April's Gift: Optimism
Several months ago when I developed a list of themes for this blog, optimism seemed like a perfect choice for April, the month of daffodils, baby leaves on trees, and greener grass. After all, April often finds us appreciating the beauty of new growth outside in our lawns and in the woods and welcoming a new attitude about the future in our hearts. This April, for everyone in the world, optimism seems hard to find. I’ve been postponing sitting down to write this until I could get my attitude in the right place. I have been trying, as a friend suggested, to “get my head screwed on right” and to find my usual positive attitude. This morning, I’ve decided to sit down at the computer and write about what is real and see if the idea of optimism could help move me to be more optimistic
My go-to place when I’m trying to figure something out has always been the library. In recent years, my library has often become my laptop. This week with the library closed, my laptop is the only option for my usual effort to find “the truth” somewhere out there. Someone told me once that I seem to always believe there is an “expert” for every possible problem and I think that is actually my tendency. My “expert” place to start to read about optimism most recently has been the field of positive psychology. The field’s, founder, Dr. Martin Seligman, defines optimism as “reacting to problems with a sense of confidence and high personal ability.” On the website Pursuit of Happiness.org, the author states that according to Seligman, optimistic people believe that negative events are temporary, limited in scope (instead of pervading every aspect of a person’s life), and manageable. Seligman describes optimism as having three features including:
- Permanence: Optimists believe the causes of bad events are temporary and the causes of good events are permanent. Pessimists believe the causes of bad events are permanent and the causes of good events are temporary.
- Pervasiveness: Optimists believe the causes of bad events are just part of a particular area of life and the causes of good events are pervasive. Pessimists do the opposite. If something bad happens they think this badness affects everything and if something good happens they think this is just in the one particular moment.
- Personalization: An optimist tends to take credit for good events and attribute bad events to external causes – luck and happenstance, or someone else’s mistake. The pessimist takes responsibility for bad events and not for positive ones.
In his 1991 book, Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman described his theory of optimism and a type of “explanatory style,” a way we have of explaining what happens to us. He says that “if every bad thing is permanent, life-altering, and our fault, we’re bound to be pessimistic about the future; if it’s temporary, limited, and a fluke, it’s easier to be optimistic. If you want to read more about these ideas, Seligman’s books and a variety of websites featuring his work are available on line.
Yesterday morning I sat in Florida, struggling to think about the idea of optimism at a time when nearly everything I see and hear and literally EVERY SURFACE I MIGHT TOUCH (cardboard, plastic, metal, etc.!) feels negative, scary and dangerous. Happily, later in the day I had the great fortune to do a virtual class with my favorite yoga teacher, Lindsay Armstrong from Embodied Yoga in Montpelier, Vermont. One of the few bright spots in the last few weeks has been Lindsay’s virtual classes. As is so often the case, yoga helped me make connections between what I was feeling and several other things I already knew. These connections happened during and after class in a way that was energizing and calming all at the same time. The theme for the class was Yoga Sutras 2.33 and 2.34, Cultivating Opposites. The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali are 2500-year-old words of wisdom which describe yoga philosophy. I was delighted to learn about Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavana, the idea of cultivating opposites, because it was exactly the kind of concept I had been craving.
This morning I went to my laptop to read more about Cultivating Opposites and to think about how it might relate to my unsuccessful ability to find and then to retain any sense of optimism. My internet search led me to several articles about Yoga Sutra 2.33. Among others, one short helpful online article by Richard Parenti reminded me of the importance of paying attention to our feelings, acknowledging them, making peace with them and then trying to move ourselves toward their opposite. I really appreciate Parenti’s idea that we attract what we think and feel and his statement that “Nothing is more important than to know how to feel good.” In feeling good, we can do so much more to help both ourselves and others. As Lindsay had said in class yesterday, I discovered that my modern-day psychology resources matched up with ancient wisdom. Cultivating opposites is a similar notion to the kind of cognitive reframing I used to do with clients in therapy. I remembered how important reframing negative thinking can be in changing how one feels. I also remembered the daily yoga practice I created a few years ago and important pieces of it I had slipped away from. I resolved to get myself back to that regular part of my practice and will say more about that later. I realized that the basic idea of cultivating optimism begins with really identifying and sitting with a feeling that is negative (like sadness, fear, or worry) and then moving away from it and moving as much as possible toward its opposite, optimism. Here is the link to the Parenti article. https://www.ahymsin.org/docs2/News/1606/07.html
In my personal yoga practice, I use a simple tool I learned as a therapist. The Awareness Wheel (Miller, Sherod and Phyllis, Interpersonal Communication Programs, Inc.) identifies a simple internal process of SENSE-THINK-FEEL-WANT-DO. The idea is that in a situation you can slow down your awareness and change how you feel and how you decide to act by slowing yourself down and moving through the steps in the wheel. You begin by noticing what is coming in through all your senses. What do you SENSE? Then you can notice what you THINK as you respond to these sensations. Next you notice how these thoughts make you FEEL. Then notice what intentions arise from these thoughts. What do you WANT? And then what do you DO? At any point in this wheel, you can stop and pause and make change. This idea of changing your thinking is used in many forms of therapy and it was fascinating to me to connect modern psychology to the 2500-year-old philosophy of the Yoga Sutras, cultivating opposites. In my personal yoga practice, I have used the awareness wheel tool to bring focus to an intention at the end of my practice and to try to take myself from the mat back to my life with a different, more positive feeling. Today I decided that going forward I will also try this process at the beginning of my practice. I began to connect the awareness wheel idea to the idea of cultivating optimism, acknowledging a negative feeling and moving away from it to feel its opposite. So, if I could decide to notice what I am sensing and make a change at the point of thinking I could change the way I feel, which would lead me to a different want and a different action than I might have had with my negative thinking.
