A couple of years ago a friend of mine tried introducing me to mindfulness and positive thinking. “That’s all nonsense,” I said. At the time this was my default reaction to anything new, but I felt I was right to be skeptical.
For one, my friend is one of those happy-go-lucky types. One look at his Facebook feed and you’ll know what I mean. It is awash with nothing but motivational quotes.
“Don’t be yourself. Be your better self.”
“Believe you can and your halfway there.”
The only time I ever consulted him for advice his response was: “Close your eyes. Take a breath and the answer will come to you.”
Needless to say, that didn’t help with my car loan repayments at all.
I was also highly skeptical of all this positivity malarkey. I considered it highly overrated. Sure, a cynical, critical, and cruel voice inhabited my head and it often told me I was doing a terrible job, but this is what pushed me to improve.
In fact, I explained to my friend, all significant achievements in history were fueled by insecurity and anxiety. “Mollycoddling didn’t put man on the moon,” I think were my exact words.
About a year later, after a particularly bad breakup, I didn’t feel my stance on this topic was as solid as before. The breakup hit me hard. During those dark days everything in life was a joyless chore. You name it: Eating food, meeting friends, going to work, showering! They had all become tasks that were pointless. I’ve heard depression described as the complete absence of hope and this is probably best description of what I went through.
Most of the people around me (friends, family, colleagues) didn’t see a difference. I’m grumpy at the best of times. In its natural resting position, my face can only be described as miserable. Even on days when I’m full of joy people have come up to me and asked, “Is everything OK?”
I tired luring my mind into a happy place, but it proved impossible. Learning to juggle with chainsaws would have been an easier task. Instead, I did what I had always done when I felt lost. I drank, I smoked, and I got on planes and trains and went traveling. Each escapade offered only momentary relief before the sinking feeling began to take over again.
By the time I finally dragged myself out of the hole, a month or two later, my mind was made up. I had resolved to never feel like this again. Sheepishly I approached my friend and asked about mindfulness and positive thinking. This time I was a little more receptive. I even suppressed my innate cynicism when he regurgitated nonsense: “When the universe speaks you need to listen.”
I didn’t understand everything that was said but I managed to break it down in my head like this.
Our brains are a little like transistor radios and we are tuned to frequencies. Some of us pick up positive wavelengths, others can only receive negative signals. This is why certain people can be stuck in a traffic jam and immediately use this as an opportunity to listen to their favorite podcast or catch up on study. Then you have others, like me, who bang their fists on the stirring wheel and scream. “God, why do you hate me?”
Not all negativity is bad, of course. Some scientists believe it’s a useful defensive mechanism. Suspicion and paranoia are kept the human race alive for millennia.
Problems occurs, however, when all the positive signals are blocked. This is essentially what to me. All those years I spent thinking about worse case scenarios meant I couldn’t hold on to a happy thought when I needed them the most. After the breakup I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, I couldn’t even imagine one would ever exist again.
Mindfulness and positive thinking can be used to reign in some of those dark thoughts and help your mind become a little more optimistic. They are rooted in Buddhist belief that compassion is the key to good life. Not just compassion for others but showing yourself a little gratitude too. Be kind. Pat yourself on the back for getting up in the morning. Congratulate yourself for tying those shoelaces. Celebrate the small victories that make up the day. Doing this won’t solve all your problems but it will help your antenna pick up some positive signals once in a while. And there’s nothing wrong with that.