Can you be too positive?

No one has ever accused me of being too positive.

But I’m hoping that will change as I make more progress in my journey from cynicism to optimism happiness.

Last night I swept away some old beliefs that had sat like a deep chasm across my inner landscape.

My prior attempts at being more positive were hitherto hemmed in by that old negativity — I was convinced of a threatening malice in my world, and of my own powerlessness to defend against it.

Now that it is gone – now that I’ve ceased to keep it alive – the relationship between my thoughts and my feelings and subsequent experience of life is clearer than ever before.

It is obvious now that I should focus on finding thoughts that feel good, rather than struggling to control or manipulate external circumstances – since the existence (and my interpretation) of those circumstances hinges on the quality and direction of my thoughts.

So how do we change our thoughts?

The mechanism is obscure, but we do it all the time. We constantly reach for, and accept, thoughts about everything, but we rarely exercise our ability to hold back and be selective about the thoughts we accept.

Reflexivity: thinking about thinking

Today the weather is hot, and the first thought that comes to mind is that the heat is unpleasant.

But I don’t have to stay with the first thought that comes to mind. I can choose one that feels better: it’ll be over soon. The sun is so beautiful. It’s great beach weather. I love how variable the weather is here. I’m so glad we don’t have terrible heat-waves anymore. I love how bright it is outside!

You can tell for yourself which thoughts feel better, and how much better they feel.

If you choose a thought that feels better instead of one that feels worse, you have successfully changed your thoughts and hence your feelings, and hence your reality.

So far so simple.

But what might happen in the midst of choosing a new thought is that you find yourself thinking about this process itself.

You might think: this is stupid, you can’t change anything just by thinking about it.

Or: this is hard work, I don’t want to have to do this all the time.

What’s happened is that choosing a more positive thought has brought out of hiding higher-order thoughts or beliefs.

And it turns out that these higher-order thoughts or beliefs also determine how you feel, and hence your reality.

So try as you might to feel better about the weather by changing your thoughts, if you have higher-order thoughts that say positive-thinking is a load of wishful thinking and self-delusion, you will continue to feel bad and nothing much will change.

The good news is that you can change your thoughts about positive-thinking itself just as easily as you can change your thoughts about the weather.

So can you be too positive?

Hence the title of this post: the idea that you can be too positive, or that being positive is a superficial attempt to delude oneself, these are themselves beliefs or thoughts that determine how you feel, and hence your reality.

There is no such thing as “too positive”, because the thought of being “too positive” is not a positive thought.

If you think there is such a thing as “too positive”, you are, by definition, being too negative.

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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?

 

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.

Fear of getting it wrong

I’m continuing to clarify my understanding of the process.

So to start with, let’s assume you’re unhappy with aspects of your life. Initially you think you are unhappy (feeling) because of these unwanted aspects of your experience (reality). This itself is a thought.

Then you encounter some positive-thinking material, which claims that in fact you’re misunderstanding cause and effect. The material claims that it is the direction of your focus that is causing you to have particular thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

“Direction of your focus” is admittedly vague, because it’s describing something that is prior to thought, feeling, and experience, and is (I suspect) something that does not of itself have recognisable qualities or attributes apart from its effects.

It’s a little like consciousness. You know you are conscious because of the objects and experiences that you are conscious of. The eye cannot see itself, the knife cannot cut itself.

The material I’m using (Esther Hicks/’Abraham’) suggests that we can and should assess our point of focus on the basis of the ensuing feelings. In other words, if our aim is to feel better, then we should focus on thoughts (or the energy prior to thought) that causes us to feel better.

I’ve outlined elsewhere why I think this is a reasonable thing to do, even to the extent of downplaying the “realism” of our thoughts in favour of how good we feel.

The problem is that we tend not to focus in a way that feels good. Even when we read this material and agree with it, we still find ourselves feeling bad, focusing on things that make us feel bad, and then all too often feeling worse because we’ve “failed”.

The emotional quality of thoughts

Our thoughts aren’t merely descriptive, they are also emotionally salient.

Two people might think “life is a struggle”, but one feels bad about the thought while the other feels excited and motivated.

Likewise, I can think “my feelings are my own fault/responsibility” and feel demoralised by it, or feel empowered by it.

