23 Jul 2007
The Affirmative Attitude: Does Your Attitude Affect Your Spiritual Development?
Swedenborg writes about two basic attitudes in learning, which he calls the negative attitude and the affirmative attitude.
When I was first reading and learning about what Swedenborg had to say about our spiritual regeneration, I took these attitudes at face value. Of course, it made sense that a spiritual teacher would prefer that I learn about what he had to say by accepting it first and seeing how what I already know confirms it rather than by being cynical and demanding proof. A bit self-serving, perhaps, and certainly not what I had been trained to do in my scientific training, but understandable. 😉
Recently, an article from the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology had me connecting Swedenborg’s basic attitudes to what I know about heart coherence and positive psychology. This gave it a much broader application to me and I thought I’d share that perspective with you.
First, let’s review what Swedenborg had to say about these two basic learning attitudes in AC2568. I’ve pared down the quotes to save some space and added some emphasis:
 There are therefore two basic attitudes of mind, the first leading to utter stupidity and insanity, the second to perfect intelligence and wisdom. The first occurs when someone … says in his heart that he is unable to believe until he is convinced by things which he can grasp in his mind and perceive with his senses. This is … the negative attitude.
The second occurs when someone thinks within himself and believes that those things are true because the Lord has spoken them. This is … the affirmative attitude.
 The more those who think from the negative attitude consult rational ideas and … factual knowledge and … philosophical concepts [in order to believe], the more they pitch themselves headlong into darkness, till at length they deny everything. The reasons for this are that nobody is able from things that are lower to grasp with his mind those that are higher…. And what is more, when this is the case everything is regarded from a basically negative attitude of mind.
On the other hand, however, people who think from the affirmative attitude are able to confirm [spiritual truths for] themselves by …rational ideas and …factual knowledge [and] philosophical concepts, which they are able in any way to make use of, for to them all these matters are confirmatory and enable them to have a fuller idea of the matter.
I think there are actually two critical elements of this distinction. One of is the distinction between attitudes, which I’ll explore next.
The other is the importance of the notion that we can’t fully understand the “higher” (what I want to call the more complex) from looking just at its components (the less complex). But this point would take us off to a discussion of how complex systems (i.e., like your brain or societies) evolve and develop and I don’t have time to go there right now — stay tuned for future posts on evolution/regeneration and the brain.
The core distinction
The negative attitude is a “prove-it” attitude. I can’t help but think of the hard-core empirical science attitude — if I can’t measure it, test it, predict it, it isn’t real. Given a piece of information, this attitude holds back acceptance until it has empirical (i.e., physically demonstrable) evidence that it is so. That is, the default assumption is “This explanation isn’t true” and the job of the scientist is to disprove it. (No, really — all scientific experiments are set up to look for evidence that the hypothesis, the idea being tested, is not true.)
This attitude may work just fine for us in encounters with daily life. Is the hard drive in my computer really dead or is it the battery, the power, the on-switch, a setting..? Is this person really angry or dismissive of me or am I misreading their fatigue, distraction, misunderstanding…?
The positive attitude is one that Swedenborg seems to be recommending for use in learning about things that are more complex than daily life. In this instance, the positive/affirmative attitude starts from saying, “Ok, how could this be true?”, and then looking for evidence to support it. The default assumption here is that the idea is true.
Basic Attitudes and Our Happiness
So how does this relate to the growing study of “positive psychology” — the study of what makes us feel good/happy and how to increase that happiness?
The recent article I mentioned above provoked my thoughts in this area. Start by noting the title, because we’re going to come back to that.
“Happy people are more likely to believe evidence of the supernatural and to sidestep black cats, according to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 92, No. 5). This effect held true whether researchers manipulated participants’ mood or tapped their existing moods, notes lead author Laura King, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia.”
There were two studies reported by these researchers.
In the first, they created a positive mood in half their participants by asking them to imagine that they had helped a lost child find his parents in a mall, then had them write for three minutes about how they felt after helping. The other half wrote about the sights and sounds of their local town. Also, both groups were evaluated as to whether they tended to have an “intuitive” style of information processing—trusting their gut instincts—or if they tended to approach things “rationally”.
Then both groups watched videos claiming to show evidence of ghosts and UFOs.
People in the positive mood group AND who had an “intuitive” style were most likely to believe the “evidence” in the videos.
