Provision #396: Avoid Cynical Thinking

Laser Provision

Last week we urged you to avoid magical thinking. There is no foolproof, guaranteed, esoteric, invisible, or unassailable system for getting what we want out of life. But that does not mean we should swing 180 degrees in the opposite direction, to cynical thinking. There is a middle ground between all (magical thinking) and nothing (cynical thinking). By rooting ourselves in the present moment, we can ignite the passion of love.

LifeTrek Provision

The responses to last week’s Provision, Avoid Magical Thinking Click, have been pouring in fast and furious. Most have been very positive; several have been quite profound.

The point last week was simply that spiritual wellness begins the moment we let go of magical thinking. Magic purports to create a supernatural cause-and-effect relationship between the things we believe, sacrifice, and do and the things we want to have happen in the universe. Science, of course, studies natural cause-and-effect relationships. But magic goes beyond science by making one or more of the following claims:

  1. Foolproof. Magic claims that anyone can achieve the results they want, if they just believe, sacrifice, and do enough.
  2. Guaranteed. Magic claims that the right belief, sacrifice, and action will guarantee the results people desire.
  3. Esoteric. Magic claims to have secret knowledge as to the beliefs, sacrifices, and actions that really work.
  4. Invisible. Magic makes an invisible connection between belief, sacrifice, and action and intended results.
  5. Unassailable. Magic claims that there is something wrong with the practitioner, rather than with the practice, when things don’t work out.

So, for example, this past week I received a direct-mail solicitation to subscribe to a monthly publication that would reveal “the secrets to help me get more out of life.” Whether I want to “feel better, build stronger relationships, discover my destiny, create positive energy, or receive spiritual comfort,” this publication will show me how.

As part of the initial pitch, the publication has already revealed how quartz can be used to “wash away negative energies, to see the future, to protect me from stress, and to keep my computer running smoothly.” In exchange for subscribing, they promise to send me a quartz crystal which, unfortunately, will not be “activated until I carry it in my pocket for a week.”

Or, again, I was recently listening to a wonderful CD of praise music when the following refrain came through in one of the songs: “God is able, I can testify, if you call on him you won’t be denied. His ear is not deaf and his arm is not short; he’ll give you what you need, so why don’t you get smart? Put your trust in him, he can make a way. He’ll walk right beside you each and every day. He’ll put money in your pocket and food on your table; I’m telling you what I know • God is able!”

Or finally, and again in just the past week, Time magazine released its third annual Mind & Body special issue, dedicated to “The Science of Happiness.” With characteristic aplomb, the magazine reports on the latest research into the things that make people happy. Wealth, a good education, youth, marriage, and sunny weather all fail to make the bill.

But religious practice and strong community ties, which often go together, show a definite correlation. “Word needs to be spread,” concludes a researcher nicknamed Dr. Happiness. “It is important to work on social skills, close interpersonal ties, and social support in order to be happy.” Other recommendations include keeping a gratitude journal, performing acts of kindness, making a gratitude visit, forgiving a violation, and deploying your strengths.

All these offers, testimonies, and recommendations, even those that are scientifically researched, can fall prey to magical thinking. When they become a foolproof, guaranteed, esoteric, invisible, or unassailable system for getting what we want, we find ourselves in the morass of the quid-pro-quo universe I was describing last week. Suddenly it’s up to us to believe, sacrifice, and do the right things in order to produce the right results.

But that’s not how the universe works. There is no foolproof, guaranteed, esoteric, invisible, or unassailable system. And it both surprised and delighted some of our readers to discover a coach saying as much. After all, aren’t coaches in the success and happiness business? Aren’t coaches known for programs, tips, keys, systems and, yes, Provisions and Pathways, that promise the world and often sound very much like magical thinking? Not this coach, which led one reader to write, in reply:

“This is the best Provision yet. I love both the new graphics and the honesty of this. No magic. No formulas. Not the latest book. Not even the various processes and programs offered up by hundreds who now call themselves coaches. The long list of all you can do right and still not see the results desired makes me now look forward to the new Provision series on spiritual wellness.”

As much as I appreciated the endorsement, to see this reader taking such comfort in the long litany of everything that can go wrong gave me pause. We all know that life is precarious and that nothing can guarantee results. Not quartz, not God, not wealth, education, youth, marriage, sunny weather, or, yes, not even religious practice and strong community ties.

But there is the danger that we will move from one extreme to the other, from determinism to nihilism. Since we can find no foolproof, guaranteed, esoteric, invisible, or unassailable system, it’s tempting to throw up our hands and to give up entirely. “Why bother!” I can hear some of you saying. “If you can’t hand me a system that works, then why do anything at all? Why try to make things better if it can all blow up, any instant, in our faces?”

