Recently my friend posted a blog by a spiritual teacher that sort of debunked the idea of positive thinking. While I agreed with some of what he said, which I won't go into, I thought it was a shame to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Positive thinking is one of the most useful tools we have as human beings, and it's often very misunderstood, so I wanted to go deeply into what it actually means.
When people talk about positive thinking, what they're really talking about, whether they know it or not, is the law of attraction. It's what The Secret is based on, although The Secret presented a somewhat limited understanding of it. The law of attraction basically says that The Universe will provide you with experiences that match your desires, beliefs, and emotional vibration. So, put simplistically, when you're happy and joyful, good things will come to you, and when you're sad and miserable, bad things will come to you. This is a huge reason people like to use positive thinking (as opposed to negative or sloppy thinking), but also the big reason people hate on positive thinking. Because of course, this isn't always the case. But that doesn't mean the law of attraction's not working, it just means that the process is layered. Stay with me.
Law of attraction is always at work, which means it's been collecting your desires for your entire life. Desires could be things like having a nice car or a big house or lots of money or a great relationship, but it could also be things like ease and play and fun. The thing that blocks those desires from becoming realities, is us. We do it unconsciously usually. But there are things we can do to let the manifestation of our desires into our reality. This is where positive thinking comes in.
When we tell stories to ourselves that feel bad, it blocks good things from coming. If we have a belief that people are mean, for example, we'll find ourselves meeting mean people, not necessarily because that's all we meet, but because that's what we're focusing on due to our belief. If we have a belief that our life is hard or that nothing ever works out for us, we'll have that experience over and over as long as we keep telling ourselves that story. If we can switch the story we tell ourselves, we can switch our experience, and oftentimes it's super easy. Just find a thought that feels a little bit better. Maybe it's, "some people are mean, but I actually know some nice people too." And then, "well yeah Susie is nice, she made cookies for the office. And Bob lent me his pen. Those are nice things." Just find one incident that's the questions your limiting story, and you're golden. And once you find one, you'll probably be able to find more, if you keep looking. Or maybe instead of saying "my life is really hard" you can say "my life has been hard in the past, but I see that life doesn't seem so hard for some people, and I believe I can be one of those people." Or if that's not believable enough, you can say "my life has been really hard, but some things have come easily" or even "my life has been really hard, but I'm open to a new experience." Find a positive twist. It doesn't negate the hardship, but it changes your experience of it, allowing for a different experience to follow.
The Secret talked a lot about the future. Vision boards, lists of things we desire, a $100,000 check pasted to the ceiling. And knowing your desires is great. It helps in making decisions. It helps to keep you focused on what you want. But what's even more helpful is acknowledging and appreciating the good things you have right now. Because sometimes you don't actually want the stuff you think you want. And sometimes you get something amazing that you never knew you wanted at all! For example, I studied abroad in Prague in my junior year of college, and it was the most fun I've ever had. But I didn't ever want to go to Prague. That would never have been on my vision board. I didn't even want to go abroad! I was living in New York and liked it just fine. But most of my friends were studying abroad, and I wasn't about to stay in New York by myself, so I went. It was the path of least resistance. And it was unforgettable, in the best possible way. So trust that The Universe knows what you want, and spend your time appreciating what you have.
When you can acknowledge the good things in your life, even if it's so small, even if you don't really want it and it's not ideal, it'll change your life. For example, maybe you don't have a lot of friends, and would like more. You can sit there and whine about not having friends, you can hope for friends, you can make vision boards with people laughing and eating and having a great time, you can complain about not having friends, you can blame the city you live in, you can blame your job, you can blame your age. But you can also find a sliver a hope and focus all your attention on it. For example, maybe you have a co-worker you kind of like, who says funny things occasionally. Appreciate that person as if they were sent down from the heavens especially for you. Be grateful that you have them in your life, even if literally everyone else sucks, even if you don't love hanging out with them, even if you don't really consider them a "friend". When you do that, guaranteed, you will either meet more people you like, or you'll start to like more people you already know.
Are you starting to see how it works? The more you focus positively, the more you tell yourself positive stories and stories of hope and stories of gratitude, the better your life will become. Because The Universe wants to please you. The Universe wants you to have the happiest life ever.
But what if you can't? What if it's so bad or what if you can't seem to get your mind off the bad stuff? One thing you can do is start communicating to the Universe and asking for guidance. For example, you could say, "Please show me how to get over this!" or you can ask "How can I feel happier or more abundant or more appreciative?" It's more effective to ask questions in a positive way such as "How can I feel happier?" rather than "How can I feel less sad?" But if you can't connect to "feeling happier" go with "feeling less sad." It's important to feel connected to the stories you tell and the questions you ask, because otherwise you'll be one of those annoying people who practices "positive thinking" but everyone can tell you're faking it. But really, just do your best! And forget what everyone else thinks.
The other thing you can do if you really can't get your mind off of something, or if something has been an unwelcome pattern for a long time, is seek the assistance of someone who can help you release your trauma. Oftentimes when we are really stuck, it's because there's trauma stuck in our bodies from a previous time that was really difficult to deal with, that we didn't know how to process at the time. When we let go of our trauma, we are cleared up to move forward in a way that makes us feel free and alive. You can also clear some trauma on your own by soothing the part of you that experienced the hurt, disappointment, abuse, betrayal, or whatever it was, and consciously telling that part of you a different story. But that's for another post.
So why does positive thinking work and why is the law of attraction even a thing? Alan Watts describes it perfectly: "Every individual is a unique manifestation of the Whole, as every branch is a particular outreaching of the tree. To manifest individuality, every branch must have a sensitive connection with the tree, just as our independently moving and differentiated fingers must have a sensitive connection with the whole body. The point, which can hardly be repeated too often, is that differentiation is not separation. The head and the feet are different, but not separate, and though man is not connected to the universe by exactly the same physical relation as branch to tree or feet to head, he is nonetheless connected—and by physical relations of fascinating complexity."
Because we are all expressions of The Universe as a whole, the pieces are all working together based on what we are creating, and while we can create by action, we can also create by vibration, or energy. We call to us certain people, synchronicities, experiences, abundance, and also hardship, based on our vibration, or in other words, our emotional output and our belief system. And The Universe delivers because we are The Universe. We, in our physical bodies, are asking, and that greater part of us, The Universe, is answering.
[And I want to just mention quickly that while the outer world does seem to change and bring us new experiences, it's really our perception of those experiences that dictates whether we have a good time or not. For example, two people could be sitting in the same traffic and while one person is cursing and angry and looking at his watch, the next person over could be singing and rocking out to his favorite song or thankfully receiving the extra time to have a conversation with his mom on the phone. While one person could be angry and fearful being let go from a job, another could look at it as an unexpected start to a new adventure or an opportunity to try something they've always wanted to try.]
So positive thinking and the law of attraction is nothing to be afraid of and it's also nothing to balk at. Positive thinking is a useful tool to consciously create the life you want, made possible by the law of attraction. You can experience it right here right now by focusing on something you really appreciate and then switching and focusing on something you hate. You'll probably quickly realize focusing on the thing you appreciate feels much better in your body. Take a negative story you've been telling yourself and add a little positive twist, even if it's just a slight one. Make it believable to yourself. If you can't make it believable, don't force it, just switch topics to something that does make you feel good.
So that's the basics of it. And let me add quickly that your experiences are based on what you have attracted. You can't think positively for someone else. You can't blame others for how you feel. And you can't determine if positive thinking really works by trying to observe someone else doing it (though you can get an idea of it from someone who's having a great time using it!). You have to do it yourself. You can get inspired by others, but it's your game, played only by you and your universe. So have fun!