Positively Wyrd – 6: Affirmative action

It was as children that we learnt many of the habits we now have. And the way we learnt them, in most cases, was through repetition. That’s how we learnt to walk, to talk, to read, to ride a bicycle: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again”. But it’s also how we learnt many of the habits that bind us: often in the form of derogatory statements repeated again and again by some authority-figure, like a form of brainwashing, until we eventually learn to believe them.

An irate teacher at school: “You’re stupid, Kelley, you shouldn’t ask stupid questions: how many times do I have to tell you that? So – repeat after me – ‘Chris Kelley is stupid’. Come on – say it! Louder, child, louder – I want the whole class to hear you!” I stand there, barely able to open my mouth, squirming in shame and embarrassment… she’s the teacher, I don’t have the right or the strength to fight back. And a thought runs through my mind: “If can I learn to be stupid, like she tells me I am, perhaps she won’t make me do this again…”

Do you recognise incidents like this in your own life? Can you see how easy – and how apparently necessary – it was to change your whole way of life, to avoid that kind of repeated pressure from others?

A statement like that may well tell us more about the person saying it than it does about us – a teacher abusing his authority in order to avoid answering awkward questions, for example – but once we’ve learnt to believe them, we believe them. The statement eventually becomes something that we believe at an unconscious level – a habit of thought, a habitual way of thinking about ourselves. From there, precisely because it is unconscious, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: “What I tell you three times is true“, as Lewis Carroll’s Bellman put it in ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. And then we’re stuck with the results, for life – or until we can learn how to unlearn the habit.

It can take a long time to unlearn habits…

The curse of belief

Belief is a peculiar kind of magic: a habit of thought, an idea that becomes real by filtering reality. With a different belief, we not only change our perception of the world, but our actual experience of it. I experience the world as I believe it to be: I find experiences that confirm the belief, and tend to ignore those that don’t. It always seems easier to find ‘proof’ of destructive beliefs than of constructive ones, so a repeated statement like “You’re stupid!” can soon create a downward spiral, a self-confirming curse – even though it was never actually true to begin with.

Once I’ve learnt to believe that I should be afraid, for example, I experience the world as if I’m afraid: I become afraid, and in return the world becomes a fearful place. And even though the fear is of something imaginary, of something that has never existed as more than an idea, the fear itself is real: the results are tangible, in terms of my ability – or inability – to work in the world. Through belief, the untrue becomes true; an illusion – a belief – somehow becomes reality.

One famous example of how a made-up belief can become reality was the ‘toilet-paper shortage’, a few years back. An American TV presenter suggested on his show that there was going to be a shortage of toilet-paper. People took his warning seriously; there was surge of panic-buying, supermarket shelves were rapidly cleared as people built up reserve stocks. In a matter of days there wasn’t a toilet-roll to be had. But in fact the whole thing had been an April Fool joke: at the time there’d been no real shortage at all, and now there really was one. The untrue becomes true; an illusion – a belief – somehow became reality.

Can you see the same kind of effect happening in your own life? What rumours – imagined beliefs – do you find yourself acting on? How do you know they really are true – or whether they’re just self-confirming ‘prophecies’ that you’ve been caught by?

In that sense our world is an illusion. It’s everyone’s illusion: an interweaving web of beliefs, of filters on reality. If we want to change our world, to improve our world, we need at the very least to change how we see it, what we believe about it. But the only beliefs we can change directly are our own – and even then it’s not easy. Those ‘curses’, those self-destructive beliefs that we were taught as children, will seem to block us at every step: at times they twist and turn against us, like a peculiarly evil and insidious form of magic.

Children believe in magic: the ‘inner child’ still does – with good reason, if you think of belief as magic.

That’s the child’s point of view – not childish, but childlike. So once again we let go… play with belief the child’s way, and work with it as if it is magic. Yet magic is, well… weird. Wyrd… Yet knowing now something of the nature of wyrd – ‘there’s always a choice, there’s always a twist’ – we can use the magic of belief to overcome the tyranny of belief: we can choose to twist it into a new and more constructive tool. Repetition – this strange process of ‘what I tell you three times is true‘ – is how we were taught the habits that now restrict us; so now, in its turn, we can use repetition to help us break free of them.

An affirmative habit

One way to bring up these habits of thought, and rebuild them, is through ‘affirmations’ – repetitive statements of intent that tend to highlight our resistance to change. And there’s a surprising amount of resistance…

An affirmation (or ‘intention’, ‘postulate’, ‘manifestation’, ‘positive thought’ – there are many different terms for much the same thing) is just another belief. The difference is that, unlike those destructive curse-beliefs, it’s one that we choose – as a tool to help us – rather than imposed on us by someone else. An affirmation is an invented belief, repeated over and over again, just like the ‘curses’, and with the same intention of making the belief into another self-confirming prophecy. Once again, the untrue becomes true – but this time in a constructive rather than self-destructive sense.

