I recently read the following “poem:”
Watch your thoughts, they become your words.
Watch your words, they become your actions.
Watch your actions, they become your habits.
Watch your habits, they become your character.
Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.
Watch your thoughts.
For many years I’ve known, at least in the back of my mind, that thoughts are powerful, directional forces in one’s life. I remember in a college philosophy class reading these quotes by Marcus Aurelius:
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of one’s thoughts.”
“Very little is needed to make a happy life, it is all within yourself, within your way of thinking.”
Yes, Emperor Aurelius, what we think is important.
But we’ve all had those days where we wake up feeling morose and cranky…and the rest of the day seems to follow suit. Then there are those times we think unstoppable, triumphant, glorious thoughts…and all the circumstances of the day seem to work in our favor.
So the solution is simple, right? Just think more positively and have a better life…in the words of the poet Biggie Smalls:
‘Cause I went from negative to positive
And it’s all…(It’s all good)
But here’s my issue/concern #1:
How much control does one really have over one’s thoughts? How much should we expect ourselves to have the ability to watch over them? How does one simply “switch from negative to positive” despite the intervening chaos of the outside world?
Because the outside world often invades our thinking. We’re not empty islands of consciousness. We’re affected by our past and our surroundings. When you’re tired or you’re in pain, you think negatively. When you listen to a beautiful song, your thinking becomes brighter and more positive. Depending on what you eat, your thinking is altered (just now I crushed an entire box of cinnamon toast crunch and I “see” my thoughts are more sluggish and uncooperative.) If you’re high on drugs, you think you’re on top of the world. When your loved one is treating you cruelly, your thinking plummets. When you overcome an obstacle, do something kind for someone else, or even remember a special moment, the color of your thoughts change.
Over the years I’ve read hundreds of articles and books on free will and the brain. I desperately want to believe that the brain is more than a complicated muscle. There’s a burning conviction inside of me that I can mold and craft my life within reasonable bounds. But when I mentally step back I can’t get over the knowledge that your sense of self, your mood, your beliefs can be altered by poking, cutting, and tampering with the physical brain. Insert dopamine into the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus: happiness.
Unsatisfying Conclusion #1: The “self” is influenced by millions of unfathomable things…we can play games with it (in a bad mood? listen to your favorite song, exercise, remember a beautiful moment…then ride the mental momentum etc.) but this doesn’t take away from the fact that we’re constantly pushed and pulled around and it’s not always easy to press the on-switch of positive thinking.
Issue/Concern #2: Negativing thinking and doubt can be horrifying and tortuous now, but it may pay off in the future.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” -Friedrich Nietzsche
“My mustache is better than yours.” Friedrich Nietzsche
Contained doses of struggle has its merits. Whether it’s your leg muscles or your brain, if you don’t work them, they decline. Because everything is in flux, nothing stays the same (Buddhism 101).
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
“We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.”
This means that negative thinking, mental struggle, and spiritual pain carves out parts of our mind and selves so that we think more clearly, simply, and positively in the future. Mental anguish makes us better on the other side.
So shouldn’t we, in a sense, say bring it on to negative thoughts? Shouldn’t we submerge ourselves in loathing and confusion? Because if we survive…we not only have learned about ourselves and the world, but we’re left with the residual belief that we can handle anything in the future.
Right now I could drop my writing ambitions and coast on positive thoughts for the rest of my life. Whenever negativity creeps into my consciousness I’ll jump on it and say: “At least I’m not starving, at least I can go to the movies, at least I’m not retarded or paraplegic, at least there’s bacon, at least my dog loves me, I’M THE MAN, LIFE IS GOOD.” But no…I return to my apartment and I’m consumed by doubt and anger. I beat myself up.
Yet how long will this go on? How much progress should we attempt to achieve through ceaseless struggle?
I used to read a lot of self-help books. Many of them have the following message:
What you think about, you bring about.
This is also the message of “The Secret” or The Law of Attraction: By focusing on positive or negative thoughts a person brings positive or negative experiences into their life.
So if I focus, positively, on being a successful writer, on being a good person, on a healthy, sunny existence…experience will mirror my beliefs?
Perhaps…in my own, narrow way.
But I think this sort of positive thinking can be dangerous, can be stagnating. How does one improve if they’re always patting themselves on the back? How does someone move to another level in their art, in their thinking, in their confidence, in their strength, if they are busy telling themselves how good they are? Doesn’t calling yourself a wretched, stupid, lazy nobody provoke action to remedy the situation?
Today a regular came to my bar and was pissed off that he had to wait a couple minutes for his drink. Then he was angry that there wasn’t enough vodka in his Moscow Mule. Before he left, he told the new bartender that, “I’m actually a really nice guy. I’m not an asshole.” A quote from a Louis CK comedy sketch came to my mind: “Nobody’s allowed to say that they’re not an asshole. It’s not for them to decide! Other people decide whether or not you’re asshole.”
So can’t positive thinking, in a sense, be delusional? You repeat to yourself: I’m a nice guy, I’m successful, I’m strong, I’m charming, I’m caring…meanwhile, you’re a mean, weak, selfish bastard living in a hovel. Wouldn’t it be better if you had more negative, confusing, depressing thoughts? Wouldn’t that develop more empathy and understanding?
Unsatisfying Conclusion #2: Yes, negative thinking may bring about negative experiences…but it is also your brain searching and coping and digging through the maelstrom of experience.
“To live is to war with trolls.”
All that being said, we should still watch our thoughts, positive or negative.
But don’t flee the battlefield.