The reason positive thinking isn’t genuinely helpful is because ‘peace of mind’ or ‘a sense of inner well-being’ cannot come about as a result of what we think. We can’t think ourselves into feeling happy – we can’t think ourselves into feeling anything that is actually real! This isn’t just a criticism of positive thinking therefore (which no one believes in anyway these days) but in rational therapy as a whole, no matter how sophisticated (and ‘evidence-based’) it might seem.
Thoughts are how we represent the world to ourselves and our representations of the world cannot instil a sense of genuine peace or well-being in us, no matter what we might ‘think’ to the contrary. Nothing that we ourselves have to control can bring about peace of mind, can bring about a genuine sense of well-being; this – very obviously – is the one thing we absolutely cannot ever supply for ourselves!
Thoughts are useful for lots and lots of other reasons, obviously, but the one job they are not good for is making us feel better about things (or making us feel better about ourselves) where we would not otherwise do so. This is – we could say – is a ‘misuse’ of thinking. It’s cheating! It’s the wrong road to go down. It’s the wrong road to go down because it unfailingly leads to a place of unbearable neurotic suffering.
How could we possibly imagine that representing the world to ourselves in a ‘favourable way’ is a legitimate way to feel good? If we go down this road – and we are always going down this road – then straightaway we make ourselves dependent upon our thinking for feeling OK and this – needless to say – is not a good thing. We cannot make our mental health dependent upon activities that we ourselves have to perform. That’s like putting Count Dracula in charge of a blood bank!
As soon as we start thinking that we have to ‘do a certain thing’ in order to feel ‘okay’ (or feel at all ‘right’ in ourselves) then we are making ourselves dependent. If I am anxious, for example, and I learn to enact some behaviour in order to feel better, in order to feel more relaxed, then I had given away my freedom to this ‘coping behaviour’, and if I am in a low mood and I adopt a strategy in order to feel better, then I have in the same way handed over my autonomy to this strategy. I now have to ‘do the thing’ whenever I feel bad because that’s the only way that I have to feel better!
So what’s wrong with this, we might ask? If the method works, and is reliable, then what’s wrong with ‘relying’ on it, what’s wrong with allowing ourselves to become ‘dependent’ on it? There are two answers we can give to this question. The first answer is to say that all psychological methods will let us down in the end. They will let us down as soon as we see through them, and there’s no way that – in the end – we won’t see through them!
Strategies to enable ourselves to feel better about ourselves or the world are essentially ‘tricks’; they are essentially ‘exercises in self-deception’, and so as soon as consciousness comes back into the picture – which (as we have said) sooner or later it will – then we will see through the trick, we will see through the strategy. Suppose that I represent the world to myself in such a way that I start to feel better about things, or feel better about myself (which equals ‘positive thinking’!) – this will therefore serve me as a strategy for cheering myself up, for getting myself out of a bit of a slump, and this is fine until one day I become aware that I am ‘representing reality to myself in a certain way for the sake of causing myself to feel better about things’ and when I see this then I’m not going to feel better about things any more. I’m actually going to feel a lot worse, not better. Seeing through the trick that causes us to see our situation as being better than it really is causes even more pain than the pain we were initially suffering from.
The same would be true for strategies that we use for ‘self-calming’ or ‘self soothing’ – by means of some deliberate manipulation we are causing ourselves to feel calmer about things, more relaxed about things, but this ‘calmness’ is only coming about because of something we ourselves are doing. It is only coming about – if indeed it does come about, which very often it doesn’t – as a result of something we ‘have to’ do (since if we didn’t do it then we’d be straight back into the anxiety again) and the awareness of the mechanics of this situation is anything but calming! The strategy might (and ‘might’ is the operative word here) be calming, but the awareness of the strategy, and the awareness of wider implications of the fact that we are using it, is the exact opposite of calming. The ‘anti-anxiety strategy’ that we are using is actually highly anxiogenic.
In general then, for any ‘psychological strategy’ to actually work, we have to be ‘unconscious of the wider implications of what we are doing’, and a simpler way of putting this is just to say that ‘for the strategy to work we have to be unconscious’. Clearly we have to be unconscious since if we were conscious of what’s going on (and what it is that we are actually doing with this strategy), then we would – as we have just been saying – feel worse instead of better. We’d be more anxious rather than less. This is a conundrum, therefore – our strategies (which are supposed to be ‘therapeutic’) only work when we are unconscious, when we have ‘tunnel vision’, and so there is obviously something very suspicious indeed about this! Essentially, we are attempting to remedy our suffering by becoming less conscious rather than becoming more conscious; this is of course a very normal thing for us to do, but this time we are dignifying our ill-advised ‘attempted escape from reality by calling it ‘therapy’ and telling everyone that it is ‘evidence-based’!
