The deadly effects of oppositional thinking and the power of contemplative practices
We must consider the importance of developing specific techniques to control our own minds, and the highly destructive effects of failing to do so. The scientific evidence for the effects of meditation and other contemplative practices, as well as the direct personal experiences of those around us, demand our attention.
What does it mean to indulge in "oppositional thinking"? What does it mean to be "pessimistic"? One can always, in any situation, focus on what is dissatisfactory about it, what is upsetting about it, and indulge our sense of frustration and other painful feelings. One can also, in any given situation, seek out the elements of that situation that are hopeful, that are to be thankful for, and think creatively about acting on our positive desires to build on those hopeful elements and create a still better situation. Also, there are specific techniques that can help us do this.
Painful feelings are not bad per se. They are a sign that we have work to do. But we always have a choice about how to respond to these feelings. We can objectively identify some responses as counterproductive, tending to stagnate or lead to more suffering, for ourselves and/or others, whereas other responses are clearly productive, and will lead to more happiness for ourselves and others.
When people fall into patterns of habitual pessimism, reflexive negativity, and rejection of even the positive, if limited, efforts of others as "not good enough," they fall into a trap. Their responses then become counterproductive more ofen than not, and actually exacerbate the problems that they are complaining about.
This is a clearly identifiable pitfall of some activists, quite notably many people who contribute to Portland Indymedia. Consider this concrete example: http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2004/12/305010.shtml
Here, a person has written an article diminishing the efforts of Alan Graf, a lawyer who just won a very high profile, headline-making lawsuit against the City of Portland for civil liberties violations. More than diminishing his efforts, the article even impugns Graf's personal integrity, implying that he settled too soon for the sake of his own financial enrichment.
What kind of truly warped perspective is required to write such an article?! Only someone utterly ignorant of Graf's record could write this way. But leaving aside such ignorance, it also takes a remarkable lack of vision to completely dismiss Graf's impressive legal work here as not being of any value to us. It takes a reflexive cynicism on the part of a person to jump to the conclusion that the settlement in this case was motivated by base considerations of self-interest, and not practical considerations about what might be most useful stragically in advancing the goals of civil libertarians and dissidents in our city. See this comment for a clear exposition of such a larger strategy: http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2004/12/305010.shtml#156674
I offer this one example simply to illustrate the larger point. I'm sure many could offer lots more examples of how we sow division amongst ourselves and fail to act creatively and positively, as a result of indulging in oppositional and pessimistic thinking. I venture to say that this is one of the biggest problems faced by people who are passionate about the need for social change, as many readers of Indymedia are.
I suggest that the trouble I have identified here is not a purely rational one, but is associated with deep-seated psychological imbalances. We vitally need to develop techniques for affecting and improving our own mental wellbeing, and invigorating our own energy and commitment to positive work and cooperation with others, and our will to be of benefit to all other beings. Oppositional thinking negates this positive, cooperative will.
Techniques like rigorous meditation, yoga, regular physical exercise, and spending regular time in the outdoors in relaxing natural settings can help. The evidence for this is extensive, both in the everyday experience of many of us, and in the findings of academic researchers. Researchers have actually found that longterm practice of regular meditation correlates to significant physiological effects. ( http://www.noetic.org/research/medbiblio/ch_intro1.htm) The evidence for this is sufficiently strong that many respected academics in the fields of cognitive science and psychology have held conferences on the subject, and are recommending that psychiatrists advise their patients about the value of these practices. (Confer Daniel Goleman's "Destructive Emotions," (see http://www.americanscientist.org/template/InterviewTypeDetail/assetid/30504 for an interview with Goleman)).
Among the notable and fascinating findings of researchers: Subjects who had pursued longterm meditation practices over many years had remarkably different startle-responses from control subjects. Their blood pressure doesn't rise as much in response to startling events, and returns to normal more quickly. They are simply calmer people. Obviously, a calmer mind is more conducive to creative and positive thinking. Also, researchers have found that the relative levels of brainwave activity in the left vs. right prefrontal lobes strongly correlate with positive or negative affect. These relative activity levels fluctuate greatly from moment to moment, but tend to hover about an average for any given individual. Longterm meditation practitioners have a pronounced tendency to exhibit averaged levels of brainwave activity consistent with positive affect (positive emotional state). The studies are extensive and control for numerous factors, and have even included among their subjects people suffering from terminal illnesses.
There are numerous contemplative practices that have been developed for influencing our own minds and attitudes. There are even free workshops and retreats offered by a wide variety of schools. For example, Vipassana meditation retreats are offered for free ( http://www.dhamma.org). There are also contemplative practices developed by Christians, Jews, Muslims, and completely secular thinkers ( http://www.creationspirituality.com/, http://www.pnaiorpdx.org/, http://www.sufism.org/society/conferences/seminars.html, http://www.ecopsychology.org/). Locally, check out the Dharma Rain Zen Center, which offers free and low-cost classes and retreats ( http://www.dharma-rain.org). Dharma Rain is located at 2514 SE Madison. See the website for a calendar of public events: http://www.dharma-rain.org/StillPoint/SPcal.shtml
Whatever techniques one explores and adopts, it's crucial to recognize that the mind spontaneously generates ideas and attitudes constantly. These can, despite our best intentions, spontaneously gravitate towards negativity if we aren't paying attention. Fortunately, though, we DO have the power to influence our own minds, and we must, for our own sake and others, develop techniques to use this power for good.
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