Why YOU should practice affirmations
Affirmations will help you live a more fulfilled life!
Affirmations are one of those things that seem to elicit skepticism from most people who are introduced to them, myself included. And so, I’ve endeavored to investigate and try to understand why people are so attracted to them and why they might be effective.
An immediate problem with affirmations is establishing the causal relationship between the affirmations and the actual attainment of desire. While it is certainly the case that affirmations are not necessarily words — I think the strongest affirmations are non-verbal — they must nevertheless be understood as an indirect way of approaching the attainment of desire.
In a naïve physical understanding of the world, this might be seen as problematic on several accounts. How do words spoken in front of a mirror in the evening lead us to either riches or famine, and how do thoughts nesting in the darkest recesses of our minds land us in either heaven or hell?
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” — Lao Tzu
It’s a dramatic line of reasoning — from thoughts to destiny — can the balance of our lives really hinge on such fragile and seemingly frivolous things? Are these not, as so many other relics of history simply words that sound pretty but are otherwise mostly nonsensical?
Yet we know by now of the butterfly effect from chaos theory, which to be precise, is not to say that “a butterfly [fluttering] its wings over a flower in China and [causes] a hurricane in the Caribbean,” but that the causal relationships of nature are intricate and insurmountably complex. Cause and effect, while in principle simple, is rarely quite so simple in practice.
A naïve physical understanding of the world, which might also be understood as a sort of extreme physicalism, assumes that what we experience and perceive is what there is in this world and we ourselves are nothing but “physical” constructs in a “physical” world. There is no real significance to our “internal” realm of experience, beyond the physical structures upon which they supervene. But here an important question arises, what actually constitutes something “physical”?
Years ago, we might have answered that what distinguishes something physical from something non-physical is whether that something is material or not, but with the development of physics, such an answer leaves much to be desired. To our senses, that distinction might seem intuitive, but in physics, we know that we can reduce the world we experience from the macroscopic material reality to the atoms that compose it, to the quarks that make up the atoms and the quarks to excitations in different quantum fields that are layered onto each other and governed by complex and sometimes mysterious mathematical laws and structures.
In this world of quantum fields we find virtual particles, things being multiple places at once, things existing but being nowhere in particular, objects that are entangled and interact instantly over enormous distances, Now we can ask the question, is this the same kind of “physical” as our experience of a table or something different?
I am not going to make the mistake of using a “quantum woo” argument to justify the use of affirmations, but I will definitively say that it is not as obvious what exactly “physical” is supposed to mean as we might commonsensically think.
The other extreme is idealism, which says there is no physical world at all. The world is simply an idea or even an illusion in some conceptions of idealism. However, there is no need for us to commit to this philosophy either, instead, we can simply take the limit case and say conclusively that at least it is the case that to some extent the world we experience is shaped by the constructs — physical, biological, physiological, neurological, psychological — through which we perceive them.
It is difficult to distinguish between the “internal” and the “external” world because to some extent the external world must necessarily be a projection of the internal world. That is to say that whatever we perceive is only what we have the faculties for perceiving in the manner that we have the faculties for perceiving it.
There are layers to this intersection of the internal and the external. We are evolved to experience the world in a particular way. Colors appear to us the way they do because we evolved to see them that way and react to them in the particular way that we do. Apples are brightly colored and smell pleasant to us because we are, in a sense, built to perceive them that way and they are simultaneously built to appear to us in that way. Not only are we evolved to perceive certain things in certain ways, but in addition to these facts of evolution, there are ways that we prioritize our perceptions based on facts of our conditioning and who we are in the intersection between nature and nurture.
To make this last point clearer, there are a variety of selective attention experiments that I imagine most people have seen or heard of at this point such as for instance the infamous selective attention basketball court test.
Just as our minds prioritizes the task of counting passes and completely ignores the existence of the gorilla there are innumerable such priorities made in our everyday lives, both consciously and unconsciously. By consciously shifting our focus we open our minds to previously “invisible” opportunities and paradigms.
There is also the well-documented placebo effect which demonstrates that our perception of the world and of self has a real and significant impact on our very physiology. The effect is especially effective when used for pain relief, which one might imagine translates quite well to our ability to deal with adversity and other temporary discomforts associated with seeking rewards and success.
In short, there are many plausible ways in which affirmations might enhance our lives in small and large ways. The discussion regarding mechanisms does not seem particularly controversial to me, or at least it doesn’t have to be; there is plenty of room within our present understanding of the world to accommodate this phenomenon. I think, however, that the greatest barrier to affirmations is not actually the mechanics or the understanding, the causality, or the logical structure of the whole thing, but rather some psychological barriers; affirmations are a difficult and oftentimes unpleasant practice.
How frustrating is it to be told, in the midst of some personal tragedy, to simply think more positive thoughts? If everything is emphatically not “alright,” being told that everything is a matter of how we think and of our perception of events seems inconsiderate at best. It is a rare person that can deliver such a message without sounding at least just a little bit condescending, and of course, it is rarely actually so easy as “thinking more positive thoughts.” Should we affirm a joy that does not exist? Love that does not exist? Kindness that does not exist? Fortune that does not exist? Wealth that does not exist? Health that does not exist?
We are all prisoners to our individual circumstances, our circumstances are all we know, and no one else knows our circumstances the way we do, not even those closest to us. That is existence, and in this sense, existence is isolation, fear, pain, limitation; circumstance. This means if we are born impoverished, we do not know what it means to be wealthy, while we may see wealthy people, we do not understand it in a deeply personal way the way they do. Similarly, if we are neglected, we do not know what it is to be cared for. It is difficult to seek and even more difficult to attain that of which we have no conception.
“For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” — Matthew 25:29
But whether we “have” or “do not have,” is always a matter of perspective, and that is precisely what affirmations are about; not losing sight of what is good in our lives so that we can continue to orient ourselves towards it.