If this sounds like you, if you have the self-improvement blues, then perhaps you have swung too far in the opposite direction. Perhaps you are the victim of cynical thinking, of the negativity and pessimism that come from world-weariness. But that will be no more helpful to you, or to the world, than magical thinking. Just because nothing works all of the time does not mean that nothing works any of the time.

One of the recurring challenges in our work as coaches is to disabuse people of all-or-nothing thinking. We see this frequently. Someone goes on a diet, for example, to lose weight. And for several days, they manage to control their eating perfectly. They may even start to lose a few pounds or kilograms. But then the inevitable happens. They mess up. They eat something that’s not on their diet triggering, perhaps, an eating binge.

“Oh forget it,” they say, “I can’t do it. I can’t control my eating. So I may as well stop pretending. I’ll just go back to not caring at all. I’ll eat what I eat, and enjoy what I enjoy, regardless of the consequences.”

Sound familiar? That scenario gets repeated in just about every arena. If we can’t have it all, then we revert to nothing. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Enter the coaching conversation. Like a true-pointing compass, coaching enables clients to stay on course by assisting them to give up both magical (all) and cynical (nothing) thinking. We instead learn present-moment thinking — the only thinking we ever really do • as an antidote for them both.

The nature, beauty, and power of present-moment thinking was captured exquisitely in another reader reply to last week’s Provision, this time from Central America:

“Greetings from Mexico! It is refreshing to read you; this Provision about magical thinking was like wiping the merchandiser out of the temple! How sacred is the conscience of presenting ourselves to God knowing we have nothing to trade!”

“I am an operatic tenor and I also teach voice; your Provisions have proved invaluable for taking my pupils away from the pain of expectation (“Is my voice good?” “Is it big?” “Is it beautiful?” “Flexible?” etcetera…) to the joy of the self-discovery and the confidence of sharing their feelings (it applies first in my self naturally). My patron saint, St. Ignatius of Loyola, wrote, “Pray as if everything depended on God, act as if everything depended on you.”

There’s no way to say it better. Present-moment thinking puts away “the pain of expectation,” both positive (magical, all) and negative (cynical, nothing), in order to experience “the joy of self-discovery and the confidence of sharing our feelings.” We become enthralled with the burning fire spoken of so movingly by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda:

…And something ignited in my soul,
fever or unremembered wings,
and I went my own way,
deciphering
that burning fire
and I wrote the first bare line,
bare, without substance, pure
foolishness,
pure wisdom
of one who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
unfastened
and open.

Therein lies the power of present-moment thinking. It can make us spiritually well. By taking on neither too much (magical, all) nor too little (cynical, nothing), but instead taking on just enough, we put ourselves on the path to greatness.

This is not yet another foolproof, guaranteed, esoteric, invisible, or unassailable system. It is rather an expression of the impact present-moment thinking may have on our spiritual wellness. Present-moment thinking nudges us forward in the right direction. It keeps our feet on the ground even as it lifts our spirit to the heavens. It accepts both triumph and tragedy as parts of life that afford us the incredible opportunity to love.

Coaching Inquiries: Do you seize each and every moment as an opportunity to love? Or do you fill up your moments with worry and regret? Do you take on too much or too little? Are you prone to either magical or cynical thinking? How could you bring your thinking, right now, into the present moment?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us, use our Contact Form, or give us a call in the U.S.A. at 757-345-3452 to request a complimentary coaching session.

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..


That’s a great Provision on “Magical Thinking”. I agree completely. I learned about magical thinking in my 20’s, knew that I was riddled with it (still am at times), and laughed at it as it showed its head when I could. It is often quite humorous, ridiculous really, what we’ll believe in order to avoid the truth. Magical thinking is living in fantasy, and fantasy always results in a slap on the face eventually. Then you’re back where you started from, having to find some other way to deal with things.

When things were toughest for me, I realized that suffering is a part of life, just like pleasure. The only thing we know for sure is that nothing will last. One emotion will eventually give rise to another; ups will become downs and vice versa. Nothing we do will make anything last. But we can suffer much less about this impermanence if we realize that our own hearts and minds are where it all takes place. It’s how we perceive it that makes it what it is. So, a light touch helps. Remembering that bad stuff won’t last forever makes a difference, and, as you said, pain teaches us things. I remember reading that a broken heart opens our heart up to others. There’s a lesson for you.


I need to tell you, without reservation, that there is a way to guarantee success in this life and in the life to come and his name is Jesus Christ. He is the true Life Coach and I pray that you get to know him.