Intuitive students in a neutral mood were more skeptical and the “rational” students didn’t believe the video’s evidence, no matter what their mood.
“If you have these intuitive tendencies…when you are in a good mood, you have this internal ‘go ahead’ signal to follow your gut,” says King. That makes sense, she adds, because your instincts are probably right on if circumstances are making you happy. In contrast, people in sad or frustrating situations may find it helpful to use a rational, problem-solving mode.
I think there are some very interesting elements of these findings:
The “believers” had imagined a situation that gave them “warm fuzzies”. If you’ve read some of my other articles here, you may recognize that warm fuzzies happen in the heart and create a state of “heart coherence”. When we’re in that state, we generally feel more positive AND more connected and less judgemental of others. We are less likely to put up barriers between ourselves and others and we’re more likely to accept what they present to us about themselves and their ideas or beliefs, whether we share those ideas or not.
The other critical component of the “believers” was that they paid attention to and valued their intuitive “felt sense” rather than relying primarily on external sources. This means that they are more likely to do “internal checks” when deciding about something (e.g., Am I ok with this? Does it feel right? Does it fit with my own experience?). This is also something one learns by practicing heart coherence and learning to Listen to the wisdom of the heart, not just the information-processing of the brain or external verification by others.
Both of these elements – a state of heart coherence reflected in the warm fuzzies along with an attention to one’s internal states — tend to reflect and create more “connection” — Connection both with oneself (i.e., more self-awareness and self-reflection) as well as an openness to connection with others.
This seems like a pretty good place to be in seeking spiritual development, don’t you think? Acceptance, “seeking first to understand”, internal verification through attention to influx, enhanced heart-centred capacity…
AND they’re all positive, affirming, attitudes. Not all-accepting and gullible. Just open to understanding, taking in the new, searching for Connections.
But there was a second study that amazed me by the researchers’ interpretation.
The second study was similar in that participants created a mood and were evaluated as intuitive or rational. Then, they were asked to throw darts at an irregularly-shaped target and at a picture of a baby’s face.
The researcher’s thought they were testing participants’ belief in the magical “law of similarity,” That means they interpreted reluctance to throw darts at a baby’s photo as reflecting a superstitious belief that they were somehow throwing darts at a baby.(!)
The intuitive, happy participants were much more inaccurate when aiming darts at a baby picture and this was interpreted as being more “superstitious”.
“Intuitive” participants who were not in good moods and all “rational” participants showed less of a decline in their dart-throwing accuracy.
The researchers concluded that:
“Taken together, the studies show mood and personality interact to affect people’s susceptibility to superstitious beliefs, says King. What’s more, the research suggests that such beliefs may be normal, natural and sometimes even adaptive.”
This is not at all what I take from this second study.
I suggest this simply demonstrates a reluctance to throw darts at that type of target and that we can’t say anything about their underlying beliefs from their reluctance.
What I understand from the participants’ reluctance is the same affirming attitude we saw in the first one. They seemed to be indirectly expressing a reluctance to do something that “felt bad”. They had activated their heart connection through the warm fuzzies exercise and then found it difficult to do something that seemed aggressive to a human-looking target. I call that empathy, connection, use of internal standards of “rightness”.
Positive Attitude, Happiness, and Spiritual Regeneration
Positive Psychology research shows us that people do better in almost every respect when they’re happier – they achieve more, they have better relationships, better health, and are more resilient. And we’re more likely to be happier when we are optimistic, heart coherent, and involved in satisfying relationships with others.
So it seems to me that Swedenborg had it right. If we approach life from an positive perspective – an “affirming attitude” – we will find ourselves in a much better place to be able to connect to ourselves and others, to be open to what Swedenborg calls “spiritual influx”, to be driven by our conscience and internal Knowing of what Feels right rather than driven by the availability of external facts or external pressures.
And rather than just applying this to the Writings and learning doctrine/“spiritual facts”, I suggest it is the best basic attitude we can bring to our lives as a whole. When things aren’t going well, it makes sense to use our rational brain power to tease apart the problem, but if we operate from this negative attitude all the time, we convince ourselves that most things aren’t right until we prove them so – and that’s a pretty dis-spiriting place to be.
What do you think? Where do you live from most of the time?
What are ways you move yourself toward an affirmative attitude in your own life?