And what are the steps you can take to practice healthy, balanced, positive thinking?
If you’re a positive thinker, what does that mean, exactly? Does being positive suggest that you will only entertain positive thoughts? How could you possibly do that? Some people try, unsuccessfully, to do so. The reason for their difficulty in maintaining a so-called positive outlook is obvious.
Each day, an endless number of problems occur, and those problems demand solutions. But to find solutions, you have to consider the problems, and that seems to bring up a conflict in people whose goal is to be entirely positive. After all, you can’t be aware of the need for a solution unless you’re also aware of the problem. So unless you are avoiding all problems of any kind, you’ll realistically have to think about problems quite often.
If it’s common sense that to find a solution you have to look at the problem, then where did the idea come from that you should only notice the positive? It may come from a uniquely American idealistic tendency. It’s worth exploring how this attitude — that anything is possible if you’re positive enough — became both an asset and a liability that affects would-be positive thinkers everywhere.
This can-do spirit, when utilized appropriately, is associated with the confidence that lets you move forward, in spite of all apparent limitations. This can be a wonderful asset, at least when it gives you the strength to move forward amidst apparently challenging circumstances. Such positive attitudes have helped creative thinkers attempt bold projects that had never been attempted before, and have yielded great inventions, new styles of art, new businesses, and innovations of all kinds.
It’s a shame that this bright side of positive thinking has become so tempting to so many people that they fail to see the limitations that often surface when you’re exclusively seeing only the good aspects of everything.
It’s sobering to consider the shadow side of the can-do spirit. Consider the case of a company like Enron that refused to consider problems that their whistle-blowers were warning about. This can-do spirit, when combined with self-delusion, put the company in serious trouble, because they were so full of their own positive hot air that they considered themselves as beyond the need to listen to the warnings. Instead, they tried to escape into their own positive cloud of arrogant illusory assumptions about reality.
How a cheerful pop song illustrates the positive thinking dilemma
The willingness to deny problems is strongly expressed in the popular Johnny Mercer lyrics of the Harold Arlen song, Accentuate The Positive. It was written after Johnny Mercer attended a sermon by Father Divine, who focused on the idea of eliminating the negative in your thinking, and focusing on the positive instead. In the context of a sermon, such ideas can be helpful and inspiring.
You go to a sermon to be lifted up, inspired, and given hope to face the upcoming week. And to those who were mired in the dark cloud of their own negativity, that message was probably perfect for helping to blow those heavy clouds away. Sermons have a useful purpose, and they also have their limitations when their emotionally charged enthusiasm is substituted for clear thinking.
Suppose that you do become entirely positive? Once you become inspired enough to get out of your own dark cloud, what happens when you shift to only letting yourself think happy and hopeful thoughts? There is a serious limitation with trying to cover over problems with exclusively positive thoughts. The happy talk makes you feel better for a moment, but it won’t fix your problems — they’re still there. Unless you start looking at the situation and examining possible solutions, nothing will change.
When you look at the lyrics of the Accentuate The Positive song, the urge towards Denial is made plain, because you are urged to eliminate the negative. Now that seems, at first, to be a suggestion to avoid hopelessness. And ideally, maybe that is what the song is supposed to mean. If the song were suggesting that you can learn to be positive enough to consider creative solutions to your problems, this would be helpful.
Unfortunately, you can take the lyrics another way — as a suggestion to avoid mentioning or thinking about problems. Many people take the meaning in just this way. Notice that immediately after the suggestion that you accentuate the positive, you are advised to eliminate the negative. Well, how will you interpret that suggestion? Ideally, you would eliminate the tendency to give up — you would rise above hopeless attitudes. Properly understood, you would question your excessive negative assumptions, and start looking for reasonable solutions to your situation.
However, many people take this line of the song, about eliminating the negative, as a suggestion to not bother thinking about issues, or dealing with problems at all. Such people tend to say that they are trying to stay positive. That often means that they don’t want to look at problems at all — also known as avoidance and denial. Such unwillingness to actively find solutions through honest assessment, while putting a gloss of positive spin on everything, actually leads to a downward spiral of disempowerment.
How well-intended metaphysical teachings contribute to denial, despair, and disempowerment
Metaphysical teachings seem to have contributed to this tendency towards denial, through simplistic teachings about the power of resonance. You may have heard that everything in the universe functions through resonance, where everything is compared to tuning forks that resonate with each other. Notice how this innocent belief, attempting to take a principle of physics, and use it as a metaphysical teaching, leads many people into the state of denial.
First, you are told that everything is resonating like a tuning fork. Then you are told that your positive thoughts are resonating with all the positive forces in the universe. And then you are admonished that your negative thoughts will resonate with all the negative forces in the universe.
How will you interpret that understanding? It all starts to sound serious and foreboding, and it brings up an irrational fear about discussing problems at all — after all, they’re negative, aren’t they? When you fear something, you try to avoid it. You may come to believe that looking at problems, or discussing concerns, is somehow amplifying a negative reality that will only make things worse.
