The Negative Effect of Positive Thinking

Recently, a friend of mine was the recipient of a Facebook attack. One of his ‘friends’ commented that he should not post about Donald Trump on his page because the ‘friend’ didn’t want to see that sort of ‘negative’ information in his feed. He went on to explain that the reason Trump wasn’t ‘going away’ was because people kept putting their ‘negative’ attention on him. If we stopped talking about him, the ‘friend’ said, and thought positive thoughts, Trump would just disappear because he was not in our consciousness and we would all be happy.

Girl, really?

Over the last decade, avoiding the ‘negative’ to attract a ‘positive’ outcome from ‘the universe’ as a spiritual practice has exploded in popularity. In many consciousness communities, it is no longer socially acceptable to experience – or express – an emotion that is considered ‘low frequency’. Instead, people have embraced unrelenting ‘positive’ thinking and, by doing so, believe the universe will bring everything ‘good’ to their lives as long as they can stay at a ‘high vibration’ and be a ‘match’ for it.

Why do so many people believe in magical thinking that says there is some great entity in the sky working day in and day out to give us exactly what we want if we manifest it by staying happy all the time? But, more importantly, why have we become so desperate to avoid discomfort and pain?

Published in 1952, ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ by Norman Vincent Peale, is the self-help classic. On the New York Times Bestseller List for 186 weeks, it laid the groundwork for a an industry – personal development – that is currently worth 11 billion dollars in the form of courses, workshops, books, coaching, and more. (It is also one of Donald Trump’s favorite books and he considers it instrumental in his success.)

‘The Power of Positive Thinking’s premise is simple: “formulate and staple indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding,” “hold this picture tenaciously,” and always remember it “no matter how badly things seem to be going at the moment.” But can ‘holding a picture tenaciously’ serve us in any real way when the shit really hits the fan?

Life is a complicated journey that sometimes calls for more effort than a simple attitude adjustment. Often, if not always, the path to solving a problem is looking at the problem in depth – identifying and acknowledging what isn’t working to identify a solution. When your car breaks down, you take it to a mechanic to find the issue and have it fixed. When a relationship breaks down, you address the issue and attempt to fix it – but the difference is that this will most likely require looking at some painful truths. When your government breaks down – which is how some feel about the current US presidency – the same course of action actually applies.

Does it make any more sense to ignore a broken car or an unhappy relationship or the state of the government in the United States – and think happy thoughts instead so that perhaps one day we’ll wake up and Oprah will be president and we’ll all get free cars?

There’s nothing wrong with any person utilizing a tool to make a difficult situation better. But, not only can positive thinking be somewhat nonsensical, it’s not exactly inclusive. I had an argument a few years ago with a friend who claimed positive thinking and manifestation didn’t work well for people in Africa because they had to scramble for what we, in North America, take for granted. They were what Abraham (of Abraham Hicks fame) calls ‘not a match’ for what they desired – not even the basics.

I’ll leave this one to Dave Chappelle, who sums it up best telling the story of receiving a copy of ‘The Secret’ after he left the incredibly popular ‘Chappelle’s Show ’.

Fly to Africa and tell those starving children that sh*t. What’s wrong with you? I have not eaten in 5 days. Well, what you need to do is visualize some roast beef, and mashed potatoes and gravy…..The problem is you have a bad attitude about starving to death.”

If all it takes is positive thinking then there are a lot of people who aren’t hearing the gospel. According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people worldwide are now living with depression, an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015. Of course we don’t have to think about our problems all the time, there’s no harm in enjoyment. But where did anyone get the idea that life is always supposed to feel good? Something feeling not good is an indication that we need to face something head on – not wish it away. And not feeling good also signals us to the reality that we need help and support. Seeing what isn’t working can inspire us to move toward what does. Where is the transformation in ignoring our painful issues – because we all have them – and demanding 100% happiness, 100% of the time?

Suffering is a part of our human condition. According to Krishnamurti – and other great teachers – the way past suffering is through, not around.

“Can I understand what is suffering when a part of my mind is running away seeking happiness, seeking a way out of this misery? So must I not, if I am to understand suffering, be completely one with it, not reject it, not justify it, not condemn it, not compare it, but completely be with it and understand it? The truth of what is happiness will come if I know how to listen. I must know how to listen to suffering; if I can listen to suffering I can listen to happiness because that is what I am.” – Krishnamurti, ‘The Book of Life’

Any spiritual practice that involves judgement and a lack of inclusion is no spiritual practice at all. Like demanding that someone curate their social media feed to your likes and dislikes so they don’t feel uncomfortable, it takes a certain level of selfishness and self-absorption to decree that someone essentially gets what they deserve when they don’t match a certain ‘vibration’. There is insanity inherent in demanding that you – and the people around you – don’t experience their entire emotional spectrum and only feel ‘positive emotions’. Our emotions – all of them – are our teachers. We can’t do away with them. Without them, we lack the depth of being that makes each of us unique and yet so much the same.

If there is such a thing as spiritual growth, it should include a growing capacity for understanding and acceptance. Rather than sweeping something ‘negative’ under the rug, we can let whatever we find on our path impact us, motivate us, and inspire us to greater empathy and compassion – for ourselves and others. If every experience in every moment, positive or negative, can lead us there, that is true transformation. That’s where the magic is.

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