Wanderings II: Positive Thoughts (via Wanderlust)

In a relatively somber week that included losing the House to Tea Party extremists and a hacking cough I can't shake, I’ve decided to accentuate the positive. So let's hear it for California! The San Francisco Giants took home their first World Series crown since they left New York in 1957 (I credit Yoga Tree). On the political front, the California Dems pushed the CEOs back into the boardroom (where, unfortunately, they have more clout anyway). Senator Barbara Boxer defeated HP CEO Carla Fiorina and old Jerry Brown took out eBay mogul Meg Whitman giving the blue party one of their few governorship pick-ups. 

In 1992, as a wide-eyed idealist, I cast my first vote for Jerry Brown in the New York state primary for president. Brown wore a turtleneck, drove his own car and was rumored to sleep on the floor on a futon. They say that people want to see themselves in the candidates they elect. This was certainly true in my case. Brown seemed to be living more of the life of a college student than a blowhard pol. I wouldn't be surprised if Jerry gets his downward dog on from time to time. In 1974, he became the youngest governor of California and he will soon be the oldest governor (who has also dated Linda Rondstadt).

This blog is not about politics however. It's about trying to find and nurture positivity in life - even on the grayest of days.

Everyday life is littered with negativity. The news is basically an endless stream of human catastrophe, murder, fire and unemployment (with a little football thrown in). The Weather Channel basically chronicles natural disasters. There’s even a giant industry that thrives on celebrating bad news. Tabloid journalism in all its forms thrives on publicizing the unfortunate turns of the lives of celebrities. And to feel better about ourselves, we eat it up. We become so conditioned towards negative outcome that it begins to shape our unconscious brain that controls so much of our behavior. The expectation of something negative begets a negative outcome.

Negativity is not just contained to news and pop culture. The American approach to health and medicine has been dominated by the diagnosis and treatment of illness. The field of psychology has been largely a study of mental illness.

While western medicine has innumerable benefits, the obsession with endless treatment has reinforced a societal ethos that says, “We’ll just fix it in post-production.” Instead of endless editing, we could focus on living with a quality script and performing at our highest level. This would limit the amount of editing/treatment we need and help us live happier lives. The current U.S. health care system ranks #37 among the world’s nations so there is definitely room for other perspectives.

Integrative doctors are now beginning to focus on the healthy parts of us. This is not just the prioritization of preventative medicine though that’s a huge shift that needs to happen in health care. When we are sick, doctors need to find and nurture the healthy parts of us instead of only focusing on the sick parts of us. We need to see the positive.

The well-studied Placebo effect provides substantial proof that our minds can alter our physiological state. There can be no doubt that positive thought can play a role in helping to cure sickness.

In the last 20 years, people like Martin Seligman have transformed the landscape of psychology. Seligman and a host of others have created the field of positive psychology as a thriving branch of study. Seligman believes that “a psychology of positive human functioning will arise that achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving in individuals, families, and communities."

Another field of medical study that has begun to get traction is epigenetics. Epigenetics suggests that are genes are not fixed and that we can change our genetic expressions without altering the underlying DNA.

Dr. Bruce H. Lipton, a cellular biologist, offers this explanation:

“This new hereditary mechanism reveals how behavior and gene activity are controlled by an organism’s perceptions of its environment. The fundamental difference between the old DNA genetic code and the new epigenetics is that the former notion endorses genetic determinism - the belief that genes predetermine and control our physiological and behavioral traits - while epigenetics recognizes that our perceptions of the environment, including our consciousness, actively control our genes. Through epigenetic mechanisms, applied consciousness can be used to shape our biology and make us masters of our own lives.”

Scientists suggest specific things you can do to cultivate your own unique consciousness (http://www.ozarkresearch.org/Site/epigenetics.html).

Whether or not we can change our genes and their expression, the underlying premise is positive and echoes the philosophies of self-determinists. We have the ability to control our lives and our fate by shaping environmental factors like diet, exercise, cultivation of mindfulness, relationships etc... This notion of free will rings of America where freedom is conflated with this pursuit of happiness. Yet, as a culture, we now often seem negative and restless for change.

So what do we do?

There have been many books written on the power of positive thinking from Norman Vincent Peale’s seminal work to the more recent phenomenon The Secret.

The Secret, whose trailer (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_b1GKGWJbE8) resembles something out of Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, has popularized the “law of attraction” – the idea that thought becomes things and whatever is going through your mind is what is attracted to you. The Secret is largely created and marketed for people looking for wealth and career success. And while the core message of optimism is attractive, it also superficializes the process of personal and spiritual growth and focuses too much energy on the product (wealth and material goods).

While positivity may lead to wealth, every study shows that – beyond the poverty level - there is no correlation between happiness and wealth. To me, positivity is part of a process of life and it is that process that creates happiness. Here’s a simple quote on optimism:

“The optimist, using techniques for positive thinking, sees the potential in everything. He creates a compelling future that drives him forward and provides motivation. He gives himself clear, inspiring goals and desires that fuel his actions. He is stretched by the challenges of what the depressive would call 'unrealistic goals.' This challenge forces growth, a key factor in true happiness, further empowering the optimist on towards his goals. When he does get beaten, he realizes that he is merely being told 'try again but be more inventive.' Fueled by his imagination, the optimist creates his own future.”

Most schools of positive thought use visualization in some way. Close your eyes and imagine the person you want to be. Though we are all different, so many of us share a common vision of our ideal selves including health, wisdom, loving relationships, community, and some kind of spiritual awareness. To move towards these goals, take small steps. Every day, even if just for one minute, find a way to practice your “yoga” through one of these ways: 

Being: meditate as a means to look inward and find the source of your thought. Doing: engage in an act of service (seva) without any selfish intent. Feeling: cultivate love and relationship. Thought: study to greater understand the laws of nature and the universe.

By doing this for one minute per day, you create positive change and the things you are thriving for slowly begin to fall into place. Good things happen when positive thought meets positive action.

At Wanderlust, we often envision our ideal event and the community we want to create and participate in. It’s a process, full of small equally important steps.

You always have a choice about how to react to a situation. Republicans can see these recent elections as extremely positive; a populist uprising against rampant government spending and this may reinforce their zeal to work hard to get their message across. Democrats can also see positivity. They solidly held the senate. The House is up every two years and, in 2012, folks will be energized around a dynamic president who might just be a better campaigner than an executive. If you remember, Obama ran one of the only positive campaigns in recent history.