Playing with the idea of cultivating opposites, I decided to try to work the awareness wheel idea backwards a bit from the feeling of optimism to its opposite. If I wanted to try cultivating optimism, maybe I could try to identify what I am feeling that is the opposite of that. What came to me was pessimism, but I realized pessimism isn’t really a basic feeling. Remembering that our four basic feelings are mad, sad, glad and afraid, I realized I wasn’t just feeling one of these feelings but a mixture of all of them pretty much all the time! Clearly, I am feeling everything but glad…I am mad/angry, sad/depressed, afraid/terrified. Taking in all the news through all my senses and thinking so negatively, I am ending up in a very tough place. How could I switch mad to loving, sad to happy, afraid to brave? Maybe I need to spend more time taking each of them one by one, acknowledge them and see if I can move away from them toward their opposite. I am promising myself to work on this daily in my practice.
I recognize that for a variety of reasons we often decide we need to try to stop feeling one thing and pretend we are feeling another. This kind of pretending can’t really work because it is a lie. The idea of “fake it till you make it” has always made a little sense for me, but right now that feels unrealistic. Instead maybe we need to find the real feeling…visualize or imagine ourselves moving at least a bit way from it…imagine it’s opposite and do what we can to cultivate that opposite. For example, notice fear. Think about its opposite, courage. Think about times we have felt fear and moved through it…think about what courage we have inside. Where does it live in our bodies? How can we notice courage and feel it and try to move it forward inside ourselves in some way and then take it with us outside ourselves to share with someone else?
The "next right step" can help us cultivate optimism.
In February, back when life was sweet and so much easier (too bad we didn’t really NOTICE that), my amazing 7-year-old grand-daughter and I went to see Frozen 2. Not a big fan of Frozen, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this movie as much as I did. One particular song, “The Next Right Thing,” melted my heart and made me cry. In the scene, Anna’s sister Elsa was missing and her dear friend Olaf the snowman was melting. Sad and scared and alone and watching her friend slowly dying, the sweet character Anna, sang the words below. This morning I was thinking about how sad and lost I feel so often these days. Wondering about the importance of recognizing the depth of our feelings and taking as many steps as we can toward their opposite, I was reminded of the idea of “The Next Right Thing.” The lyrics are below. I love the way Anna recognizes her deep sadness and talks herself into moving away from her sad feelings to do the next right thing. Instead of pretending optimism, maybe we need to sit quietly with ourselves and recognize we are feeling cold, and empty and numb. And then we perhaps can find the next right thing to move us away from that feeling. This movement can happen even if we feel we are stumbling blindly toward the light. It is the next right step and the next right step and the next one that can help us cultivate optimism, pessimism’s opposite that we need so much.
The Next Right Thing (from Frozen 2)
I’ve seen dark before, but not like this. This is cold, this is empty, this is numb.
The life I knew is over, the lights are out. Hello, darkness, I’m ready to succumb.
I follow you around, I always have, but you’ve gone to a place I cannot find.
This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down, but a tiny voice whispers in my mind
You are lost, hope is gone, but you must go on
And do the next right thing.
Can there be a day beyond this night? I don’t know any more what is true
I can’t find my direction, I’m all alone. The only star that guided me was you
How to rise from the floor? But it’s not you I’m rising for.
Just do the next right thing
Take a step, step again. It is all that I can to do the next right thing.
I won’t look too far ahead. It’s too much for me to take.
But break it down to this next breath, this next step.
This next choice is one that I can make
So I’ll walk through this night, stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing
And, with it done, what comes then?
