If a person wants to experiment with a more positive perspective on life, they face a practical challenge. A positive perspective would mean fewer negative thoughts, but negative thoughts can be difficult to spot – they may be invisible unless you know where to look for them. If we’re hoping to alter these negative thoughts, we must find them where they’re occurring, but how? 

One important place to look for negativity is in what we might call the “automatic status check.” That is when the mind involuntarily asks “What am I doing right now?” An answer quickly follows: “I’m writing,” or “I’m walking,” or “I’m eating.” Throughout the day, we take stock of our situation, reminding ourselves of what we’re doing now, what we were doing earlier, and what we’ll be doing next. If we look closely at our responses to these involuntary status inquiries – if we examine the content of our “automatic status reports,” so to speak, we may find a negative trailer in tow. 

Instead of “I’m writing” we might report to ourself that “I’m writing BUT it’s taking forever and I’m not done.” Instead of “I’m walking” we might report that “I’m walking BUT it’s raining and I’m wet and uncomfortable.” Instead of “I’m eating” we might report that “I’m eating BUT the rice is burnt and I hate it.” The status reports we give to ourself throughout the day can be a major vector of negativity.

We can go a long way towards a positive mindset by shifting the content of our status reports to exclude the negative trailer. If we were to say “I’m writing” without the “BUT” that follows, we could see that we’re doing something good, something we want to do. Rather than failing at a task, we’re taking advantage of our good fortune to have the opportunity to do that task.

Meditation is a way to learn to notice these status checks as they happen, because meditation depends on them. When we sit down to meditate, we might intend to give our attention to breathing, but inevitably we get distracted by a sequence of thoughts. “I’m hungry… what am I going to have for lunch?… maybe I’ll go to that Thai place down the block… you know I’ve wanted to visit Bangkok for years now, maybe it’s time for a vacation?” At some point this chain of thought is interrupted by a status check: “What am I doing right now?” This status check is good fortune, because it allows us to notice that we’ve gotten distracted – “Oh! I’ve been thinking about going on vacation!” – which in turn allows us to remember that our intention was to concentrate on breathing. Now we have an opportunity to return to that.

In meditation, we can practice giving ourselves a positive status report. When we notice we’ve gotten distracted, instead of saying “Oh! I’ve thinking about a vacation but I was trying to meditate and I’ve wasted so much time and this whole meditation thing is not going well,” we can say “Oh! I was thinking about vacation but now that I realize this, I can go back to breathing, which is good.”

The same practice can be done outside meditation, in the course of everyday life. The other morning, I was working on an essay – this very one. Whenever my mind asked “What am I doing right now?” the answer was “I’m writing BUT I’m not done – it’s taking forever and I’m behind where I want to be.” Moments later, the same question: “What am I doing right now?” My mind’s immediate response again included a fact followed by a devaluing interpretation. “I’m writing BUT it’s taking forever and I’m behind where I want to be.” Whenever I took stock of what I had been doing, my mind immediately injected a negative interpretation that condemned everything I had been doing. 

Later in the day, I went for a hike. Whenever my mind asked “What am I doing right now?” the answer was “I’m hiking BUT it’s not strenuous enough to give me the exercise I need.” And whenever my mind asked “What was I doing before this?” the answer was “I was writing BUT I got stuck and didn’t finish.”

To think of it though, this day was an amazing day. A full day when I could write and hike. What could be better? If this day could stress me out, this day when I had the freedom to do the things that are most meaningful and important to me in life, what hope of happiness could I ever have?

It might seem that if only I’d finished the essay and if only the hike had been sufficiently strenuous, then I’d have been satisfied. But of course, the responses to the status checks might then have been “I’m writing BUT the essay hasn’t turned out as well as I hoped,” and “I’m hiking BUT it’s a struggle and I’m out of shape.” There’s always a way to be unsatisfied.

I could see that the “cure” was not to change the reality of the situation – the cure was to change the responses I was giving myself during the status checks. In any situation, no matter how wonderful, yes, there’s a way to give a negative report, but the converse is also true, in any situation no matter how bad, there’s a way to give a positive report. So satisfaction really depends on what gets included and excluded from that report.

And here’s where things get fun. Since I’m a visual thinker, this report doesn’t need to be a verbal report, it can be a picture. And as a picture it doesn’t need to be a detailed image. It can be a generalized icon.

So I tried it. As I was writing, when I noticed the question enter my mind – “What am I doing right now?” I thought of an image like this:

Later, as I was hiking, when I noticed the question enter my mind “What am I doing right now,” I thought of an image like this:

What was I doing before?

What am I going to do next?

Wow, this is an amazing day! ■

Comments ༄