So although “false” beliefs can have negative effects, so can “true” ones. Cynical and depressed people can easily wedge themselves between seemingly unassailable truths about the world, and the path out of that cul-de-sac might look like self-deception or delusion.

Sometimes these issues arise in philosophy…like if a coach tells an athlete “you can do it!” when he thinks they can’t do it, but suspects that the encouragement will motivate the athlete to perform better…this kind of scenario isn’t really captured in a simple binary of true/false.

A question of focus

Going back to the process in question:

The suggestion is that we’re mistaken about cause and effect. The suggestion is that our point of focus determines the thoughts we have, their emotional quality (our feelings) and our subsequent reality.

Personally, I’ve always approached religious/spiritual systems through the lens of “what am I doing wrong?” Yet ironically the implication is that this negative focus keeps me stuck exactly where I have been stuck, on the impression that I must be doing something wrong, with the corresponding effects of this negative focus.

Typically the teachers of this material advise that it’s not necessary to fully understand how these things work, but in my case I’m inspired by the thought of understanding the mechanisms at play.

That said, the same principles apply to my attempts to understand it: focus on the negative, on how little I understand and the sense of struggle….or focus on how much I’ve already understood, how enjoyable it is to work it out and put it into practice, and how exciting it is to still have puzzles to solve.

You can’t get it wrong

Which brings me to the principle or observation that “you can’t get it wrong”, which is especially pertinent to me given my focus on “the problem” and “what am I doing wrong?”

You can’t get it wrong, because cause and effect is driven by your focus. You get to choose what you focus on, so if you are experiencing struggle and strife, that is entirely the product of your focus. You’re getting exactly what you’re focusing on.

That doesn’t sound very comforting to me, and likely not to you either. But there’s a little more to it.

Struggle and strife and other forms of negative experience build within you a more powerful desire for the opposite. So even if you continue to focus negatively, you aren’t “failing” or “losing”, you’re experiencing a stark contrast that adds to a proportionately powerful desire for something much better.

In a metaphysical context where true harm is impossible, there’s not anything to be afraid of ultimately.

There’s not a single spiritual system worth its salt that invokes fear as an ultimate motivator or death or evil as a metaphysically powerful entity. Existence itself is divine, so what are we afraid of?

Of course “getting it wrong” might be a particular sore point for me and not for you. Different experiences produce different desires, but there will be an analog in there somewhere. Maybe it’s “losing control” or “failing” or “being useless”.

Redefining the problem

If we go back to the start and refrain “let’s assume you’re unhappy with aspects of your life”, we’re now in a slightly better position to see that there’s nothing wrong with that.

Nothing wrong with being unhappy?

That sounds paradoxical, and maybe it is. Maybe the paradox will resolve itself such that you’re no longer unhappy because you’re now realising that everything is perfect and there’s no failure here.

Or maybe you’ll “forget” the paradox and go back to being unhappy in your focus for a while longer.

You might even decide “yes! I have to resolve the paradox!” and throw yourself into a state of unsatisfying struggle.

Ultimately, the direction is positive. Whether you’re going negative and building up your desire for something more, or you’ve had enough already and are changing direction, the ultimate end is a positive one.

God, happiness, participation and transcendence

Transcendence and participation.

Those are two modes by which the divine is described relative to the world, everyday life, our ordinary reality.

Transcendence means that the divine is totally distinct, separate, and apart from reality.

For me this corresponds to the sense that there is nothing in life that approaches the meaning and significance of the divine. Not even close.

Participation means that although God transcends the world, the things of this world still participate in his being and his perfection to varying degrees.

There are different ways of defining participation, but for me this corresponds to the sense that emotions like love and joy are closer to God than emotions like fear and anger.

God may be transcendent, but things are still either closer to, or further away from him.

This is significant because people who grow up with a strong sense of the divine may, like melancholic idealists, end up disparaging the world as falling short of the divine in every possible way.

The world doesn’t have enough meaning, joy, purpose or love in it.

And our sense of divine transcendence keeps us locked in this perspective, because the gap between it and our everyday reality seems just too great.

Can we close the gap?

I believe we can. This is implied in the statement “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you”.

It doesn’t negate or diminish the things of this world, but puts them in their rightful place.

