When I was young and my mom would ask me to go find something for her, I frequently came back within minutes announcing, “I couldn’t find it.”
My mom’s customary response was, “You are looking with your eyes closed”, by which she meant that I wasn’t intentionally looking for the thing I was after or that I was looking in a haphazard, unconscious way that prevented from finding what I was looking for.
And Mom was right.
For some reason, I remember that whenever I went on these errands, I had the feeling that finding things was very hard and that I would never be able locate what I was looking for. I think half of the time, I was focused more on thinking, “I will never be able to find this” than I was focused on actually finding anything.
So it’s no wonder I often returned empty-handed.
I Still Look With My Eyes Closed Sometimes
Unfortunately, I applied this same attitude to life frequently for quite a few years in my life. There is a part of me that is very optimistic and cheerful, but there is another part of me–and it will take over if I let it–that expects the worst all the time (maybe you have this side of you, too) and thinks that everything is very hard and that nothing ever turns out well for me.
None of this is actually true (or at least it is only partly true–everybody faces challenges in life), but it is a story I used to tell myself, and I still sometimes tell myself, when my thoughts go on autopilot.
Needless to say, when I start thinking like this, I get very anxious, melancholy, and I sometimes feel like I am in the Pit of Despair.
In times like this, I would like to see goodness, love, magic, and all sorts of other things, but I don’t. But to be honest, while one part of me wants to see these things, another part of me makes it almost impossible because I keep telling myself horrible news like, “Everything is terribly hard, and nothing ever works out the way I want it to.”
It’s like I am looking at the world with my eyes closed.
How I Started Looking for Things with My Eyes Opened
About seven or eight years ago, I ran into something called affirmations. You might be aware of affirmations. They are sayings like this:
I have come to this planet to learn to love myself more, and to share that love with all those around me.
All is well in my world. Everything is working out for my highest good. Out of this situation only good will come. I am safe.
I am in the process of positive change.
I am willing to let go.
Deep at the center of my being is an infinite well of love.*
Now, you should know that I had heard of affirmations before (in my teen years), and I was extremely skeptical of them.
There are many different kinds of affirmations, and I think some kinds are very silly and inauthentic. For instance, some affirmations deny the reality of suffering in the world, and some affirmations encourage people to adopt shallow cultural standards of success (like meeting narrow standards of beauty or living in a mansion).
However, when I encountered affirmations like the ones in italics above, I felt something inside me become alert and aware. For instance, when I read affirmations like “I am in the process of positive change”, I suddenly realized, “Hey that’s true. I mean, I have some bad habits, but I am also making positive changes in my life. Why not focus on those and build positive momentum?” And I felt more confident.
And when I read affirmations like, “Deep at the center of my being is an infinite well of love”, I suddenly realized, “I struggle with difficult feelings sometimes–everyone does–but I also have a great deal of love inside of me, and that love is full of playfulness, wisdom, and creativity.” And I felt full of magic.
And when I read affirmations like, “All is well in my world. Everything is working out for my highest good. Out of this situation only good will come. I am safe”, I thought about the difficult things I had made it through in my life and how I had learned so much from them or become so strong. I thought, “No matter what happens in life, I am going to become a wise, more loving, and help people with what I learn.” I felt confident.
Waking Up in the World
When I became melancholy and anxious, I started saying these kinds of affirmations to myself regularly, and I felt alert and awake.
I felt like I was noticing a side of life that I had too often ignored in the past. I noticed myself looking more for loving things in my life and in the world; asking for what I needed with confidence and hope; feeling more playful and expectant; and feeling confident that I would find solutions to problems and challenges that I encountered.
I started looking for love and other good things with my eyes opened instead of closed.
I became a more resilient person.
My new habit also has a really practical benefit: it helps me find books, believe it or not.
Here’s an example of what I mean. I have a lot of books. I mean A LOT. I have been either a bibliophile or an academic (I’m a philosopher) or both for most of my life. Thus, I have a lot of books. Sometimes they are organized well, and sometimes they are not. Either way, I frequently lose books. Sometimes, I probably lose them because I accidentally leave them lying around somewhere and then walk away.
On the other hand, sometimes I lose them in my own bookshelves.
How I Make Things Magically Appear Before Me
I hate it when I lose books. It really stresses me out because often I lose them right at the very moment I need them–like for a class.
If I am not careful, when I am looking for books, I will tell myself, “I will never find it”. And when I tell myself things like this, I start looking with my eyes closed (metaphorically–like in a distracted an un-confident way), and sure enough: I don’t find them.
