I used to believe in positive thinking.
Now, that seems like way too much trouble. I've become a lot more accepting of myself the way I actually am, rather than setting up some sort of Ideal Me that I'd compare myself to unfavorably.
This is one of the big problems with religiosity. Being human is viewed as not good enough. Divinity, perfection, enlightenment -- that becomes the goal of life.
No regrets. A few chapters in, I'm enjoying Oliver Burkeman's book a lot. His main thesis, echoed by many philosophers, psychologists, and even a few self-help gurus:
The startling conclusion at which they had all arrived, in different ways, was this: that the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative -- insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness -- that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.
Burkeman talks about the investigations of Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor who runs the Mental Control Laboratory at Harvard University.
Wegner's intellectual territory is what has come to be known as 'ironic process theory,' which explores the ways in which our efforts to suppress certain thoughts or behaviours result, ironically, in their becoming more prevalent.
There are many examples of this in all sorts of religions and spiritual paths, both of the East and West. Believers are enjoined to avoid sins, negativity, temptations, doubts, questions, and other deviations from The Way.
Which, often, leads them right into the clutches of what they hoped to avoid. The basic problem is metacognition: thinking about your thinking, feeling about your feeling, worrying about your worrying, and such. Religiosity, including some forms of meditation, are big on this.
Not productive, says Wegner.
What is going on here, Wegner argues, is a malfunctioning of the uniquely human capacity for metacognition, or thinking about thinking. 'Metacognition,' Wegner explains,'occurs when thought takes itself as an object.'
Mainly, it's an extremely useful skill: it is what enables us to recognise when we are being unreasonable, or sliding into depression, or being afflicted with anxiety, and then to do something about it.
But when we use metacognitive thoughts directly to try to control our other, everyday, 'object-level' thoughts -- by suppressing images of white bears, say, or replacing gloomy thoughts with happy ones -- we run into trouble.
'Metathoughts are instructions we give ourselves about our object-level thinking,' as Wegner puts it, 'and sometimes we just can't follow our own instructions.'
...A person who has resolved to 'think positive' must constantly scan his or her mind for negative thoughts -- there's no other way that the mind could ever gauge its success at the operation -- yet that scanning will draw attention to the presence of negative thoughts.
(Worse, if the negative thoughts start to predominate, a vicious spiral may kick in, since the failure to think positively may become the trigger for a new stream of self-berating thoughts, about not thinking positively enough.)
So what we should we do? Be in touch with what is. Reality is something different from what the mind imagines it could be.
It simply means approaching the whole of life -- inner thoughts and emotions, outer events and circumstances -- without clinging or aversion. To live non-attachedly is to feel impulses, think thoughts, and experience life without becoming hooked by mental narratives about how things 'should' be, or should never be, or should remain forever.