The Negative Truth About Positivity

This is part two of the ‘Ask @dailyzen series’ where you ask me questions and I write a post responding to them. I don’t really claim to have straight-up “answers” but hope this will turn into a dialogue that can benefit both of us in some way.

Today’s question:

“How do we remain positive as much as possible?” (asked by @jdiaz1)

The cult of positivity has developed around the notion that life is entirely the construct of our thoughts. The logic of positive thinking follows that if you block out all negativity and only allow yourself to feel positive thoughts, you will be happy. Certain bastardizations of Buddhist philosophies have come to similar conclusions, claiming that the way to enlightenment is to shun negativity and only embrace positivity.

Let’s get real for a second.

Cut to one of my favorite things: natural metaphor. Picture a pot full of flowers. The owner of the pot notices that the flowers are perkier when they’re by the window, in the sun. They get the nutrients they need. But the sun is only out for part of the day, and then it’s dark. So the owner, sheltered from tried-and-true botanical know-how and wanting to maximize the plant’s potential, buys a sun lamp and blasts it 24/7 at the flowers. It’s not long before the flowers are dead.

Somewhere along the way, people got the wrong idea about ‘positive thinking’. To assert a concept like “positivity” is a starkly anti-zen notion. Zen is not optimism, and does not involve positive thinking. Positivity is a dualistic notion that relies on its opposite, negativity. There’s no light without darkness, no sun without rain, no happy without sad. If you want to experience a high, you must also expose yourself to the low, the come-down. If you strive to be happy, expect sadness. If you strive for success, expect failure.

If you shine a blaring positivity lamp on your thoughts all day, you’ll die inside. Dualistic concepts lose their meaning as soon as they are removed from their pairings; remove the negative from the positive and all you’re left with is nihilism.

For this reason, it is impossible to think only positive thoughts. Positivity simply does not exist. You make it up. If you pretend “everything is positive”, you’re rendering your world effectively meaningless. What must instead occur is what Buddhists call “the middle way”. You embrace balance and walk the tightrope in between + and -, remaining calm and centered as the world thrusts you through its uncontrollable ebbs and flows.

So, to answer your question in a roundabout way: we don’t remain positive as much as possible. We wouldn’t want to. Instead of seeking happiness, seek wholeness. Instead of seeking positivity, seek balance. Allow yourself to transcend the simple act of judgment and just exist. Meditation cultivates this attitude. It allows us to withdraw from our own notions of Good and Bad and realize that they are entirely made up. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be happy. That’ll just make you miserable. Instead, exist without goals in the moment. Don’t sort your experiences into categories. This makes every activity an adventure and allows you to work with mindfulness and care.

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