To make an affirmation, we simply write out this new constructed belief: for example, “I, Chris, now have total confidence in my ability to do anything I want”. We then stop for a moment; listen for a moment; then write down the objections that are likely to come flooding in!

The first of the objections that we’re likely to hit is the silliness-barrier – and hard. Immediately, the whole thing seems ridiculous, childish, pointless – silly. Let alone those bitter memories of ‘writing lines’ as a punishment at school: “Kelley, write out one hundred times, ‘I must not ask stupid questions in class'”… So we acknowledge the barrier – work with it, work round it: yes, it does seem childish – it’s meant to be, so as to be childlike. Yes, the statement isn’t true: I don’t have confidence in my ability to do anything I want – but the whole idea is to learn how to believe it to be true, so that it has a chance to become true. Yes, it does sound ridiculously optimistic: but that’s only because we’re so used to being forced to be pessimistic. And so on; and so on.

Let go… let play… let the magic of belief break the tyranny of belief…

There are so many beliefs that cripple us, it’s difficult to know where to begin! But try taking a repeated experience that the world seems to confirm as ‘true’ – for example, “I never get any credit for what I do” – and view it as if it was the result of a self-destructive belief that you hold at an unconscious level: “I don’t deserve credit for what I do”. Imagine that it’s a belief you’ve learnt, or been taught, through constant repetition or constant example – which you may even know to have been the case. To counteract it, turn this belief around – “I do deserve credit for what I do” – and repeat it to yourself. Often! After all, the destructive belief was repeated to you often enough…

To make this an affirmation, put yourself into this new belief: “I, _, deserve credit for what I do”. (And sometimes in the second- and third-person forms – “You, _, deserve credit for what you do” and “_ deserves credit for what he/she does” – because that’s how the old belief was given to you.) Write out this statement on a piece of paper; as you write it, affirm it to yourself as being true – say it aloud, perhaps, put some emotion into it. Then wait for a moment. See what objections come up – “People don’t like me, that’s why I don’t deserve credit” – and write those down under the affirmation, slightly to one side. Then write the affirmation again; then the objections. Repeat this sequence at least a dozen times.

Listen carefully to the objections – can you sometimes hear someone else’s voice saying them – the person whose belief it was in the first place? And can you see how bizarre and unreal some of the objections turn out to be?

Let go… let play…

It is important to regard this as play – which, to the child, is its real work. It’s a good idea to treat the whole process like a piece of magic, as a piece of ritual – buy a new book to write these affirmations in, use your best pen, write in a quiet space, perhaps light a candle first… It’s the ‘inner child’ we’re working with here, so we appeal to the childlike nature of the child within us!

The usual recommendation is to do this with only one affirmation at a time, twice a day, for at least two or three weeks. (If that seems a lengthy process, remember that it’s quick by comparison with the months and years of repetition through which we first learned each ‘curse’ that restricts us now.) It does work – though, as is typical with wyrd, not often in the way that we expect… What we can expect, at the very least, is change: if nothing else, affirmations can be a good way of breaking ‘stuckness’ in our lives.

It seems to be important to write these phrases and responses: speaking them, even aloud, does not seem to be enough. Perhaps writing is a way of driving the new beliefs into memory, driving them back into our deepest self, in much the same way as it’s usually easier to remember a lecture from written notes even than from a tape-recording. I don’t know: all we know is that it is so. Part of the magic, I presume.

Watch how the resistance arises – our own resistance to our actually living our life your own way. “It can’t work”, for example; “I don’t deserve that, that would be too good”, perhaps; or “It doesn’t happen anyway, and I can’t see how it could be possible, so it can’t be possible”. Again and again we’ll find it breaks down to a simple statement, a simple belief: “It’s not allowed for me to be me“. But if that’s so, how come other people are allowed to do what they want in life? That’s worth looking at for a while.

Take one of your resistances that comes up regularly – “I don’t deserve to be happy”, for example – and apply the same process as for affirmations, but in reverse. Write out that statement in the same way as an affirmation – and then note the (more conscious) objections that come up to the statement. Wear down the resistance by showing, slowly, that it’s absurd. “If I don’t deserve happiness and affection, how come other people do deserve it?” “In which case, what is there that’s so specially different about me that means I alone don’t deserve to be happy?” And so on.

Can you see that the resistance is, in essence, a belief? One that is actively harmful to you? And one which, in all probability, you’ve been taught – for someone else’s benefit, not your own?

Work at it for a while. You may even begin to see where you learnt the habit, and why: “I mustn’t be happy because my big sister hits me if I show I’m happy”, for example. Habits learnt very early, beliefs that are usually no longer relevant, but which we all still act on now…

One reason why it’s useful to look at the resistances in this backwards way is that most of us to look at the negative side, the weaknesses, first – and believe them. There’s often a strong cultural pressure to do so: being positive or optimistic is considered egotistical, or naïve, or both. It’s not acceptable, not done, to accept ourselves as we are: we’re soon made to feel pretty uncomfortable if we don’t put ourselves down – as we saw earlier with the example of the bullying teacher.

