Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

¡Hola! Everybody...
The first time I posted the following, I lost all the “Power of Positive Thinking” crowd, most of the “Daily Affirmations” crowd, and “The Secret” crowd just continued to stay away... LOL! Last night I was “engaging” yet another “Power of Positive Thinking” disciple, who managed to call it Buddhist meditation. People? mindfulness meditation is not positive thinking!

::rolls eyes::

* * *

-=[ Thoughts, Emotions, Actions ]=-

Smile or die!

I have a favorite story that occurred when Sir Lawrence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman were making the Marathon Man. Just before filming the famous scene in the dentist’s chair, Olivier was waiting and not too pleased that Hoffman was late. In the near distance, he saw a running figure and was surprised to discover it was Hoffman, the Hollywood superstar. He arrived panting at Olivier’s side and the great British stage actor looked down at Hoffman and asked what he was up to. When Hoffman was eventually able to get his breath, he managed to get out that because the scene called for the character to be out of breath from running that was what he had to do to make the scene authentic. The haughty Olivier raised an eyebrow and said, “My dear, haven’t you heard of acting?”

The point here is that just as we can control and change our external behaviors, words, and actions, and our internal processes, thoughts and beliefs, we can also change our responses to our internal thoughts, feelings, emotions, and values.

In my work, I often run into the stiff wall of resistance that is expressed thus, “… because that’s the way he made me feel,” or “… because that’s the way I am!” Perhaps you have come across such phrases, or maybe you have uttered something similar yourself. We go about spending the bulk of our lives believing we’re at the mercy of our feelings, thoughts, and actions (“He made me do it” “My negative feelings defeat me”).

We all do it, period.

In fact, we all concentrate on one area of our perception whether they be our thoughts, feelings, and actions, at the expense of others. What we do here in our culture is concentrate on what we do well -- on the positive. My invitation/ challenge is for you to pay more attention to what you don’t do so well (the so-called negative) and develop more flexibility around those things.

Let me use “health” as an example to better illustrate what I am trying to communicate.

In the West, we believe that it is best to go for the burn, push ourselves to the limit; it’s all or nothing. This explains the constant flow of how to books touting the new diet or exercise program that will change your life. We have to go for one of these completely or it won’t work.

If we look at this from the model of thoughts, emotions, and actions, we get three different worldviews. In the interest of brevity, I will elaborate mostly on thoughts.

Thoughts and Health

In the thought-centered world, the way to health is through -- duh! -- our thoughts. Here we believe that we have created health or illness by the power of our own thoughts. All we need to do is change the way that we think about ourselves and our relationship to health. As long as we believe that we are healthy then -- voila! -- we are!

In the thought-world existence we have certain beliefs about ourselves and the world around us that we probably picked up from our toxic parents, our apathetic teachers, our repressive church, our disjointed community. We start to believe that these are true and in this way our perspective of health is developed. Once we have taken control of this we can then become healthy merely by thinking ourselves healthy. This perspective makes it imperative that we find the “right” (i.e., positive) thought, or the perfect affirmation and then repeat them ad infinitum in order to become healthy. Many New Agers love this world and have developed many techniques for transforming limiting (or negative) beliefs. Got it? In this world, you erase (kill!) negative thoughts and create (cling!) positive thoughts. Annie, go get your gun...

Let’s follow the logic of this worldview, or mindset: if you believe that your thoughts can create health, then it follows that if you’re not healthy then at some level you believe that you have created your illness. In this sense, you are a mind that exists separately from your body. Welcome to the world of The Matrix! LOL

If my analysis seems harsh, then consider the story of a good friend, Danielle. Danielle was a devoted mother of a 15-year-old daughter. She was known within my circle as a healer who had a transformative experience and spent the rest of her life running workshops in the area of personal growth and development. She made a huge difference in her life and the lives of others. People loved Danielle and what she did for them.

It was a shock for all of us when we found out she had been diagnosed with cancer and an even bigger shock when it became clear that the cancer was terminal. My memories of her during her last days are marked by the last time I saw her and she was still wrestling with her problems -- what had she done to bring on the cancer, what had she done to deserve the cancer? This is the legacy of the thought-world -- a good woman, a loving wife, a devoted mother, blaming herself for her cancer.

