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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Mindfulness for people who hate mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness and positive thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The self-aware mind

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

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

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

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

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

How positive thinking works

If you start paying attention to your thoughts while noticing how each thought feels, you’ll soon discover that some thoughts are a bit strange.

What’s strange about them is that they may be focused on a subject that seems “positive”, yet the thought itself feels negative.

The thought “I need to get something done now” feels both good and bad.

That’s because the subject of accomplishing things is a positive one. I want to accomplish things, it would feel good to accomplish things.

But the focus on “need” is negative. The subtext is that if I don’t accomplish things then I will have failed.

There’s a big difference between “I need to get something done” and thinking of a specific thing I want to do.

“I need to get something done” vs “I really want to do this specific thing”.

The former focuses on the absence of what I desire.

There’s self-sabotage built into this kind of thought. It doesn’t aim towards what I really want, nor does it aim away from what I don’t want.

Instead it beats me up for not doing something unspecified right now.

…which isn’t especially helpful.

Imagine saying it to someone else in an anxious voice: “You should be doing something right now!”

Not especially helpful.

How would they react? Probably with a well-deserved “Wtf are you talking about?”

Imagine saying it to them again and again at every opportunity. Maybe say it every time they sit down, every time they appear to be relaxing or enjoying themselves: “Shouldn’t you be doing something???”

If you don’t pay attention to your thoughts, you’ll just feel a kind of acceptance that you should be doing something… followed by the frustration of not knowing what it is you should be doing.

Maybe you’ll throw yourself into any activity just to escape that unpleasant feeling, and you might be productive.

But there’s a big difference between the productivity that comes from escaping unpleasant feelings and the productivity that comes from doing what you feel genuinely inspired to do.

If you accept the thought at face value then your orientation is toward “I need to do something…but I don’t know what”.

By paying attention to how the thought feels, you notice instead “I’m making myself feel bad for no good reason”.

I wouldn’t have noticed this if I hadn’t decided to pay attention to all of my thoughts.

Imagine choosing to no longer activate thoughts of that type…the “feel bad for no good reason” thoughts.

The trajectory of positive thinking is such that removing these kinds of thoughts makes space for new thoughts, since there’s a limit to the number of things you can focus on in a single day.

But it also lifts your overall mood, removing one source of negativity and thereby making more positive thoughts accessible.

And on the subject of “things I want to accomplish”, perhaps we’re now free to consider things that feel good, instead of repeating thoughts that feel needlessly bad?

Or perhaps what would feel best right now is to accept that the whole subject of accomplishments is not about “should” or obligation, and was never something best framed by need or by external pressure.

Are we best served by approaching accomplishments from the direction of avoiding shame and humiliation? Or are we better served by looking at it through the lens of inspiration and appreciation?

In fact, we might begin by completely letting go of any thought of accomplishment for now, and focusing instead on appreciating the many things we have already accomplished, beginning with the mere fact of being alive, of having survived to enjoy this present moment.

A diet for the mind

I was pretty impressed with my approach to weight loss a couple of years ago, so much so that I wrote a book about it.

One aspect of the diet I remember well is the discipline that came naturally, once I understood they underlying problem. It wasn’t easy, and there was a definite progression to it, but at least it wasn’t arbitrary discipline, or discipline for its own sake.

I remember realising that if I wanted to lose weight I couldn’t afford to eat mindlessly anymore. I couldn’t eat and lie to myself about why I was eating.

In every instance I was either eating because I needed sustenance, or eating for some other motive like pleasure or escapism. Being honest with myself about the motive was the essence of discipline.

Positive thinking

I’m beginning to appreciate that the same kind of discipline is required for “positive thinking” work.

In parallel to the simple dichotomy of food that is either for sustenance or in excess of sustenance (and therefore contributing to weight gain), all thoughts can be categorised as either better-feeling or worse-feeling.

The thought of monitoring every single thought seemed excessively burdensome at first, but this sense of burden was, appropriately, indicative of a negative thought…

It turns out that monitoring every thought, paying attention to the thoughts I am thinking and the feelings that derive from them, is not easy but like a physical diet it instills a positive sense of control and direction.

If eating mindlessly perpetuates the status quo of body weight, so thinking mindlessly perpetuates an emotional set-point.

But if you only eat for sustenance, inevitably your body weight will return to normal. And if you only think thoughts that feel good, inevitably your emotional set-point will attain a net positive.

