Lessons From A ChildI have long believed that positive energy and positive thinking were important. This year, it seems, such messages are all over: my friends on FB post things like “Live in what IS and what IS is what you desire,” family sends me books on the Law of Attraction. I know that good energy brings good things, and I try everyday to think positively, to appreciate what I have, to love myself and those around me so that I can live the fullest life possible. One of my friends said, for our New Year’s toast: “Here’s to ourselves, to loving ourselves first!” But, this year, I want to be honest with myself: I have been trying to talk myself into being positive for years and frankly, it isn’t working. I begin the day reminding myself of what is good, but before I know it, the mother I woke up trying to appreciate for who she is calls me and chides me (again!) for not being what she wanted; I look in the mirror and see the sun spots on my skin because of the fancy creams I can’t afford; I avoid the ringing phone because it is the credit card company calling (again!). I haven’t paid the bill and I can’t—I used the last of my money for rent. What IS, sucks. How am I supposed to raise my “vibrations” and be “positive” when what’s around me really isn’t?
Persephone, from Springfield
Dr. Maggie: Excellent question. I bet about 90% of the people who post about and practice “positive thinking” have this question.
Bernie: If life sucks, it sucks. Realizing that is the first step toward improving it. “Raising vibrations,” whatever that means, is just a way of denying the problem.
Dr. Martha: She’s hardly denying the problem. She’s even acknowledging that the only solution she’s been taught isn’t working. Those who advocate positive thinking and energy aren’t advocating the denial of feelings. They’re advocating the changing of feelings. Persephone wants to know how.
Dr. Maggie: Accepting the problem, in and of itself, is not enough.
Okay, so then, we must begin as always with the truth: we aren’t spiritual gurus, but we take Persephone to be asking a question that is pertinent to us all, that our heartfelt but unenlightened responses to could possibly help.
Dr. Maggie and Dr. Martha agree that many of the practices involved with “positive thinking” and changing ones “energy”—such as affirmations, mantras, smiling, laugh-therapy, etc.—can be powerful medicines, but only when the right practices are used on the right wounds. If the problem is how one thinks thoughts, then a mantra with a better thought might just be a proper antidote. If the problem, however, is that thoughts are arising because of how one feels, then a mantra may not reach the core of the problem.
Dr. Martha: Sometimes what one feels is due to what one thinks, or how one thinks, and sometimes, what one thinks is caused by how one feels.
So, the first step is examining oneself—and particularly the “negativity” one wants to combat: does it arise in the mind, the heart or the gut? As Dr. Martha adds, though there are many ways to understand feelings and thoughts, in a case like this, it might be helpful to distinguish between those that happen as immediate reactiveness to an event (say an adrenaline rush when someone is running behind you in a dark alley) versus a response to a trigger that has, perhaps, much different and deeper roots than the trigger itself.
Bernie: Exactly! The figure running in the alley may be a young boy chasing a run-away-puppy, and what you reacted to as an insult by a friend may simply be a misunderstanding. On the other hand, the aching resentment or ambiguous anxiety that your mother is calling, has been brewing for years. It’s an old poison. Simply noticing it or adding a bit of this or that sweetener won’t change its toxicity.
Dr. Maggie: if you feel judged by your mom, your mantra must address how this affects you and the practice you adopt must be one that gets at the true cause of the effects. I admire Persephone’s desire to be honest: so I’d recommend that she do it fully. What does she actually feel and think when her mother chides her? Does she still see herself through mom’s eyes; allow mom’s judgment of her to color her own judgment of herself? Or rather, is she disappointed in her mother? Does she feel guilty about that? Each of those needs different medicine.
Dissatisfaction and negative judgments don’t arise from nowhere.
As Dr. Martha says, “Just covering them with happy thoughts is like waxing one’s floor over and over without ever cleaning it.”
In order to find the medicine, one needs to identify not only the symptoms but also their causes.
Bernie, Dr. Martha, and Maggie in unison: And the secret to both of those is in whomever is asking.
It is disappointing to not have funds, to not feel loved by another, to not be able to afford to look as one would like to look. But how one reacts to those disappointments can make the difference between “positive” and “negative”: if I am disappointed and let that change me, then my energy, my heart become depleted. If I say, “Hmm, that sucks. So, what is it that I need here and how do I get it,” then my energy changes differently. It is perhaps in the end about taking full ownership of one’s self: heart, mind, energy, body. It’s not the rock’s fault if you stumble over it. Nor necessarily, is it yours. You stumbled. You can lie there, cry, resent the rock or your ankle, or you can haul yourself up, acknowledge that you now limp, find a stick to support yourself, pretend you are an old wise man in some ancient fable, and keep walking. Is it a perfect gait? No. Life is a practice. Part of the change from “negative” to “positive”—and part of what the positive thinking folks may be promoting—is to enjoy your own ingenuity at living your own life. What if, when the crap hits the fan, instead of cowering and ducking and wishing someone would turn the fan off, we experimented, played—how can we avoid the crap? Set boundaries with mom? Use cheap, all natural mud for a facial mask? When we are done practicing, we don’t get to perform our perfect piece on stage and get a round of applause: we die. Finding the joy in the practice, the play in the living is what is. As children, until we’re taught otherwise, we face everything—every obstacle—as a chance: to discover, to play, to try, to learn, to live. Perhaps Nietzsche is right that, “A man’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness of a child at play.” Perhaps so does our joy and love.
E.g.: The day before this column went to print, we watched a friend with his three-year old daughter. She whispered to him, “Ask me a question, daddy.”
“What question, baby?”
She pursed her lips, did a little dance, looked up at him as though he should know, and then leaned towards him, whispering conspiratorially, “Ask me if I love you.”
“Do you love me?” He obediently asked.
“I love you daddy!” She squealed and spun in her spotted tights and hugged him.
She was playing with one of the most important questions in her life, with no restraint, no fear and no resentment—because she knew she loved and it didn’t occur to her that she wouldn’t be loved back—and therefore, everyone in the room melted in her presence. Her father included. Perhaps that is the kind of energy with which one lives in what IS.
So what is the difference between this little girl and each of us? Whatever it is for each of us, it is that wound for which we need to find the proper medicine.