Monday, February 3, 2014

Cultivating Positive Thought

“A man's mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will, bring forth. If no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weed seeds will fall therein, and will continue to produce their kind.” 
- James Allen, As a Man Thinketh

Last week we talked about how happiness is located within each and every one of us. I proposed that happiness is a state of mind, not a thing out there to be pursued as many would have us believe. Accomplishments in the external world can increase one's happiness but they cannot conjure happiness from misery.

In order to be happy, one must gain mastery over one's mind.

The hard part is controlling your emotions. Once you feel something--anger, jealousy, insecurity, sadness--it's already too late. Emotions are the result of internal chemistry. They alter your physiology. Telling someone to calm down in the midst of a black rage is like asking a sloppy drunk to sober up. Neither request is reasonable or likely.

When trying to control one's emotions, prevention is key. Unfortunately, because emotions arise as a reaction to external stimuli, the only way to guarantee control over them is to control every aspect of one's environment.

Good luck with that.

Since we can't dictate the conditions of the the world around us we must instead strive to control the conditions of our psyche. Mindfulness is a good way to sever the connection between external stimuli and internal reaction. By being constantly aware of our surroundings, thoughts, and emotional state, we can prepare ourselves for the inevitability that something unfavourable will happen to us. By exercising vigilance with the outside world, we can bypass the knee-jerk reaction and deal with the aftermath of a negative experience in a calm, rational manner.

Preventing negative emotions is only one half of the happiness hypothesis. In doing this alone you will find a steep drop in negative feelings, no doubt, but not being miserable and being happy are two different things. We don't want to hover around baseline; we want to be well above it, spiking up and down between contentment--that deep, quiet sense of satisfaction--and elation, which prompts us to hug and laugh and dance.

In order to raise our overall level of happiness we must do more than prevent unhappy thoughts: we must train our minds to mass-produce positive emotions as often as possible. 

If we liken the mind to a garden as James Allen does in As a Man Thinketh, the key to production becomes clear. Thoughts are seeds and whether you plant them consciously or they infiltrate your garden by some other mean, they grow and bear fruit. Good seeds make fruit which sustains the mind and spirit, promote happiness, and encourage seeds of like and kind to sprout and grow. Good seeds require planning and nourishment if they are to flourish. They need good soil, clean water, and careful monitoring. This is gardening 101. No one plants seeds only to let them fend for themselves.

Weeds, on the other hand, require no such care. In fact they thrive in neglected gardens, spread when they are ignored, and choke out beneficial plants without remorse.

Everyone has a garden but not everyone maintains it. Mindfulness is the equivalent of gardening. It involves taking inventory of what is growing and where, pruning those trees and plants which you wish to keep, and yanking out the weeds which threaten to overrun everything else.

In your psyche's garden you reap what you sow. If you fixate on the negative--if you allow bad seeds to take root--your ability to see the good things in life becomes impaired. As weeds spread you run out of room to grow something worthwhile. Your mind becomes crowded with negative thoughts which bear the fruits of anger, bitterness, jealousy, selfishness, sadness, and misery. The more you indulge these thoughts, the more numerous they become until no amount of good fortune can draw your attention away from the downside, the disadvantage, the thing that didn't work out exactly the way you wanted it to. 

Negative thoughts, like weeds, must be yanked out on sight. They serve no purpose, provide no advantage, and do nothing but hinder your growth toward sustained happiness.

Conversely, the same thing happens when you fixate on the bright side of things. The more you do it--the more you plant good seeds and help them grow-- the better you'll get at being an optimist. When you grow the same crop over and over again you gain a better understanding of how the crop functions. You figure out how much sunlight, water, and room each plant needs to reach its optimal size. Eventually it becomes second nature to you.

In the end, each one of us is faced with a choice: do I plant good seeds or bad seeds? Do I cultivate positive thought or wallow in self-pity, boredom, displeasure, and other toxic emotions? Few situations in life are purely negative and without benefit. At the very least a crappy situation serves as a lesson, albeit one you must teach yourself.

And as for those rare situations which provide no lesson and offer no positive bi-product, what use is there in fixating such on an event? Why waste precious time dwelling over some misfortune or tragedy if there is no solution, no lesson to be learned, and no value to be extracted? Bad stuff happens. Tragedy and misfortune can befall anyone. Merely experiencing such an event is a blow in itself; why add insult to injury by letting it ruin your day/week/month/year/life?

There is only one thing in the world that you have complete custody over and that is yourself. In order to master your emotions you must control the seeds which give them life.