The other day, I was getting ready to start an independent study with a student on the philosophy of zombies. It’s one of my favorite classes/independent studies to teach. I have this book full of articles on the philosophy of zombies and other monsters.
I kept looking and looking for the book. I couldn’t find it. I became increasingly frustrated. I suddenly realized I was thinking to myself, “I will never find this book. I must have lost it.” When I realized what I was doing, I started thinking instead, “I know this book is here. I am going to find it.”
Literally, five seconds later, I found the book right in front of me on the shelf I had just searched. It was like it magically appeared before my eyes. (This has happened quite a few times since I started looking for things with my eyes open.)
Do I really think that my thoughts made my book appear? No. Rather, I believe that when I thought, “I will find the book”, I began focusing on seeing the book, rather than focusing on my own thoughts and anxieties about not finding the book. I started looking with my eyes open instead of looking with my eyes closed.
When we look at life with our eyes open, we concentrate primarily on seeing and finding the good things that are there instead of what we believe we will never see or have. Sure enough, we often see good things because we are looking for them. This is a way we strengthen our personal resilience, which is our ability (among other things) to recover from challenges and difficult life situations.
On the other hand, when we expect that life will always be awful, very hard, against us, full of lack and loneliness, we often see these things because that is what we are looking for or because we are looking with our eyes closed.
It’s Okay if You are Skeptical or Angry with Me Right Now
At this point in reading this essay, you might be skeptical and even a little angry with me. You might be thinking, “Look. No matter how many affirmations I say to myself, and no matter how hard I look, there are some things I want out of life that just aren’t there.”
I get it. I am a philosopher, and so I am trained to be skeptical about claims and arguments. Also, as I mentioned above–for most of my life, I was skeptical about the efficacy of affirmation-like sayings.
I don’t think that we will magically find anything we want or make anything we want appear by thinking positive affirmations. I also don’t think that when bad things happen to us, it is because we are “thinking negatively” or that we aren’t focused. (I guess sometimes it could be true. I mean, if we think, “Everyone hates me” and then start acting like a jerk to people, well then…our thoughts might encourage personal actions which cause people to dislike us.)
Rather, when we cultivate more resilient thoughts and look with our eyes open, we better notice all the amazing resources that are right in front of us, and these resources help us navigate both the sorrow and joy of life. And everyone, no matter how many affirmations they repeat to themselves, experiences some sorrow in life.
What My Mom Taught Me
One of the people who taught me this lesson the most is my mom. When my mom and dad were in their early twenties, just after the got engaged, they were in a serious car accident which left my mom permanently paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair.
My mom and dad did not suffer a car accident because they were thinking negatively or looking at the world with their eyes closed. It was just a stroke of bad luck. And no amount of positive thinking or affirmations at the time was going to change the fact that my mom was paralyzed.
But here’s the interesting thing: my mom has been in a wheelchair my entire life, but I have never heard her complain about it, even though I know it is really hard for her sometimes. She lives a full life. She drives (she has a handicap van); she swims; she teaches; she is active in her and my dad’s church. Mom and Dad just celebrated their fifty year anniversary.
Mom has never told me this specifically, but I know that one of the reasons she has remained so strong and active despite being paralyzed for over 50 years is because she continually focuses on the things she can do, rather than the things she cannot do. She regularly focuses on what she does have instead of what she doesn’t have.
She believes that despite the things she has lost (like the use of her legs), there are other amazing resources in her life, and she constantly looks for those things with her eyes open. Because of this, she is a highly resilient person.
I don’t want to tell you how or what to think. That’s not my job. I do want to tell you that I understand that there is great suffering in the world and that bad and unfair things happen to good people. I am sorry if you have suffered these things. I have suffered some of them, too.
I also want to tell you that despite all of these bad things, there is a lot of love, magic, creativity, wisdom, humor, and beauty in the world. It’s okay to be aware of the ugliness, but we help ourselves immensely when we look for all of the other good things with our eyes open.
When we do, we will often be very surprised at what appears before our eyes.
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*These affirmations are by the late Louise Hay. If you like how they sound, google “Louise Hay and affirmations”, and you will find more like this. If you would like some more affirmations, but you don’t really like the sound of the Louise Hay ones, you might like the affirmations you find in this post:
You can also find more posts about affirmations (or “peaceful thoughts” as I sometimes call them) in the “Peaceful Thought and Affirmation” category in my archives.