Saturday, November 28, 2009

Stinking Thinking

The Trance of Negativity

“The power of positive thinking” is one of those phrases that probably makes you cringe when you hear it. It sounds Pollyannaish and naïve -- like one of those well-meaning clichés one sees printed on motivational posters hanging in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, beneath a heartwarming photo of kittens or rainbows or some small, delicate flower triumphantly asserting its existence in spite of great obstacles and hardship. A greeting-card sentiment.

Chances are, you don’t have the same trouble relating to it if we substitute the word “negative” for “positive.” One doesn’t have to look far to find evidence of the power of negative thinking. Its proof is all around us, sometimes to such an extent that we have trouble seeing how completely negativity dominates our minds. Simply open a newspaper or turn on the news on television and you will be bombarded by negative stories, negative images, negative thinking: you will see tragedies both large and small, an endless litany of angry faces and people doing horrible things to one another. As you absorb these messages, you will slowly, almost imperceptibly, begin to worry and experience fear. At a somatic level that you are perhaps not aware of, you will experience physiological changes as you sit there: an elevated heart rate, and the release of stress hormones.

One might argue that the media is simply showing us how things are these days, and if negativity is their stock and trade, well, it’s because the world really is full of suffering and tragedy and they’re just telling it like it is. But the media have made negativity their stock and trade because they’ve discovered that it sells more papers, and draws in more viewers. People want to know what they should be afraid of, what they should worry about. In fact, most of us these days are addicted to negative thinking, and the more bad news and foreboding information is shoveled into our minds, the more deeply ingrained and natural our tendency towards negative thinking becomes. It has finally come to seem that a negative frame of mind is simply a realistic one, the only view to be held by mature people who know the ways of the world. Positive thinking, in the face of so much tragedy and degradation and so many ominous trends, seems more and more like a pitiful anachronism, one of those misplaced and outdated motivational slogans that makes us cringe when we hear it.

The problem with this view is that it lacks a basic awareness of how our thoughts shape our reality -- of the cause-and-effect relationship between the two. If the world appears to be going to hell in a hand-basket these days, well, perhaps that has something to do with the collective trance of negativity and fear in which we’re all caught. As we think, so we become. The mind, once it’s rolling in a particular direction, accumulates more and more evidence to support its basic outlook: the snowball effect. Eventually, as the mind’s tendencies towards negative thinking become more and more deeply ingrained, that outlook hardens into a pair of dark glasses that one forgets one is even wearing, coloring and distorting every experience.

In the Dhammapada, one of the earliest and best-known Buddhist scriptures from the Pali Canon, the Buddha taught that both positive and negative thinking have equal power to shape our reality:

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.”

Our human experience is shot through with a curious paradox: our thoughts and emotions have no form or substance that we can point to or isolate (though they have correlates in the brain and body that science is edging closer to identifying). And yet our thoughts and emotions have, in many cases, overwhelming control over our experience and our actions. When a sequence of similar thoughts occurs in a chain, those thoughts become habits of thinking; they acquire a momentum whose force is difficult to resist or steer. Habitual ways of thinking solidify and define how we see and interact with the world; they become what Chogyam Trungpa called “styles of imprisonment” -- prisons whose walls exist entirely in our minds. Thoughts create emotional ripples as well as storms that disturb our whole mental and physical ecosystem; they shape both how we speak and the things we choose to speak about; they color our dreams and what we dream about; they influence our relationships and the people with whom we have them. It is possible for us to fall, without much effort or awareness, utterly under the spell of what people in Twelve Step groups call “stinking thinking.”

Yet how is it that something so ephemeral and ethereal as thought can have such a controlling impact on us? How can we be so thoroughly under the power of something so ghostly and insubstantial? And if thinking is by nature so insubstantial, why do we find it so difficult, once we are under its spell, to change course?