My recent discoveries of the relationship between thoughts and emotions and my experience of reality show that the melancholic despair of finding meaning in this world is particular and individual.

The divine is not alienated from everyday life, nor is it withheld in isolation from our daily experiences, our emotions and our thoughts.

We participate in the divine not only in prayer or meditation but also in our thoughts throughout the day, the thoughts that shape how we feel, how we perceive, and what we experience.

The strictly transcendent view of the divine is very much “hiding a lamp under a bushel”, or putting new wine into an old wine skin.

But sorrow and misery – or rather the thoughts that create those feelings – are unlikely to dissipate just because we spend time thinking about a transcendent God.

Those thoughts need to extend to the aspects of life where we suffer or mourn or are frustrated, bored, angry, weary and need rest.

Happiness and the motivation to change

I’ve been thinking a lot about the principle of reflection I’ve observed in my life lately.

The basic idea is that my experience of reality reflects my own deeper beliefs about reality.

For example, if I really believe that life is an endless struggle, then I will find that my experience reflects endless struggle.

Applying the principle in reverse: if my experience of life is an endless struggle, then on some level I must believe that this is how life is or should be.

In order for life to feel like a struggle, we have to want things that are unattainable, or alternatively we have to sabotage the attainable things we desire.

To be more precise, we have to feel like we want certain things, only to find that these things are unattainable either intrinsically or through self-sabotage.

For example, I used to think I wanted to lose weight. That’s fine if we define ‘want’ as a feeling. But if we define want as a motivational state – a state of mind that moves you to action – then it wasn’t true that I wanted to lose weight.

Paradoxically, when I accepted that I didn’t really want to lose weight, the sudden shock motivated me to do something about it.

By extension, I might think I want life to be easy, free, secure, prosperous, and satisfying. But if life instead feels difficult, miserable, hopeless, and full of struggle, then I need to question this apparent ‘want’.

If I wanted life to be easy and free and so on, then I would act towards those goals. I would at the very least have a plan and a course of action with definable progress along the way.

If I don’t have those things, then in what sense do I really want to be free, happy, and fulfilled?

To get a little more personal: I always had a vague goal of wanting ‘answers’ to life. But if I really wanted answers, shouldn’t I at least be clear-minded about the questions?

When I grappled with the issue of weight loss, it turned out to be quite complicated and full of self-delusion and conflicting desires. At face value I wanted to lose weight, but beneath the surface I was quite complacent about it and not really motivated to change my behaviour.

So it’s not immediately clear what I want from life either. I can only really say at this point that the most obvious answers are probably not correct.

I’ve distilled this down to a useful heuristic: when you find yourself stuck in persistent negative situations, consider the possibility that you are exactly where you want to be.

This might seem absurd, but what we don’t realise is that our psyches are complicated. There are layers of belief and motivation inside us.

For example, I might want to be a successful writer, and do my best to achieve that goal. But years earlier, perhaps when I was a teenager or a child, I decided that it was best to stay on the sidelines and avoid the limelight.

I never challenged or changed that belief, I just went on living and adding new layers as I went. So now as an adult my desire for success in various aspects of life is implicitly curtailed by my pre-existing and still operational desire to avoid the limelight and live life on the sidelines.

The end result is struggle and disappointment, but even so the struggle and disappointment must be part of the picture. On some level I’m comfortable with struggle and disappointment, because they concord with my beliefs about life.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

I don’t think there’s a single, simple answer to it either. Or maybe I just don’t want there to be a simple answer.

But at the very least it’s good to recognise that your unfulfilled desire for success may be the outcome you want deep down after all.

If you merely wanted to be successful, you would surely gravitate foremost to things you could easily succeed at. You would be mindful of your past successes. You would live and breath success, and avoid any enterprise where success seemed tenuous or uncertain. You might still suffer setbacks and failures, but you wouldn’t cling to them.

The weight-loss example is brilliant: all you have to do in order to lose weight is eat dramatically less. But we don’t do that, because we don’t really want to lose weight, or because our motivation to lose weight is far weaker than our motivation to lose ourselves in the pleasure of food.

It seems obvious with weight loss because moment-by-moment we are either eating or not eating, and it’s totally in our control.

But the same is true in other aspects of life – in our thoughts and feelings we are either oriented toward or away from our goal. It may be more subtle than putting food in your mouth, but I don’t think it’s necessarily less effective.