Too often, the metaphysical teachings leave you with a modern version of the old-time fear of the devil. Except that now the modern fear is that if you look at a problem, or talk about concerns and issues in the world, that is somehow Negative and Bad, and must therefore be avoided entirely.
If only metaphysical teachings would share the fine points of how to utilize resonance in a balanced empowered way, that would be fine. They generally don’t. Instead they provide the ingredients for fear and denial, where everyone has to agree that everything is fine, and that everything is magically getting better.
This used to be called sweeping things under the rug, and with extremist positive thinking, that lump in the rug gets bigger and bigger.
There are entire groups of metaphysical students who think it reasonable to only respond in conversation with positive agreement. They imagine themselves as contributing to a positive universe, and see every agreement and supportive statement as co-creating an ever-better world. If only it were so simple — you could affirm your way to continual success in life, in a positive upward spiral of continually perfect improvement — with never a mention about any problems.
Regrettably, this tendency to cover it over with happy talk leads to the opposite of happiness, because you feel gradually dissociated from reality, and disconnected from useful solutions.
Maybe this reminds you of the old saying, that if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. Sounds suspiciously like disempowering denial, doesn’t it? Does anything improve through this avoidance, or does a stuck situation just stay stuck?
The ever-positive style of possibility thinking has spilled into the business world, in which the upbeat, continually positive person is considered as helpful to the business, and the employee who scrutinizes the problems, or acts as a whistle-blower, is considered as a troublemaker to be shunned. Certainly there is a place for the upbeat personality, but positive spin and the can-do spirit can never replace clear thinking. And let’s look at that phrase — clear thinking — for a moment.
Why neutrality and clarity have been wrongly judged as less effective than positive thinking
Clarity is neutral, which is neither positive nor negative. And without clarity, you are either dazzled by the cloud of positive hopeful glitter in your mind, or brought down by the heavy clouds of despair. So this fear of hopelessness is somehow connected to the self-dazzled condition of puffed-up positive thinking.
Could it be that those who dogmatically insist that everyone should be positive at all times are actually harboring despair?
No wonder they have to be so positive all the time — they fear that they will sink into a negative state. And they will, too, because they haven’t found the middle way — the state of clarity — the path that transcends positive and negative thinking. Neutrality and clarity are neither positive nor negative, and so this frees you to see your problems in a calm, clear-headed way.
Where in modern thinking is the missing neutrality — the needed clarity? Strangely enough, it shows up in the Johnny Mercer lyrics. After being told to accentuate the positive, and after being advised to eliminate the negative, you are warned not to mess with Mr. In-between. Ah ha — it seems that Mr. In-between is the code word for that neutral state of mind that is neither positive nor negative.
But is it true what the song says — that you must eliminate the in-between state? No wonder people think that they have to avoid that dreaded in-between state — the realm of Mr. In-between — so that they can enter the glorious land of the glittering positive state of mind.
But you weren’t told about the wonderful, helpful aspects of in-between thinking, were you?
Whether in a spiritual sermon, or in a new age class, or in a business seminar, you were given the clear choice to be either positive or negative. That isn’t fair to you, because most states of consciousness aren’t positive or negative — and they aren’t supposed to be. Why is that?
Beyond positive and negative
When you look at a problem, you need to consider many possibilities for what the cause, or causes of the situation may be. You need neutral clarity for that.
When you consider possible solutions for the situation, you need to be able to verify those various solutions. You need to be able to consider the solutions with the clarity of mind that lets you recognize whether the solutions are appropriate and doable. Again, you require neutral clarity — Mr. In-between.
What happens when you forget your neutral clarity?
Notice how when you replace your neutral clarity with simplistic positive thinking, your ability to scrutinize solutions becomes limited — because all the solutions look great. Every idea is genius — Not.
Likewise, when you get stuck in negative, hopeless thinking, your ability to find solutions is definitely limited — because there is no room in the mind to consider solutions at all.
But why shouldn’t positive thinking automatically give you the solutions — after all, aren’t positive energies supposed to inevitably lead in a positive direction?
The reason that positive thinking becomes negative is simple to understand, when you examine it for a moment. Positive thinking assumes that something is good, merely because you shower it with confidence and belief. And in real life, not all choices produce useful results — and some can be dangerous. Positive thinking assumes that everything will work. In real life, that just isn’t so. Positive thinking assumes that any choice, entered into in a positive frame of mind, is bound to be useful. This is not necessarily true.
Does this mean that if you let go of having to be positive all the time that you’re giving up on positive thinking? Not at all — you’re giving up on extremism. You’re giving up on denying your common sense. You’re giving up on denying your intelligence. You’re letting go of the positive thinking extremism that prohibits your right to calmly discover the solutions that are available to you — when you are willing to access them.
So what is the proper place for the can-do spirit — the anything-is-possible attitude — the nothing-will-stop-us feeling? These are all designed to uplift your emotions. When you need an emotional lift, use these positive attitudes and feelings to lift yourself out of the swamps of hopelessness. But never assume that positive thinking is going to give you wisdom, common sense, or clear answers — it’s not designed to do that.
