In a previous post, I addressed the advantages of mindfulness meditation over a focused (mantra) meditation, and how it brings your thoughts and tendencies into your awareness. Thus, you gain the ability to perceive them as a manifestation of the mind, instead of as part of the self.
However, my intention was not to condemn all types of mental formations, because there are positive, negative and neutral conditions. The crucial distinction to make is between being conscious of your mental constructs and believing in or identifying with them, subconsciously—the danger lies in oblivion or suppression.
There is much less harm in belief when you are able to view it as an entity separate from the self—in fact, positive mindsets can be beneficial, so long as they don’t become delusional.
A mindset can be defined as a core belief, assumption, or outlook (attitude). They have far-reaching effects on all sorts of facets of your life, including wellbeing, stress management, biological responses to food, and healing—even the quality of your life.
The Belief Effect
The human body has an uncanny ability to heal itself. And while the mind is a part of the body, it unfortunately doesn’t have quite the capacity to reverse disease as the body. However, it does play a considerable role in the body’s regeneration faculties.
The placebo effect has been well-documented. Some studies exist showing particular medical conditions can be cured even when the patient is well-aware they’re taking a placebo. This finding is a testament to the tremendous power of the mind, and also demonstrates that we don’t need to believe in an external intervention in order to realize the benefits of positivity.
Social context shapes our mindsets, and our (conscious) beliefs trigger our (subconscious) physiology to produce outcomes. However, we can take conventional wisdom out of the equation and still influence our mental and physical processes to achieve a result, desired or otherwise.
The belief effect is what occurs when a physiological outcome is generated from a mindset, sans placebo. It’s essentially the placebo effect without the succedaneum—the attitudes we’ve been conditioned to believe by society, e.g., “30 minutes of cardio five times per week” or “stress is bad.”
Using the belief effect model mentioned above (social context > mindsets > physiological response), we must perpend the secondary mechanism – by which our outlook influences our physiology – independent of the first (conventional wisdom).
Look for example at a study conducted by psychological researched Alia Crum, unofficially dubbed “The Milkshake Study.” In the experiment, participants consumed a shake at two different time intervals, and were told the two had different nutrient profiles, while in reality, they were the exact same shake.
Subjects were led to believe that one was nutrient-dense (high fat, high sugar) while the other was low-calorie. The hypothesis of the researchers leading up to the study was that, under the assumption the participants thought they were eating healthy, their bodies would have a better metabolic response to the “sensishake.”
Their logic was if you think you’re eating healthy, the body will response as such. However, the results contradicted that hypothesis, with the low-calorie shake leaving subjects feeling less satiated than the caloric-dense one.
Counterintuitively, the body’s ghrelin levels, also known as the hunger hormone, dropped more profoundly when participants believed they had consumed the indulgent shake. Lower levels of ghrelin are associated with faster metabolism and an increased fat burning ability.
This astounding finding demonstrates that, regarding belief, the most crucial factor dictating our health is whether you possess the mindset that you are getting enough—be it nutrients, exercise, sleep, whatever.
Indulgence Mindset (Reprogramming the Subconscious)
Based on the above evidence, if we can let our societal-conditioned attitudes fall by the wayside, we are able to influence outcomes solely with our core beliefs. This is an immensely powerful tool, but it can be both beneficial and detrimental.
To obtain the benefits, we merely need to hold the mindset that our lifestyle choices are satisfactory and in line with our ideals. But, when we don’t see our conduct as up to snuff, the disconnect can has physiological ramifications.
For example, if you’re regularly exercising or eating healthy, but you believe it not to be sufficient (even if it falls within the realm of what doctors consider “healthy”), the benefits realized may not be as extensive as if you had a favorable impression of the regimen.
To make matters worse, if you believe exercise and a healthy diet will benefit your physique and mental wellbeing, but you’re not getting any physical activity or eating cleanly, the effects can be that much more catastrophic.
Therefore, just as positive thinking can influence outcomes, so too can negative thinking. This phenomenon is known as the nocebo effect.
I was listening to a podcast discussion with qigong practitioner Robert Peng, in which he described a time in his college dorm when he was goofing around with a stick of incense, and acted like he was going to burn his roommate. He turned off the lights and instead of being a major asshole, held a different, unlit stick against the man’s arms.
When he turned the lights back on, the tormentee had a burn-like mark on his arm. That’s the stupendous power of the mind in action—or, more specifically, the power of psychological stress and fear.
