“I am fond of saying of psychological dilemmas, “it is not about what it is about.” Why do we get stuck? How can it be that we so easily identify such marshy zones in our lives? We typically fault ourselves for lacking sufficient will power to get unstuck. But if we have sufficient will, what is the problem? The idea that stuckness is really about something else suggests that we have to ask what deep, deep anxiety or threat will arise from our getting unstuck. If we are ever to get unstuck, we have to ferret out what archaic anxiety we will have to take on to move forward. For example, is the deeply buried anxiety the fear of being alone, forsaken by others, or is it the fear of some potential conflict with others? Either has the power to shut down intentionality and resolve.”James Hollis
“The greatest and most important problems of life are all in a certain sense insoluble…. They can never be solved, but only outgrown…. This ‘outgrowing’, as I formerly called it, on further experience was seen to consist in a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest arose on the person’s horizon, and through this widening of view, the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms, but faded out when confronted with a new and stronger life-tendency.”Carl Jung
Last month I travelled to Crosby for a bi-annual five day retreat with my local Zen group. Three times a day, along with hours of sitting, we would chant sutras while I struck a wooden percussion instrument called a mokugyo to maintain rhythm. Back in Liverpool I would play the instrument almost every week for service in our usual place so I think by that point I was in a stage of unconscious competence. Then, on the fourth day, the Ino, our lead chanter, praised my mokugyo skills and proclaimed, in part jest, that I was a mokugyo master. While I was pleased to be complimented I also noticed a small thought afterwards that said, now because people saw me as a master, I better not mess up.
In her book Mindset Carol Dweck proposes a two part model for success and achievement which has caught on in education and sport: fixed mindset and growth mindset. Growth mindset allows you to make the inevitable mistakes that will help you grow and eventually succeed. When a teacher compliments a student for being clever, that praise can induce a fixed mindset and hamper learning because now this student, like me, feels that they have something to lose: their standing with the teacher. If the teacher were to praise the effort instead, what’s there to lose?
Perhaps it’s not so important to be recognised as a master as it is to stay on the path of mastery? Fortunately the path goes on forever.
If you, like so many each year, were diagnosed with early stage cancer you would be forgiven for dwelling in each moment afterwards on how close death is to you and, by extension, your family. Only natural, right? But when the writer Winifred Gallagher stepped out of hospital some years ago after she received her own diagnosis she resolved to not allow the cancer to “monopolise” her attention. Instead she focused on what she called “the skilful management of attention.” Rather than chemotherapy, she focused on her daily walks; rather than thoughts of her funeral, she focused on movies and the occasional 6:30 Martini.
To the best of my memory I’ve resisted positive thinking ever since I first heard about it and my best guess for why that may be is that a good portion of my identity is rooted in so-called “negative” thinking*. Were you to ask me to think positively you’d get a flat “no”, but ask me to manage my attention skilfully and, if we can agree on what “skilfully” means, I’m all ears.
The anthropologist Carlos Castenada once said “The trick [for happiness] is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.” I think it’s easier for me to think “negatively” because I’m accustomed to that way of thinking but, as Castenada points out, the amount of time I dedicate to making myself miserable (by how I allocate my attention) is the same amount time it would take to make myself “happy” by instead directing my attention, over and over, to those things that comfort and please me, even in the face of devastating circumstances.
*Perhaps the dichotomy of positive and negative is too simplistic of a model to apply to things as complex as thoughts?
See also: I wrote a short essay for StoneWater Zen a few years ago in response to a prompt by David Loy, a Buddhist scholar: When your mind changes, the world changes. And when we respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to us.