A common area of discussion in my practice revolves around the topic of positive thinking. People are always wondering if they are doing some real damage if they are not perfectly practicing the black art of positive thinking. They are constantly told that they need to work on being positive. Healers, life coaches, and motivational speakers often tout positive thinking as a panacea for all kinds of ills. They offer a wide array of practices to ensure our good fortune accessed by this miracle of wills. They can range from daily incantation lists to be read out loud to notes posted on the fridge to visualizing images.

It is a prevalent experience for me to work with patients confronted with serious illness or suffering who are attempting to use positive thinking as a salve. There are many connotations to believing in such practices. One of the main problems is that the person is taught to unconsciously believe that they are at fault in creating their illness. “If I had been thinking positively, none of this would have happened”, “I am not thinking positive thoughts, so I am sick”, and of course, there is the classic: “If I think enough positive thoughts, all my dreams will come true”.

In a culture deeply steeped in the pain of addiction, it should come as no surprise that a practice of will and volition has such a deep pull on us. Magical thinking always sells well where there is desperation. This is not to say that self-examination and investigation are not important. To the contrary, it is a crucial part of our path. However, it is important to differentiate between the practice of internal examination and that of using our willpower to push away uncomfortable feelings or thoughts.

Let’s be clear: if all thoughts manifested - at best, we would all be too paralyzed to do anything, or at worst, dead. The amount of contradictions in our daily mental activity is enough to knock anyone out. And that is just what we can access on a conscious level. So much more of that activity flows below the radar of conscious awareness. Just the amount of unexamined anxiety most of us suffer from would destroy us.

The willful action of forcing our minds to be positive is like having a shard of glass in our foot and applying a bandage over it, instead of removing it. The shard needs to be removed, the wound cleaned and then administered to. We need to understand where we got the piece of glass in our foot, and then sweep that area up so we do not get cut again.

We have to learn to investigate and feel our feelings - not mask over them. If we are feeling angry, sad, or depressed, we need to examine the underlying issues at hand. Just to put on the veneer of a happy face and “happy thoughts” does not address what is ailing us. In order to feel better - first, we need to feel. We have to learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and let them guide us. Shoving them down willfully will not help nor heal the situation.

This is not to say that reading beautiful works that are positive is a bad thing. Nor is there anything wrong with thinking about what can bring you joy in the future. Being inspired is always a lovely feeling. The point here is to not use such things as a numbing agent to what is going on underneath the surface.

So next time you become aware of some dark mental force, sit with it. Learn to tolerate it. Investigate what in your life, if anything, is contributing to these feelings. Be kind with yourself. Always remember that this too shall pass. You do not need to build a fortress around every negative thought or feeling. Instead, open up to the spaciousness that can come from sitting with and examining such things. Positivity is a byproduct of an examined life, not a willful elixir to habitually force down our gullet.