Achieving a Positive Mindset

Someone asked me: Based on your experience, what is the most effective way to achieve a positive mindset?

My life became much better after I stopped trying to achieve a positive mindset.

I teach Zen meditation. One of the most difficult parts of this practice for people to understand is that we are not trying to change anything. Rather, we are trying to learn to be quiet enough to see ourselves as we actually are. 

If you try to achieve a positive mindset, you have to first envision what a positive mindset is. But the vision you create is cobbled together by the mindset you already have — it’s a product of the very thing you’re trying to change.

So your image of a positive mindset is what you, in your current mixed up mindset, think a better, more positive mindset might be. It could be your own fantasy, or it could be a mindset someone else has constructed out of their own confusion and is now trying to sell you. But whatever it is, it’s not the true situation you have right now.

In my own case, I was frustrated at being a gloomy, pessimistic character. But every effort I made to change who I was into who I wanted to be failed because it felt forced and phony. I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t. It didn’t work. It gave me intense headaches.

So I gave up. I had to! It was frustrating to give up that effort because I’d put a lot into it. But not only wasn’t it working, it was making me miserable and mean. My frustration at not being able to transform myself into the positive person I wanted to be was getting me angry at myself and I would take that anger out on others.

We all contain a lot of hatred, a lot of resentment, a lot of frustration at being denied what we want, frustration at the world not being the way we think it should be, frustration at the bullies who taunted us. And there’s also our frustration at ourselves — our anger at our own inability to be the person we want to be, to get the things we think we deserve. Mass media capitalizes on all of this and makes a huge profit selling it back to us as entertainment.

So we focus all of that anger, frustration, and hatred on some socially acceptable target. In the past this has been disastrous because the socially acceptable targets have been racial minorities, or marginalized members of society. And there have been persecutions and pogroms and genocides and all manner of atrocities committed by people who were mostly just angry at themselves and taking it out on someone else. We commit the atrocities on others that we’d really like to commit on ourselves because we know — unconsciously usually — that we deserve it.

A whole lot of this comes from wanting to be better than we are and finding out we can’t. The hatred we all contain within us seeks out a victim. I do this too and so do you. The crowd we run with tells us who the acceptable victims are. But it’s kind of arbitrary.

So if you’re in a gang, then the acceptable target for all your frustration and hate is the rival gang. If you’re a racist, the acceptable target is a member of some other race. If you’re a conservative, the acceptable target is the stupid snowflakes with their “safe spaces” and their whining about micro-aggressions and cultural appropriation. If you’re a liberal, the acceptable target is the ecocidal racists, the sexists, the Nazis. Brad Pitt carved a swastika into a guy’s forehead in Inglorious Basterds and we all cheered. I cheered too. Fuckin’ Nazi… Label someone a “Nazi” and all bets are off.

But what happens if we turn the light inward as Dogen says? What if, instead of creating an ideal and then trying to remake ourselves into the image that our confusion has created, what if we just look at what is already there? What if we make a rule for ourselves that we will not judge anything that we find in ourselves? Not yet anyway. Maybe we’ll judge it later. But for now, we’ll just let it all come up so we can see what’s there. Because if we judge it right away, we may hide it from ourselves. Then we won’t have to acknowledge it because we can pretend we didn’t know it was there.

I did this experiment on myself. It took a lot of time and it was scary as hell. After a while I began to see that my actual state couldn’t be characterized as easily as saying I had a “negative mindset” or even a “positive” one. As I began to see my habitual thoughts as habitual thoughts — and nothing more than that — I saw that I did not have to believe my own mindset. Just because a pessimistic idea came into my head through the force of habit, that didn’t mean the pessimistic thought was true or right. It didn’t mean it was me. It was just a habit. Some of those pessimistic thoughts were true. Most were not.

Violent thoughts. Racist thoughts. Hateful thoughts. They all came up. And sure, there were also loving thoughts, sentimental thoughts, really amazing insightful thoughts, stupid thoughts about whether or not Fonzie did it with both of the Polaski twins at the same time. I was a whole lot of things. Most of them useless, many of them contradictory, confusing.

It turned out I already didn’t believe most of my thoughts. I’d been pretty good at dismissing a huge percentage of the random shit that went through my head as being unworthy of taking any action on. What would happen if I exercised the same skepticism about all of my thoughts?

I’m making this sound easy. It wasn’t. It took years of work to finally break through. But once I was able to break through, I saw there was no need to achieve a positive mindset. All I really needed to do was to understand very deeply that my thoughts were just my thoughts. I didn’t have to replace the negative ones with positive ones, the bad ones with good ones. I just had to stop accepting my own thoughts as always being correct. At that point, the true situation started to become easier to see. 

I still have a ton of work to do. But dropping the idea of ever trying to achieve a positive mindset was a great start.

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If you want to try that experiment on yourself too one way to begin is to attend a Zen retreat. How about registering for the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles Spring Retreat April 21-23, 2017 at Mt Baldy Zen Center ?  

Led by Brad Warner, this three-day intensive retreat will focus primarily on the practice of zazen. Morning chanting services, work periods, and yoga (led by Nina Snow) will round out the daily activities. The program will also feature lectures by Brad, as well as the opportunity for dokusan (personal meetings).  Participants will be able to take advantage of this beautiful location for hiking during free periods.

Click for the registration form, practice schedules and more!

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September 7-10, 2017 Retreat in Finland

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