But just remember: ‘Whose life is it, anyway?’. It’s your life: it’s your right to reclaim power with your life. And this is one way to do it – to put new changes, new beliefs, into action.

Into action

Think of this as affirmative action – but there also needs to be an emphasis on action. If we only write the new beliefs out as affirmations, and then just sit on our backsides, waiting for things to happen by themselves, we’re believing in the wrong kind of magic… What we’re doing with the affirmation, in effect, is lifting a thread of wyrd to the surface, to look at it and see how we’ve usually pushed it away from our lives. But that, on its own, changes nothing. We also have to find a way to connect with that new thread: having written “I now have confidence in my ability”, for example, I have to go out into the weirdness of the world and find that new confidence, find our connection with it. Let ourselves find it – or perhaps let it find us.

So go looking – but without looking. Try to find it – but without trying. It does take a bit of practice…

An affirmation itself is no more than a game with beliefs, a ‘head-trip’: to be useful, it needs to be grounded, brought into connection with the version of reality we share with everyone else. So having written out a series of affirmations, do something to ‘earth’ it, to honour and affirm the change in your intention. Almost anything will do: but do something. Put yourself in a different place or different situation for a change. Don’t bother trying to think through what the best response would be – just follow a whim, an impulse. The wyrd thrives on difference, not sameness… thinking, on its own, will only give us ‘more of the same’.

And then watch what happens: see what Reality Department gives you back. Watch the feelings, the emotions, the uncertainties that arise as you do these ‘active affirmations’: think of these as resistances, just like those that came up on paper as you wrote. What do these tell you?

Sometimes deciding what to do to act on an affirmation is a bit like looking for a dim star at night – it’s not as simple as it seems. For a start, we sometimes have to put ourselves in a different environment: in the glare of the street lights of the city, it’s hard to see anything of the sky at night, let alone a barely-visible star. If we don’t do anything, if we don’t try – don’t even bother to stick your head out of the door – we’ll never see the star: the chance will simply pass us by. Yet if we do look in the obvious way, straight at it, it disappears – and the harder we look for it, the more it disappears. The trick to seeing it is to look away slightly, to look not at it, but near it – look at it without looking at it – and let it come to us. It’s much the same putting these affirmations into action: we have do something, but somehow let the results come to us.

One way in which the results may come to us is not at all what we’d expect: namely in the form of some incident that acts like a test, a challenge. For example, if your affirmation was “I now have confidence in my ability”, you might hope for people turning round and telling you how wonderful you are: but don’t be surprised if, instead, some stranger comes up with exactly the same kind of derogatory remark that put you down in the first place. It’s a test, a challenge: and you’ll notice, by your reactions, just how much you’ve allowed your beliefs to change…

It’s weird – but that’s how it works, that’s how it is. That, after all, is the nature of wyrd!

After a while working with affirmations, we can begin to see some changes – some of the old, evidently self-destructive patterns begin to weaken, until they’re nothing like as compulsive as they were. For example, I recognised that I’d always viewed being on my own as a punishment – “Go to your room!”, my parents would say – which had led me to cling on to others, especially parent-figures, to prove that I wasn’t considered ‘bad’… and kept doing this compulsively well into adulthood. Recognising this as an old fear, I turned it round and made it into an affirmation, “The more I, Chris, enjoy being on my own, the more I can enjoy being with others”, and worked with it each evening for a while. It wasn’t until about a month later that I noticed I wasn’t going out much in the old compulsive “Got to see someone or I’ll go crazy!” mode any more; instead, without my particularly doing anything to make it happen, people were coming to see me. In fact I was getting annoyed that I didn’t seem to have enough time on my own…

The point was that I’d always needed time on my own – but I wasn’t allowing myself to get it, because I was afraid of it, of what alone-ness symbolised. But the wyrd knew what I needed, so to speak… so it’s given me enforced periods of loneliness many times in my life! One way or another we always get what we need: but it may not be in the form that we want… With the weirdness of wyrd, there’s always a choice, but there’s also always a twist.

More accurately, the wyrd seems to give us always what we say we want – which may not be what we think we want. As long as we’re stuck in habit, and in unawareness of our needs and of what we’re asking for, we can hardly complain about what the wyrd ends up giving us – if I outwardly say I want company, but am inwardly screaming for time on my own, it’s hardly surprising that the results in my life are a mess!

So to give those affirmations something on which to work, and to help the web of wyrd to give us a more worthwhile way of living, we need next to gain more clarity about our wants and needs, desires and intentions – and the subtle distinctions between them.

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