Letting go of Positive Thinking, Welcoming Reality

When anything becomes a ‘hype’ or a cliché, a jargon or a should it loses its innocence and beauty. And Positive thinking is one such thing. Not that its wrong or bad, but obsessing about anything is not respecting the polarity. And true beauty is always when we see the whole. Unless we can accept ‘negative thinking’ and don’t deny that part of ourselves, positive thinking just becomes an escape, a desperation.

Many years ago I read this beautiful book by Robert Fritz, ‘The path of least resistance’. Peter Senge is a great thought leader, who many know as the person who brought the idea of the ‘learning organisation’ to the world. In his seminal book, ‘The Fifth Discipline’, the first discipline he mentions is ‘Personal Mastery’ and this discipline is based on this book of Robert Fritz.

This piece from the book is worth reading.


The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking
(Robert Fritz in ‘The path of least resistance’)

A familiar strategy in this mode (dealing with the ‘oscillation’ of the human life between polarities like pleasure to pain, high and low, ebb and flow) is to fortify will power through positive thinking, exaggerated affirmations, motivational resolve, and inspirational fervor. Some of the theories suggest that it is necessary to “program” the mind with positive propaganda so that you can enlist the cooperation of your subconscious, which is presumed to control the course of your life. The assumption is that if you can change the “program” of your subconscious, you will live happily ever after.

Every year thousands of books and magazine articles encourage people to develop their will power this way. Dozens of cable television programs are dedicated to these approaches. Subliminal message tapes, affirmations, self-hypnosis, positive reinforcements, motivational meetings, slogans and mottoes taped to the bathroom mirror, and cheerleading of all kinds are attempts to overpower structural conflict through exaggerated determination and the “power of positive thinking”

If you assume that you can influence and direct your subconscious, what messages do you give it by using many of these programming techniques? It is very hard to communicate with the subconscious. It takes special and extraordinary means. Old “programs” have enormous power; the subconscious is stupid and unruly. It must be treated like a child.

If you thought that programming the subconscious was the key to your life. Why would you want to influence it with that kind of message? When you try to force-feed the subconscious with positive thoughts, the actions of manipulation speak louder that the propagandistic positive words.

The Disempowerment of Positive Thinking

What is wrong with positive thinking? In a word – truth. One of the skills of the creative process is to assess the current state of the creation in progress. This is difficult if you have a bias. If you try to impose a positive view on reality, you will not easily be able to adjust your actions in creative process.

For years advocates of positive thinking have claimed that your attitude will shape your destiny and that is you think positive thoughts, positive results will occur. The strategy you use is to force you self into thinking the “best” of any situation.
If you wake up in the morning and feel sick, tired, and headachy, one of the positive thinking would have you force yourself to think something like, “Boy I feel great today. Isn’t it fabulous to be alive?”

A second school of positive thinking would have you say to yourself something like, “ I really feel sick. I think it’s just wonderful that I feel sick, because good things always come from these kinds of situation. What a wonderful learning opportunity.”
Positive thinking is a willpower strategy designed to help people exert their will over themselves as a kind of self-manipulation.

There are two assumptions, generally unexpressed and unexamined, at the roots of both schools of positive thinking. The first is that you need to control yourself by overpowering your habitual negativity. The second is that the objective truth about reality is somehow dangerous to you and that you must therefore impose upon the truth a beneficent interpretation.

The radical difference between positive thinking and the creative orientation can be seen in parallel assumptions about the creative process.
First, in the orientation of the creative, there is no need to control yourself. Instead , the orientation assumes that whether you are habitually negative or not, you have a natural inclination toward creating what you most truly want. Furthermore, there are no inner forces you must overcome, only inner forces that might be aligned organically as part of the creative process. This is not programming yourself, but rather working with all of the forces in play- including the forces you may not especially like.

Second, in the orientation of the creative, it is essential to report to yourself what reality truly is, no matter what the conditions and circumstances may be. A clear description of reality is necessary input in the creative process. Were you to impose any “rose-colored” or otherwise synthetic views on your reality, you would obscure it.

In the orientation of the creative, if you woke up feeling sick, tired, and headachy, you would report the truth to yourself, exactly as you observed it. Furthermost, there would be no need to interpret the ultimate meaning of your situation (“Good things always come from these kinds of situations”) Reality may, of course, include your opinion of the situation, for example, “I feel sick, and I don’t like feeling this way.”


Accepting reality – the whole of it- vs. denying it by forcing positive thinking on top may be a wiser way to deal with it. Sometimes it is essential to have a band aid or a quick fix or a temporary solution. But then let us recognise it as such and not be surprised that the ‘problem’ keeps resurfacing. That is in the nature of ‘problem solving’. Dissolving it is about embracing the creative process which honors what is emerging. And collaborates with it. Uses it. And hence doesn’t see it like a problem. But something to play with. Work with. Embrace. Allow. And learn from. It is about adjusting the sail. The blowing wind is not a problem. That is just what is so. And the way its blowing is precisely the way it needs to blow.

