Provision #397: Avoid Positive Thinking

Laser Provision

There is a dimension of magical thinking that is so popular and well-known as to be almost sacrosanct in the self-help literature. For more than 50 years, the “power of positive thinking” has been touted as the key to success and fulfillment in life. But “positive thinking” as a system of control and influence falls short on its promises. Better to practice nonjudgmental witnessing awareness as the key to making life work.

LifeTrek Provision

This Provision, which may sound scandalous to most of you, began many years ago when I was sitting in a restaurant having lunch with a friend. Engaged by the conversation, I reached for something across the table, knocking over my water in the process. As the wait staff came over to help clean up the mess, one of the waiters quipped, “Some people ask, ‘Do you see the glass as half-full? Or do you see the glass as half-empty?’ But I ask, ‘Do you see the glass?'”

The man’s point, which got an immediate laugh because I had obviously not paid attention to the glass before I had knocked it over, was, perhaps, more profound than he knew. How often have we been encouraged to see the glass as half-full? It is almost axiomatic in the self-help literature to encourage positive thinking. Don’t look for the deficits, we are told, but focus on the assets. That will give us a better experience of life and may even nudge things forward in a positive direction.

Who better to call that axiom into question than someone who fills glasses for a living? I’m sure I was neither the first nor the last person to spill a glass of water in that restaurant. And it really didn’t matter whether I viewed the glass as half-full or half-empty; by failing to pay attention to the glass • by failing to pay attention to what was there • I still made a mess. And then there was no way to not pay attention to the glass. How fascinating!

The alleged benefits of positive thinking all relate to the simple concept of mind over matter. My adolescent brain knows exactly how this works. I can still remember, some 40 years later, how as a young boy in school I would seek to influence people and situations by staring at them so intently as to create a perceptible, pulsating aura around my field of vision. I was trying to telepathically impose my will upon them.

That adolescent stare, which I applied more than once to either a problem on a test or to a teacher handing out test results, was obviously a magical and untutored application of “the power of positive thinking.” But it was not very different from the claims that are so often made for this much ballyhooed self-improvement tool. Consider the following claims, written more than 50 years ago by the man who made positive thinking famous, Norman Vincent Peale:

  • Positive thinking can overcome a negative self-image.
  • Positive thinking can win friends and influence people.
  • Positive thinking can give you inner peace.
  • Positive thinking can get you better grades in school.
  • Positive thinking can make you drive safely at high speeds.
  • Positive thinking can increase your sales.
  • Positive thinking can heal your body.
  • Positive thinking can take you to the top in business.

There is no end to the claims made for positive thinking. Unfortunately, as H. L. Mencken was fond of pointing out, “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem • neat, plausible, and wrong.” Positive thinking is one such explanation, as science is increasingly finding.

The idea, for example, that positive thinking can halt the progress of cancer • made popular in the mid-1980s by Dr. Bernie Siegel in his seminal book, Love, Medicine, and Miracles • is demonstrably wrong. A review of 37 studies into the subject, published in the British Medical School in 2002, concludes there is “little consistent evidence that coping styles play an important part in survival from or recurrence of cancer.”

Moreover, the assertion that people should be able to “think themselves well” becomes yet another burden for those suffering from chronic pain or terminal illness. Dr. Jimmie Holland, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, calls this “the tyranny of positive thinking,” because it adds pressure and guilt on top of the malady’s often profound suffering, pain, and disability.

The same holds true for virtually all the other claims of positive thinking. The notion that positive thinking works to overcome adversity and to realize intentions is at once “neat, plausible, and wrong.” As soon as we turn positive thinking into a formula for success or a self-help prescription, we risk adding insult to injury. We risk turning it into yet another magic potion that does more harm than good.

Where does the appeal of positive thinking come from? It comes from the conflation of two very real human propensities: we covet both control and happiness. Since positive thinking is enjoyable and, well, positive, then ascribing to it the power to control our destiny and our environment creates an almost irresistible combination. If “happy people don’t get sick,” as Dr. Siegel has apparently claimed, then who doesn’t want some of that stuff?

The problem is that we don’t ever really control anything. Sometimes happy people do get sick. Control is an illusion that makes human life, or at least Western civilization, possible. From ancient times, people have taken on the mantle of control • often as divinely ordained • with great seriousness and ambition. And the more successful we are in exercising control, the more tenacious we are in promoting our particular system of control (be that positive thinking or anything else).

