Friday, May 9, 2014

POSITIVE THINKING, NEGATIVE THINKING AND MINDFULNESS

In the course of living I have changed my views about a lot of things. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have a huge amount of respect for the ideas of the late Dr Norman Vincent Peale [pictured left, and below], pastor, professional speaker, lecturer, broadcaster, counsellor, nonprofit leader, publisher, editor, syndicated newspaper columnist and the celebrated author of numeous best-selling books on personal development and spirituality including his 1952 all-time classic The Power of Positive Thinking. I also have a great deal of both respect and love for the man himself whom I heard speak in Sydney, Australia on two separate occasions. If I had to choose between the two, I would say---and indeed do say---that positive thinking is much better than negative thinking … any day of the week.

You know, although Dr Peale has been dead for over 20 years, he continues to be attacked by, among others, fundamentalist and evangelical Christians and some in the psychology business. The attacks are cruel, vicious, unfair ... and unrelenting. Dr Peale was attacked during his lifetime as well, but he out-loved his critics and carried on regardless. That’s one of the reasons I still love him, and I have derived for many decades now much benefit and inspiration from his books, sermons, and addresses. Most people don't know this, but Peale was many decades ahead of the times with his emphasis on the relationship between psychology and religious experience, and he was one of the first people---if not the very first---to combine depth psychology with religion. In 1937 Peale, in conjunction with the psychiatrist Dr Smiley Blanton, established at his New York City church a religio-psychiatric clinic. This was America's first service combining religion and psychiatry for the sake of mental health. It is known today as the Blanton-Peale Institute. I could say many more positive things about Dr Peale. The bottom line is this---Peale helped millions of people all around the world during his long lifetime, and his books on the subjects of bereavement and spiritual healing are especially worth reading even today.

Another reason I loved him---and still do---is that he saw an inner greatness in human beings, and sought to draw that out. He said this: ‘I would like to be remembered as loving people … and believing in people’s potential. They are greater than they think they are.’ I also love this saying of his: ‘There is a spiritual giant within you, which is always struggling to burst its way out of the prison you have made for it.’ 

Sadly, it’s those sorts of statements, which show that Peale took a ‘high’ view of man, that result in the spewing of so much venom against him and his ideas from Christian evangelicals. Actually, Peale
was a conservative evangelical for the most part, but he tended not to use, that is, write and speak in, the language of the conservative evangelical. 

There is much, much more that the conservative Christians dislike about Peale, including the fact that he was a Freemason, and the fact that he borrowed some ideas, thought-forms and language from New Thought in his sincere attempt to explain, and help people apply, the principles of Christianity. They also attack him for what they see as a more general religious syncretism in his writings and sermons. They dismiss his method of affirmative prayer as nothing other than auto-suggestion. They attack him for preaching both a 'theology of man' and a 'gospel of success,' for his public acceptance and non-condemnation of homosexuality, for appearing to question the truth of certain fundamental (in their view) Christian teachings, for combining religion and pop psychology, and for his having a 'high regard' (Peale's words) for psychiatry. They attack him for allegedly preaching universalism. They somewhat hypocritically attack him for his conservative politics and stances he took on some contentious issues, even though their own politics are almost invariably ultra-conservative. They accuse him of being a bigot---something he definitely wasn't (in that regard, please see this link)---even though they themselves are pretty good at being bigots. They go so far as to attack others who were his friends or who endorsed him or his books, including the Southern Baptist ordained minister and evangelist Dr Billy Graham. Guilt by association, that is---and very unfair. There is no end to it. Even Dr Peale's Wikipedia profile has been sabotaged by these narrow-minded people with an axe to grind so as to accentuate the negative and eliminate, or at least downplay almost to the point of nothingness, the positive about the man and his many achievements. Damn the lot of them, who do this sort of thing, I say. For the most part, they are being grossly unfair to Peale, and they have misinterpreted (I suspect deliberately in the majority of cases) his ideas and writings.

However, here’s where I have come to differ from Dr Peale and his ‘doctrine of positive thinking.’ Dr Peale used to say that whenever a negative thought enters into your consciousness, you should immediately replace that thought with a positive one. Sounds good advice, doesn’t it? However, I have come to the view that, ordinarily, the best thing to do is this---simply watch and observe your thoughts and feelings---a feeling being a felt thought, and the direct result of thought---with passive detachment. That is an integral part of mindfulness, you know. Do not feel any pressure or compulsion to change your thoughts or feelings. That takes time and effort---and thought substitution breaks what would otherwise be your direct and immediate moment-to-moment experience of life. No, simply watch and observe the negative thought or feeling dispassionately. In and of themselves, these thoughts have no 'content' and therefore no power to hurt you, so don’t give them any power they don’t deserve by even seeking to change them. Thought is simply a function of consciousness (or mind), with the latter being the total field in which thought functions.

