In the words of a former client: “When I finally looked into all of my most painful moments, I saw that it was my own thinking about the situations that made them so bad.”
Some people seem to be born with a positive disposition, with optimism at their core. It doesn’t matter if they had saint-like parents nurturing them in all the right ways or came from the most challenging of childhoods, marked by poverty or abuse- they see the silver lining, and their joy is contagious! Others of us struggle with negative, defeating thinking- even if things have always worked out reasonably well for us. The mind is a powerful indicator of our ability to enjoy our time on this planet and to make a positive impact while we’re at it. Have you found that your biggest obstacle to happiness or reaching your potential is your own mind? Count yourself among the majority of humanity! We all have struggled with the fact that our own thoughts in reaction to difficult situations can make the situations much worse.
The good news is that we can work with our own minds. We can leverage our thinking mind in ways that- over time- develop a positivity bias in our brains. As Rick Hanson says in his book Hardwiring Happiness, “All mental activity—sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes—is based on underlying neural activity. Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on its channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/ neural activity—especially if it is conscious— will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like a surging current reshaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain.”
We can use this powerful information in two directions- limiting the negative and cultivating the positive, both discussed below.
Respectfully Set Boundaries With the Negative Mind
Negative thoughts come and go, just like positive thoughts. Negative and positive experiences come and go, alike. It has been said that our minds evolved to take special note of negative experiences, in order to protect us from future negative experiences. For other species, and for our pre-homo sapiens ancestors, a “negative” experience would be something like encountering a predator and narrowly escaping alive, or experimenting with eating an unfamiliar plant and becoming violently ill.
We no longer have close calls with such life-threatening experiences in the mainstream modern lifestyle, yet most of us still have the same strong internal reactions to common, but unpleasant experiences. A supervisor at work gives us a less-than-glowing yearly review or a friend neglects to include us in group plans, and it can fill our minds as if it were a life-threatening encounter. We might have anxiety around encountering the supervisor or the friend the next day, or we might ruminate over what imminent problems the event portends, such as being fired or being told your friends no longer find you interesting. Nevermind that 80% of the work review was positive, or that the event you weren’t invited to was a musical jam and you’re not a musician… our minds have a way of running away with shreds of negative experience and drawing a picture much worse than it actually is.
Along the same lines, we may find ourselves repeating difficult conversations / conflicts in our minds, practicing the statements we wished we had made in order to maintain our dignity / demonstrate the inferiority of the other party.
When we step back from these thought patterns, we can see that they are useless. In the vast majority of cases, it is useless to fret over whether something more drastic is coming down the line after we’ve had an unpleasant experience. It is useless to repeatedly play back challenging interactions and to build up our own sense of superiority or righteous indignation. In fact, it’s not only useless: it’s harmful! If there is anything to be worried about in this area, it is our own negative thought process. As Dr. Hanson says, the repeated thought patterns we follow develop and strengthen neural pathways- whether the thought patterns are damning, angry thoughts or are loving, joyful thoughts. I would posit that the pathways we develop in our brains lead to not only further thoughts along the same lines, but further actions, and, hence experiences. This is the degree to which I can get behind “The Secret”- type thinking. Yes, our thoughts create our reality: they manipulate our physical brain and sway our future thoughts and actions. The future starts with the thoughts you are thinking right now. Is it going to be a limiting, afflicted reality… or an expansive, liberated reality? The choice is ours!
Luckily, we are not the victims of our thoughts. Maybe your thoughts are way more negative than you would prefer. The most important thing is that you see this, and determine to work with your mind. The only way to make change is with respect and compassion. When you see the negativity, take note, pause, and gently embrace your fighting, negative mind. You can journal or even say a silent mantra to yourself, “Everything is okay.” “I don’t need to fight.” “I’m here for myself,” “I love and respect myself.” Just like a meditation practice, you can decide to drop the negative line of thinking and pick up a positive line of thinking. For example, dropping the argument re-hash and deciding to pay attention to the beautiful flowers on the path you are walking. Or thinking about someone you love and appreciate. You may have to re-direct your mind a dozen times in as many minutes, but this boundary-setting around negative thought processes is making a difference. You are employing your pre-frontal cortex in the enterprise of minimizing negative thought-pathways in your brain stemming from the amygdala. Your brain has its reasons for being focused on the negative, yet you have the ability to guide it towards patterns that serve you best.
Cultivate the Positive
Going a step further, you can choose to turn your attention towards the positive at any time.
It can be a part of your meditation practice, it can be something you do once an hour with a bell chime you set up on your cell phone, it can be something you do, as mentioned above, in response to a negative thought-stream you’ve just found yourself following. Here are just a small sample of countless potential practices to try:
A quick and calming practice is to contemplate a source of support you’ve known in your life- a person, a pet, an organization, a tree. Allow your mind to rest on that source of support and how the feeling of being supported feels in your body. Stay with that awareness for a full minute or two, relaxing into the soft feeling of being cared for.
Another example is gratitude-listing. Take 3 minutes to get out a pen and paper and write, stream-of-consciousness-style, everything that comes to mind for which you are grateful. Some people do this every day. I do it many mornings.
An alternative is to write down one thing for which you are grateful and the several (positive) ways you feel because of it. For example, I am grateful for the internet because it allows me to feel more connected when others can see what I have written and respond to it. The internet helps me feel abundant because it allows part of my livelihood to exist. The internet helps me feel more efficient when I can use it quickly to find information as I’m making plans or writing. The internet brings me a sense of being in community when I see that others around the world share my political and spiritual perspectives.
The loving-kindness meditation practice is powerful, and also requires more time than the other practices just listed. It is a heart-opening concentration practice of developing genuine goodwill for yourself and all others. Here is a description of loving-kindness meditation by teacher Jack Kornfield, and a 40 minute talk / guided loving-kindness meditation by teacher Tara Brach. One of the most powerful meditation retreats I have attended was a week-long silent retreat on the topic of loving-kindness. Out of that came a commitment to practice in this way on one specific day of the week (at the least.) I am grateful to have the regular opportunity to make a little more space in my heart. Similar to forgiveness meditation, loving-kindness can be triggering when we bring to mind those who have presented challenges in our lives. I believe this confrontation with our mental formations around challenging people is a direct line to freedom. When we work with our minds, we can break ourselves free of hatred by growing forgiveness and free of judgement by growing compassion.
Another heart-opening (and more lengthy) practice I enjoy is sympathetic joy. This is an excellent antidote to envy. In the meditation, you contemplate the blessings and good fortune of others, and grow your sense of joy for them that things are going so well. Here is an article describing the practice, by teacher Sharon Salzberg. Here is also a 1-hour talk and guided meditation of the practice, by teacher Joseph Goldstein.
Important skills you are strengthening:
Share Your Experience
What have you learned about nurturing your own positive mental states? Please share about it in the “comments” section. The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!