the opportunity to escape the negative emotion, to wipe it away with taste, texture, aroma, and the little rituals of eating.

Hold on to your unhappiness the next time you see a piece of cake or a bowl of curry, and ask yourself whether you actually need to eat something now, or if you are just eating for pleasure. You know where eating for pleasure has brought you. Try something different for a while.

Bear in mind there is nothing easy about this. Escapist eating implies a state of mind that does not easily find alternative sources of happiness and pleasure in life. It may imply depression or anxiety, or other disturbances.

But the underlying logic is hard to escape: if you are unhappy about being overweight, yet you continue to eat in excess, then there is something incoherent in your experience and your intentions. Coherence implies a reconciliation of these conflicting aims: either eat appropriately, or stop feeling bad about the physical consequences of excess.

Looking back, it proved helpful to me to dwell more on the unhappiness I felt at my appearance and my weight, and to extend that unhappiness into a critical analysis of my eating habits. Since weight and eating habits are so intimately related, it became clear that something was “going wrong” when I ate. That “going wrong” proved to be escapism.

Why else do people eat when they do not need to eat, and when the consequences of such unnecessary and excessive eating bring them unhappiness?

There’s a cake sitting on the table to my right. It is tasty and looks appetising, and I find myself drawn to eat some of it. But why do I want to eat it? Honestly I am not hungry – I could just as easily not eat it and continue with my work. But I still experience a desire to eat it, as though part of me believes eating it will be a wonderful pleasure.

Perhaps eating the cake would be pleasant. But why am I in such dire need of pleasure right now? Am I unhappy, bored, dissatisfied, frustrated, angry, sad, or afraid? Is my life so unpleasant that I feel the need to eat cake just to lift my base mood, despite knowing that the temporary pleasure of eating it will contribute to future unhappiness of being overweight?

And what is it precisely about the eating of the cake that will bring such pleasure? Is it the sweetness of the sugar, the moist and crunchy textures, the flavour of banana, hazelnut, and cinnamon, the caramelized golden syrup? Or is it just the movement of my jaw, the process of eating, the feeling of something in my stomach?

But I know from past experience that if I eat a piece of cake I might then be tempted to have some leftover curry. And later this evening I will be sorely tempted to cook some pasta, and eat some ice-cream.  It isn’t the cake per se, just that the cake happens to be the nearest and most enticing object of temptation at the present moment.

What all of those eating experiences have in common is that they take me away from the present moment. They offer an escape from whatever I happen to be feeling or not feeling right now, even though the escape is temporary and the consequences are themselves a cause of future unhappiness.

The unhappiness is more real than the escape, and there is more to be gained in facing reality than indulging in fleeting escapist pleasures.  Besides, most of us have already tried escaping, and we know what it brings. Rarely do we bring ourselves to try the experience of unhappiness and see where it leads.

If you try this, or work out your own approach, you will eventually find that you can tell the difference between eating for escape and eating to quell genuine hunger. Many of us have not experienced genuine hunger for years, if ever. We go from meal to meal without our digestive systems ever getting close to empty. We eat till we are overfull, and get “hungry” when we’re able to eat some more.

There are surely a number of ways to lose weight and stop escapist eating. This is the one I’ve found most valuable, because it doesn’t attempt to “cheat” and it forces us into a more honest experience of our own feelings. That being said, I’ve let it slide over the last few months. It’s easy to lapse into eating for the sake of pleasure, and the escapism this entails. At the same time, being aware of and accepting of your negative emotions is inherently challenging.

But imagine what it might be like to stop escaping from the problems and dissatisfactions in your life for once, and refuse the easy, self-destructive escapes that life offers?