There’s been this emphasis in the spiritual and self-help community for a very long time on being positive, on thinking positive thoughts, and always having a positive attitude. And while this seems like a great idea, I get the impression that many of us don’t really understand it. And naturally, many people have a great deal of difficulty living up to that ideal. So what exactly does positive thinking entail, and how can we successfully shift into that mindset?
It’s very easy to be happy and positive when everything is going your way. But what about when it’s not? The reality is that life is a mixture of fortunate and unfortunate events. There can be all kinds of challenges and difficulties, disasters and disappointments. And with all that comes anger and sadness, anxiety, depression, frustration and resentment. So how do we deal with these emotions? And is there a way instead to respond to those situations with a positive attitude?
Somehow we’ve gotten the idea that in order to be spiritual we have to be positive all the time. And by positive, what we often mean is that we no longer have any negative thoughts or emotions. It means always being in a good mood, always happy and smiling, constantly radiating peace and tranquility.
But if we do have these negative thoughts and emotions, what do we do with them? Do we simply deny them, suppress them, bury them deep down and pretend they aren’t there? Do we just put on a smile and act as though it’s all love and light even when deep down we’re scared, miserable, anxious, angry and so on? Because I get the impression that’s what a lot of people are trying to do, and it’s not really working. In fact, it’s probably making matters worse.
I meet people all the time who wear this false persona of positivity, and it’s really very easy to see through. But more than that, it creates more problems than it resolves.
There was one person in particular who I spent some time with, who was always going on about the importance of being positive. And, let me tell you, this was one of the most negative-minded people I have ever had the displeasure of associating with. But the problem was that they were the only person who couldn’t see it. They thought that they were fooling the whole world, but really they were only fooling themselves. And they we’re creating a lot of unnecessary drama as a result.
So, to give an example, this person would often express their belief that negative thoughts attract negative circumstances. And there is some truth to that, which perhaps I’ll discuss another time. But this particular person was deeply afraid of causing that sort of thing to happen, and so if anyone said anything that could be even slightly interpreted as a negative statement, this person would become very upset, sometimes even enraged. I recall, for example, simply mentioning the possibility of there being rain in the forecast, and this person got so angry with me, and said that if it rains it’s going to be my fault because I put that negative vibration out into the universe.
There was also an occasion when I was in a car with this person, and they were driving, and something I said was not taken well and this person became very angry and started yelling at me. And I didn’t understand why at the time, but I later came to realize that they had a tendency to be very anxious and frustrated when driving, and on top that they were overwhelmed with a personal difficulty in their private life.
So, it really wasn’t anything I had said. It was simply the fact that they needed someone to project all their anxiety onto. And I was right there, trapped with them in the passenger seat.
And their driving had become very erratic, almost causing an accident. And the way I typically deal with these kinds of situations is to remain calm and to try and sooth the other person into relaxing. So I very calmly tried to reassure them that everything is okay and that right now I just need them to stay calm and focus on the road. And this seemed to enrage them all the more. And this person started yelling, I am calm. You’re the one who’s angry. Why are you being so negative? And I really didn’t know how to reply to that because it was the exact reverse of the actual reality of the situation. But it occurred to me that we had been driving for a very long time and this person was probably fed up with being behind the wheel. So I told them, look, if you want me to drive just pull over at the next gas station and we’ll switch.
So when we pulled into the gas station I went inside to use the restroom and when I returned this person had totally shifted their mood. They were now smiling and behaving as though nothing had happened. And I had noticed this pattern with them, that they would become really upset, and a moment later would be acting like nothing had happened. They would never acknowledge having been upset or having endangered anyone, or causing anyone to feel uncomfortable. They would never own up to it and apologize. They would take no responsibility whatsoever. And I probably don’t have to tell you that I’m not the only person who burned that bridge and never looked back.
So I give that extreme example, because it really illustrates how someone who strongly believes in positive thinking, and is trying very hard to be positive, can actually be really negative, and how that belief itself can often lead us to repressing our negative emotions, rather than processing them. And when we don’t process those emotions, they don’t get resolved. Instead, we bury them. We try to hide them, and not only from others, but from ourselves as well. And deep down in the basement of our mind these thoughts and feelings pile up and fester. And as that pile grows, eventually it has to surface.
I’ve seen many people who carry that pretense of positivity, who are always putting on a smile and acting very enlightened, all of a sudden brake down and explode with anger or sadness. Sometimes even falling into a very deep depression. And what makes it so much more difficult is the belief that they’re not supposed to feel that way. It’s just not spiritual. If you’re spiritual you’re not supposed to get angry or sad or afraid.
So when it all boils to the surface and you can’t hold it back anymore, what comes up along with all of that is the shame that we associate with it. So we usually end up feeling even worse about it, and we try all the more to repress it.
We have this idea that to be spiritual means to have no negative thoughts or feelings, and instead to be in a constant state of positivity. And the way to do that is simply to not focus on anything negative. So whenever any negative thought or feeling arises, we quickly disregard it or deny it altogether. We push it away or bury it, and pretend that it isn’t there. This is known as spiritual bypassing.
To bypass something means to go around it, to avoid it. And we have this idea that in order to reach a state of enlightenment or spiritual perfection or whatever you might call it, we can simply bypass our negative thoughts and emotions. But bypassing requires that we don’t stop to acknowledge them. And if we aren’t willing to acknowledge these feelings, we can’t really resolve them.