It’s terrifying and confronting to recognise that your supposed wants and desires are only a facade. But terror and confrontation are great sources of motivation! That’s why the weight-loss book I wrote about my experience is not for everyone. It ended up being very confronting.

Sometimes we need to be confronted with the truth of our situation. If you spend your life failing at finding happiness, then it’s worth considering if you really want happiness in the first place. Many of us would have no idea what to do with ourselves if we were happy. We’d quickly find a problem or a crisis or a new struggle to drag us back into our more comfortable misery.

It sounds paradoxical, but the strong feeling I have of wanting my life to change is only a feeling. The proof is that I haven’t done anything differently, despite my apparent frustration and unhappiness.

If we define ‘want’ as a motivational state – a state of mind that results in action – then clearly I do not want life to change. As I note in the end of my weight-loss book, the thought “I want life to change” or “I want to lose weight” is really a form of self-delusion designed to distract us from what’s really going on in our minds.

Because if you admit to yourself that you don’t want life to change, that you want life to continue as it has been, the obvious question is “Why?” Why would you want life to continue in a way that you obviously don’t enjoy?

Looking at it this way forces you to own your role in making life the way it is by performing the same kinds of actions over and over with the same motives, beliefs, and feelings. Hopefully it raises in you a genuine motivation to understand, a curiosity as to why you are perpetuating a way of life that you don’t enjoy, to such an extent that you even delude yourself with thoughts of change.

Before I lost weight I thought the benefits would all be aesthetic. I was surprised to find that the greatest changes were in my relationship with food, and my overall sense of well-being.

I could not have predicted what being thin would be like. In that sense I really didn’t know what losing weight meant until I accomplished it. It’s no wonder I couldn’t really ‘want’ it in the first place.

What helped me in the end was knowing that my relationship with food was dysfunctional and seeking to ‘work it out’. That might be a more constructive approach generally: recognise that things aren’t right and try to understand where they’re going wrong.

 

 

 

 

The knight of faith against the absurd

There’s an amazing analogy in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling about what he calls the knight of faith. This is the summary from wikipedia:

Kierkegaard’s Silentio contrasts the knight of faith with the other two, knight of infinite resignation (infinity) and the aesthetic realm’s “slaves.”

Kierkegaard uses the story of a princess and a man who is madly in love with her, but circumstances are that the man will never be able to realize this love in this world. A person who is in the aesthetic stage would abandon this love, crying out for example, “Such a love is foolishness. The rich brewer’s widow is a match fully as good and respectable.”

A person who is in the ethical stage would not give up on this love, but would be resigned to the fact that they will never be together in this world. The knight of infinity may or may not believe that they may be together in another life or in spirit, but what’s important is that the knight of infinity gives up on their being together in this world; in this life.

The knight of faith feels what the knight of infinite resignation feels, but with exception that the knight of faith believes that in this world; in this life, they will be together. The knight of faith would say “I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.” This double movement is paradoxical because on the one hand it is humanly impossible that they would be together, but on the other hand the knight of faith is willing to believe that they will be together through divine possibility.

“But by faith, says that marvellous knight, by faith I shall get her in virtue of the absurd.”

There’s always been this tension in Christianity between faith that can “move mountains” and the ideal of saying to God “thy will be done.”

There’s a tension between Christ saying:

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

And:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

I’ve never seen this tension resolved in an elegant way until Kierkegaard – or how I’m interpreting him.

The usual interpretation I’ve seen is that we’re like kids asking our parents for something: we can ask and ask nicely, and keep our hopes up, but in the end we have to accept whatever our parents decide.

In other words, it diminishes the “whatever you ask for in prayer” side of things so as not to unduly upset the “thy will be done” aspect.

God’s word is final. Maybe your father wouldn’t let you go to the beach with your friends like you wanted, but he’s still your father and you still have to maintain a relationship with him. So acquiesce. Submit.

Faith and the absurd

I think what makes Kierkegaard’s answer different is that the subject of his desire – his love for the princess – is not something chosen or elected. It’s not as though Kierkegaard’s knight of faith is praying for God to help him win the lottery.

