How to Deal with Negativity through Meditation
Negative thoughts and emotions are something us humans deal with on a daily basis, and there are countless exercises to overcome it. The three fundamental strategies we have developed through evolution to help our ancestors survive and pass on our genes are:
- Creating separations – in order to form boundaries between themselves and the world, and between one mental state and another.
- Stabilizing systems – in order to keep physical and mental states in a healthy balance
- Approaching opportunities while avoiding threats – in order to gain things that promote offspring, and escape or avoid things that don’t.
Of course, all three of these go against what life actually is because:
- Everything is connected,
- Everything is always changing, and
- Opportunities routinely remain unfulfilled or lose their luster, and many threats are inescapable (e.g., aging, natural disasters, and death).
These strategies are what made our ancestors survive and pass on their legacy to where we are now, however they are the source of great suffering. Now we have the opportunity to reprogram our inclinations in order to reach the next level of evolution. In fact, I believe failure to reform our paradigm would be our downfall as a species. Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, offers a rich source of practical neuroscience to help us understand what is going on inside our brains, how to relieve suffering, and the steps to live a happier and wiser life. Check out the practical exercises at the bottom!
Our brains are primed to perceive negative thoughts much more prominently than positive ones, because it is often the negative events that have more impact on our experience. People will do more to avoid a loss than to acquire a comparable gain (Baumeister et al. 2001), and it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one (Gottman 1995). Negative experiences can also create a vicious cycle by making you pessimistic overreactive, and inclined to be negative yourself.
The brain has a built in “negativity bias” that can make one suffer in many ways. It creates a feeling of underlying anxiety, and fosters other negative feelings like anger, sorrow, guilt, and shame. It highlights past losses and failures, downplays present abilities, and exaggerates future obstacles. The weight of this bias can really wear you down, and can make it harder to bring attention inward in self-reflection and contemplative practice.
The First and Second Dart
In the philosophy of Buddhism, there is something called the first and second dart. The first dart comes from the initial pain of something (e.g., being rejected, losing something of value, etc). This is a natural reaction that was and is important to our survival and wellbeing. The second dart, however, is the cause of great unnecessary suffering. The second dart is something we throw ourselves. For example, say we have been rejected by someone. The initial pain comes from a deep seeded need to be accepted by the clan, a very important strategy in our evolution. The second dart is our reactions to the rejection, which is where most of our suffering comes from. The second dart will come in self talk like “I am not worthy of love”, or “I am not good enough”. Remarkably, we often throw second darts when there isn’t even a first dart. We can create problems out of something that isn’t that bad. Saddest of all, we can even throw second darts at positive experiences. If someone pays you a compliment, that is a positive situation. However, we might start thinking “Oh, I’m not that good. What is they find out I am not as good as they say?”.
We all live in a virtual reality
Everything we experience of the world is created inside our own head. Our senses take in raw data, stuff we can’t make much sense of by itself. It is only when it is processed by various parts of the brain where we create an image that we know of as the world.
“They do this by your brain’s extraordinary capacity to represent both inner experience and the outer world. For example, the blind spots in your left and right visual fields don’t look like holes out there in the world; rather, your brain fills them in, much like photo software shades in the red eyes of people looking toward a flash. In fact, much of what you see “out there” is actually manufactured “in here” by your brain, painted in like computer generated graphics in a movie. Only a small fraction of the inputs to your occipital lobe comes directly from the external world; the rest comes from internal memory stores and perceptual-processing modules (Raichle 2006).
Your brain stimulates the world – each of us lives in a virtual reality that’s close enough to the real thing that we don’t bump into the furniture.”
This is important to note because any interpretations and convictions we have of the world will affect our experience, especially negative ones. This is why some can be perpetually pessimistic, even in the presence of a positive event.
Our ability to simulate is a great tool, and one of the defining characteristics that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom with this cool new thing (evolutionarily speaking) called the Pre-Frontal Cortex. For our ancestors, running the simulator promoted survival and strengthened the learning of successful behavior. It is a fantastic tool that we can use to our benefit everyday. In addition, clips in the simulator contain lots of beliefs. Sometimes they are explicitly verbalized, but usually they are implicitly suggested, built into the plot-line of the movie. If we are not consciousl of our beliefs, we can get stuck in a reoccuring mini-movie that further strengthens those perceptions and beliefs of the world around us (neurons that fire together wire together). We can easily get consumed by our simplistic view of the past and the associations we have created around them.
