Positive Thinking or Vigilant Realism?
Some current approaches to sickness urge adherents to adopt ‘positive thinking’ – that is, to focus on the ‘brighter’ aspect of any given situation rather than the shadow aspect. This strikes me as a lopsided stance. Life is nondualistic: it embraces apparent opposites, revealing them as complementaries. This is not just a philosophical point of view; it’s an observable fact that anyone who has carefully watched the process of breathing can affirm.
Think about it or, even better, observe your own breathing right now: Each time you breathe in, you take in the oxygen which ensures your continued survival. Each inhalation fills your lungs, enters your bloodstream and is circulated around your entire body, stimulating you, giving you the energy to live and to meet the challenges of life.
One could reason that any counter-movement to that in-breathing would surely be anti-life. Logically, if we want to continue to live we need to continue to inhale and to keep on inhaling, without a pause, right? Wrong! After we have inhaled, the next movement of our body is to release all the air we had taken in moments earlier: to exhale. During exhalation carbon dioxide is eliminated and, simultaneously, in that release we experience a moment or two of relaxation.
As even the most avid of positive thinkers would attest, in maintaining life the out breath, the release of air, is just as vital as the in breath. Similarly, all other apparent opposites – darkness and light, black and white, joy and sadness, male and female, summer and winter, morning and night, life and death – are complementaries. That is, not only are they not inimical to each other, they actually assist each other; each is dependent on the other for its survival.
Or, think of it this way: Aren’t all opposites just those points that are furthest apart on a continuum? Black and white appear to be so different that they could never be reconciled; one seems to exclude any vestige of the other. Yet as we move from one towards the other on a continuum we arrive at the color grey, a color that is a mix of the two.
The same is true for trust and doubt. In any aspect of living, we have times of trust – for example, in the case of illness, we may feel upbeat about our resources, about current test results, and generally about how we are progressing. And we will assuredly also have moments of doubt, when things are not going at all according to plan, we begin to feeling divided about our treatment choice, to question the competence of our caregivers; our trust takes a nosedive. Positive thinkers, regarding those doubts as anti-trust and anti-life, would encourage us not to give any energy to our doubts, not to ‘be negative.’
Yet aren’t those doubts as much a part of the natural cycle as the trust? Isn’t it natural, even healthy and intelligent to have qualms, to falter, to question? And if, in the name of healing, we are not to entertain those doubts, what are we to do with them? We can only repress them. Not a great strategy, for they will resurface until we have dealt with them.
I’ve heard people at a workshop for those with cancer express this very dilemma. “Friends and relatives only want to know that you are being positive,” one woman said. “So there’s no space for voicing the insecurities that I have, or the fear and anger that surface from time to time.” Others agreed with her: “I feel like I’m living with two faces,” said one. “There’s the optimistic one I present to others, and then the other, who I really am, feeling what I really feel.” One of the pluses of seeing a counselor said a third was that “she is someone to whom I can talk freely about how I am really feeling, knowing I won’t be judged.”
It seems absurd: Just when someone with cancer needs all the support she can muster from loved ones, she feels obliged to protect those same people, in effect to support them in their determination to countenance only the positive!
A more realistic alternative is a meditative watchfulness or witnessing. When we are witnessing we are in the space of the internal, silent observer. With her broad-spectrum awareness the inner watcher has the bigger picture, a bird’s-eye view. That overview reveals that all of life exists on a continuum; it enables us to see the inter-relatedness of apparent divergent qualities, energies, movements and states. The watcher declines to take sides, resting, rather, in choiceless awareness.
Writing for the London Telegraph recently, reporter Sinclair McKay reviews Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer and “from the mammogram on, she found that she had entered a world of pink ribbons, Ralph Lauren pink ponies and balloons, of ‘fun runs’, of books featuring personal testimonies with statements such as ‘cancer is your ticket to real life’ and ‘cancer will lead you to the divine.’
“Ehrenreich found that any expression of dissent,“ continues McKay, “any suggestion that one found the illness frightening and the treatment and insurance arrangements disgraceful – led to her being howled down online by fellow sufferers for having a ‘bad attitude’ and ‘anger and bitterness.’” She then took a look at the rest of American society and found “it has been taken over by the same fixed-smile, thinking-on-the-bright-side fever.”
McKay concludes his review: “All she is ultimately asking for in a sane world is not gloominess or pessimism but simply ‘vigilant realism’. Fat chance,” opines McKay, “because it is all really about fear in the end: fear of death, of illness, of poverty”… (Sydney Morning Herald Feb 27-28 2010.) See interview on Jon Stewart's Daily Show
Darkness and light, both in the physical and metaphysical sense, have their own, unique values, their own roles to play, both in their own right and as states that enhance each other. The meditator accepts, lives through and learns from both.