This week has been the start of the 2014 winter of wellness: Every day there is an interview/ discussion with a different pioneer in the field of wellbeing broadcast live. These live broadcasts are free and you can also listen to a recording for free within 72 hours. The other day I listened to a recorded talk entitled ‘the art of healing’ with Dr. Bernie Siegel author of several books including ‘Love, Medicine & Miracles’, ‘Peace, Love & Healing’, ‘How To Live Between Office Visits’, and ‘Prescriptions for Living’. The central message seemed to be the importance of a positive attitude towards life, health and happiness. His message was that everyone could benefit from regularly repeating a simple affirmation such as ‘I am happy, I am healthy and I love my life’.
Many people with difficult health problems struggle with the idea that a positive attitude is important to health. Research has produced very mixed results with a recent trend discussing the ‘tyranny of positive thinking’: An unrealistic negative pressure put on illness sufferers by those around them to think positively all the time. The idea being that it is realistic to feel a range of difficult emotions when faced with a chronic or life threatening illness. Feeling pressurized to take a positive attitude will only add to a sufferer’s burden.
I totally agree with this on two levels. Firstly nobody should impose what you should think or feel. Taking a positive attitude is a choice for you to make when the time is right for you. It’s a choice you can make when you are ready to take responsibility for making the best of your situation. Secondly it is very important to be real. We will all experience a variety of negative emotions such as grief, loss, anger, frustration, hopelessness and fear as a result of our illness. Resisting or denying these feelings is more likely to be detrimental to our health.
Being able to take a positive attitude involves an understanding that our feelings are fluid by nature. However our thinking can have a strong influence over our feelings, for example, when our minds decide that we shouldn’t feel a particular way that feeling gets stuck. Our thinking can also exaggerate our experience of negative emotions for example when we worry that we will always feel this way or when we go over and over a past event in our minds. However if we compassionately accept our feelings and allow ourselves to be real in the moment, without thoughts of the past or the future, our feelings will flow and change.
Positive thinking is a mind skill that we can learn if and when we choose to. It is not something we can do just because it is expected of us, as this is more likely to result in denial of our feelings. It involves paying attention to our thoughts and making a choice about whether they are helpful to us in the here and now of this situation. It involves taking control, choosing to let go of certain thoughts and deciding to point your mind in a different direction. However positive thinking isn’t about never experiencing ‘negative emotions’. It’s about training our thoughts to help us be real and to allow our feelings to be fluid. For example a useful thought when you are feeling frustrated might be something along the lines of ‘Hello frustration, it’s very understandable that I feel this way in this situation, please feel free to do your thing whilst I look for a way of making this moment better for myself’. Even a sense of hopelessness can be moved with compassionate thoughts. It is more likely to flow if your thinking accepts that it’s ok in this moment to feel this awful. Helpful thoughts might direct you to seek out the support of someone who will listen, empathize and share the moment while allowing you to be.
We can influence our feelings to be more positive but not by denying what’s real for us. Instead we can train ourselves to think about life in a different way. We can teach ourselves to have different expectations that are more conducive to experiencing pleasure. We can invite healing by giving our body a clear message about what we want from it.
The above affirmation is a message to your mind and body that you are making a choice to be happy, healthy and love life. It’s a reminder to take control over your thoughts and to use them to optimize your happiness and health. It’s not meant to be a denial of what is real to you.