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.

Seriously, anxiety?

Yesterday we had a birthday party for my five year-old boy.

Our baby girl is less than a month old, which made things a little more complicated.

But in all honesty it’s not the complications or the lack of sleep that makes throwing a birthday party difficult: it’s the anxiety.

I was anxious in the lead-up to the party, and of course I tried a number of things to reduce it.

Some of those moves involved “positive thinking”, and the most successful was to view the anxiety itself in a positive light…

You know the great thing about chronic anxiety? It’s really reliable!

You don’t have to worry about it, the anxiety will just be there in the background, doing its own thing.

When I’m busy planning a party, with a list of things to organise, it’s great knowing that anxiety can take care of itself.

It’s automatic. Like “Set and forget”, but it’s self-setting too!

Isn’t it comforting to know that you forget about your anxiety while you focus on everything else that needs doing, and it’ll still be there, plugging away in the background, ready for you whenever you need it?

Hurdles are relative

So that worked. What a surprise!

The party went really well.

And then the next day, I found my anxiety had reappeared, this time over the daunting prospect of…

…buying my son a sandwich on the way to school.

Well, I had to buy a sandwich, a banana, and pick up his drink bottle from his grandparents’ on the way.

That meant leaving home a little earlier.

Yet I was almost as anxious about this task as I was about organising the birthday party.

Or perhaps an alternative view: I was as uncomfortable with this morning’s anxiety as I was with the pre-party anxiety.

Anxiety tips its hand

Occasional situations like these are where anxiety reveals itself as a fraud.

Because it makes no sense that my anxiety should trouble me as much over this minor issue as it did over the relatively major one.

I mean, the party itself was not that big a deal either, but it obviously ranks far higher than running a couple of errands on the way to school.

What this suggests to me (and I’ve seen it a couple of times before) is that anxiety is a major con.

It’s a joke. It’s BS. It’s deeply suspicious.

It’s like a security system that can’t tell the difference between a home invasion and a stray cat crossing the front lawn, but still purports to protect you from danger.

What are you focusing on?

The underlying mechanism is still mysterious.

I think my focus in life is profoundly negative; such that instead of feeling better when stressors are overcome, I just feel temporarily less bad.

The way my anxiety behaves also implies that on some level I’m looking for things to feel anxious about, as if I’m getting some kind of reward from feeling anxious.

It’s even possible that anxiety itself is the reward. As weird as that sounds, it is a kind of excitement physiologically and mentally.

People like scary movies and scary rides; we enjoy thrilling games and stories; it’s plausible that anxiety itself is enjoyable.

It could also be familiar, or it could be a kind of “lesser evil” that promises to help ward off even worse experiences.

  • Being anxious about the party could be seen as a way of avoiding embarrassing oversights or poor planning.
  • Being anxious about running errands before school could be a way of avoiding being late.

It’s likely a combination of factors though, because in the many years of living with anxiety, no single answer has resolved it for long.

A positive alternative

I think what I’m missing is a positive alternative to anxiety – something to focus on and achieve that is more substantial than the mere absence of feeling anxious.

Taking a cue from “positive thinking”, one thing I did for the party was to give myself positive cues like “I wonder how much I’ll enjoy it?” “I wonder how many nice, funny, or enjoyable things will happen?” and “I wonder how much my son and his friends will enjoy the food and the games?”

I suspect there’s a global or baseline equivalent of those positive thoughts that applies to my overall focus in life.

In other words, just as I can shift my focus to positive cues on any given subject, I can probably shift my overall focus toward feeling good as a positive alternative to feeling anxious.

What might that look (and feel) like?

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.

Practicing (un)Happiness

Working on improving my mood these past months has had some results, but in typical melancholic fashion I’ve resisted doing it systematically because I can’t ‘see’ the whole system clearly yet.

Nonetheless I’ve gotten to a point where I can slightly shift what I call my ‘baseline’ mood. My baseline mood is how I feel about life generally when I’m not focusing on any particular topic.

If I pay attention, I can imagine life being “perfect” exactly as it is right now, and how that would feel. Previously my baseline mood has been dominated by a sense that things are far from perfect, that there are many many aspects of my life that need to change before I can be happy.

