How to stay in the positive when surrounded by the negative

Posted by on Jun 26, 2013 in Buddhism | 557 Comments

Someone got in touch with me asking how you stay positive when you’re surrounded by negativity. This is a tough one.

Buddhism argues that we are as we are because of the interplay of conditions. Those conditions are both internal and external.

This means that you’re affected by what happens around you and you’re affected by what happens in your head, your heart and your body.

Some of this you can control, some of it you can’t.

Get yourself some positive friends

There’s a Buddhist text about a young, enthusiastic monk who wants to go and meditate alone in a mango grove until he awakens like the Buddha did.

The Buddha asks him not to, but he’s really keen and so eventually the Buddha says “Oh go on then.”

The monk goes and sits in meditation, determined to get enlightened.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. Instead, he’s besieged by negative mental and emotional states. They won’t let him rest.

Eventually he gives up, goes back to the Buddha and asks why he can’t meditate.

The Buddha says something along the lines of “Before the heart and mind have reached maturity, the most powerful spiritual practice is hanging out with wholesome friends.”

There’s another line where a senior disciples says that ‘spiritual friendship’ (kalyana mittata) is half of the spiritual life.

The Buddha replies that this is wrong. In fact, it’s the whole of the spiritual life.

The point is, we’re strongly affected by the people we spend our time with. If you’re struggling to stay positive, it may be that you need to find some new people.

What if you can’t change your environment?

Often it’s not so easy to find new people.

We have families, often dysfunctional ones. We have to go to school. We can’t get another job so we have to stay in this one.

We have to get along.

Remember though that there is the internet. There are blogs like this one. There are forums. There are also books written by the greatest minds ever. You could probably download one right now! There are videos with amazing positive speakers like Anthony Robbins, Byron Katie, Will Smith (yes, that Will Smith!) and about a gazillion others.

And remember you don’t need things to be perfect. We can always put off taking responsibility for our wellbeing because the conditions aren’t right.

Things will be better when X happens, or even worse, things would be better if Y happened/wasn’t in my life.

This kind of thinking will not change when your conditions change. It will only change when you decide to change it.

This is your life! Right now! Get with the program!!! (And if you don’t have a program, make one up!)

Get tough or love it

The bottom line is we can’t control every little thing in our environment. We can’t even control some of the really big things.

We have to embrace that which is negative, even, as Byron Katie says, learn how to love it.

And actually, it’s only negative because you’ve decided it’s negative.

You can either let go and love it or create a kind of ‘spiritual warrior’ spirit that can stay positive in the face of anything. I talked a little about this in another post.

Gandhi, Mother Theresa, pretty much everyone who’s ever accomplished anything – no one had it easy.

I don’t know what’s going on any more than you do, but one thing seems clear – life isn’t supposed to be easy.

You have to get tough. But Buddhism recommends a different kind of tough from what you might find in the average Hollywood action movie.

Strength in adversity in Buddhism is not about gritting your teeth and bearing it.

It’s about cultivating a massive positive heart that stays positive when faced with unsupportive conditions.

This is so key that it’s one of the six ‘perfections’ (paramitas) you need to get right in order to become a Buddha.

Some inspiring stuff from the Buddhist tradition

When things are easy, you learn nothing. When things get tough, in one way at least, you have received a great gift – the opportunity to practice.

Santideva (a dude from hundreds of years ago who wrote a book called the Bodhicaryavatara or ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’) says that if you have an enemy you should feel gratitude. It’s not easy for an ethical practitioner to get an enemy and yet your enemy is your greatest teacher. So if you’re lucky enough to have one, rejoice!

I believe one of the songs of Milarepa (a famous Buddhist yogi who is a big influence in Tibetan Buddhism) goes something like “If demons comes to your door, invite them in for tea.”

Padmasambhava (who is credited with establishing Buddhism in Tibet) supposedly managed it not by destroying the demons that were trying to stop him, but by converting them to Buddhism. (Read this as ‘don’t try to destroy your negative internal and external conditions, try to slowly channel them in new and positive directions’).

The Buddha, when he was on the verge of awakening, was visited in the night by all of the negative forces that the big bad demon guy from the Buddhist tradition (‘Mara’) could throw at him. But when the armies threw their weapons, they turned into flower petals upon meeting the Buddha’s aura. Everything that came at him left him entirely unshaken, dwelling in peace and positivity. Pretty cool, huh?!

A slightly less romantic way of saying this is, as my old friend and teacher Devapriya used to say “Someone can put a bucket full of shit on the table in front of you. It’s up to you to decide whether or not to stick your head in it!”

The four right efforts

Exactly how to bring all this about is what Buddhist practice is all about. It’s too much for one post (or even for one blog!), but one basic framework is that of the four right efforts:

1. Maintain positive mental-emotional states that you already have
2. Cultivate ones that you don’t yet have
3. Undermine negative mental-emotional states that you already have
4. Prevent ones that you don’t yet have from arising


Did you know The Meditator's Handbook is out? It has everything you need to set up and maintain an effective meditation practice. Check it out!


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