10 thoughts on “Letting go of Positive Thinking, Welcoming Reality

    1. Vinit.. Isnt it ‘real’ and liberating to be able to say where we are without having to appear one way or the other.
      Interestingly acknowledging vulnerably the pits or the tips.. the valley or the peak.. being where we are.. is freedom..
      And thats what the Buddha said- something like- .. ‘Be where you are, else you will miss life’

  1. Hi Kiran,
    Great article! I fully agree with you, I’d even go further. I often found that the idea of ‘positive thinking’ and its marketing was a very American style quick fix.
    I think the problem is change. Unfortunately change in us (at least that’s how it is for me) happens when there is loss of confidence, destabilization, ‘ erasure of the hard disk’= depression= nothing matters anymore and other extremely unpleasant states of mind. Out of this destruction of old then can grow the new- or rather- for mental evolution, there needs to be destruction, letting go and reconstruction, creation. The latter is often desired, but the first is avoided and thought to be ‘negative’ because painful. People who advocate ‘positive thinking’ therefore want to stop time in a state of positive bliss. But everybody who has been through personal evolution-processes knows that the state of bliss comes from learning to go beyond the aspects of positive and negative and that is an entirely different story.

  2. Thank you for sharing this Kiran, its such an important perspective to be reminded of for those of us who catch ourselves vainly attempting again and again to reframe things to be what we hope or fear or want them to be rather than simply allowing – loving – letting – what is !

    Just read also a great line in Bruce Liptons new book “Spontanious Evolution” where he was likening the attempt to reprogram the subconscious with repetition of positive affirmations akin to trying to coach a music player to change the music the tape is playing….. ! Great image…

    Besides the fact that it aint gonna change a thing, doesnt it really perpetuate the very issue being avoided?

    The beauty is that we are not actually living a read only script here – its a read-write potential –

    to me it seems that all I really need to do is be ok with whatever is happening and something much deeper and more magnificent can emerge than a mere positive opposite….!

    All possibilities exist in every moment!!

    Are we listening/feeling/sensing what wants to happen…..?

    Welcome home!

    From the Victorious One
    Who Today faced a feared reality without prediction
    and saw only love and humility
    showered in Grace


  3. Thanks for sharing this Kiran. I always believed in what you are saying. We cant always see good in something that is actually bad and we do need to take a creative action. Positive thinking in the way it is generally done, is like covering the toilet seat with a layer of toilet paper (~Nithya). It still stinks.

    1. And Pankaj- the beauty is to see the wonder in the toilet paper action. There is beauty hidden in all ugliness.. and ugliness in what seems beautiful.. Seeing world as good/bad is seeing it not in its totality.. one of my fav line is Rumi’s.. there is a place beyond right doing and wrong doing.. i will meet you there.. and that is the zone of reality.. and love which is always beyond.. and yet right here 😉

  4. Hi Kiran!
    A huge conflict I had when I came across ideas on “positive thinking” was, as you said, imposing yourself on reality v/s being in the moment and watching your thoughts.
    I have experimented and struggled with the concepts and have realized that in any strenuous situation, it’s best to stop and be… just put all attention in observing what’s actually happening now. When I do that, I often feel that I’ve woken up, as if I was sleeping earlier! It makes me feel a bit foolish!

    I agree with Daniele that the “positive thinking” mantra has become a quick-fix. Although it’s a great concept, I’ve realized that relying completely on it to feel better is like eating rich pastry on a full stomach – it can make you puke!

    Enjoy 🙂

  5. Just read a post by Jeff Foster today which so resonates with this:

    “Positive thinking is the psychological version of plastic surgery for the body. It doesn’t work.

    Positive thinking is really thinking that is totally obsessed with negativity, focused on negativity, at war with negativity, which is very negative when you think about it.

    Positive thinking simply masks flaws, imperfections, quirks, uniquenesses, covering up the ‘dark’ aspect of experience but never really dealing with it, facing it, embracing it, healing it, loving it. We may feel better temporarily, but there are no true external sources of happiness.

    The dualistic mind divides positive from negative, light from dark, and then tries to heal this self-created wound through more division, more war. But no matter how much mental or physical plastic surgery you undergo, you still end up feeling incomplete and far from Home. War cannot end war. Darkness cannot end darkness. Light is the power.

    What if you are not the mind at all? What if both positive and negative aspects are allowed to come and go in the vastness that you are, like clouds in the sky, like waves in the ocean? What if no amount of plastic surgery, no ‘perfect body’ or ‘perfect mind’, could ever lead you to your true nature, which is already shining in the midst of the seeming imperfection?

    Positive thinking creates negative thinking. That’s the one thing you can be positive about.”

    – Jeff Foster

    To which Raj Mali responded on fb

    I heard a simpler version from a master more than a decade back. It is called “icing on the turd”. No matter how much icing u put, if inside u have undeclared, unacknowledged n unhealed turd, after a while u stink bad.

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