Suppose you’re sitting at home one day and you hear a strange noise in the basement followed by a foul smell. And it occurs to you that a sewage pipe has busted. But you choose to just ignore it. Maybe if you just ignore it, it’ll go away, or maybe it’ll fix itself. But of course, that’s not what happens. Instead, it just keep leaking and the sewage just keeps accumulating. And eventually it builds up so much that it begins to seep out into the living room. So now, because you decided to try and ignore it, you’ve got a bigger mess to deal with than you would have had if you had chosen to attend to it when it started.
In order to successfully resolve these thoughts and emotions we have to understand them. And more importantly we have to understand how they arise and where they arise from. So to understand we have to first of all acknowledge, we have to accept that they’re there, and then we can begin to explore them, to examine them in order to understand them, that is, in order to resolve them. They don’t simply go away just because we ignore them. These patterns are very deeply rooted. So trimming the branches does nothing to kill the root. In fact, all you’re doing is pruning. And anyone who knows anything about gardening knows that pruning actually redirects energy to the root system, causing it to spread and extend deeper into the ground. That’s why you don’t simply cut weeds. You pull them up by the root. Otherwise they just keep coming back stronger.
So let’s, for a moment explore these terms, negative and positive, in regard to thoughts and emotions. Because I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding around these terms and I’d like to offer my own interpretation.
So first of all, in terms of magnetism, we know that positive means that which attracts, and negative means that which repels.
And so, in regard to thoughts and emotions we could say that positive means to be in a state of receptivity and acceptance whereas negative means to be in a state of resistance and avoidance. And what we’re accepting or resisting is simply the current reality, this present moment, and all the events occurring within it.
And I wanna be clear that the terms as I’m using them here do not equate with good and bad. I think that’s one of the biggest misunderstandings we have around these terms. So again, when I say negative emotions, I’m simply talking about emotions which are some form of resistance. To call them good or bad is to attach judgment to them, and really that’s not at all helpful. All that does is cause us to feel shameful, which in turn causes us to repress those feelings, rather than processing them. So we need to get rid of the idea that negative equates to something being bad. And simply see it for what it is.
So, again, what we’re talking about is resistance, which prevent us from fully engaging in the moment, fully engaging with life itself. And this inhibits us from being able to simply be in a natural flow. We’re essentially resisting the current. We’re trying to swim against it. And of course that means we’re having to exert a lot more energy, which leaves us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. And we tend to see that, in and of itself, as being something bad, because who doesn’t wanna enjoy life?
So what do we do? Typically, we try to fight against it. Or we try to repress it or run away from it. But if these negative thoughts and feelings are a form of resistance, than this means we’re resisting resistance. In other words, we’re adding more resistance on to the resistance that there already is. And so naturally, and causes all kinds of frustration and difficulties.
So, to be positive means, first of all, to be in a state of acceptance. And that includes accepting whatever we’re feeling in the moment. So even if we’re feeling sad or angry, rather than resisting those feelings, we acknowledge them, allowing them to be there in that space, and we simply bring our attention to that, noticing, observing and learning. Because all of this is trying to tell us something. So we bring the positive to the negative. That is, we bring acceptance to the resistance. And as we do this, the resistance naturally decreases.
See, the thing about resistance is that we can’t push it away. We can’t run from it or hide from it. We can’t overcome it through any kind of struggle. Because all of that is resistance as well. But when we begin to relax and surrender to the moment, what we’re doing is essentially letting go of the resistance by allowing everything to simply be as it is.
And the more we’re able to do this, the more clarity we begin to have about the situation, which opens us up more to finding some resolution. You see, when we find ourselves in an undesirable situation, we really only have only a handful of choices. One is that we can resist it. That is, we can be upset, angry, sad, frustrated, anxious, depressed. And that’s what we generally tend to do. But there are three other options.
We can accept it.
We can change it.
Or we can leave it.
If you can’t accept it, then change it. If you can’t change it, then accept it or leave it. But to remain in that situation and allow it to disturb our sense of peace is not an option we have to take. And it really does us no good at all. Being in a challenging situation, and being upset about it, really just makes it all the more challenging. But it does nothing at all to improve the situation.
Of course, if we do find ourselves upset, we certainly shouldn’t deny it. We shouldn’t try to repress it. We have to acknowledge whatever we’ve feeling in the moment, while at the same time applying one of these other choices. And as we do that, those feelings will begin to lessen.
And speaking of lessons, this is another way of bringing a positive light into a seemingly negative situation. You see, every situation in life, especially those situations which we find difficult, uncomfortable and challenging, are rich with opportunities for us to learn and grow. And to see our challenges in this light, is to put a positive spin on them.
So, in this sense, positive thinking is not so much about denying a difficult situation or denying our negative emotions, but rather embracing all of it as a opportunity. What can we learn from it? What does it offer to teach us?
One of my favorite sayings is by Lama Surya Das who said, The more shit you encounter along the path, the better your spiritual flowers will grow, so long as you know how to use the shit as fertilizer.
So if you’re really intent on growing and evolving, and reaching your highest potential, then you have to embrace everything that comes your way, and learn to transform the negative into something positive simply by recognizing it as an opportunity for personal growth.