But this is the kind of conditional happiness that can never be fulfilled. It’s systemic unhappiness, and I’m beginning to see that my automatic behaviour in everyday life keeps the dissatisfaction alive.

If you feel bad, you will more easily find things to focus on that perpetuate bad feelings.

If you feel good, you will more easily find things that perpetuate good feelings; but for now “feeling good” is the exception rather than the rule.

Expecting bad things to happen

Because I’ve been working on feeling that life is “perfect and getting better”, I’ve been more and more aware of the daily habits of thought and attention that contradict this feeling.

This is a good sign, because it means I’m no longer accepting these thoughts so easily. It’s as if I’ve been going along with a current, and now I’m turning in a different direction.

My baseline mood has previously been influenced by the expectation of bad things happening. Not terrible, awful, objectively bad events; more like repeated irritations, nuisances, and unthinking insults from a world that is essentially unsympathetic.

It’s the kind of feeling you might have if your home had been built and designed without any consideration for human habitation or comfort, and when you went to complain you were told “What did you expect?”

It’s the kind of feeling you might have if you went on to discover that this is just how homes are built…that it’s cheaper and easier and more convenient to build them like this, and everyone else accepts it.

They might have doors that don’t shut, windows that don’t open, uneven floors, kitchen benches too low, shower too small, and a thousand other gratuitous insults to basic use, but what did you expect? You would be a fool to expect any better.

That perspective doesn’t feel very good. The implication is that you don’t matter, that no one cares, and that your complaints are entirely invalid.

This is just the way it is, that’s all. Resisting, complaining, or wanting it to be different is a waste of energy at best and a moral failing at worst. Or so you think.

Do I need to add that this makes for a depressing experience of life?

Expecting good things to happen

Lot’s of people try positive thinking, imagining that if they repeat the right words or try to fake feeling good they’ll magically transform their life.

But if you consider my negative worldview as sketched above, you can see that it’s not just about good things or bad things occurring. It’s more about the deeper orientation of reality toward us.

If you think reality has a persistently corrosive effect on your experience then it doesn’t really matter what isolated “good things” happen to you.

“Positive thinking” is not some new power to be wielded against a callous universe; it’s more a realisation of the thoughts and feelings that make the universe seem callous – or compassionate – in the first place.

In every religious system reality itself is oriented toward the good, toward happiness, toward life. Evil, sin, suffering and death are metaphysically subordinate to good, happiness, life – and existence itself.

The idea that existence or reality itself is callous and unfeeling is not true, and the ensuing expectation that bad things will happen is likewise false.

This belief and expectation is instead  a form of resistance or delusion, and it is kept alive in our own minds with repeated efforts and re-iterations.

If we forgot to keep looking for bad things or disappointments, this belief and expectation would grow weak.

But instead we practice it more assiduously than anything in life, continually reasserting that the universe itself insists on your being unhappy.

You can try it for yourself: start looking for good things to appreciate in your life, and see how quickly your thoughts turn to problems, mistakes, fears, and failings.

Some people find it easy to practice correcting themselves at this level. For me – maybe for melancholics generally – it feels better to identify the underlying worldview and look to correcting that, before seeking to change the ensuing habits of thought.

Here my background in religious and spiritual systems helps a lot, because I already know intellectually that existence is fundamentally good. My negative belief can’t reconcile itself with my deeper knowledge…the negative can only persist because I tend not to give it my full attention.

How to unlearn conditional happiness

I recently told a friend struggling with feeling appreciated that:

No one can appreciate you more than you appreciate yourself.

But I think there’s probably a better way to explain it, albeit a less pithy one.

What I was trying to say to my friend was that it doesn’t matter how hard he tries to get others to appreciate him. His sense of appreciation is limited by how much he appreciates himself.

If you are unwilling to appreciate yourself, respect yourself, love yourself, value yourself, then no amount of seeking those affirmations from others will succeed.

I know this is a bit of a cliche, but it’s no platitude.

We have the capacity at any time to regard ourselves more positively, but instead we defer this positive self-regard, setting conditions for ourselves to attain it.

Most theories suggest that we have a natural approval for ourselves as children, but are conditioned to lose it as we grow up.

As we attach to our parents or carers, we learn how to relate to ourselves from how they relate to us.

A self-absorbed, unavailable parent who can’t put aside their own frustrations to show love and comfort to their child teaches the child to apply the same conditions within themselves.