Instead, the knight of faith is in love with the princess. It’s a state he finds himself in by God’s will. He didn’t choose it. He didn’t look around and think “a princess…now that would be pretty sweet.”

The knight’s faith is that he and his love will be together in the finite world despite the apparent impossibility of such an outcome.

“I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.”

This faith arises not in tension with “thy will be done” but in complete conformity with it.

Kierkegaard depicts Abraham sacrificing Isaac as the epitome of the knight of faith, because God had promised Abraham his descendants would number like the starts in heaven, He had given Abraham a son despite his wife Sarah being beyond child-bearing years, and then…then He demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son to Him.

Abraham’s faith was complete because it was grounded in God’s promise to him, in God’s own will. God had given him a son, and God then asked him to sacrifice the boy while having promised Abraham descendants numbering like the stars. It was absurd. And the only answer to absurdity was faith.

I think Kierkegaard framed it differently, and to his own tragic suffering (and that of his beloved Regine) he failed to overcome the absurdity of a finite world where self-doubt and persistent melancholy drove him to abandon his princess.

For me the answer is close to Kierkegaard’s knight of faith. When we consider what God has given us in life – the love we bear in a finite world full of apparent obstacles and reasons to fear and doubt – we have a choice.

Is the world absurd? Or do we have faith in God’s promises, in the goodness of his will?

In all aspects of life we can doubt and fear and convince ourselves to accept the circumstances of this finite world as definitive. Like Kierkegaard’s knight of infinite resignation, we carry on our hopes and our loves internally, in a spiritual aspect.

Like the insipid notion that the dead live forever “in our hearts”, or that Christ’s resurrection is a metaphor for how his spirit was “kept alive” by his disciples…

If you have faith in the power that creates and sustains this finite world, then infinite resignation really is absurd.

Either our hope and our love are the will of an all-powerful and loving God, or this world is absurd.

Faith or absurdity. It’s an easy choice, but most of us get lost in objections, complications, doubts and fears, without realising that entertaining these distractions is itself a choice.

I can’t imagine how life will work out. But in faith I know that it shall work out, and work out joyously, because otherwise the entire thing is absurd. And I already know it’s not absurd.

Kierkegaard didn’t make it. I wonder if he got stuck in infinite resignation, putting too much stock in the restrictions and constraints of the finite world, putting too many conditions of his own on God’s will.

But if we’re promised that faith can move mountains, then infinite resignation must cease. We can’t stay resigned to the apparent impossibility of God’s will being fulfilled. Nothing is impossible for God.

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

I’ve never been a faithful person. But circumstances have brought it out of me. I’ve never had anything that forced me to challenge the apparent absurdity of life, but God’s will gave me something at last.

“Nothing will be impossible for you” is not about being powerful or some promise of spiritually-charged landscaping. It’s about knowing the will of God and the rule of love, unfolding and expanding through this finite reality.

Nondualism and working on yourself

The aim of contemporary nondualist teaching is to change the way we interpret our experience of reality.

I remember as a young child returning to school at the start of a new term. The teacher asked us to share with the class what we had done for the holidays.

I still recall the sudden and startling realisation that these children had all gone on with their lives while I was going on with mine. They had continued to exist even when they weren’t part of my experience. While I had been visiting relatives interstate, they each had their own experiences and adventures unfold at the same time.

This realisation represents what Joel Morwood from the Center for Sacred Sciences calls ‘reification’: turning a thought, an impression, or a form into a thing.

In that childhood moment, my friends and classmates went from being aspects of my experience, to becoming nascent things – people in their own right with their own equally subjective inner worlds.

I began to think about how I appeared in their experience, akin no doubt to how they appeared in mine.

This is the path we all take as we develop and grow in life. We form deeper conceptual representations of a reality extrapolated from the rules and regularities of our own experience. I’ve never seen inside another person’s head, but at some point, by induction, it made sense to believe that there is such a thing as the inside of other people’s heads.

This isn’t a bad or false conclusion to reach by any means. The aim of nondualism is not solipsistic, that “I alone exist”.

The problem is that our world-building, our reification of our own experiences and extrapolation into an external reality begins to overshadow the immediacy and character of our actual experience.

We start to imagine ourselves as isolated individuals operating in an objective reality of which we partake imperfectly through our senses and our consciousness.

