Mindfulness & Optimism: Different but complementary ideas

Photo by Marshall Bowden

Mindfulness & optimism are not the same thing, although they do complement each other. People tend to think of optimism as being ‘up’ but it goes a bit deeper than that. It turns out that optimism and pessimism have a lot to do with how you frame your experiences. Mindfulness can help you discover your predisposition by helping you monitor your reactivity to experiences.

Mindfulness is discussed by Buddha in his sutta (or teaching) on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These are mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of our feelings, mindfulness of the mind itself, and mindfulness of the world (phenomena) that we experience.

But my introduction to these ideas didn’t come directly from Buddha, via the sutta, but from the direct, simple books of Thich Nhat Hahn beginning with his masterpiece, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Written in the form of letters to the workers at his School of Youth for Social Service in Vietnam while Hahn was in exile in France, it is a basic manual for cultivating mindfulness. complete with thoughts, exercises, and lessons that resonate with beginners and experienced practitioners alike.

You can learn basic mindfulness meditation from this book. Hahn describes it in one chapter and in simple terms. Because he was writing for an audience that he knew well, he didn’t need a lot of flowery description. The result is a basic manual that nails its subject matter completely.

“Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life. Don’t be attached to the future. Don’t worry about things you have to do. Don’t think about getting up or taking off to do anything. Don’t think about ‘departing’.”

Thich Nhat Hahn

I can’t begin to explain the difference this message made to me and how it has changed my life in many ways. My whole life has been an unraveling ball of worry, a constant anxious feeling that whatever happens next will be vaguely unpleasant. Hahn’s gentle but straightforward approach made it possible for me to become much more aware of my tendency to think this way. It still happens, but by being aware of it I can notice it and take active steps to shorten its duration.

Once, several years ago, I went to a counseling session arranged through a work wellness program because of some stresses I was experiencing in my personal life. They had become overwhelming and though they hadn’t affected my job performance, I didn’t want them to in the future.

After listening to me discuss some of my issues and feelings about what had been going on in my life and offering some thoughts he paused for a moment.

“Would you say that you’re an optimist or a pessimist?”

I responded without thinking about it. I’ve spent so much time in my life looking at that empty part of the glass, wishing it were full to the brim, unable to savor what’s left in my grief over what’s missing.

“Pessimist.”

He recomended that I read a book. It was a self help book on optimism that was around at the time, but it doesn’t really matter. There are books like that selling up a storm at any given time.

I also don’t remember because I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. He’d punctuated his recomendation with the line “he takes a look at some studies that show that optimists generally feel better.”

If I’m being honest here, I feel like what I heard him say was that ‘optimists generally do better.’ As in better at life. Better at not screwing up. Better at not being a downer. And that enraged me.

But I’m not altogether certain that he didn’t say ‘feel.’

Again, it didn’t matter. I was furious that my counseling session boiled down to a recommendation to be an optimist. I mean that is stoo-pid.

But what really is stupid is that I was unable to even entertain the idea that perhaps I might be framing my own reality. Because that’s what this guy was saying, however inelegantly. And on top of everything else, I believe he was offering his gift and genuinely trying to help me in a less than optimal setting.

I mean, probably this guy didn’t graduate at the top of his counseling class, but who am I to say? I have done plenty of stupid things in my life. I was here looking for help. Why could I not take a critical look at the help that was offered to me and assess its value to me?

I’ve never been one of the affirmation crowd or the manifestation crowd. It all smacks a little of magical thinking to me, but if it is your thing, if it works for you or has massively improved or even saved your life, then I am honestly really happy for you. I do think there is value in learned optimism, and I try to lean that way a little more every day.

The beauty, for me, of Buddhist mindfulness, and the wisdom of Thich Naht Hahn is that he is not saying that everything is OK. Sometimes things are decidedly NOT OK. No one is advocating that you merely accept this. Instead it challenges you to see what is not OK with you and what could be done about it and furthermore what you can do it about it. At that point your only real choice is to get it done. Mindfulness becomes the ultimate thing that holds you accountable for your action or inaction.

One of my favorite thoughts comes from Hahn’s book Peace Is Every Step. It’s a little poem:

I have lost my smile,
but don’t worry.
The dandelion has it.

If you have lost your smile and yet are still capable of seeing that a
dandelion is keeping it for you,” says Hahn, “the situation is not too bad. You still have enough mindfulness to see that the smile is there.”

That sounds a lot like optimism.

And that sounds good to me.