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Jim Selman

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Positively Stinking Thinking

Posted: 10/14/09 10:13 AM ET

Julia Baird has a nice piece in the September 25th issue of Newsweek called "Positively Downbeat". She's commenting on Americans' obsession with being happy and the billions we spend to learn "the secret". It's all about quick and easy fixes for life's dilemmas and the not-so-small industry of consultants, motivational speakers and authors that are standing in the wings to offer answers and potions. She rightly points to the grand daddy of all self-help offerings, "The Power of Positive Thinking" by Norman Vincent Peale and its latest incarnation "The Secret" by Rhonda Byrne as archetypal examples of this genre.

I am not against the intentions behind our quest for happier and richer lives. Like millions of others, I can nod my head in agreement with most of the wisdom contained in these offerings. I have been a self-help junkie myself in the past. But as I get older, I have learned that I am not my 'thinking' and the little voice in my head is not always my friend. Most recovered alcoholics and addicts will tell you that it was their 'thinking' that took them to their 'bottom'--before they found the wherewithal or higher power or whatever it took to begin to wake up and realize that they were as much victims of their 'stinking thinking' as they were of whatever substance was abusing them.

The problem with positive thinking is not its goal, but the fact that in order to think positively you must first have something negative to think positively about. The result is that every time you're thinking positively, the negative context is still present and being constantly reinforced. Positive thinking tends to tranquilize us into a 'good feeling' about the future and blinds us to the facts of a given situation. But more importantly, the whole 'positive or negative' perspective on life seduces us into an even nastier delusion that our points-of-view are true (or false) and that our egocentric 'will' can determine what happens.

This is not to say that we should begin a campaign to promote 'anti-positive thinking'. That would be just another variation of the same thing. Most of the folks who call themselves 'realists' are drinking from the same bucket--the belief that life is a certain way and if we can only figure it out, have the right perspective, then we will know what to do and can have things be the way we want them to be. Sooner or later the message comes home--reality doesn't care what we think!

Moreover, whatever our point of view at a given moment, it is always and only a point of view and will never become the truth. None of us 'knows' THE truth and all of our interpretations are legitimate and make sense from our point of view. I am not suggesting that everything is relative or that we don't have to be responsible and committed with respect to how we observe our world and the actions we take. I am saying that our automatic 'little voice' thinking is not and never will give us what we need to be happy or to accomplish our dreams. And, I am suggesting that the idea that the little voice is who we are will trap us into an ego-centered relationship with life that ultimately becomes the source for most, if not all, unhappiness and suffering--the belief that life 'should be' positive and that we need 'control' to avoid the negative. This in turn leads to practices and patterns that reinforce or suppress what we don't want. We become trapped in a self-fulfilling vicious cycle of our own making.

Julia Baird cites a book by Barbara Ehrenreich, "Bright-Sided: How Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America", that makes this point. When we buy into positive thinking, we are drifting into a kind of denial of 'the way it is' that sooner or later will have us wake up one day to the realization that we gave away our power and our future possibilities to a circumstantially determined view of life. We bought into the idea that, by thinking that our thoughts can create reality, we actually were reinforcing the idea that reality is 'out there' and if we think hard enough in a particular way it will change and be more like the reality we want 'in here'.

One answer that has proven wise over the millennia is to 'accept' life on life's terms. To allow reality to be whatever it is and concentrate on just Being Present to whatever is occurring in the moment. This is the basis for most Eastern Philosophy and Western contemplative traditions. The idea is that if you let it be, then it will let you be. When we can do this, then we can experience serenity regardless of our circumstances. I have suggested that the other side of the coin, however, is the capacity to simultaneously hold an ambition for a different future. This notion of Serene Ambition is the inspiration for my blog and for my work as a coach where we need to accept people the way they are while creating a larger possibility for whatever they want in life.

We might call 'creative thinking' the alternative to 'positive' thinking. When we create, we start from nothing and invent, design, 'bring forth' whatever we can imagine is missing. We put our wisdom into action FOR a future that we can imagine and not against whatever negative points of view we may have about our circumstances.

Copyright 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.