What Damns a Marriage

In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell describes the work of a scientist named John Gottman, who has spent nearly three decades studying married couples and trying to understand what their interactions reveal about the couple’s chances of staying together or getting divorced. Gottman gradually developed a sophisticated method of analyzing a typical conversation between spouses and looking for certain cues and trends that reveal the underlying emotional dynamics and habits of thinking. Gottman’s method allows him to listen to an hour of conversation and predict, with 95% accuracy, whether the couple will still be married in 15 years.

Gottman discovered that for a marriage to survive, there must be at least a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative emotion in the couple’s interactions. He also discovered that the presence of certain key emotional indicators is a sure sign that a marriage is in trouble and unlikely to survive. The most damning of these indicators is contempt: if either partner in the marriage expresses contempt towards the other, the couple’s chances are extremely slim.

Gottman’s work demonstrates that there is an underlying pattern in any marriage that can be very quickly identified and analyzed, and that by correctly discerning that pattern one can foresee with tremendous accuracy the future outcome of that marriage.

The patterns that Gottman identifies in a couple’s interactions consist of the emotional dynamics and the habits of thinking that define the two individuals’ ways of relating to each other. The couples that aren’t likely to make it are the ones who’ve become trapped in unhealthy patterns, where the amount of negative emotion in a given interaction crosses the magic threshold of 16.5% and moves into a style of imprisonment that carries the couple inexorably towards increasing conflict and eventual divorce. Once that river is flowing, it becomes almost impossible to resist being swept along by its current; it is difficult for the couple to see their own patterns in operation or to step back and correct the course of their marriage by steering it in a more positive direction.

The dynamics that Gottman identified have implications that reach far beyond marriage counseling. Patterns of negative thinking and negative emotional habits can adversely impact every area of our lives. Negative thinking can destroy not only marriages but careers, families, friendships, and one’s own mental health – it can even corrupt and pervert the spiritual path.

During my first six months at the Abbey, there was a fellow monk (I’ll call him Chodzin) who experienced many difficulties in relating to other residents of the Abbey. Chodzin was a very clever person, with the kind of sharp, critical intelligence that allowed him, among other things, to identify and describe problems that he saw in the social structures around him. He was forever pointing out issues with the way the Abbey was managed or the way various people or groups interacted, and often his criticisms were very on-point and perceptive; it was often difficult to disagree with what he was saying. But he also exuded a great deal of negativity and had a pattern of expressing himself with a tone of anger, verbal aggression, and, occasionally, outright contempt. This pattern led others at the Abbey -- myself included -- to withdraw from Chodzin, since our own emotional resistance and underlying issues were often triggered by his displays of anger, aggression and contempt. This group dynamic repeated itself many times, and escalated to the point where Chodzin obviously felt isolated and withdrawn, and many people hardened in their mistrustful reactions toward him and developed dysfunctional patterns of avoiding contact with him as much as possible. The situation gradually built toward a series of increasingly hostile confrontations that culminated in Chodzin being asked to leave the community quite abruptly -- an outcome that was all the more tragic since Chodzin had expressed a desire, early in his stay, to remain at the Abbey for life.

Gottman’s work with married couples helped me understand some of the reasons for what had happened with Chodzin, and why I had intuitively -- from my very first encounters with him -- doubted that he would last very long at the Abbey. The ratio of positive to negative emotion that was observable in Chodzin’s interactions with others was tipped too far into negative territory, well past the 16.5% threshold that signaled trouble ahead. But even more ominous was his occasional way of speaking to others with a tone of contempt, which is Gottman’s strongest indicator of a doomed marriage. Early on, I had sensed these things, but I lacked the vocabulary to articulate them; yet I knew, without knowing how I knew, that Chodzin’s marriage to the Abbey would be short-lived. The storm of negativity under which Chodzin finally departed -- the bitter divorce that it represented -- left many people feeling raw and wounded; despite whatever resistance they had felt towards him, they were also saddened by his departure and by what was clearly a lost opportunity to transform a pattern of negativity (on both sides) into something more positive.