At it’s best, our mini-movie tool allows us to consider possibilities and make the best decision based off the results in the simulation, which saves a tremendous amount of time in trial and error. At it’s worst, it is an invisible cage that traps you into a life that is smaller than the one you could actually have.
In sum, the simulator takes you out of the present moment and sets you chasing after positive experiences. While reinforcing painful emotions, they also have you ducking negative experiences that never actually come your way, or aren’t really all that bad in the first place. The simulator runs off the clock, even in your sleep (where your neural circuits are solidified the most). If we are not careful of the content of our mini-movies, this constant assimilation will add to our suffering and make it harder to prime our brain for happiness and peace.
Compassion is the water that cools the fire of negativity. Each person suffers a little, and many suffer a lot. Self-compassion isn’t pity. It is simply warmth, concern, and good wishes. Because self-compassion is more emotional than self-esteem, it is more powerful for reducing the impact of difficult conditions, preserving self worth, and building resilience (Leary et al.2007).
“The path of awakening itself contains difficult experiences that also call for compassion. To become happier, wiser, and more loving, sometimes you have to swim against the ancient currents within your nervous system. For example, in some ways the three pillars of practice are unnatural: virtue restrains emotional reactions that worked well on the Serengeti, mindfulness decreases external vigilance, and wisdom cuts through beliefs that were once crucial to our survival. It goes against the evolutionary template to undo the causes of suffering; to feel one with all things, to flow with the changing moment, and to remain unmoved by pleasant and unpleasant alike. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it! It just means we should understand what we are up against and have some compassion for ourselves. To nurture self-compassion and strengthen its neural circuits, check out the exercises below!
Our brains are primed to grasp toward the positive, resist the negative, and ignore the neutral. Due to these inclinations, we are often blinded or misguided by these natural inclinations that have been hard-wired into our neural circuitry through our years of evolution. Equanimity comes from latin roots meaning “even mind”. It is about maintaining a spacious presence of mind without being thrown off by positive or negative experiences. It is the practice of having an unbiased awareness of all things around us, good and bad. This is important to practice so that we can stay even-keeled and aren’t thrown off balance. In this practice, you allow everything to flow through your mind without responding to them. You can experience the pleasant without chasing it, and the unpleasant without resisting it and the neutral without ignoring it. This is a defining characteristic of an enlightened being.
Meditation exercise: Find a posture that is both relaxed and alert. Settle into awareness of your breath, and let the contents of your mind flow without judgement or bias. If positive emotions come, simply acknowledge and let it go. Treat negative or neutral thoughts/emotions the same way. If you lose yourself in the drama of any of these, simply catch your breath and return back to an even mind.
- Recall a feeling of being with someone who loves you – the feeling of receiving care activates the deep attachment system circuitry in your brain, priming it to give compassion.
- Bring to mind someone you naturally feel compassion for, such as a child or someone you love – this easy flow of compassion arouses its neural underpinnings (including oxytocin, the insula [which senses the internal state of your body], and the prefrontal cortex). “Warming them up” for self compassion.
- Self love – place a hand on your cheek or heart with the tenderness and warmth you would give a hurt child or cherished love one.
Simulation exercise: Find a posture that is both relaxed and alert. Settle into awareness of your breath. Begin to conjure a situation where you are performing your craft, whatever it may be. For an artist, it would be composing or painting a masterpiece. For a bartender, it would be concocting the best drinks you can imagine while entertaining your customers. Bring up the feelings of those experiences and let yourself absorb into them as strong as you can. If you lose focus or something negative comes up in the simulation, use your tool of equanimity to acknowledge and let it go. You don’t have to entertain those negative possibilities. Get yourself into the flow of what you are doing. Even if what you are imagining is outside of your abilities or impossible (right now), it doesn’t matter. The whole point of this exercise is to become absorbed into the feeling of the experience. (The action is not as important). You know that you are doing it well when you get chills from your simulated actions. Hold that feeling into your awareness as long and as strong as possible. Practice this everyday, and it will become easier to maintain that state of being. You will also find that you will have a natural inclination to perpetuate these experience in everyday life.