How to “positive”

If you’ve been following recent posts: the premise of “positive thinking” material is that our feelings and experience of reality reflect or mirror the quality of our thoughts.

If our thoughts are more positive then we feel better, and our reality changes accordingly.

The conventional view of life is the opposite: reality happens first and our thoughts and feelings react to this reality.

It’s not just a different sequence, it’s also much messier.

So for the sake of a cleaner and more meaningful view of life (not to mention happier), we can observe it from the standpoint of thoughts->feelings->reality.

Change your thoughts and you change your world.

But how? And why? And also what?

What is positive?

Looking closer at the positive thinking material, we might need to adjust our schema a little.

Because it turns out that our thoughts are also a reflection, in the same stream of causation as our subsequent feelings and reality.

You don’t control your thoughts directly, rather you receive them as a by-product of your focus or attention.

That’s why you can change the verbal content of your thoughts, yet still feel the same way about them and experience the same reality subsequently.

“I feel happy” can be just empty words.

There’s a potential disconnect between the verbal or sensory content of a thought and the… the… the what?

This is where things get slightly tricky.

Prior to our thoughts it’s very indistinct as to what is happening. It’s a non-physical realm and there’s nothing sensory or even conceptual to grab hold of.

So people who talk about this stuff are left trying to stick a label on it, a label that will never be entirely appropriate.

Positive thinking material tends to use words like “energy” and “vibration”. These are metaphoric labels drawn from a folk-level understanding of contemporary physics.

Traditional religion tended to use words like “spirit”, which is another metaphor drawn from a folk-level understanding of metaphysics and biology.

In either case, the label is used to designate an invisible something that exists prior to thought, and from which thoughts, feelings, and external reality come forth.

So we could say “Lord, send out your spirit, and renew the face of the Earth” with the old psalms.

But for many people these words have negative associations and are loaded with misunderstandings, social and familial baggage.

If you study theology you find out that words like “Lord” are also metaphors. Labels like “God” are attempts to designate something that transcends our language. Indeed, there are whole branches of theology and philosophy that discuss these issues.

Yet the pattern is there. It is a call for God to “renew the face of the Earth” through his spirit. It’s a call for one intangible thing to use another intangible thing to change reality for the better.

Terms like “energy” and “vibration” have their own baggage, but much much less than the traditional terms (for now).

You can find people explaining that what we call “God” is in fact “pure positive energy” or “the highest vibration”. We are (somehow) extensions of this energy. Yet we have the capacity to choose where to put our attention.

So within us is this pure positive energy, yet most of us spend our lives focusing on things that are less positive, or of a “lower vibration”.

Our thoughts, feelings, and reality are a reflection of this point of focus, and its positivity relative to the pure positive energy in us.

That might sound terrifyingly “New Age”, though technically I think it’s “New Thought”.

But the underlying pattern is basically the same as saying that the Holy Spirit now dwells within you, or that it is Christ who lives in you, or that you are remaining in God’s love, and all the associated observations and injunctions regarding what to think about, the movement of the will in God’s love, the fruits of the spirit, and so on.

What’s gone wrong?

There’s a line from Romans I really like:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

What’s gone wrong is that we have lost our connection with our source, with God, and so we live our lives conforming to the pattern of the world.

In positive thinking terms, we have turned our focus to our reality, which is an inversion of the true order.

Our reality is supposed to be the last reflection of our point of focus, the “energy” we are focusing on prior to thought. If we start focusing on our reality, then we get stuck in a kind of feedback-loop.

This is conventionally clear in instances of mental illness like anxiety and depression. When people are depressed they often lack the energy, motivation or desire to engage in activities that would otherwise make them feel a bit happier. Over time, chronic anxiety and depression can lead people to empty their lives of any sources of relief or happiness.

People’s empty or narrow lives can then contribute to their anxiety and depression, since they’ve eliminated anything that might have offered hope or reprieve.

That’s what happens generally when we conform to the pattern of this world, or wrongly treat reality as the determinant of our thoughts and feelings.

How to “positive”

For me it seems clear that I can direct my attention or point of focus to something that feels more “positive”. It’s a very small, subtle mental change.

But what I tend to do instead is focus on my experience, falling back into that feedback loop which keeps me trapped thinking the same kinds of thoughts, having the same kinds of feelings, and the same kinds of experiences.

