Spend a little time on social media, self-help blogs, or around spiritual circles and you’re bound to hear something like, “Just think positive thoughts.” It is flooding the airwaves in the spiritual and self-help worlds, and frankly, we think it is harmful. Thinking positive is absolutely not a good blanket piece of advice for people, and the practice of positive thinking is often done through aversion. It is true that thoughts shape experience, and we can work to cultivate
Harms of “Just Thinking Positively”
As thoughts arise in the mind, we may notice if they are pleasant or unpleasant. This is the practice of noticing vedana, or feeling tones. It is an important practice. We note whether we find the thoughts pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This doesn’t mean we look at thoughts as good or bad. We simply tune into how the thoughts resonate. We can label our experience in this way without calling it positive or negative. When we begin calling thoughts positive or negative, good or bad, we are adding on to them. Thoughts arise in my mind that are absolutely unwholesome or even harmful. Sometimes the thinking mind is cynical or obsessed with what could/will go wrong. And of course, I have the tendency to label them as bad or negative. However, this habit is one I am working to bring awareness to. These thoughts are simply unpleasant, or should not be acted upon. It doesn’t mean they are bad, or even negative. The point is that unpleasant thoughts are not wrong or bad. When we identify our thoughts as positive or negative, we are encouraging delusion. The thoughts themselves are neither good nor bad; they are just thoughts. It is our perception that creates the positivity or negativity of the thoughts. Yes, a thought of harming somebody is unpleasant. We may label it as bad. In reality, it is just a thought. When we really tun in, we can see that it is just an unpleasant thought (and sometimes these thoughts may even feel pleasant).
It’s natural that every thought that arises is not a “positive” one. The mind’s job is to think, and it does so of its own volition. The encouragement to think positive gives us the sense that the mind should be happier than it is, or that the “negative” thoughts are bad. When we listen to this advice, we idealize pleasant thoughts and are subtly cultivating a craving mind (and aversion to the unpleasant thoughts). It’s okay if the mind has unpleasant thoughts. Everyone experiences unpleasantness, and when we just try to rid ourselves of it, we are truly creating more suffering for ourselves. To put it bluntly, the mind will always have unpleasant thoughts; resisting this does us no good.
How to Address the Thinking Mind
How do we actually address the thoughts that arise? It’s fairly simple: we bring awareness to what is happening in the mind. A thought arises. We notice (often unconsciously) that it is unpleasant, pleasant, or neutral. Then we label it as “good” or “bad,” or “positive” or “negative.” This process often happens quickly and we don’t even notice it has happened. As we continue to practice bringing awareness to the thinking mind, often in meditation, we build our ability to see this process. When thoughts arise that we find ourselves labelling as “negative thinking” or “bad thoughts,” we can take a moment to really investigate what is happening. Bring some curiosity to the experience. Notice the add-ons of labelling. Notice any craving or aversion that results.
Unpleasant thoughts are not bad. You shouldn’t be thinking only pleasant thoughts all day every day. Allow the mind to think, and don’t resist it. Just bring your attention to it and notice what is happening. Remember that resisting what is happening just creates dis-ease. If we truly wish to lessen our suffering, we can be mindful of thinking and respond with metta. We can be at ease with the thoughts that arise, recognizing their usefulness or potential to cause harm. When we respond with ease, we are able to see things more clearly.
If you find yourself in a depression or experiencing repeated unpleasant thoughts, it of course may be helpful to take action to help. We can exercise, eat well, seek professional help, or take other proactive measures. Through all of this, we must remember to know clearly what is occurring. The encouragement to just think positive disregards the truth that we must bring awareness to what is really present. Instead of just think positively, perhaps we should just allow the mind to think, and bring awareness and non-reactivity to experience.