Life is full of paradox. And we are living, breathing paradoxes.
We hold opposing viewpoints, conflicting values, and competing commitments. We have a kind heart and a selfish streak. We soar and we falter.
In the midst of life’s ups and downs, self-help gurus, positive psychologists, motivational speakers, and well-meaning friends remind us to think positive:
Reframe the situation. Debunk your limiting beliefs. Transform your negative self-image. Look on the bright side. Make lemonade out of lemons.
Positivity certainly has its place and its benefits. But it’s not the only path to caring for your well-being, gaining contentment, seeing possibilities, facing your fears, acquiring skills, and achieving success.
What’s more, it is hard to change your negativity into positive thoughts when you feel like crap and you’re not equipped to dig yourself out of the hole. Pep talks and affirmations can only take you so far.
What’s the doable alternative?
“Every moment is unique, unknown, completely fresh.” – Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You
Instead of trying to change the thoughts that bring you discomfort, embrace them as they are. Welcome them as your teacher, guide, and even your friend.
Develop your capacity to live with paradox. This starts with mindfulness: moment-to-moment awareness of what is before you, with open curiosity and no agenda.
Mindfulness is a skill you can cultivate through yoga, meditation, gardening, walking, or any other experience that allows you to be present in the moment, without judgment. It is also a way of being that is always available to you.
With mindfulness, you’re not working to transform your negative thoughts into positive outlooks. Rather, you’re simply observing the bare facts and raw reality. You drop the labels and loosen your grip on the story line underlying your thoughts.
From a place of centered awareness, you make conscious choices that are grounded in reality. It’s not that you won’t feel pain, make mistakes, or get angry. But you’ll be better able to open up to situations as they unfold, let go more easily, make peace with the past, and apply the lessons you learn to the present and in the future.
By practicing mindfulness and by being mindful, you can begin to change your relationship with undesired thoughts and accompanying feelings. You learn to tap into the infinite, non-evaluative, inner witness that can sit with any experience. As such, the need to think positive before you take appropriate action becomes less desperate.
Why is mindful thinking more doable than positive thinking?
“With mindful awareness, challenging situations become more manageable, not because anything changes about them or even because how you think and feel about them has changed. Instead, they become more manageable because you learn a new way of approaching your experiences — your thoughts, your feelings, your bodily sensations — allowing them to be just as they are and greeting them with friendliness, gentleness, and compassion.” – Dr. Catherine Vieten, Mindful Motherhood
As I continue my journey to becoming a first-time mother, I find mindfulness especially valuable. My grand excitement, pure joy, and massive strength co-exist with my sheer terror, intense uncertainty and strong self-doubt. There’s so much paradox to process.
We all want to think positive and feel good about life-transforming events. But when there are multiple variables and limitless unknowns, positive thinking and feeling good can be out of reach.
Feigning positivity when you’re downright anxious or outright ambivalent creates inner tension. Mindful thinking, on the other hand, allows you to stay in integrity and find calmness on your own terms, at your individual pace, in due course.
With mindfulness, you give your fears and conflicting beliefs the attention and respect they deserve. You don’t have to cover them up with a smile or wish them away with idealistic thoughts. You zero in on where you have the most power and influence.
You recognize when you lose your patience, do the unthinkable, and say harsh things. You forgive yourself more quickly so you can make amends more peacefully. You stop complaining and whining. You come to terms with your situation or you do something to change it.
By facing circumstances precisely as they are, without any self-deceit, you develop your adaptability, decide what you want to stand for, and show up as a pillar of strength, despite the paradoxes.
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Photo by: Jack Kennard