The Positive Power of Negative Thinking

Posted by on Sep 5, 2012

My new age friends sometimes find me annoying. Perhaps because I have always refused to play pretend with pain and suffering; I have always felt the best way to deal with imperfections in our lives, with stressful situations, with physical and emotional pain,  is to call a spade a spade, and then deal with it.

How do you change, how do you deal with  flaws in your character, for instance,  if you are afraid to admit they are there in the first place? How do you differentiate between good and bad if  “its all good?” In fact, its not all good. Some things are indeed bad, unfair, cruel. There is tragedy in this world. Just read the papers or Shakespeare or Sophocles.

Adopting the Taoist concept of flowing, which is related to the Buddhist concept of recognizing your experiences as mind states, is very different from fearfully dismissing experience as “all mind” therefore, not worth examining.

Trust in God, but tie your camel, it says in Islam. Yes there is something greater than you are, but you still have to tie your shoelaces; you still have deal with the fall out from experiences that you control and the ones you cannot control. What you can “control”, which is a bad choice of words,  is your reaction to these experiences.

Some people get acupuncture and love how it feels. Others get really frightened around the sensation of the needles. They worry whether something is being done that will damage them. Others get tense and even angry with the sensation. A lot has to do with how we frame things. We can be mindful and observe our own responses. When we do that, when we notice the fear or anger gently and without judgement, then we also notice the visceral physical manifestations in our body associated with these emotions (or with happiness or sadness), and when we do that the possibility of a movement occurs; nothing lasts for ever, after a while we relax and are less frightened, less angry, less tense.  This is a kind of cognitive therapy/mindfulness that does not deny the truth of our internal life, but at the same time gives you a way to actually change.

I grew up with a Jewish mother who had a very Buddhistic Talmudic notion that “everything is for the best.” She did not mean that literally, she meant, simply, that grey clouds can have silver linings, that its wrong to “pre-judge”, when in fact one can’t really know yet the long term effect or even near term affect of things not working out how you wanted ( girl/boy A turns you down, and thanks to that two weeks later you meet the love of your life, for example).

But all of these notions do not equate to denying your gut or the reality of your experience. When your mother dies, you have a right to feel sad, for example. What is the point of waxing philosophic about death when in fact what you need is to feel things in your gut, grief in response to sadness causes tears, not intellectualism.

Which is why I am drawn to Mindfulness practice. In mindfulness practice an open, accepting, non judgmental space is created into which the muck of your soul seeps and empties.  You feel your feelings, without trying to change them, but without being over identified with them, its this fine balance between feeling what is there, but without being overwhelmed by it. All the while grounded by the breath sensations, what Thanissaro Bhikkhu calles ” the rapture of the breath.”

Some of these notions are validated by  Oliver Burkeman author of the forthcoming book “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.”in a recent NY Times op ed piece:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/05/opinion/sunday/the-positive-power-of-negative-thinking.html?_r=1&smid=fb-share

A quote from the op -ed piece:

“Buddhist meditation, too, is arguably all about learning to resist the urge to think positively — to let emotions and sensations arise and pass, regardless of their content. It might even have helped those agonized firewalkers. Very brief training in meditation, according to a 2009 article in The Journal of Pain, brought significant reductions in pain — not by ignoring unpleasant sensations, or refusing to feel them, but by turning nonjudgmentally toward them.

From this perspective, the relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity. Mr. Robbins’s trademark smile starts to resemble a rictus. A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t. You can try, if you insist, to follow the famous self-help advice to eliminate the word “failure” from your vocabulary — but then you’ll just have an inadequate vocabulary when failure strikes.

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