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?

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Law of attraction vs principle of reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real answer is very simple. Just feel good.

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

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

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

Do you create your own reality?

Remember the Law of Attraction?

It became popular in 2006 thanks to the book and film “The Secret”, but the idea has been around for a while as part of the New Thought movement.

The Law of Attraction always bothered me because it seemed incomplete. The promise of changing reality simply by changing our thoughts seemed too good to be true, or to be the complete truth.

On the one hand, I’ve seen in my own life that perceptions can, for all intents and purposes, blind me to possibilities and realities that are outside my experience or my expectations.

Likewise, there is plenty of psychological evidence to support the claim that we create – if not our reality – then our fully immersive interpretation of reality, through cognitive and perceptual biases.

But New Thought wants to go much further than that, claiming that reality itself is dependent on the content or tone of our thoughts, with some going so far as to claim that reality exists in order to mirror back to us the contents of our own thoughts.

I wrote some time ago about the paradox at the heart of the law of attraction, but lately I’ve been reflecting on another, deeper paradox, and I think we can now reconcile the two.

While the law of attraction people were encouraging us to write imaginary cheques or bank statements to help us feel rich, or build scrapbooks of our dream home or dream car, dream partner or dream career, what they failed to clarify was that the you who wants to create a more satisfying reality is as much a creation of your thoughts as anything else.

Your thoughts create reality, but on what side of the equation does your sense of self and your many desires fall? Do you create or control your thoughts? Or are you yourself a product of your thoughts and impressions?

It may be true that your thoughts create your reality, but that doesn’t mean you can willfully control your thoughts or your reality.

That’s because your sense of self is as much a construct and creation as anything else in your experience. It has more in common with the objects of sensation than with the subject – consciousness – at the very heart of it.

So let’s revise the law of attraction thinking: your thoughts create your reality, including your own self and identity. This self or identity is a product of your thoughts, not the origin or producer.

That’s why all the encouragement to focus on and think about your desires should be viewed with ambivalence, because it implicitly reinforces an illusory sense of control, the idea that you can have whatever you want if you just want it with enough effort and focus.

Your thoughts create your reality, including the sense of a self who has control over its own thoughts.

That probably wouldn’t sell as many books as promising people all the wealth and success they think they need, deserve, or desire, but it does explain why those promises fell short.

Incidentally, this is why New Age and New Thought sources often invoke the concept of your true self or higher self. It is in part a valid attempt to depreciate your self-centred desires and illusion of control. It’s an attempt to talk directly to the ‘self’ behind the curtain, the real source of your thoughts and impressions.

The higher/true self idea can be found in the far older Upanishads, which describe the self as two birds sitting on a tree.

Some have argued that the same idea is echoed in St Paul’s depiction of the Inner and Outer man.

This is why mysticism contains the theme of enlightenment as remembering who you really are, or realising the source of all your thoughts and impressions as something mysterious, hidden, and divine.  Likewise it is the outer self, the illusory self that must die or be denied – be recognised as a product, a construct, a creation, rather than the creator.

As the commentary on the “two birds” analogy put it:

We are drowned, submerged, in the deadly ocean of samsara, of continual birth, death, pain and pleasure. Sankara points out that the individual self is overwhelmed with confusion because it cannot understand what is really happening to it, and why. Just like a piece of driftwood on the heaving sea, it is lifted up and down, thrown onto the shore and then pulled out to sea again. So it grieves at its helplessness and hopelessness.

All is changed, though, when the individual sees, right in the core of his being, the very God he has been hitherto worshipping as separate from himself. Experiencing within his own being the presence and the glory of God–and thereby realizing that glory as his own–the individual becomes liberated from sorrow.

This doesn’t mean – can never mean – that the deluded, flawed, illusory sense of self is God. But it points to the Imago Dei of the inner man, the “Christ born in us”, the participation of the individual being in the divine Being of our creator.