“Avoid Magical Thinking” • what a thought-provoking Provision so rich with insight! As a minister in a conservative branch of Christianity, I found the article to be spot on in many respects. A balanced life of simplicity and contentedness is a welcome tonic in a culture of surfeit and angst.


I agree that there are no guarantees in this life and there is nothing we can do to earn God’s salvation. It is a free gift. It is not magic. It is the truth. It’s called G.R.A.C.E. • Gods Riches At Christ’s Expense. It does not mean we will not face trouble in this life. But God will be with us in our times of need. And His promise to us is Eternal life.


I am concerned about what you were saying about the magic pill. From what I have read of you, I respect most of what you have written. However, the views you gave did not seem to correspond to the Christian view. From what I understand you are a Christian, so I am giving you the benefit of the doubt. In that case, I would like you to clarify what you are saying as it relates to true Christianity, not religion. For I, like you, find many problems with religion. I will wait for clarification. Thank you. (Ed. Note: I like the distinction you make between “true Christianity” and “religion.” This series will hopefully make the distinction plain, both for Christianity and for other faiths. I hope you keep reading.)


Your “Avoid Magical Thinking” piece in Provisions is a lovely essay, satisfyingly profound, ironic and genuinely open. Thank you.


Kudos on the new spiritual wellness series! This is LifeTrek provisions at its best! Glad to see the references to Robert Farrar Capon. It sounded like you were heading his way in the early paragraphs. What I’d like to see next is how we actually transform the up and down experiences in life into new opportunities to extend ourselves in love. Exactly how do we get from point A (despair over a bad experience) to point B (love extension). Any wisdom you could provide there would be great.


You hit the homerun with this week’s Provision (or, in your case, the 7-minute mile). I guess I have been your devotee for a few years now and must share some of your predispositions. I have also been getting messages from Bishop Spong every week. He and you (and I) are on the same page for the series on spirituality in a somewhat random world of unbridled fate and uncontrollable natural occurrences.

As someone who married into a Vietnamese family and now lives, part-time, in Vietnam, I want to point out that Robert Farrar Capon actually talks about Semitic religions, not those of the East. The East has slaughtered as many in their wars, but rarely for pure Buddhism, Taoism, animism, or Hinduism, etc.; actually they don’t have many “isms” • even the “Commun__” type. 

In your series, the point of nonattachment comes to mind. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is now back in Vietnam (after leaving the USA, the country of Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and Jerry Falwell, who lambasted Vietnam for its repression of religion!). Hanh said, “If you have a gun, you can kill one, two, three, five people; but if you have an ideology…you can kill millions.”

The point is that, in the existential universe you will describe, religion is still important, but not the horribly twisted version now extant in the USA. I don’t ask you to shill for Buddhism or Spong’s Christianity, but only not to paint all religions with the same brush; there is a “great divide” between them, based upon inclusiveness and acceptance.


Bottom line for Magical Thinking and your Provision: Life is not fair • and so it is. Traversing thru divorce, in laws, and all the rest makes this so obvious. But unfairness is all around. I very much appreciate the wisdom that you share!


I love getting your Provisions. They often have words of wisdom that really hit the spot for me. After reading your thoughts on magical thinking this morning, I wondered if you had read “Ask and It is Given” by Esther and Jerry Hicks? I am just in the process of reading it now and find it very inspirational in developing the process of manifesting my thoughts. It is not so much “magical thinking” as tapping into the power of the universe (or Source, as they call it, which to me could be interpreted as God) and positive thinking, but does seem to have the effect of “magical thinking!” 


In the context of avoiding magical thinking I would like to draw your attention to a poem modified by Mother Theresa. Although Mother Theresa was a devout Roman Catholic, she may have proven herself to have been beyond religion and in the spiritual. In the last verse God can take any form or shape, in accordance with your experience of God. The poem takes away the paradigms and goes to the essence of each and everyone’s personal spiritual life. The poem is not about magic or obtaining it; it deals with the essential principles of life.

Do It Anyway

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered
Forgive them anyway

If you are kind,
People may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives
Be kind anyway

If you are successful,
You will win some false friends and some true enemies
Succeed anyway

If you are honest and frank,
People may cheat you
Be honest and frank anyway

What you spent years building
Can be destroyed overnight
Build anyway

If you find serenity and happiness,
They may be jealous
Be happy anyway

The good you do today
May be forgotten tomorrow
Do good anyway

Give the world the best you have
And it may never be enough
Give the world the best of you anyway

You see,
In the final analysis, it is between you and God
It was never between you and them anyway.



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
Phone: (757) 345-3452 • Fax: (772) 382-3258
Skype: LifeTrek • Twitter: @LifeTrekBob
Mobile: www.LifeTrekMobile.com
Subscribe/Unsubscribe: Subscriber Services