Positive Presence in Tiring Times by Chris Ash

Christy CroftI am tired.

I’m tired in that way that happens when mind-overload, followed incautiously into concrete corners, limits the ability to conceive of solutions and dig up hope. I’m tired of reading commentary and I’m tired of thinking about the seeming impossibility of resolution, though I seem to be doing both compulsively. I read the news and it is overwhelming. I read theory and it is immobilizing: the more I learn, the more I realize how every possible choice of action is complicated by its impact on some person or power structure.

I’m tired in that way that happens to people who take in the world just as fully through their bodies – through touch, sound, breath, feeling, and movement – as they do through their minds. I’m tired in the way of those whose hearts well love and grief that flow up in gentle washes or powerful surges until they must escape in sighs and sometimes tears.

We live in tiring times.

We love in tiring times.

For several years, I was a leader in New Thought churches that held strict adherence to the “Law of Mind-Action” – that we change the blueprint of the universe to manifest according to our thoughts and beliefs – and the “Law of Attraction” – that we attract all experiences into our lives based on our thoughts and beliefs, whether conscious or unconscious. Under both of these principles, the material world, and thus the body, are subject to the will of the mind – subservient, docile, and reactive – just as women (traditionally associated in many cultures with the land and processes of the body) were considered inferior to and expected to remain subservient to men. While many early New Thought pioneers were women (Emma Curtis Hopkins, Mary Plunkett, Myrtle Fillmore, Malinda Cramer, Nona and Fannie Brooks, and H. Emilie Cady among them), this traditional gendering of mind and body remains largely unexamined in New Thought circles, as does the Western, liberal individualism whose ideals provide the definitions of success against which one’s “right thinking” is measured.

image of part of an annual vision board
Part of my vision board from 2011

And yet I’m not unfriendly to positive thinking, to intentional joy, or to mind-action. People who know me in my everyday life know me for my laughter and my optimism. I have a handful of favorite affirmations and craft new ones as challenges arise. I enjoy creating vision boards, and writing and leading guided visualizations. Like Mitch Horowitz, author of One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life, I love the positive-thinking movement “for its sense of possibilities, its challenge to religious conformity, and its practical ideas” even as I struggle with “its lack of moral rigor, its inconsistencies, and its intellectual laxity.”

As with my understanding of gender, my mind-body conceptualization is one of mutuality. On a personal level, I respect work that has shown the power of positivity to transform lives; I likewise respect somatic therapists like Peter Levine, whose work focuses on healing traumas through the body first. On a larger scale, I similarly see ideology and social structures as mutually engendering, with neither being independently determinant and each providing a locus for generative action as well as deconstruction. And sometimes, when darkness or injustice challenge my spirit, the greatest healing comes from sitting with it, listening to it, and seeing what lessons it wants to bring me.

In 2012, I had the good fortune to meet with Mitch while he was researching his book on the history of the positive thinking movement. We had a heartfelt talk during which I shared some of my concerns about conflating positivity and spiritual development at the expense of our ability to sit with discomfort or stand in solidarity with the oppressed. After years of experiencing less-than-thoughtful responses from “positive-thinking” friends when I’d discussed social justice, I half-expected Mitch to blow me off as a pessimist or failure at positive thinking. Instead, he told me that I sounded like someone from the meaning-based school of positive thinking, or perhaps the conditioning school. He explained that he had identified four main “schools” within the positive thinking movement, each of which shares a common emphasis on optimism and hope while maintaining distinct approaches and different understandings of how positivity works in our lives.

The magical thinking school is the one associated with popular forms like The Secret, and the conversion school acknowledges the positive impacts of conversion experiences as they transform our lives and identities. The conditioning or reprogramming school of positive thinking takes a strictly psychological approach, focusing on the ways in which retraining our minds can contribute to greater mental health. The meaning-based school, Horowitz offers in One Simple Idea, encourages finding “personal terms in which suffering or travails amount to some worth in the world” in order to “dramatically alter a person’s viewpoint and provide new possibilities.” Popularized by Holocaust-survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl and expanded by New Thought writer Vernon Howard, meaning-based positive thinking is built, Horowitz says, on the core premise that “a higher perspective can rescue a person from an existence of aimlessness and undefined anxiety.”

This is where I find myself now as I consider current events – in that in-between space where anxiety is transformed to hope, and aimlessness to purpose.

I am tired, but I will not close my eyes to suffering, to injustice, or to the innumerable ways in which my nation’s past and present rattle with contradiction and pretense. The depth of my wisdom, practice of my perfection, and reach of my loving-kindness are not dependent upon filters that allow only positivity to flow through into my field of awareness. Rather, they are strengthened to the extent that I can find beauty in my practice of my role in this mystery. My practice is not learning to surf atop heavy currents but rather learning to become the wave; not trying to stay fireproof, but knowing how and when to burn brightly, fiercely. My practice is bringing in sweetness of breath from between the smoky plumes, digging deep, and nurturing the divinity that flows in and through and around me.

We live in tiring times, surrounded by beautiful opportunities to love greatly, live bravely, and shine a light of clarity into the world.

Author: Chris Ash

Chris Ash is a writer, teacher, and leader whose practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. They have facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, parent, and friend. Their research interests include spirituality, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy. They live just outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, surrounded by academics who think they're a hippie and New Agers who think they're a nerd. They remain fully committed to being both.

