People, in general, are attracted to the positive thinking movement because they see it as a tool to help them achieve a goal or to acquire something. This sort of motivation is all well and good. However, that is not the purpose of this post. There have been books written, seminars attended, and studies made about positive thinking. There is little or nothing for me to add about it. What I have in mind is the value of a positive attitude.
As I scrolled down my Facebook feed last night, a meme, superimposed over the image of meadow filled with daisies, caught my eye. It was a quote from the late wife of former Senator John Edwards, Elizabeth Edwards. “A positive attitude is not going to save you. What it’s going to do is, everyday, between now and the day you die, whether that’s a short time from now or a long time from now, that every day, you’re going to actually live.”
There is a lot of wisdom packed into that statement. Basically it presents a positive attitude as a template for living, not merely a technique for success like positive thinking. There are plenty of folks who practice positive thinking who do not have positive attitudes towards life. Just give that some thought.
A person can have the desire to achieve a very selfish, destructive goal. In order to expedite, to attain her desire, she can employ the technique of positive thinking. Of course, that technique can also be used to achieve a selfless goal as well. This means positive thinking is a value-neutral manner of thought.
To have a positive attitude is a more global concept. It’s more akin to a lifestyle or a template for living life. To have a positive attitude is to have a mind that is cleared of negative, harmful thoughts. A positive attitude brings a peaceful, tranquil state of emotional health. A positive attitude is fortified by conscious practice. It’s a continuous process.
Let’s take a quick detour into Judeo Christian teachings. Christians phrase the “Golden Rule” as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is a great piece of wisdom and one that has much value. It does lack balance, though. A balancing statement is one attributed to Judaism’s Hillel the Elder. “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”
Together, these pithy statements describe the most important ingredient of positive attitude, equanimity. Treat others the way we want to be treated is coupled with don’t treat others the way we don’t want to be treated. Taken together, a person can have a positive attitude that is not crippled with self-righteousness and sanctimony. The two statements, linked together, are beautiful and elegant as a whole philosophy.
Equanimity is a state of mind, when manifested as practice, that brings about not only a positive attitude, but also great happiness.
Tradition says that Siddhartha Buddha once described the mind as a wild horse. To tame the horse he recommended that we clear our minds of negative unwholesome thoughts. As we eliminate the negative thoughts, we replace them with positive, wholesome thoughts (not merely positive thinking). As the harmful thoughts disappear, they are replaced by peace of mind. It is within the peaceful state of mind that we discover and cultivate equanimity.
It is through practice that equanimity is achieved by detaching oneself from craving. We can observe our passions, needs, and wants of life from an objective point of view. It is easier to understand that everybody shares these tendencies. We know this as empathy. When we practice equanimity every day we maintain a sense of well-being, happiness, and a positive attitude towards life.
This practice is not a command. It is an experiment that we are free to try in the laboratory of the mind if we so choose. It is an experiment that is not about escape nor detaching from the world nor living in the past or future. The experiment engages the present with compassion, equanimity, and a positive attitude.