Thursday, May 1, 2008

How Does Positive Thinking View Emotional Anguish?

“Jesus said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’” John 12:24

Some would have us believe that Positive Thinking is eliminating any discussion of or reference to pain and suffering. This is not positive thinking, but potentially harmful negative thinking. Positive Thinking includes the realization and affirmation that all pain and suffering contain a kernel of awareness and new life. Like the seed pod containing the flower, bursting apart in the dark, dank soil, so too the soul expands by dying to the former self, often in darkness which we call depression. From the disintegration springs a completely new self, a unique re-integration of the fragments of the former identity.

In this view, our experiences of loneliness, fear, loss, confusion, sadness, depression and the like are spiritual realms that exist to reveal the failure of former patterns of thinking and behavior. These emotions comprise the soil for making soul, those experiences that take us down into the dark underworld. Then, like the seed pod, we crack apart and begin to extend roots in the dark soil, releasing the stem of the new self that gradually rises into the light. I say ‘gradually’ because it often occurs very slowly; sometimes over years, decades, maybe lifetimes.

We must remember that the potential new self always resides in the former ego-pod, or our old limited self centered ideas. This truth of gradual emergence is seen in the image of the Eastern lotus which begins its journey toward unfolding in the dark sediment of a murky pond. That is why the Buddha, from which we get our term ‘bud,’ begins his teaching system with the first noble truth: Life is suffering or dislocation. Only then does the lotus rise into the light, form buds and blossom.


I hear some Positive Thinkers affirm that we ‘move through life with ease’. I think this is a good affirmation, but if ‘life is suffering’ as the Buddha taught, then we are actually affirming that we ‘move through our suffering with ease.’ This statement need not affirm or attract suffering! Of course there are martyrs and victims who create much unnecessary pain and agony, but that is not the intention of such an affirmation. To affirm that I ‘move through my suffering with ease’ is a positive approach to the human condition that brings its measure of grief, disappointment, frustration, anger, resentment, loneliness and fear to each of us. 

The spiritual teacher Osho writes: “This pain is not to make you sad, remember. That's where people go on missing.... This pain is just to make you more alert--because people become alert only when the arrow goes deep into their heart and wounds them. Otherwise they don't become alert. When life is easy, comfortable, convenient, who cares? Who bothers to become alert? When a friend dies, there is a possibility. When your woman leaves you alone--those dark nights, you are lonely. You have loved that woman so much and you have staked all, and then suddenly one day she is gone. Crying in your loneliness, those are the occasions when, if you use them, you can become aware. The arrow is hurting: it can be used. The pain is not to make you miserable, the pain is to make you more aware! And when you are aware, misery disappears.”


This also means that feelings of suicide need to be honored and listened to. The disintegrating old life is accurately telling me that something must die – yet not the physical body as suicide victims mistakenly assume, but rather the death of the old way of life. All suicidal people are filled with agonizing remorse. This too is necessary. The word remorse is related to the words mortal, mortem, murder and mortician – words referring to death. Remorse is the act of mentally returning over and over to an actual or potential loss of something or someone valuable--usually a way of living to which we have become accustomed. The feelings of being fixated on loss is often so overwhelming that a person might feel the only way out is to kill the body and brain that contains the mind which chronically revisits the old painful loss, or potential future loss. If a person can realize that the primary purpose of life is to experience and emerge from such losses, s/he can wait for the cracking open to pass, the roots to be established, and the new life to flower. Carl Jung observed that we develop egos in order to shed them, like snakes sluffing off old skin. Some call this molting process soul-making.

The Chinese Tao Te Ching says it like this:

If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given.
This is called the subtle perception
of the way things are.

Poem 36, Mitchell translation


This is the nature of soul-making life. We spend years developing an ego or self identify, and then it must dissolve. Dissolution is almost always difficult. This does not mean that the old ego self is bad, but that it is just too small to contain infinite joy, patience and love that we may become. My old life, like the seed that contains the flower, must break apart in the soil of suffering and grow into the light of an expanded soul. This is the way for humans on a planet of soul-making. This point of view is true positive thinking when it comes to pain. We do not deny pain, but we affirm it is a means to an end. Times of great sorrow contain the potential to be times of great transformation. But in order for transformation to happen we must go deep, to the very roots of our pain, and experience it as it is, without blame or self-pity. To know this makes the process easier than to resist it, or to think it ought be different. M. Scott Peck began his book, The Road Less Traveled, by observing that "Life is difficult," and then paradoxically adds that, "once we realize that life is difficult, it becomes less difficult."

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