In The Myth of Freedom, Chogyam Trungpa said that negativity by itself is not particularly a problem. In its basic energy, it can be a sharp, discerning faculty that sees the flaws in things and wants to find remedies. The problem, rather, is what Trungpa called “negative negativity,” which is (among other things) our tendency to spin out our negative thoughts and feed them so that they snowball into neurotic patterns that take control of our lives in subtle or gross ways.

In perhaps less dramatic ways, each of us has the same potential as Chodzin to cloud our own experience and poison our lives and relationships with habits of negative thinking and expression. Sometimes, at the Abbey, when we get together in groups we have a tendency to complain and harp on the little things that bother us about Abbey life -- living in such a small container, like a submarine, and rubbing elbows all the time, we are bound to find many things that challenge our egos. Sometimes even monks and nuns slip into a pattern of complaining about such things, in much the same way as co-workers at most companies get together in the break room and complain about their bosses or their work. When this happens, one can almost watch the neurotic snowball effect rolling through the group as we sink deeper and deeper into a mindset of complaining and criticism and identifying with the problem. Sometimes a threshold is crossed and a hardened sense of negativity, what Trungpa would call negative negativity, begins to emerge in the group.

Once, I was at a meeting where one of the other monks saw this happening and suddenly cut through it with a sharply worded rebuke. He reminded us, in no uncertain terms, how fortunate we are to be in a place like the Abbey, what a rich opportunity it is, and how positive and beneficial the circumstances at the Abbey actually are for our spiritual paths. The effect of his rebuke was to pop the bubble of negativity that had begun to swell in the group, and to show us how our own thought patterns had been coloring and clouding our experience in that very moment. With the bubble popped, fresh air was suddenly able to flow into our minds, and with that relaxation we realized how we’d been trapped in our own negative thoughts. We’d backed ourselves into a corner, and suddenly someone came along and informed us, bluntly, that it was an ugly corner -- dark, smelly, and full of trash -- and there was absolutely no reason why we should stay there. Sometimes a gentle and friendly slap in the face is precisely what we need to snap us out of the trance of negativity and allow us to see ourselves and our world with sudden clarity.

Though it may sound Pollyannaish to our modern ears, there is tremendous wisdom in an old song by the Carter Family (who are credited as being the first recorded “country” music band):

There's a dark and a troubled side of life.
There's a bright and a sunny side, too.
Though we meet with the darkness and strife,
Yet the sunny side we also may view.

Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life.
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way
If we'll keep on the sunny side of life.

-- The Carter Family

What the Carter family said in those lyrics is not very different from what the Buddha said in the opening verses of the Dhammapada. Our thoughts and our attitudes determine our destiny.

The Wolves Within

There is an old Cherokee tale about a young boy who receives spiritual advice from his grandfather. The boy comes to him, troubled by some conflict he has experienced, and the old man explains to the boy that within every person there are two wolves. The first wolf, the grandfather says, represents love, serenity, faith, kindness, truth, compassion, and so on; the first wolf lives in harmony with those around him, and only fights when it is right to do so. The second wolf represents anger, lies, envy, greed, self-pity, pride, and so on; the second wolf is constantly picking fights, at the slightest provocation. Inside every person, these two wolves are locked in an epic battle, with each wolf trying to dominate one’s mind.

The boy thinks about this for a moment and asks his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”

“The one you feed,” replies the old man.

To the extent that we feed our negative thought patterns, they grow stronger and stronger, and eventually they can overpower us and destroy our happiness. But we are seldom lucky enough to have a perceptive monk around who will catch us in the act of descending into a negative loop; more often than not, we are the only ones who can perceive it and stop it before it gains enough momentum to begin eroding the foundations of our happiness. It is up to each of us to be that monk and to compassionately (which sometimes means fiercely, with enough force to puncture the bubble) call ourselves, and others, on our stinking thinking when we see it. As the Buddha taught, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” If we want happiness to follow us, like a shadow that never leaves us, we must take hold of our inverted thought patterns and turn them right-side-up.

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