There is another problem with using our thinking in order to feel better (aside from the fact that we will sooner or later let us down); there is another, separate problem that will affect us right from the beginning, even before we start to see through the trick that we are playing on ourselves (and, as we have just said, all psychological strategies are tricks). Thinking is of course a ‘two-edged sword’ and so the problem is that just as we can make things seem better than they are with our thinking we can also make them seem worse by thinking about them the other way. Spin can be positive or negative. Thinking can lead to euphoria, but it can equally well lead to despair.
If I can cheer myself up with my thinking then I can also ‘think myself into a hole’, I can also thoroughly demoralise and dismay myself. I can actually terrorise myself with my thinking, which is not a nice discovery to make! So is making ourselves dependent on the thinking process for whether we are going to feel good or bad such a good idea? The two-edged sword cuts both ways equally well, and – what’s more – it really doesn’t care which way it cuts! It’s all the same to the sword whether it cuts the one way or the other.
We of course always imagine that we can control our thinking – this is ‘the very big illusion’ that we are so supremely reluctant to examine. Who is it that we imagine is ‘controlling’ our thinking? The whole thing about controlling our thinking is that it is an infinite regression: any controlling at all comes out of the theory or picture or model of the world that we have, any controlling at all comes out of our ‘ideas of right and wrong’. If this were not so, then how could we ‘control’? What else is control other than us ‘trying to get the world to accord with our ideas of right and wrong’?
So our ideas about the world (and our ideas about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’) are what ‘control our controlling’ so to speak. We can only control if we first let ourselves be told how to control (and told what the outcomes of the controlling are to be) by our thinking. If we ever start to question what our thinking is telling us, if we ever start to doubt it, then we can’t control. We have to completely ‘go along’ with what the rational mind is telling us is right and wrong because this is the only way that controlling can ever happen. The mechanism is jinxed otherwise. But – in this case – how can we possibly talk about ‘controlling our thinking’? What sort of utter stupidity is this? As professor of theoretical physics David Bohm points out, thought controls us and at the same time it gives us the information that WE are controlling it.
Contemporary psychology doesn’t tell us this however and the very fact that it doesn’t, the very fact that it isn’t crystal clear on this all-important point, very much tends to de-validate anything it says. Its silence on this matter very much throws doubt any of its so-called solutions or strategies, ‘thought-based’ as they are. Rational psychology can in no way help to free us from our thoughts (be they euphoric or dysphoric in nature) – it arises from thought in the first place, nowhere else, and for this reason there is nothing that it can ever do to free us from our thinking. Rational psychology can only enslave us all the more, it can only ever pull us deeper and deeper into the unending complications and convolutions of ‘the mind maze‘. It will ‘lure us on’ with apparent solutions, but these ‘apparent solutions’ will only ever lead us on to a fresh crop of new problems. When its mental health we’re talking about, the ‘fixing approach’ creates problems rather than getting rid of them… The helpful thing is to learn to get better at ‘not fixing‘.
As Stephen Hagen says, what we’re doing is like trying to ‘cure’ a bump in the carpet in our living room by strategically placing a heavy sideboard on it. The bump of course simply reappear somewhere else and so we have to find another piece of heavy furniture to squash the new bump; we’re playing the game of ‘chasing the bump’ therefore, which – as a game – has very worrying similarities to the well-known game of ‘whack-a-mole’! So if it isn’t our thinking that’s going to help us (if it isn’t our thinking that’s going to lead us to ‘peace of mind’ and a ‘sense of inner well-being’) then what is? Where do we turn, if not to the rational mind?
The basic point that we looking at here is nothing if not simple. The function of thought is always to change things – if something didn’t need changing then we would need to think about it. This is the legitimate function of thought, and the controlling that comes out of it. When it comes to the actual present reality of our situation however – i.e. ‘the reality of the present moment’ – changing things is not a legitimate approach. What is ‘legitimate’ is consciousness. The difference between consciousness and thought is the difference between the negative and positive philosophical paradigms. Where thought always operates in a ‘positive’ way by ‘projecting its own assumed order on the world’, consciousness operates by not projecting anything, by being open (or sensitive) to whatever is there.
So the question is: Is it ‘mentally healthy’ to attempt to change the reality of the present moment (which is as Krishnamurti says quintessentially choiceless in its nature), or is it ‘mentally healthy’ to see that choiceless present moment for what it is?