10 thoughts on “Positive Presence in Tiring Times by Chris Ash”

  1. Beautiful post, Christy, Thank you for your reflections on new thought, positive thinking, and magical thinking. You articulate why I have found these practices troubling and also what they have to offer. I think there is a temptation to react to feelings of powerlessness by inflating our personal power. We must think the right thoughts etc…and if we don’t that explains why our lives and world are a mess. Now that’s exhausting. We need room for the depth and range of what we are, the sorrow, the rage, the fragility, the resilience. I love what you say about mystery.

    “I can find beauty in my practice of my role in this mystery. My practice is not learning to surf atop heavy currents but rather learning to become the wave; not trying to stay fireproof, but knowing how and when to burn brightly, fiercely. My practice is bringing in sweetness of breath from between the smoky plumes, digging deep, and nurturing the divinity that flows in and through and around me.”

    That I can embrace.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “We must think the right thoughts etc…and if we don’t that explains why our lives and world are a mess.” This was one thing that came up in my dialogue with Mitch (a dialogue that occurred at a pivotal moment in my life when I had all but given up on my religious vocation — academic and personal — and offered a glimmer of hope) — the principle of attraction is one of many influences that impacts our world. So, there’s value in building up positive feelings like gratitude, expectation, joy, and love. But there are also other influences outside our control that sometimes shift the direction of our lives. The metaphor I liked was thinking of gravity, and how if we drop a ball out a fourth floor window, gravity can tell us a lot about where and when the ball will land, but other influences might be wind resistance, a ledge below that juts out, or a troublemaker on the the second floor with a baseball bat. We can control when and where we drop, but not the rest, and that’s not a statement on the validity of gravity. I found that understanding personally helpful in balancing my practice of positivity with my compassionate view of social justice, struggle, and evil.

      Which is why it’s been important for me to learn to be “in flow,” in whatever way my experiences call for. I put out the positive and reach for love and envision beauty, and also learn to flow and be and sit with and sometimes push back against the rest as it comes. For me, that’s positive and life-affirming!

      Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a heartfelt and thought full and beautiful post. I am tired too and the political news just keeps getting worse, not to mention that my island was hit by catastrophic floods while I am away in the US. Due to climate change, with increased flooding due to draining wetlands and “channelling” rivers. Sigh.

    I was introduced to New Thought in California in the 1980s by friends who had gone to workshops telling them “we create our own reality.” I was depressed about nuclear war and things in my personal life. I found their words very hurtful. As if “I” could change realities that really are not under my control. I do believe New Thought and the Christian Science my grandmother practiced hold important truths. The mind is powerful and it can affect our bodies and our feelings. I did not have to walk around depressed about nuclear war. But neither could my right thinking stop the threats it creates. I do believe the assumption of health creates healing in the body. And so on. But these are half truths. They are partly true. But they are not the whole story and when presented as such they can make suffering worse and lead to indifference to the suffering of others, as you say.

    When I was really depressed, I could not control my negative thoughts. At the same time, I am not letting myself fall into depression about the election, because life goes on and there is work to do.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think I spent the first few days after the election wallowing. In the weeks sense, if I’ve fallen into anything, it’s deeper love expressed in personal and collective action. I’ve started attending small gatherings of like-minded folks to build community and a sense of safety. I attended a conference call this week to build solidarity between urban and rural social justice and anti-racism organizers. I’ve been engaging my lawmakers through phone and email, asking questions, and learning what more I can do (especially here in NC where our outgoing governor is trying lots of shenanigans to keep from losing power). So, that’s the kind of thing I think about when I talk about my practice and being more in flow, being the wave, learning when to burn, etc. Obviously there’s a mystical element there — a practice of meditation and union and personal healing — but there’s also a practical action element, and in that practical action I feel empowered and hopeful rather than beaten down and small.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this very thoughtful post. I believe that we can “think” ourselves out of depression or almost any other mood, but our own thinking cannot change the world that’s more than an inch or two outside our own skin. But we can gather with other people who share our thoughts and, together, we can perhaps change a chunk of the consciousness of the world.

    But………yeah……..I’m too tired from the news I hear and read every day to find those people–thank Goddess a bunch of them are right here in this FAR community–or do that thinking work. I am weary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Barbara, that joining together with others to change the world together is one of the joys in my life. I find myself in between so many extremes that it’s hard to relate to others even when what I really feel we need is connection and community and an ethic of care. Like recently, I saw something come through my social media that was critical of people offering “thoughts and prayers” as if those are somehow exclusive of action and social justice work. For me, consciousness raising, hope, and optimism are part of a comprehensive strategy of love and change, not because they have no inherent value on their own, but because the impacts are multiplied when partnered with other strategies. I’m honored to be among other thoughtful, hopeful, change-makers in this community!


  4. I think the whole world is tired and depressed. We not only have to live next door to “the crazy man” but have our own Canadian brand of craziness. I’ve stopped reading all the online comments and have it down to where I can get information to act on, and what makes me smile. Unfollowed some people on Facebook. Took steps to preserve my sanity so I can act for peace, justice, and love. One of my support systems is in this sacred place of FAR.
    I’m of the “school” of “the only person I can change is myself” and doing that gives me power, which gives me energy to act. I like the “wave” image. Just look at the Grand Canyon… isn’t it from wave action?


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