We develop fears, cravings, anxieties, and doubts as well as hopes and dreams that all depend on what feels like our understanding of objective reality, but is functionally indistinguishable from imagination.

Our experience is dominated by rules, expectations, and doubts that are disconnected from experience itself. Like a child whose personality is shaped by early trauma, we take aspects of early experience and keep them alive as thoughts, beliefs, imagination, until they constrict and distort our present and future experience also.

What nondualism wants us to do is to step back from the reification of elements of our experience, and begin to recognise our conscious experience itself as primary.

It wants us to recognise that most of what we call ‘reality’ exists only as beliefs or imagination derived – often haphazardly – from past experience. We put too much stock in these often emotionally-loaded beliefs and imaginings, when the truth of our experience is far richer and more fulfilling.

The details get a little esoteric, but what motivates nondualism is the realisation that the true character of our experience is one of love and bliss. The relationship between our own consciousness, the forms we experience, and the creative power or God behind it all is described by the various mystics as non-dual. Yet there exists the illusion of duality, and in that illusion suffering and fear and misery all arise.

In my own life I’ve found time and time again that reifying my experience exacerbates all my problems and my struggles. It leaves me thinking and feeling that the causes of my problems are “out there” in the world, rather than in my own heart and mind.

Because on closer examination, it is always in my own heart and mind that resistance, error, fear and mistrust reside. I might see hurt and rejection coming to me from other people, but on reflection I find that any external manifestation of these painful events is preceded by my own internal embrace of hurt and rejection.

It’s as though I approach life expecting to suffer and be disappointed, and in subtle ways this expectation leads me to want things I know I can’t have, or approach people and events with unconscious resistance and defensiveness.

Viewing life first and foremost as my experience, to the extent of my field of consciousness, forces me to take responsibility for the underlying causes and influences within me.

Why do I want hurt and rejection, or disappointment and struggle to be part of my experience? In what way have I internalised and kept these elements of past experience alive into the present? What would I prefer my experience to reflect? Do I truly want love and joy as the foundation of my experience, or am I subtly resisting and rejecting them?

How would I really feel if there was no more hurt and struggle in my life? Would I be content? No, not yet. So why is that?

This is the great work of “untying knots” in our minds and hearts until the true nature of our experience can shine forth uninhibited. If you want to know why there is too much struggle and not enough love in your life, ask yourself. Don’t let rules and principles you’ve extrapolated and imagined keep you from finding the love and joy intrinsic to this experience.

Miracle cures and short-sightedness

I’m in my second day without wearing glasses, because I want to cure my myopia.

If that sounds bizarre, let me explain.

The miracle ‘cure’

I’ve always been both hopeful and skeptical about the prospect of ‘miraculous’ cures for physical illnesses and ailments.

I use the term ‘miraculous’ loosely to refer to cures that do not match our normal expectations for how health and illness work.

So, for example, I can quite honestly say in one sense that I ‘cured’ my autoimmune disease. My honesty makes me put ‘cured’ in quotation marks because I don’t have sufficient evidence to prove that what happened to me amounts to a ‘miraculous’ recovery from that disease.

In practical terms, I no longer have symptoms of that illness, and I have a subjectively meaningful narrative for how those symptoms came to an end as a result of my own actions.

My rheumatologists were quite happy to give me a provisional diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis based on my symptoms and a genetic marker. The only caveat is that if my symptoms stopped, then obviously they would withdraw the diagnosis.

A skeptical contention would be that if I hadn’t done anything to change my outlook on the illness and seek some kind of psychological cure to the physical problem, the symptoms would have disappeared anyway.

It’s impossible to prove in my case, and it’s hard to imagine an appropriately rigorous medical trial to test the theory (hard but not impossible).

So for me it remains a choice. I had to choose to face my illness as a reflection of a deeper psychological or spiritual issue. In so doing, I observed a pattern to the symptoms that matched changes to my mental and emotional state. When I became aware of these changes and adapted them, the symptoms ceased.

A short-sighted approach

So what about eyesight?

I’ve been short-sighted for a long time. I had my eyes tested in about year 5 at school, but I may have suffered from short-sightedness before that.

Wearing glasses has always bothered me. I don’t like being so dependent on a fragile external tool to interact with my environment. So when my glasses frame broke two days ago I decided to take the opportunity to investigate the problems with my vision.