When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again
Then I’ll make the choice to hear that voice
And do the next right thing
If you haven’t heard Kristen Bell’s beautiful emotion-filled voice singing “The Next Right Thing,” consider listening to it. I suggest listening to this and doing the activity below, with a gentle warning that doing so might put you in touch with your own sadness. I’ve noticed that music, at least for many of us, can be a powerful way to tap into deep feelings. If you’re not up for this kind of serious work at the moment, stay where you are and save it for when you have a time to go there…maybe when you have someone nearby in person or on the phone who can support you in the effort to move yourself away from sadness to optimism.
IF you are up for this emotional work, here’s a link to use to listen. IF you can’t make the link work, it’s an easy google to find a version of the song.
Moving to an opposite type of feeling some requires work. Try this if you feel up for it and have the support you need to work through the activity.
Find a quiet place (and an in-person or on-the-phone support if you think you might need one), and settle yourself in quietly. Close your eyes and take some gentle breaths in and out and give this song a listen. If it touches your difficult feelings, acknowledge them. Trying to always push them down and pretend they aren’t there probably won’t really make them go away. Instead, listen and notice what you notice. In the wisdom of a favorite Kripalu practice try to do this: breathe, relax, feel, watch and then allow your feelings to simply be what they are. Don’t try to change them just witness them. Then see yourself stepping slowly away from the negative feelings and work to moving yourself to the opposite, optimism. Yes, it is WORK. To do this, you might try some of these ideas:
- Do some yoga on the mat or in a chair. One optimistic note is that there are so many great yoga classes online right now. If you are looking for a great in-person or virtual class to try, check out Lindsay Armstrong’s classes at Embodied in Montpelier, Vermont. embodiedvermont.com
- Try remembering a time when you felt optimistic and things worked out well. Notice all the details of that situation inside and out. What was the situation, what did you do? Write this down and put it somewhere you can find it and read it when you need it.
- Try identifying where optimism lives in your body and try to feel it there. Smile and feel it some more. Notice, really notice what optimism feels like and what it makes you want to do.
- Make a list of reasons to feel optimistic. IF you can’t think of anything right away, make some up or connect with a friend and ask them to help you think of some.
- Visualize a person who is an optimist and notice what they are like. Write a letter to this person and send them gratitude. Mail it to them or to yourself.
- Make a gratitude list. Keep it where you can find it when you need it. Add to it.
- Make a list of people you can call when you are feeling NOT optimistic and when you are feeling optimistic. And call them.
- Call a friend and talk together about what the two of you can be optimistic about and grateful for. Talk about how you might support each other in finding and maintaining optimism instead of staying stuck in sadness, anger and fear.
- Write in your journal about optimism and where you have found it and where you might find it again. Write about what it feels like to move away from the negative feelings and then write about what optimism feels like inside and where it is taking you.
- Breathe in visualizing optimism and breathing out, visualize letting go of sadness, anger and/or fear.
- Try singing along LOUDLY with “Do the Next Right Thing’ and try smiling when you sing it. Or find another piece of music that makes you feel good and play it and sing along.
- Stand tall and let yourself shake off negative feelings from your head to your toes. Reach up tall with both arms and laugh yourself down to your toes. Rise up and do it again.
- Find a piece of art that makes you feel good and appreciate it or try drawing your feelings of optimism. Put your picture in a frame or on your refrigerator!
- Practice recognizing what you are feeling and move yourself toward its opposite and practice being in that opposite feeling.
- And practice. And practice some more.
- And be gentle with yourself in this practice.
APRIL’S YOGA POSE: Warrior 2, Virabhadrasana
This month’s yoga pose, Warrior 2, is an opportunity to plant ourselves firmly in the present moment and find our own strength. We face the side of the mat and center our weight evenly between firmly grounded feet on strong legs. With a strong bent front leg (knee over ankle) and powerful back leg, the body faces to the side. Arms are extended at shoulder height palms down, one arm toward the front and one toward the back, parallel to the floor. We turn the head to look over the front arm, extending fingers long to each side, shoulders down, crown of head reaching to the sky. Maybe we can lift the corners of the mouth gently toward the ears. Chin is parallel to the floor and eyes are clear and strong. We can change our perspective to turn the head and look back over the back arm, maybe recognizing and accepting sadness or anger or fear. Then turning forward to look over the front arm, let us imagine we can do the next right thing to move in our minds and in our hearts toward optimism, love, happiness, and courage. And let those feelings settle deep inside.
Maybe in this calm and centered moment as quiet warriors we can even imagine ourselves arriving in a feeling place the opposite of the dark place where we have been living lately. Maybe we can find a small ray of optimism and hold onto it as best we can.