Clouds and silver linings

I read recently about a technique called “Re-framing.” Re-framing is deliberately changing how you think about your circumstances, how you perceive conditions, and feeling happier about them as a result. One common example is the idea of re-framing a problem as an opportunity. Or a weakness as a strength. This sounded to me like a re-labeling of the power of positive thinking.

It got me thinking about meditative techniques that encourage things like visualization. While techniques like Brahmavihara meditations feel wholesome and nourishing to me, I think it’s wise to be cautious about practices that aim to color reality or turn one away from seeing what Suzuki Roshi called “things as it is.” Facing reality may often be difficult, but avoiding reality tends to be dangerous.

In July, 21 people were treated for burns they incurred walking barefoot over hot coals at a motivational session run by Tony Robbins. The idea was that cultivating the right belief makes anything possible. Apparently this includes reversals in physics and biology. The hot coal episode reminded me of stories about great ancient masters purportedly able to levitate, fly, and walk through walls based on the power of their meditation practices. I put those tales in the same bucket with the coal walkers and people who – to quote Jerry Seinfeld – see superheroes not as fiction but role models.

There’s a growing body of research evidence that practices falling into the general category of positive thinking may in fact have the opposite of their intended effects. In some cases, visualizing a successful outcome reduces the probability of achieving it. And repeating positive slogans to lift moods can provoke internal counterarguments and make the user’s mood worse.

Some Buddhist teaching might lead you to think a human being can develop superpowers or utterly transcend and be unaffected by thoughts and perceptions and even by physical reality. But I haven’t met anyone remotely like that. I probably travel in the wrong circles. What I do know from practice is that people can cultivate the strength and ability, little by little, to face reality as it arises – both in the mind and in the world – and respond skillfully. Just as scientists are learning that positive thinking is unreliable or worse, they’re learning what Buddhist meditators have known for quite a while: that appropriately turning toward reality, even when it’s painful or difficult, is more helpful than avoiding or disguising it.