“I can’t show you love and affection because you spilled your milk, or because you won’t listen to me, or because I have more important things on my mind”

So the child learns that love and affection are conditional…they are only forthcoming when the conditions are just right.

The parent has the capacity to let go of their concerns and give the child the love and affection he or she needs. But they choose not to, albeit under the influence of their own weighty internal conditions.

Likewise, we ourselves have the capacity to let go of our concerns and conditions and give ourselves the love, affection, respect, appreciation, and other qualities we desire.

Have you ever looked at a happy, well-adjusted person and wondered “How dare they?” How do they let themselves off so easily? How do they treat themselves so well when they haven’t done anything to merit it…at least not by our harsh standards.

Or perhaps you assume they must have done something to earn it. They must be special or different, or perhaps you are the one who is different in some deficient way?

But the truth is that the capacity is there in all of us, to love ourselves, treat ourselves well, with respect and kindness and…whatever is required to feel happiness and joy in our lives.

That’s what we most desire from others. But it’s a paradox: the only way to get what we want from others is to accept it first in ourselves.

Otherwise we will sabotage our own efforts – either by trying too hard and too desperately, or by picking the wrong people, or the wrong timing, or going about things in completely the wrong way.

You may not walk around thinking it consciously, but implicit in your desire for others’ love and approval is the recognition that then you will be able to feel good in yourself.

And that’s what creates the paradox. You refuse to feel good now because you believe you’re not good enough or deserving enough. You haven’t met the conditions you internalised while growing up.

Then you meet someone and you think “if this person loves me, or appreciates me, or approves of me, that will mean I’m good enough now!”

So the other person becomes the condition of your own self-approval. It doesn’t really work though, because self-approval is intrinsically unconditional. External factors are irrelevant.

When your parents or carers mistreated you, their excuses were irrelevant too. It’s because they were irrelevant that they cannot be resolved, and if you’re lucky, you will have observed these never-ending patterns of behaviour in people’s lives.

You can start to witness that people who find excuses for mistreating you go on to find more and more excuses. People who love to complain have a knack for finding things to complain about. People who live in misery carefully avoid things that might draw them out into happiness.

And if you can see it in others you can probably see it in yourself too, the artful way you flirt with calamity or keep yourself in a state of anxiety. It’s immersive and it feels “real”, but every now and then you can see the genuine multiplicity of options that surround you, the unfathomable range of directions your life could go, and how suspicious it is that you nonetheless keep it firmly on a single track.

That doesn’t mean you’re doing it “wrong”, it just means you can change when you’re ready, when you want to.

The best part of that change is to realise you can give yourself, enjoy for yourself, the wonderful positive feelings that you thought had to wait until conditions were met.

“If you want to make God laugh…”

I really hate the saying “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”.

Maybe it’s a melancholic thing, but like the idea that “God is testing you”, I feel it places thoroughly unlikable anthropomorphic qualities on what is, for me, sacred.

“God is laughing at you while you’re doing your best” is how I take it. And by implication, the person who kindly shares this nugget of wisdom is taking some vicarious pleasure in God’s wry view of your struggles.

And as for “God is testing you”, try: “God isn’t sure about you, so he’s giving you an arbitrary kick in the guts just to see how you take it.”

Nope.

Some people might get a kick out of that (I’m told some Cholerics love to feel they’re rising to a challenge) but for a melancholic, arbitrary changes in the game do not go down so well.

If God is testing me, then he’s always testing me. If God is blessing me, then he’s always blessing me.

For some people the path is straight and narrow, and for others the burden has to be light and the way easy.

But that’s not really what this post is about. Plans, yes. Theology, no.

We’ll leave that topic with the observation that the original Yiddish is more succinct, and more importantly it rhymes:

Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht

Which apparently means “man thinks, God laughs”.

Why does God laugh? Better to ask why we need to be told that God laughs.

We need to be told, because we often find that our plans go awry, and our thoughts betray us.

Since I’m working on “positive thinking” at the moment, I thought I’d take a closer look at the relationship between desires and conditions, and how the former makes us feel good, while the latter makes us feel bad.

Desires make you feel good, conditions make you feel bad.

I’ve been following a forum where people are discussing positive thinking material, and what often happens is that people join up with a desire that they want fulfilled, something they describe as a deep yearning and source of joy, yet at the same time an obvious source of misery.

