So here is my take on this: negative thoughts are a product of millions of years of successful survival of the human species. Pete Ashly touched on this in one of his comments in this thread, indicating we have “a million ways to die and one way to live.” As it turns out, that “one way to live” involves constantly scanning our environment for things that a) benefit individual or collective survival in some way, or b) threaten individual or collective survival in some way. Evolution itself has ensured that we are hard-wired to develop this constant situational awareness. The product of that awareness, in terms of cognition, is that because fundamental structures of the human brain are designed to identify such existential threats and beneficial opportunities, our higher brain functions also tend to mirror those fundamental structures in working out predictions for the near future. In this sense, the impulse to think negative thoughts is really no different that the impulse to have sexual fantasies about someone we are attracted to, or replay memories of enjoyable sexual encounters, or have violent thoughts about someone who feels threatening to us, or imagine how good our favorite food would taste right now, or revisit memories where we achieved something important for ourselves or others - or indeed repeatedly revisit memories where we felt embarrassed or defeated. Again, all these thoughts bubble up from very pragmatic reflexes of consciousness to satisfy basic survival instincts to thrive or perish.
Now one really nifty ability humans have is our capacity to manage this reflexive thought flow in various ways - and indeed to channel our basic drives into what I call the “fulfillment impulses” of our choosing. Allow me to illustrate what I mean. In Integral Lifework, there are four primary drives: to exist, to experience, to adapt, and to affect. All of our motivations, reflexes, habits, strategies and so forth to fulfill these four primary drives can issue from two places: from within ourselves, or from outside ourselves. What others have alluded to in this thread is that modern commercialistic culture is quite adept at conditioning us to rely on exterior guidance and fulfillment, rather than looking within ourselves for resources. “Don’t think, just consume!” And of course this has helped us become very good - and rather dependent - mass consumers. However, the alternative is to take matters into our own hands as far as we are able, and cultivate intrinsic qualities and character that will guide our fulfillment of primary drives, relying more and more on resources from within ourselves. This is a very different mode of being, and can feel quite foreign to someone who is unpracticed at it, but it’s actually a skill that has been practiced and promoted by everyone from meditation teachers to cognitive behavioral therapists for quite a long time now. It is a core discipline of Integral Lifework.
But what is the point of all this? Well, the point is that we don’t have to submit to our seemingly “automatic” negative thought flow, and we don’t have to identify with it either. That is not to say we should reject negative thoughts - on the contrary, we will tend to navigate them more constructively if we can learn how to recognize and accept them in a relatively detached way, realizing “These thoughts and impulses are happening within me right now, that is true…but they are not the essence of who I am.” My having a dream about ecstatically flying through the sky doesn’t make me a bird - nor does it mean I can simply jump off a cliff and fly. These are thoughts and feelings that have meaning, can be instructive, can provide insight and guidance about the self…but they are fleeting events - a map that reflects elements of our consciousness, but not the territory itself.
Further, we can also transform the habits of our mind to bias our thoughts and feelings towards the positive instead of the negative. Remember that there are two factors in play on an instinctive level: resources that are beneficial, and threats to avoid - thrive or perish. Well it turns out that if we practice things like gratitude meditation, or habitual generosity, or letting go of our need to control outcomes, or any number of other constructive habits, our tendency to have negative thoughts will relax a bit. It won’t go away, but we will, as some other answers here allude to, strengthen alternate, more positive pathways for our thoughts and emotions to travel. In Integral Lifework, there is an additional piece to the puzzle: it turns out that in order to sustain positive thoughts and emotions, we also will need to make sure all dimensions of our being are fully nurtured and loved. This is profoundly important, because without support from all dimensions, our generosity can, after a time, begin to feel empty and strained; our sense of gratitude can become more irregular and superficial; our meditation more shallow and scattered. We will, essentially, lack the internal resources to sustain our positivity.
Lastly, there are also issues of personality or disposition, along with the dominant tendencies of our surrounding culture. Some people are just more cynical and pessimistic than others - in my experience, a majority are. Being persistently optimistic is rare enough to even be described in a negative light - as overconfidence, naïveté or pollyannishness. There are also cultural factors, as some cultures seem (as a very broad generalization) more prone to pessimism than optimism. Here again, the pessimists seem to be in the majority, and tend to view the persistently optimistic cultures as either naive, suspect, delusional or megalomaniacal. And within the suspicion and mistrust of the pessimist towards the optimist is the very kernel of the governing negativity: fear. If we or our culture mainly operate from fear, we will be pessimistic; if we mainly operate from affectionate compassion, we will be more optimistic. So part of the shift from negativity to positivity also requires letting go of fear, and strengthening love.
In any case, to explore some of the practices that support positive self-talk, positive emotional cycles and a positive outlook, please check out the ideas, practices and resources in this paper (you can scroll down to read document without downloading it or logging into the Academia website): Integral Lifework Concepts, Tools & Assessments
My 2 cents.
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