A student in my meditation class said that she strived to always be positive and struggled with thinking about life’s negativities. Her remark alluded to, what I suspect, is many people’s coping strategy in a world that is increasingly overrun by outspoken negativity and discord, and outlandish fear. But is it wise to willfully blinder our full view of life?
Without a doubt, an optimistic outlook is an extremely good habit to develop. Thinking positively and filling our hearts and minds with a cheerful attitude is beneficial to our overall well-being: we feel happier, calmer, and more peaceful. And if you ARE going to think, then it is certainly a wiser use of time to supplant rumination, recrimination, and resentment with thoughts of forgiveness, tolerance, and kindness. This is the aim of meditation practices.
Believing, however, that a positive mind state is achieved by avoiding life’s unpleasant or painful experiences is diametrically opposite to both life and meditation’s goals -- to awaken and cut through ignorance. In other words, in life and meditation we are training the mind to grow wise and skillful in dealing with life situations. Why then do we struggle to openly face all of life’s experiences?
Our unconscious habit is to shift away from discomfort and to gravitate towards comfort.
When I awoke this morning, the house temperature was around 58 degrees Fahrenheit or 12 degrees Celsius. I turned on the tap, and I felt ice cold water hit my cupped hands. Without a thought, I turned the handle towards the hot water side. We do these kinds of actions constantly throughout our day: if we are cold, we turn on the heat or add layers; if we are hungry, we immediately reach for a snack; if our body tightens up sitting in one position, we shift our weight; if we have an itch, we scratch it. This is not to say we should not enjoy life’s pleasures or make ourselves comfortable. The point is our tendency is to only want pleasant experiences and to avoid unpleasant ones.
We are constantly judging and challenging our experiences: thinking that a situation is wrong or shouldn’t be happening causes us to suffer and be stressed out. We try to prevent unwanted experiences from occurring by scheming, worrying, and resisting, but they occur nevertheless.
We can’t control what arises, but we can control how we think about it. We are empowered when we acknowledge the things we struggle with, because the willingness and ability to clearly see the issue at hand prepares us to deal with it. When we know, we can’t be broadsided. Moreover, it is only in actually forging through a challenge that we discover our resilience and strength.
A genuinely positive mindset is the result of being aware of life’s pain and being able to skillfully deal with it.
We train the mind to be optimistic and simultaneously clear-seeing:
· By observing our own mind. With a gentle gaze, we attend to our own challenging unpleasant habits. Pay attention to the arising of unbidden feelings and thoughts such as resentment, jealousy, fear, greed, and their effect on our mood.
· Sitting meditation provides the space to begin to notice emotions and thoughts that habitually rattle around in us, but may be overlooked because we are constantly busy.
· Meditative reflection allows us to witness the fleeting nature of our emotions and thoughts. Seeing their transience, we are empowered to persevere, to be humorous, to strongly face the challenge, and to be vigilant for when they next surface.
Acknowledgement and acceptance of the good and bad in life cultivates mental and emotional stability and lessens our judgmental mindset. Experiencing life in all its complexity from a centered, open perspective is the wisest, most genuinely positive way to live a happy, peaceful life.
May you see clearly with a positive mind and heart.