What’s going on in these people (and in most of us) is that they’ve identified something they want, desire, or prefer, and this naturally makes them feel good at the thought of it.

But we tend not to stop there. We tend to include in that desire or preference other conditions. We set conditions in part because we think “this is how the world works”, but moreso because the conditions tend to deflate and diminish our desire until it matches how we already feel.

For example, if I’m miserable living in a small house, I’d understandably have a corresponding positive desire for a bigger house to live in.

This desire is a good thing, and it should be a source of inspiration, hopefulness, and enjoyment. I can feel good thinking about a bigger house even though my house is still small.

However, since I’m already feeling miserable in my small house, this implies I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on things that make me feel bad.

Maybe I spend ten or so minutes each day shaking my head in frustration at lack of space, or thinking in disappointment of all the things I can’t do due to space constraints.

It’s not easy to practice feeling frustrated and disappointed, and then practice feeling inspiration, hope and enjoyment.

That’s why I’ll most likely view my desire for a bigger house through the lens of my negative thoughts and feelings about my current circumstances.

Instead of feeling good about the thing I desire – a bigger house – I’ll find a way to feel bad about it. I’ll turn it into “the bigger house I can’t afford”, or “the bigger house I need right now” or “the bigger house in the right suburb”.

It might seem like I’m being realistic in my desires, or more specific, but in fact I’m adding conditions to what I desire in order to make me feel worse about it; in order to resist it.

Thinking about a bigger house feels good, because it is a naturally arising desire or preference brought about in response to my present situation.

Thinking about the associated conditions feels bad, and is in fact totally unnecessary.

How to separate desires from conditions

The way to separate desires or preferences from the conditions we impose on them is to work out what you really want and why you want it.

It’s amazing how far we can delude ourselves about what we really want.

According to the positive thinking material, we only ever want anything because we think it will make us feel better. So as a reductionist answer we could say that all we really want is to feel better, and if setting conditions makes us feel worse, we should stop doing that.

But we can also use this “feeling better” idea to understand what aspects of our desired outcomes are real, and what aspects are false conditions we’ve imposed.

So for example, what is it about a bigger house that will make me feel better?

Is it really just about space?

Unlikely, because even in our very small house we haven’t made efficient use of the available space!

In fact there are a number of little themes tied in to it.

Feelings of ease, of being settled, of having “made it”, of having something to show for oneself, of being more hospitable, of being able to explore various skills and hobbies, of having more beautiful surroundings to relax in, of being able to build fun things…

So the actual desire is not as straightforward as it seemed. It seems that only a fraction of it is about a house per se, and much more of it is about how I see myself or how others might see me.

Why your current situation is ‘perfect’

Ironically, the desire for a house turned out to be partly a genuine desire, and partly a condition set for other, unrelated, desires.

For example, I might want to be more hospitable, but being a disorganised person living in a small house means I’ll either have to do a lot of tidying every time people come over, or learn not to care about having a messy house.

More directly, is there really any reason I can’t feel “settled” now, regardless of the size of our house? Why does “settled” mean “unmoving”? Plenty of people move house numerous times in their lives and it never stops them feeling “settled”.

The same goes for feeling at ease, feeling like I’ve “made it” (what does that even mean to me?), and feeling like I have something to show for myself.

The truth is that these are things you can feel already. They’re actually not related to objective outcomes like home-ownership. They’re subjective, and we decide for ourselves the conditions we put on them.

And the irony is that if you don’t let yourself feel any accomplishment at your minor achievements, you’ll probably never let yourself achieve something “major” by your own estimation.

If you reject here and now subjective feelings of ease, being settled, or feeling comfortable with your own choices and accomplishments, then you will definitely sabotage any attempts to really “earn” those feelings.

Because the feelings can’t be earned. They come easily and naturally for people who aren’t hung up about them…just like the other things that come easily and naturally to you, the things you likely take for granted even though others struggle with them.

The truth is that your current situation is ‘perfect’, because it matches how you feel about yourself already.

The conditions you set upon your desires are ways of stopping you from achieving them…you make your desires “impossible” or “unlikely” or “out of reach” because you’ve already decided that the corresponding good feelings are out of reach for you.

So work out what you really want, and why you want it. Look at how you really want to feel, and see that you can feel most – if not all – of it right now, without regard for the conditions you tried to set for feeling good.