by Jeff McMahon
It’s taken me a lifetime to figure out what to do about negative judgments. And I’ve figured it out only recently thanks to one remarkable teaching.
At times, the wisdom traditions seem to scorn negativity, which might incline us to suppress it. But doesn’t it seem likely that negativity offers insights that we suppress at some risk?
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, we encounter ahimsa as the very first of yoga’s ethical principles, the yamas and niyamas, warning us against harming others—even, some commentators say, with negative judgments.
In the Dhammapada, the Buddha tells us, “Not about the perversities of others, not about their sins of commission or omission, but about his own misdeeds and negligences alone should a sage be worried.”
In the Christian-influenced lands we are warned against casting stones, beholding motes and judging lest we be judged.
But the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche tells us there’s wisdom in what he calls “basic negativity,” negativity in its primordial form, when it first arises as an energy, an emotion.
“Negativity breeds tension, friction, gossip, discontentment, but it is also very accurate, deliberate and profound,” he says in an essay called “Working with Negativity.”
Trungpa describes negativity as “the basic aggression of wanting things to be different than they are.” Negativity urges us to cling, to defend, to attack, he says, and at the same time it leaves us with a feeling of our own wretchedness.
Especially if we have been taught not to judge.
We don’t like feeling wretched, and if we are yogis we have likely heard that there’s something unethical about negativity too. We’re not supposed to have negative judgments, we believe, so quickly we find ourselves with a negative judgment of our own negativity. The wretchedness magnifies.
And that, says Trungpa, is when we get into trouble.
Our negative judgment about our own negativity usually leads us in one of two directions: Either we suppress our basic negativity—losing its beneficial energy and intelligence—or we enshrine it in a conceptual framework that allows us to feel better about it.
That framework, constructed of interpretations and judgments, amounts to “watching ourselves being negative and then deciding that the negativity is justified in being there.”
It allows us to feel positive again, it soothes the wretched feeling, but it loses the energy and intelligence of the original, basic negativity.
Trungpa’s most famous student, Pema Chodron, often refers to this insight in her own work. (It was “Working With Negativity” that first drew her to Buddhism, and she has since become one of Buddhism’s most important living voices.)
“There’s nothing wrong with the essential arising of any emotion or life situation, for that matter,” Chodron explains. “But where it gets problematic is what we make of that, how we make matters worse with how we work with our mind: resentment, bitterness, blame, and on and on.”
Time for an example.
Trungpa doesn’t offer examples, and I risk oversimplifying or distorting his thought by offering one, but I think his essay is difficult in part because of its abstraction, and an example helps to clarify it.
Think, if you can, of someone you have a good reason to dislike. Perhaps this person hurt you or hurt someone you love.
The basic negativity arises from the hurtful encounter.
If you feel wretched about that basic negativity, you might suppress it, losing the negativity’s energy and intelligence. Suppress the negative emotion and you won’t learn from the experience, you won’t avoid repeating it in the future, you won’t help others avoid it.
Or perhaps you don’t want to suppress this negativity, so you build a conceptual framework to justify it. You decide your basic negativity is actually not wretched, that it’s right on, insightful even, that the person you dislike deserves to be disliked.
Once that happens, you start to observe this person through the lens of this conceptual framework, collecting more interpretations and more judgments that reinforce the framework.
Before long, the person can do nothing right.
And if they did do something right, you might not notice because you’re no longer seeing the situation. You’re seeing the conceptual framework you have built around it so you can justify and feel good about your negativity.
Whether or not the conceptual framework harms the person who inspired it, surely it harms us by distorting our perception of tricky situations. People will never behave exactly like a conceptual framework predicts, and if we’re seeing the framework, and not the situation, we may lose the ability to respond to the situation appropriately.
One can tell when one is building a strong conceptual framework, Trungpa says, “when one is using logic and ways of justifying oneself so that situations become very heavy and very solid.
“We know this heaviness is taking place, but simultaneously we play tricks on ourselves, feeling that we enjoy the heaviness of this logic, feeling that we need to have some occupation.”
Trungpa calls these conceptual frameworks “frivolous.”
“Frivolousness refers to the extra and unnecessary mental and physical acts with which we keep ourselves busy in order not to see what actually is happening in a situation,” he writes.
“Frivolousness involves too much anxiety. Once you are emotionally worked up, then too much anxiety is put into your action. But when you are spontaneous, there is less anxiety and you just deal with situations as they are. You do not simply react, but you work with the quality and the structure of the reaction. You feel the structure of the situation rather than just acting impulsively.”
Already Trungpa has given us some useful advice for dealing with negativity:
• Resist the urge to suppress negativity in its basic form, as emotion, as energy.
• Resist the urge to justify negativity by building a conceptual framework to justify it.
That may leave us with the feeling of wretchedness, which Trungpa and Chodron advise us to countenance, for now, until it can be transmuted. It also leaves us balancing with the energy and intelligence of basic negativity, which can help us:
• Deal with situations as they are, instead of dealing with complexities or controversies we have constructed.
• So that instead of acting impulsively, instead of being reactive, we can work with the quality and the structure of our reaction.
How do we do that?
In “Working With Negativity” Trungpa mentions a suite of advanced Tantric practices—the four actions or four karma-yogas—that one can employ to respond skillfully to basic negativity. But he does little more than mention them. He explores them more thoroughly in another essay, “Secrets Beyond Thought: The Five Chakras and The Four Actions.”
The four actions are pacifying, enriching, magnifying, and destroying.
They offer ways of abiding with the energy of an emotion, feeling the ground of the emotion, collecting and cultivating its energy.
The action most accessible to beginners, like me, is the first: pacifying.
Trungpa likens pacifying to feeling the ground very softly.
“You feel the situation further and further,” he writes, “not just pacifying superficially, but expressing the whole, feeling it altogether.”
This means feeling the detailed texture of the negativity, of the wretchedness, and letting it be okay. (This advice reminds me very much of much of Pema Chodron’s work—when we get hooked in a situation, just noticing, feeling the texture of the situation, without reacting.)
In “Secrets Beyond Thought” Trungpa writes that pacifying means not raising a controversy about this-vs.-that, but instead “accepting the wisdom of spontaneity.”
Elsewhere Trungpa teaches advanced practices for transmuting the energy of negative emotions—anger, desire, passion—into positive forms of wisdom—clarity, compassion, openness.
But even without these advanced practices, I think we can handle negativity more positively just by observing it carefully, by consciously balancing in intelligent awareness of the emotion, by neither tipping toward suppression nor toward the construction of a conceptual frame.
“Then negativity simply becomes food, pure strength. You no longer relate to negativity as being good or bad, but you continually use the energy which comes out of it as a source of life so that you are never really defeated in a situation.”
Teachers and Teachings:
The Dhammapadda (book)
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (book)