Meditation on illness

Both auto-immune disease and short-sightedness  relate to extraordinarily complex biological systems.

An auto-immune disease is a good candidate for examination because it consists in essence of the body attacking itself without an obvious external cause.

But it turns out that myopia is also somewhat mysterious, with both hereditary and environmental factors at play.

Myopia is a form of refractive error due to the shape of the eye. I have trouble seeing long distances clearly because my eye is longer than it ought to be.

I don’t know about you, but my response to being told “your body’s immune system is attacking your joints” and “your eyeball is too long to focus the light properly”, is a profound and indomitable sense of challenge.

The spiritual approach

For want of a better word, let’s call this a ‘spiritual’ approach to illness. The idea is that our experience of life is not simply the random outcome of external processes. Rather, our experience of reality is mysterious and meaningful.

What this means is that something like suffering an auto-immune disease or having bad vision is not an accident or a random outcome. It has deeper significance. It relates to your life and your own person as if you were a character in a story.

Whether we continue to suffer from the illness, or find reprieve, I think it makes sense to try to see the personal meaning in it.

For me this process of looking for meaning begins with observing how I feel about the illness, the symptoms, and their impact on my life.

It turns out that despite not giving much thought to my short-sightedness for many years, I do carry strong feelings about it.

Going for two days without my glasses has made me realise how much fear and powerlessness I feel when I can’t clearly see what is going on around me.

Driving without my glasses is safe enough – I can see every object in my vicinity – but more than a hundred or so metres away and objects become blurred. People are easy to see but impossible to recognise. They become fuzzy humanoid shapes, obvious but unreadable.

The inability to see what’s coming right to the farthest horizon or the very end of the road is fear-inducing. I can see things but I don’t know what they are.

Then there’s the powerlessness. I can’t look down the aisle of a supermarket and read the signs for the food categories anymore. I have to walk towards things to make out exactly what they are. And as for people – they might as well be dressed in shrouds and wearing masks until they come within about five metres of me.

It’s a profoundly alienating experience.

So there you go. This short-sightedness does have a great deal of meaning for me, a meaning I’ve ignored and neglected by wearing glasses all the time.

I don’t want to wear glasses anymore, and that means I have to start confronting and facing these fears and insecurities.

So what am I saying?

Does that mean if I confront my fears and anxieties my eyes will magically change and I’ll be able to see without glasses?

Well, what I discovered when I tried to heal my auto-immune disease was that I had to accept the truth about the disease first. The truth was that my disease was just a reflection of my own psychological and spiritual state.

I know how challenging that sounds, because I resisted accepting it for a long time. I didn’t like the idea that progress would depend on choosing to believe something. If the evidence could convince me, I was ready to believe it. But to just believe, without evidence? That sounded pathetic and weak.

Yet there was evidence. Not evidence that could convince me this was the truth, but evidence that I could make no progress, do nothing more, until I had accepted this basic premise.

To put it bluntly, if my disease really was just some random or genetically determined biological quirk, then I was ******.

If my symptoms weren’t a reflection of my deeper psychological and spiritual state, then there was nothing I could do about it. But if they were a reflection, then nothing was set in stone.

In the end that was the choice: the choice to try to give up or try to find answers.

And if there’s one thing I know from my studies and reading in philosophy and mysticism, it’s that our claims to absolute knowledge of external reality are as much a choice as any.

We choose to believe the world is real, not because we have seen convincing evidence that it is real, but because we have seen evidence that to choose otherwise gives us nothing in return.

If I choose to believe the world is a figment of my imagination, there is nothing anyone can say or do to prove me wrong. But there is plenty that can be said and done to prove that a real world is a much better thing to believe in than a deluded imaginary one.

Your beliefs do shape your experience

Every experience tells a story. Every experience has something to teach you.

I’ve been turning these ideas over in my mind lately, and in the past day or two it’s become even more important to me.

An example I like to use is when my wife and a good friend were having a conversation and I suddenly felt left out and ignored. I waited, but they continued to ignore me, both in the conversation and in terms of their body language.

I ended up feeling put out by this, and later I brought it up with my wife and my friend separately.