Properly used, positive thinking sweeps the cobwebs clear, and reminds you that solutions are possible — but then, you will need neutral clarity to move forward effectively.
You need to be able to utilize positive thinking wisely, and you need to be able to use it for its intended purpose — to keep you from getting stuck. But if you let yourself get locked into happy-talk land, where no problems exist, and where all solutions are equally good, then your condition is only slightly better than when you were stuck in negative thinking.
Guided meditation to help you access effective solutions with wisdom, clarity, and grace:
1. Look at a situation that concerns you.
2. Imagine that you are containing that situation in its own bubble of energy. This gives you a bit of healthy distance, and lets you remain stable and centered.
3. Here’s where you get to be positive — tell yourself that there are solutions for this situation. Don’t start thinking about what they might be just yet — simply know that solutions can be found. That’s real positive thinking.
4. Now put your positive thinking hat aside for a moment, and put on your clear-thinking neutrality hat. Imagine that you can look at the situation with a clear-thinking set of x-ray spectacles, so that you can clearly look within the situation — and you’re still wearing your clear thinking neutrality hat.
5. Look at the obvious solutions. Don’t agree with them. Just write them down. Obvious solutions are the solutions that anyone would come up with. Just consider them, but don’t align with them yet.
6. Now consider the creative solutions. Just write them down in a list, even if them seem improbable, difficult, strange, or not typical solutions. Don’t agree with them, and just get them written down.
7. Now you’re going to look over each possible solution — the obvious ones, and the creative ones. Wear your clear-thinking neutrality hat.
8. When you look at each solution, put that solution in a bubble of light. This keeps it in its own little universe, and keeps you from getting too attached to it. In this way, consider the obvious solutions, and the creative solutions. Write any insights you have about these.
9. Look over your notes. You’re still wearing your clear thinking hat. If any of the solutions really seem inappropriate, cross them out of your list.
10. Look at the possible solutions. While still staying fairly neutral, have a bit of a creative brainstorm with the ideas. Get a sense about which solutions are doable. Sense if you’d like to combine any of the solutions.
11. In the coming days, explore — in a sensible, grounded way — the ideas that seem most useful.
12. If you find yourself getting into the dark cloud state, put on your positive thinking hat, and remind yourself that solutions are definitely available — when you access them.
13. And most of the time, you’ll be wearing your clear thinking, neutrality hat. That’s because you need to have a clear awareness of what’s happening, so that you can move forward intelligently.
Clarity and neutrality — the exciting new stars of higher awareness
If this idea of being clear-headed and neutral sounds boring, think again. Clarity is like turning up the magnifying lens on a magic microscope or telescope — you can see the beauty of the heavens, or the deeper reality of anything you choose to examine, with exquisite clarity. Neutrality lets you be totally present. It’s what the ancient sages were talking about when they told you to come out of your waking dream. They were always telling you to wake up, and now you have a sense of what that means.
Maybe it occurs to you that you can be positive and clear-headed at the same time. You can. The reason for suggesting that you put your positive hat aside for a time was so that you could get familiar with neutrality, and learn about what it can teach you. Positive expectations are all well and good, but when they interfere with your ability to have a clear sense of things, then you’re indulging in something that is no longer positive — ungrounded fantasy or denial.
Now you realize that you don’t have to puff yourself up with continually positive happy talk. But, are there people who really are too negative? Of course — they are the people who insist that there are no possible solutions, and that you have to just take life as it comes to you, since everything is futile. That’s passive, hopeless, and negative. Don’t get stuck there, either.
You aren’t one of those negative people. More likely, you’re reading this because you’d like to be more positive, but you had suspicions about whether positive thinking was the simple solution it’s sometimes claimed to be. And now you realize that you can be positive in a healthy balanced way, because you have the means of being intelligently and sensibly positive.
There is a curious sameness about the world of the positive thinkers and the negative thinkers. The earthly waking dream of the negative thinkers, surrounded by their negative hopeless clouds, is not so different from the relentlessly positive thinkers who are puffed up with continual happy talk. Both types of people are stuck in a limited, waking dream that keeps them from the rich depth and clarity that life offers in each moment.
When you explore any situation without sugar-coating it with hyped-up positives, you have the means to confront the situation and discover creative solutions that really can make your life better.
Your life is endlessly fascinating — not because you’re pumped up with happy bubbles — but because being present puts you in the front-row seat of the greatest event — your own life. When you’re present in each moment of your life, and you experience it with clarity, you realize that there is something more meaningful than dazzled happiness, and more fulfilling than a hazy hope for a miraculous fantasy future.
Welcome to this moment. Life awaits you, but it’s here now — not in a cloud of hope just down the road. Breathe into it now, let yourself look at any situation that deserves closer examination, and discover that the solutions are clearly there — when you neutrally let yourself explore them.
Joel Bruce Wallach
Founder, Cosmic Living for spiritual empowerment — tele-classes and self-paced mp3’s