Some Negative Thoughts about Positive Thinking

“There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage,” says Barbara Ehrenreich, referring to those who signed the Declaration of Independence, which was a life-risking act (Ehrenreich wrote this in her book, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America). Those courageous individuals were visionaries and realists, trying to get something done, putting their values and their lives on the line. They were not idealists who thought that positive thinking would get the job done. I have some disagreements with some of Ehrenreich’s assumptions, but I agree with the essence of her message, that authenticity is more important than “positive thinking.” 

Mindful awareness is often associated with notions of positive thinking, and with being calm, centered, and perpetually happy. But accepting all that is true in any given moment means accepting some truths that are not very pretty. There are dark and grim truths that we have to live with. Life is like that. It is unhealthy to close our eyes to the dark realities and wish only for the bright ones. The pushback makes life harder than necessary, whereas acceptance brings peace. 

Some people confuse acceptance with complacency. But accepting that some things are not to be tolerated can compel us to take action. For example, we cannot be aware of injustice, and accepting of human interdependence, and be unaffected by injustice. We often experience peace when we relieve suffering. But one’s internal experience of peace is a byproduct rather than a goal. 

If you practice meditation just to feel better, you won’t. You have no reason to feel better or worse than you feel. But inflexible thinking can make you feel angry or anxious. Suspending certainty in your thoughts and being flexible, on the other hand, are antidotes to what Daniel Goleman calls destructive emotions (in his book, Destructive Emotions).

If you are using meditation like a drug, trying to rid yourself of uncomfortable feelings, you will only learn to be uncomfortable with discomfort. And you will circumvent insight by being excessively concerned with your feelings. None of us has transcended illness, aging, and death! But if your effort is simply to connect with the truth of your experience, with other people, and with all of life, then your mindfulness practice can shape your values and help you live with intention and purpose. And if you live a conscious life, you are likely to experience the peace you were seeking with your unreasonably positive thinking!

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