There’s a lot of talk these days about manifesting and drawing the good toward oneself, ideas that are based on the idea of positive thinking, most recently described in The Secret. I see some pitfalls with the idea that if you think positive thoughts and visualize what you want to have in life, it will come to you.
It implies that we can control physical reality with our thoughts, leading us to believe that we have power over things that are outside our control. Even the idea that we can control our thoughts is misleading. We can’t control the world around us, although we can have an impact on it. We can’t control what thoughts and feelings arise in our minds, but we can control how we respond to them.
It encourages us to suppress “negative” thoughts and feelings, which is a ticket to a shut-down existence. Anytime we deny a thought or a feeling, we shove it into the unconscious. In order to keep up a strategy like this, we have to narrow our perception to exclude the things we don’t want to see. Imagine that emotions exist on a continuum, with pleasant emotions on one end and unpleasant on the other. When we cut ourselves off from one end, the corresponding end gets shortened, too. It takes a lot of mental energy to keep up a strategy like this, and shortening the continuum can lead to depression.
It creates conditions that foster greed. In Buddhist psychology, greed, or craving, is one of the three roots of suffering, along with aversion and delusion. We can crave material things, or experience, or sense pleasures. Holding onto the things we can’t or don’t have keeps us from appreciating and being grateful for all the things we do have. It takes our attention away from what’s real and what’s here now. While we’re thinking positive thoughts, we’re cultivating the conditions that increase our suffering. It’s a losing proposition.
And here’s the most troublesome implication of the positive-thinking strategy: when we don’t get what we want, or when bad things happen, it must be because we drew bad things to ourselves by thinking negative thoughts. This self-blame is fertile ground for shame to arise. It’s toxic stuff.
Paradoxically, then, positive thinking can increase suffering and unhappiness. So, here’s a reframe that I believe avoids these pitfalls:
In any given moment, our senses present us with more information than our minds can take in, so we filter what comes into our conscious awareness. When we fixate on an idea, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, we narrow our focus to this idea, shoving other thoughts and feelings aside. The idea becomes a lens through which we see ourselves and the world, and we only see experiences that support that lens. For example, if we believe that we’re unlovable, then every time someone is rude or dismissive, we’ll take that in as further evidence of our unloveable-ness. And we won’t see (or we’ll reinterpret) every experience in which people are kind, generous, or thoughtful. Presented with the mounting evidence that we’re unlovable, we sprial into a pit of sorrow and worthlessness. It is in this way that our thoughts control our experience of reality.
Rather than trying to get out of this pit by fixating on something more positive or happy, the remedy for this filtered, fixated way of being is to open your awareness and take in all of your experience, not just a slice of it. When you get caught up in a spiral of thoughts, stop. Take a breath. Expand your awareness of what’s happening by asking yourself questions such as “what else is happening right now?” or “is this thought true?”. Or, even more simply, follow the basic mindfulness instruction to drop your attention into your body by noticing what it feels like to breathe. I like this approach because it creates conditions that bring us the following:
- Rather than a tight, closed mind, an open, fully engaged one.
- Rather than greed, acceptance.
- Rather than trying to control the world, we mindfully choose our responses to the way things really are.
- Rather than blaming ourselves for the pain and suffering in the world, we accept that it happens and find a way to meet it with an open heart and mind.