Why Positive Thinking Isn’t Enough
How thinking positive and ‘being here now’ might be doing us more harm than good.
Positive thinking has been sold to us as if it is the path to happiness, our modern day holy grail. Denying this is almost like denying the sky is blue. We have consumed the philosophy of positive thinking too quick to even consider there might other alternatives, and we have swallowed it faster than you can say ‘that’s what she said’ (influenced by my sister who proof read this for me).
We all know the mantras. In order to be happy all you have to do is think positively… to achieve your goals and dreams all you have to do is envision them with positive intent… right?
Maybe. If you feel positive, sure, thinking positive is probably going to give you positive results. If you envision your goals, put in the right amount of work and prepare for initial failures, then yes, positive thinking will help you.
But what if you don’t feel positive? What if you feel fundamentally negative?
If this is you, being told to think positive is going to make you positively irate, and might even be doing more harm than good. Positive thinking has become a tyrant, if you’re not doing it, then there’s something wrong with you, if you are unhappy, its because you are choosing to be that way.
In reality, positive thinking is just taking us further away from the truth. By replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, we are undermining why these negative thoughts and feelings have come about. We live full emotional lives that are made up of both happiness and sadness, dark and light. Trying to constantly force yourself into the light all the time makes the dark a scary, unexplored place. If we embrace both the negative and the postive, the dark becomes less terrifying and we become able to express and understand ourselves in new ways. Telling yourself you feel a certain way – ignoring the way you truly feel – won’t lead to happy peaceful existence, it will lead to the opposite. To acknowledging only the positive is to live a half-truth, denying the reality of our human existence.
Meditation, Mindfulness and the Present Moment
Mindfulness, meditation and living in the present moment is being encouraged from all angles, and although self-reflection and introspection are a good thing, sometimes the fundamental message behind these philosophical practices are getting lost in translation.
These days, people use the excuse of mindfulness and the present moment to step away from their busy lives. The concepts have been marketed and sold in our brand culture. Their success comes from their ability to satisfy spiritual yearnings without being a religion, whilst also promising to reduce our stress and anxiety. Buddhist teachers and psychologists have coined it, “McMindfulness”.
Most people think meditation is about emptying the mind, stepping out of their lives and becoming mindful. However, we are always thinking, and emptying our minds is near enough impossible. Meditation is less about turning our minds into empty vacum and more about guiding our awareness inwards in order to learn about ourselves. In the English language, to meditate means ‘to think carefully’…
Consider this, if I am meditating on a pen in front of me right now, I am focusing all my senses on the pen, all my attention and awareness rests on it. My mind is not clear, it is filled with the idea of the pen. Meditation on the mind, is taking our tool of self-knowledge (the mind), and turning it in on itself, making it the object of our focus and attention. The aim of meditation is not to clear the mind, but to become aware of it, to notice the thoughts that come through us without reacting to them. Taming and quietening the mind means we can use it to understand more about ourselves. Meditation should not be used as an escape, but as a radical exploration and experiment in the state of the self.
When we experience stress, we are often told to “be here now”, encouraging us to take in the present moment. But this is problematic. The present moment only has meaning with relation to the past and the future. Without a before and after, there is no now. Perhaps being “here now” holds so much appeal to us because of our current situation. We know little about our history as humanity, and with so much talk of climate change and natural disasters, our future is uncertain.
Living in an eternal present leaves us unable to learn from our past or prepare for the future. And what happens when the present moment just isn’t enjoyable? Do we encourage positive thinking to hide from it? Or perhaps we meditate to step away from it? Mind-wandering and day-dreaming are not negative traits. In fact, some of my best ideas or solutions come to me when I allow my mind to wander free.
There is no denying the benefits from learning to calm and focus the mind, but the philosophy of positive thinking, meditation and mindfulness have turned into a self-help trend.
Rather than try to step away from our lives, we should use these concepts to understand our life experience. As well as cultivating awareness of the present moment, we should learn equally how to reflect on the past and plan for the future. In meditation we should commit to self-study, learning about ourselves in order to learn about the world around us. With this outlook, acknowledging both the negative and the positive, we will be able to recognise the lessons from our past, and use the present moment to create a better future for us all.