Worry and Stress: The End All, Be All (Nocebo Effect)
We already demonstrated that worry can modulate your physiological responses indirectly via your mindset, but it can also influence it directly. Worry or emotional stress is the precursor to physical stress, i.e., the fight-or-flight response.
Stress is a silent killer, and will undermine all environmental and supplemental measures you take to combat poor wellbeing, mental decline and physical degeneration. It has a direct inverse correlation with immune function, circulation, metabolism and almost all other physiological processes. When elevated for a prolonged period, stress even has the ability to change your DNA.
The moral of the story is that, regardless of your conduct, the more you ruminate on it, the more stress you’re subjecting yourself to, and the less impactful your positive lifestyle choices will be. Similarly, the worse the outcome of your perceived bad decisions will be.
Enjoying life, not regretting your choices (but learning from the “bad ones”) and the ability to feel nurtured will always have a positive auxiliary effect on your actual decisions, independent of social context.
Beyond rudimental outlook, visualization can also play an essential role in health.
In his book, Spontaneous Healing, doctor Andrew Weil tells the story of a man who was able to reverse an autoimmune disease – in which his immune system was attacking his red blood cells and platelets – primarily through guided imagery.
The man began to visualize one particular type of white blood cell (T cells) as motorcycle cops escorting the red cells and platelets in sidecars through the blood stream, keeping them safe from the other white cells that were causing the attack. Eventually, he was able to send his condition into remission using little more than the mental imagery as a central intervention.
However, you don’t need to use guided imagery to this degree in order to get the benefits of visualization. Using autosuggestion or simply sending compassionate energy with your awareness to your body and mind can prove fruitful in many instances.
‘Where the Mind Goes, the Qi Flows’
This tai chi maxim has both literal and figurative meanings:
In the literal, it means that where you focus your mind internally is where your Qi (energy) will flow and condense. Be mindful of your dan tian, and the Qi will begin to gather there.
The same principle applies in the figurative sense—where you focus your attention in the physical world is where you life energy will flow, and often becomes what manifests as your reality.
Up to this point I’ve been discussing mindsets strictly in terms of health. But, in both the contexts of healing/physiological function and your life circumstance, it’s about more than purely where you focus your attention. Just as critical is the outlook you’re giving your attention to—the affect of your mind.
Loving, nurturing energy is what we must transmit to obtain our desired outcomes.
This passage from breathwork coach Sage Rader craftfully encapsulates the notion:
Rename your pain; in your description lies your affirmation.
You can breathe all you want into [the pain], but the same breath with a different thought is a different breath. It doesn’t matter how you breathe, it matters how you breathe and think—how you feel about the pain.
Can I breathe the opposite of sad? Can I breathe kindness?Sage Rader
Though he is applying this principle to the literal, internal sense described above, it also is a metaphor for the figurative. Sentiment is just as powerful a determinant on your external existence as it is on your physiology or ability to alleviate physical pain.
If anything should be clear by now, it’s that the two – internal and external – are not mutually exclusive; what you believe determines how you live, and how you live influences your mental formations.
While the believe effect can be used to realize an outcome independent of social context, it usually still corresponds to an action, e.g., eating a nutrient-dense milkshake, or getting 45 minutes of cardio daily. Thus, the physical and the mental must be used in conjunction to grasp the benefits you seek, especially regarding creating your desired external experience.
Your External World Reflects the Internal
If you believe your life is in shambles, chances are good that it is. And while mindset certainly influences quality of life, changing your outlook alone probably won’t be sufficient to modify your external environment for the better.
Though it likely will get you on the right track and motivate you to act, at some point you will need doing to change that perception. In fact, failing to take action may make your perception worse.
It’s a fallacy to believe whatever you’re (not) doing that is creating the pain in your life can be swept under the rug and your circumstance will improve based on “good vibes only,” i.e., a positive outlook. I’ve written about it before, but beating your suffering into submission like a game of whack-a-mole isn’t doing you any favors.
Proponents of guided imagery insist that you can trick the mind into manifesting your ideal life merely by imagining you have already attained it—a process known as affirmation.
And while there is some validity to the mind’s inability to distinguish reality from imagination, positive self-affirmation is merely the sun that shines on the seed of your reality. For it to grow, you will need to water it, i.e., take an action. Too much sun (self-conceptualization) without water likely will cause it to wither and die.
However, first you can pick the seed, and feed it the sunlight of your positive outlook. Using autosuggestion or the belief effect puts the wheels in motion to physically manifest your desired outcome, making it that much easier to begin filling up the watering can.