My friend said “if you felt left out, why didn’t you join in?”

and my wife said “actually I was waiting for you to join in the conversation but you didn’t for some reason.”

So why hadn’t I just joined in?

The truth (though I had to search for it) was that I was too afraid to jump into the conversation in case they didn’t want me to be a part of it. I had read distance in their body language, and that made me anticipate a risk of failure if I came close and tried to take part.

But the irony is that I was already standing back from them from the moment the three of us met. My own body language was retreating from the engagement, leaving a vacuum that they filled with their own conversation.

The weren’t distancing themselves from me, they were responding to my own distance, which I had failed to acknowledge in myself.

How many times do we create the circumstances we fear?

Time and time again I’ve noticed in hindsight that I had produced, or imagined, the challenges and obstacles that shape my life for the worst. I have unwittingly created the very incidents and experiences that reinforce my pessimism, my hostility, my self-pity, and most of the time I haven’t even stopped to question the beliefs and assumptions behind those experiences.

In all aspects of life, my experiences are a reflection of my own beliefs about reality and about the way the world works.

My sense of what is possible and what is impossible. My sense of what is proper and improper. My attempts to ‘read’ other people’s attitudes to me….The truth is that we don’t know what is possible and impossible, and from that point every other assumption is thrown into doubt as well.

Every experience I have is reflecting something about my beliefs and my expectations within that context.

For instance, right now I’m brewing a beer. Brewing takes about four hours, and though it’s very much a worthwhile process, for me the experience feels like work. It’s a chore, and I fully expect to be tired and worn out by the end of it.

But why?

If I examine it more closely, there’s no reason I can’t relax and take it easy while still brewing. It’s not physically or mentally demanding, so long as you’re organised.

If you set a timer, you can forget about it until the timer reminds you. You don’t have to keep watching the clock.

You can worry about whether you’re doing the process correctly, but if you’ve already researched it then further worry is just a choice.

What is this experience telling me? It’s telling me that I view work as something burdensome and incompatible with a happy and relaxed frame of mind. Work is not enjoyable. Work is hard, monotonous, dull, and stressful.

There are aspects of brewing beer that are intrinsic to the process, but countless components of my personal brewing experience are entirely dependent on my choices, which are in turn dependent on my beliefs about life and reality.

Every instance, every experience is like this. I can’t fault or blame the experience or reality for being the way that it is. Or if I do, I am once again creating a situation that reflects my beliefs and expectations. If I want to feel helpless, then I need only believe that I am.

If I want to feel that life is difficult and challenging and ultimately disappointing, if I want to believe that all good things must fail, then I need only act accordingly.

You’d be amazed at how efficiently and unfailingly an individual can sabotage their own life so as to feel the disappointment and suffering they expect to find.

But what’s the alternative?

Well, I firmly believe (and so increasingly experience) that if we become aware of our own stake in these conflicts, our own role in creating them, we will gradually cease to create them this way.

When something good in your life looks like it’s coming to an end, must it really be so? Isn’t it reflecting back to you your own deepest expectations and beliefs about life?

I guarantee that if you look at it this way, if you ask yourself why you haven’t done things differently, why you accept the limitations, or why you feel powerless to change, you will arrive not at absolute obstacles but at your own self-imposed limits. You’ll discover that you’ve ruled out any alternative answers already, and so you’re not willing to try anything different.

Ignorance blinds us.

I didn’t know that I had distanced myself from my wife and my friend long before I felt excluded. Once I knew that I had done that, I could choose not to do it.

Maybe your mind works differently, but for me this is always the case.

I didn’t realise I had already decided that brewing must be onerous and time-consuming and must monopolise my attention for four hours. It doesn’t have to. There are steps where I have to pay attention, but there are also periods where I can ignore it. Likewise, if the time commitment really bothers me, I could buy equipment that would make heating and cooling much faster, or automate parts of the process. But that would touch on a whole slew of complicated beliefs about money!

The moral of the story is that our experiences are shaped far more than we realise by our own beliefs and expectations. Accordingly, our experiences can teach us a great deal about those beliefs and expectations.

We worry about external things, but our understanding of those external things – even our experience of them – is profoundly mediated by our beliefs and expectations.

We think we know how people will act and react to us. And so long as we act and react in the same old ways, we’re probably right. But the moment we change, everything changes.