The solution seems to be firstly to recognise that I’m doing this. Second, to remind myself of the correct order:

Focus -> Thoughts -> Feelings -> Reality

And not the other way around.

Finally, when I’m reminded of this, I feel a certain kind of detachment toward my reality.

It feels like I’m taking my reality a little less seriously, a little less intently.

That’s because my focus has changed to something that is not yet reflected in my reality, but will be in time.

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.

I think that’s why there’s always an element of faith or trust required. Or perhaps just the realisation that you’re stuck in a feedback loop and would like it to change?


Freedom from desire

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An interesting theme in my current studies is the boundary between self and other, and how this boundary shifts as a consequence of different theories of free will.

For example, a simple theory of free will might hold that one acts voluntarily except when one’s actions are the result of physical coercion or ignorance.  Non-coerced actions can be considered the product of free will.

But a more complex theory of free will would recognise that sometimes we act in ways that are difficult to own as fully voluntary, such as eating dessert when you’ve sworn you want to lose weight.  No one has physically coerced you to eat the dessert, yet in the broader context of your wishes, intentions, and subsequent regrets, it doesn’t seem quite right to say that eating the dessert is representative of your free will.

Accordingly some have suggested that we are not free when we act in accordance with our lower appetites.  In the same vein, others have said that ‘free’ actions are those which arise from truly rational considerations. To exercise free will is to act in accordance with rational desire; anything less is a kind of slavery.

But in accepting this more nuanced view of the will, we implicitly redraw the boundary between self and other; the coercive forces we face are no longer external, physical agents but internal appetites and desires.  What is the ‘self’ that is the subject of these appetites, the self that might somehow will instead to follow reason?

This internalisation of the self is not a necessary outcome of a more complex view of free will, but it does make such a perspective easier to adopt.  We start viewing ourselves a little like a homunculus positioned somewhere back behind our eyes, controlling our body and attempting to reason and make choices while assailed by powerful appetites and desires.

The internalised self may be a promising line of inquiry for when I start examining Chinese philosophical texts on the topic of free will. Take, for example, this extract from the QingJing Jing or ‘Classic of Purity and Rest’, a Daoist text developed supposedly in response to the emerging Buddhist theme of ’emptiness’ typified by the Heart Sutra.

Now the spirit of man loves Purity, but his mind disturbs it. The mind of man loves stillness, but his desires draw it away. If he could always send his desires away, his mind would of itself become still. Let his mind be made clean, and his spirit will of itself become pure.

As a matter of course the six desires won’t arise, and the three poisons will be taken away and disappear.

The reason why men are not able to attain to this, is because their minds have not been cleansed, and their desires have not been sent away.

If one is able to send the desires away, when he then looks in at his mind, it is no longer his; when he looks out at his body, it is no longer his; and when he looks farther off at external things, they are things which he has nothing to do with.

Sending the desires away may imply a similarly internalised view of the will, such that one is able to control or manipulate mental faculties as though they were external objects.

The end point in this Daoist context is achieving a state of purity and stillness concomitant with the Dao itself:

In that condition of rest independently of place how can any desire arise? And when no desire any longer arises, there is the True stillness and rest.

That True (stillness) becomes (a) constant quality, and responds to external things (without error); yea, that True and Constant quality holds possession of the nature.


He who has this absolute purity enters gradually into the (inspiration of the) True Dao. And having entered thereinto, he is styled Possessor of the Dao.


It is intriguing that the Daoist text portrays desires as an intrinsically disturbing force that should be ‘put away’.  This presents another opportunity for fruitful comparison with Stoicism, where such desires are viewed as the product of our assent to false beliefs.  This is, in turn, reminiscent of the Buddhist assertion that the unsatisfactory nature of existence can be traced back to ignorant desire.

If we put aside desires, our mind and spirit will revert to their natural purity and stillness, bringing us back to the influence of the Dao.  This is consistent with Wang Bi’s much earlier commentary on the Dao De Jing, the heart of the Daoist Canon, in which he depicts the goal of the sage as embracing ’emptiness’ through renunciation of private interests and desires.

I think this critical attitude toward desire is a crucial part of serious religious practice universally.  We should not be surprised to find it emerging in the context of Daoism, Buddhism, and even Stoicism, as part of a broader attempt to discover the root of humanity’s failing and misery, and the path towards a renovation of the human spirit.