Until a tsunami comes through to remind us that all of life is a gift. Or we spill our glass in a restaurant to remind us to pay attention. Positive thinking is not to be imposed upon life in order to control life • that just doesn’t work and, besides, it’s not much fun. Positive thinking is to be invited into life in order to celebrate life, whether things work out or not.

So the point of this Provision, and the key to spiritual wellness, is not to avoid positive thinking altogether. It’s to avoid positive thinking as a system of control or influence and to instead practice positive thinking as a system of recognition and respect for the underlying perfection in every situation, even when the situation is clearly not perfect.

Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, writes about this practice in these terms. “The art of music, since it can only be conveyed through its interpreters, depends on expressive performance for its lifeblood. Yet it is only when we make mistakes in performance that we can really begin to notice what needs attention. In fact, I actively train my students that when they make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’ I recommend that everyone try this.”

Now that’s positive thinking at its best! By interpreting our experience • both positive and negative • as fascinating, without praise or judgment, we “begin to notice what needs attention.” And by noticing what needs attention, with a nonjudgmental witnessing awareness, we begin to mature in our understanding of and respect for life.

This kind of positive thinking does not seek to press the invisible powers of the universe into its service. It certainly does not seek to impose its will upon people or situations. It rather seeks to embrace life • all of life • with curiosity, forgiveness, and hope.

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, writes of such an embrace in these terms: “The moment you start watching your thoughts, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. You then begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter • beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace • arise from beyond the mind. You begin to awaken.”

The key, then, to spiritual wellness is not powerful positive thoughts but nonjudgmental witnessing awareness. By paying attention to life, to how we go through life, and to our thoughts about life • by paying attention without judgment, fear, or condemnation • we can not only lift our arms in the air, smile, and say, “How fascinating!” We can also set ourselves free to learn and to love.

That is my hope for every cancer patient. Not that they should think happy thoughts in order to blast away tumor cells. Indeed, not that they “should” do anything at all. But rather that they will go through the process of recovery with full awareness of body, mind, and spirit. Increasing our witnessing awareness as we go through life, especially as we go through hard times, is what enables us to be at once both physically sick and spiritually well. It makes life better, between the already and the not yet.

One of our readers sent in a reply this past week pointing out that what I have been writing about lies at the heart of an ancient Indian meditation technique called Vipassana. The practice promises self-transformation through self-observation: not evaluation (“I’m so great!” “I’m so stupid!”) but observation of what is happening in the here and now, both externally and internally.

“Your last two Provisions,” wrote this reader, “encourage me in my daily practice of Vipassana meditation. Its core teaching is to just observe. Observe, without judgment or reaction, what is going on as you pass your attention methodically throughout your whole body. If an unpleasant sensation exists, just observe it. If you come across a pleasant sensation, just observe it. No reaction: no cravings, no aversion to the sensations.”

“This practice provides a powerful learning: Everything, every thing, arises, stays for some time, and then passes away. Meditating in this way has been one of the most important and effective ways for me to stay in the present moment. The results are a much clearer head, clearer thinking, more steady and calm responses to whatever may arise, gratitude, and a greater understanding of what to do next. It gives a reality shot to magical thinking, and a way out of the darkness to cynical thinking. Thanks for the reminder.”

Would that we all might make time each day for such meditation! Avoid positive thinking, in the usual sense, and replace it with nonjudgmental witnessing awareness. Learn to observe what’s going on in the here and now. Pay attention to thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Give up the illusion of control and influence. Practice recognition and respect in every situation, even when the situation is clearly not perfect. Make “How fascinating!” your mantra for life. And keep your eye on the glass.

Coaching Inquiries: Do you use “positive thinking” as a system of control and influence or as an expression of nonjudgmental witnessing awareness? How could you become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations? What shifts might be required? What practices might be helpful? What difference might it make?

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..


Your last Provision was another winner. You may double your responses with this one. You found the sweet spot. That’s me. World weary. Not enough now. I enjoyed your writing…now.


I really like the information you give me! Thanks.


Thanks for the powerful reminder to avoid cynical thinking. It is so easy to fall into!



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

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