Emotions and Health

In this world, we forget the body. We disregard all the unnecessary exercising and dieting. Here we achieve our health through our emotions. Once we get in touch with our Inner Child (the one that was badly damaged and abused by our parents and society), we can heal all of the hurts imposed by a life that sucks and that controls us until we take charge.

In this world we believe that our blocked and unhealthy emotions created our own sickness. Only when we have realized this simple fact, we can start to heal. We need to revisit all the traumas that the world has inflicted upon us. We need to emote, emote, emote! in order to clear ourselves of these unhealthy emotions. We look for person-centered, or psychodynamically oriented counseling – or even better – find a group of like-minded individuals where we can share the catharsis.

Once we have sorted this whole mess out, we can then achieve the Eden-like state of childhood innocence and wisdom that was ours before we were defiled by modern society. Again, as in the thought-world, this world seeks to slay the negative emotions. Fight!

Actions and Health

In the action-centered-world we believe our actions and external behaviors are most important; we fall into the trap of believing that is all we need to pay attention to if we are to be healthy. We believe that all we need to do is buy the right equipment of the right video and we too can develop the body of an athlete of the supermodel in the ads.

We believe that if we join the best hi-tech gym with the newest equipment, it will take out the work of exercising (just 20 minutes a day… ). It’s almost as though we believe that a gym membership leads to good health.

The same is true of weight loss. We buy into the latest pill or latest book of the latest system that some celebrity (hello Oprah!) pitches. We all know deep down inside that the key to achieving an optimum weight is simply not putting more stuff into our bodies -- that only by eating more healthily will we be healthy. However, like exercise, this would be hard to maintain and would require work and effort. We know that balance and moderation will lead to a more integrated life, but we battle on regardless.

What we know, of course, is that none of these three worldviews -- thoughts, emotions, and actions -- alone holds the full picture. And no matter how well you affirm, how good you become at being positive, or how much you exercise, or get in touch with your emotions, eventually you will get old, ugly, sick, and die.

What then? What will you do then?

What we really need to do is utilize all three aspects of ourselves in our quest to be healthy. And even then, this is not the full picture. But that is for another time and another day.

I will say this much: if you’re engaged in an inner battle who loses eventually?




  1.  I am a huge believer of positive thinking. I started reading The Secret some 2 yrs back and now I'm fully enjoying the life I have visualized.

  2. Pallas: I could believe the world is flat till the cows come home and it doesn't make it so. If you're happy, then I wish you more of the same. Persona;lly, I love life -- ALL OF IT -- the good and the bad, the positive and the negative. Ultimately, those are labels created by the monkey mind. I don't need to fight to keep "positive" or to do this or that. I have found a serene joy at the core of my being with whatever is -- right now, this very moment. And it isn't predicated on a frame of mind, or achoiving some kind of "positivity." Eventually, you get old, ugly and sick. I will be ok with that, since I have no arguemrnt with reality.

    I will be writing something more in depth (this was sorta like an intro) later next week. But here's a good summation of my thinking on all this (borrowed heavily from Buddhism, ACT, and NLP):

    1. Cognitive defusion: Learning to perceive thoughts, images, emotions, and memories as what they are, not what they appear to be.
    2. Acceptance: Allowing them to come and go without struggling with them.
    3. Contact with the present moment: Awareness of the here and now, experienced with openness, interest, and receptiveness.
    4. Observing the self: Accessing a transcendent sense of self, a continuity of consciousness which is changing.
    5. Values: Discovering what is most important to one's true self.

    I would add that language -- HOW we use language -- creates our reality (for example, the notions "positive/ negative" is extremely subjective and ambiguous).

    Also, there are concrete ways to stop the war that doesn't entail this arduous work of maintaining a "positive" mindset all the time.

    But like I said, if you're happy, far be it for me to tell YOU otherwise.

    as for the book, "The secret"? that's one of the biggest scams in recent history.

    May you be happy regardless of your frame of mind...

  3. Character EducationApril 16, 2010 at 2:44 AM

    Thanks for bringing this positive post to us, i am sure your post will effect many of us and bring positive attitude to us. :-D

  4. Thanks! I'm glad you found it useful. Just doing my part to help people fully embrace ALL of life -- the good and the bad - just so we don't lose sight of REALITY (which, after all, includes "other stuff").  ;)


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