Believed thought is a different matter. Believed thought is thought you have accepted as true irrespective of whether or not it actually is true. Belief adds 'content' to our thoughts and feelings and thus gives them a certain power they otherwise would not have. Believed thought is a matter you do need to be concerned with, for that sort of thought can have biochemical effects on the cells on your body. If you doubt that, I can only suggest you read Bruce Lipton's book The Biology of Belief.

Now, when a negative thought or emotion enters into your consciousness, don’t deny its existence or seek to override or counteract the thought or feeling with a positive one. Again, that is giving the thought or feeling more attention, recognition, and power than it rightly deserves. Observe and briefly note its existence, but spend no time---not even a nanosecond---evaluating, labelling, judging, or condemning that thought. Simply let the thought or feeling go.

In saying all of the above, I wish to stress that I am not advocating negative thinking. As I said above, other things being equal, positive thinking is ‘better’ than negative thinking, but at the end of the day, both types of thinking are just that---thinking---and thoughts and feelings have no power---I repeat, no power---in and of themselves to hurt you. End of story.

In fairness to Dr Peale---well, someone needs to be fair to him---I should mention that in many of his books he spoke about simply 'dropping' negative, unhealthy thoughts as opposed to actively replacing them with positive thoughts. This 'dropping' of unhealthy thoughts, as part of what Peale would refer to as 'emptying the mind,' is much closer to the mindfulness approach. (I recall Krishnamurti referring to meditation as the 'emptying of the mind,' and writing that the mind is empty 'when thought is not.') Peale also wrote about the need for daily practice of what he referred to as 'creative silence.' This again is something quite similar to mindfulness. He also wrote often about the psychological and spiritual principles of indirectness and non-resistance, and the need to stop struggling and let go. Finally, it should also be kept in mind that Peale tended to use the words 'positive thinking' to mean faith in God and Jesus Christ. He saw those things as synonymous, and made that perfectly clear in, for example, his 1980 book The Positive Power of Jesus Christ---a book which gives clear and unambiguous expression to his underlying conservative evangelical faith.

Some psychologists have attacked Peale’s doctrine of positive thinking on the ground that what is needed is ‘realistic thinking,’ not positive thinking. Well, these people have read little, or most selectively, of Peale, for he often stressed the point that that true positive thinking is realistic thinking. He wrote, ‘Positive thinking is realistic thinking … The positive thinker does not refuse to recognize the negative; he or she refuses to dwell on it. Positive thinking is a form of thought which habitually looks for the best results from the worst conditions.’ In his 1976 book The Positive Principle Today Peale wrote that positive thinking is 'a totality of sound thinking, dealing forthrightly and creatively with the facts of human existence. The positive thinker sees all difficulties and sees them straight. Nor he is abashed by them, nor does he seek an "escapist" out from them. ... The positive thinker is aware that only when the mind is cool, and under strong mental control, will it produce those dispassionate, rational, and intellectual concepts that lead to sound and viable solutions.' In other words, positive thinking---'tough-minded optimism,' Peale called it---is anything but wishful, fanciful thinking. It is, according to Peale, only through a 'sound intellectual process' that we can find solid, rational answers to our probems.

Now, there is definitely a place for a positive mental attitude. For example, when you are seeking to solve a problem, and are considering all the options, and evaluating your strengths and weaknesses as well as and the challenges, threats, and opportunities before you, I strongly recommend that you think positively---that is, optimistically but also realistically---about yourself and all the issues involved. However, when it comes to living out your moment-to-moment existence, and responding (as opposed to reacting) to the external and internal stimuli that constitute our ever-changing consciousness and experience of life, the best advice I can give you is simply to look, watch, and observe with choicless awareness and passive detachment.

Negative thoughts and feelings? Bah! Humbug!


Note. For those who are interested, here is a link to an address I delivered some years ago at the Sydney Unitarian Church, and here is another link to a book of quotations of Dr Peale which I compiled and then presented to Dr Peale's widow, the late Ruth Stafford Peale, to whom I spoke at length when I was on a trip in New York. I also met with the Peales' daughter Elizabeth Peale Allen who now chairs Guideposts, the Christian faith-based non-profit organization founded in 1945 by Dr and Mrs Peale.



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