The Myth of Negativity

A theme I have encountered regularly in nearly 30 years of practice as a psychotherapist is the request to help people ‘deal with negativity’. What consistently emerges is that the person concerned is at war with themselves.

And not just ‘in conflict’ as such..

but more of a campaign….

…a series of military strategies to counter that which fails to fit an ideal,  as though..

…on a crusade to exorcise the Devil himself.

Invariably, the ‘negativity’ was some shadow quality urgently needed by the personality to bring wholeness. The problem was not the ‘negativity’ itself but the refusal to give it time, credibility or discern its meaning.

Its a worrying trend. There are swathes of books out there to help you ‘deal’ with this demon, whole websites, FB pages, entire spiritual disciplines dedicated to the cause of suppressing, countering, warding off….. these vital shards of the Self.

The scary thing is that this is done in the name of spirituality.

A Zen student came to Bankei and complained: “Master, I have an ungovernable temper. How can I cure it?”

“You have something very strange,” replied Bankei. “Let me see it.”

“Just now I cannot show it to you,” replied the other.

“When can you show it to me?” asked Bankei.

“It arises unexpectedly,” replied the student.

“Then,” concluded Bankei, “it must not be your own true nature. If it were, you could show it to me at any time. Think that over.”

The master is pointing out that the student’s anger and his desire to be rid of its discomfort are not spiritual matters. They are matters of pride and the wish for an easier life, let alone the failure to enquire into the meaning of his temper.

So, we shoot ourselves in the foot with all this high fallutin’ efforts to get rid of Negativity. The motivation to do so invariably comes from an idealised vision that compells us to devalue the rest of our lives.

”so that any time I’m not experiencing love, or not being joyful, [it feels like] I’m not being who I really am, and so I become only conditionally alive.” D Whitmore.

What we consider to be negative often actually…

”contains valuable, vital forces, they ought to be assimilated into actual experience and not repressed. It is up to the ego to give up its pride and priggishness…’ML von Franz.
When we label something inside us as negative we are in fact falling into an unconscious piece of prejudice, often derived from collective morality which is set against us carving our own unique path through the forest.

The negative thought or feeling is an aspect of personality that has been sacrificed to help us ‘fit in’, but without which there can now be no real self knowledge. It is up to us to be humble enough to find the context for such thoughts or feelings and give them the credibility that they are there in our psyche for some good reason.

For example, a young man thinks of himself as unattractive. In fact he’s disgusting. No-one could possibly want him. He counters these ‘negative thoughts’ with affirmations, telling himself over and over that he is handsome and desirable. But what we resist persists and so despite his endless efforts all he succeeds in doing is exhausting himself.

Moreover, the internal clash of opinions gives his ‘confidence’ a comical, wooden performance that no-one believes and winds up just reinforcing his deeper conviction.

A series of dreams begins to tease out the condemnation his mother had of anything to do with his body. Memories follow, being punished for using cologne, being mocked for combing his hair a new way, derision and sarcasm for thinking he could get a date to the prom.

In the absence of any support he identified with her neurotic attitude. Gradually he allowed the feelings of being so belittled to surface. His pain and anger were in fact the index of his own self-esteem. And as he gave an honourable place in his psyche to his grief and rage he began to feel better about how he looked.

“Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for.” J Campbell.

When it comes to one another, judgements of ‘negativity’ are really shorthand for refusing to enter that person’s world or walk a mile in their shoes. Its actually lack of compassion and the unwillingness to stretch the comfort zones of our own self-constructs. In doing so we unwittingly keep ourselves small and pass up the opportunity for personal growth.

”The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.” Krishnamurti.

To judge another’s attitude as negative demeans you both. The other is reduced to the cut of your own cloth so that a true sense of I and Thou is lost. The resolution of purpose required to undertake great things is eroded.

”Moral courage has it’s source in identification, through one’s own sensitivity, with the suffering of one’s fellow human beings.” Rollo May.

Moreover, getting caught up in the ego’s preoccupation with conventional morality and what it means to be good can rob us of spontaneity and trustworthiness.

We confuse being positive with being authentic.

Another Zen story refers to this..

Two Zen teachers, Daigu and Gudo, were invited to visit a lord. Upon arriving, Gudo said to the lord: “You are wise by nature and have an inborn ability to learn Zen.”

“Nonsense,” said Daigu. “Why do you flatter this blockhead? He may be a lord, but he doesn’t know anything of Zen.”

So, instead of building a temple for Gudo, the lord built it for Daigu and studied Zen with him.

If we are to be whole, grounded and fully in our bodies we need to debunk the Myth of Negativity. We must take all the thoughts and feelings that arise within us as equally valid, if perplexing, and to be so thoroughly aquainted with it all that it no longer impedes the goal of life, realisation of the Self.