“The great periods of our life occur when we gain the courage to rechristen what is bad about us as what is best.” ―Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
At some point in the 1960’s, a whole bunch of things went seriously wrong. One of those things was the conflation of spirituality with positive thinking. Perhaps it was the naivete of the advertising industry. Perhaps everyone was just really stoned. Maybe the West just wasn’t ready for enlightenment yet. But the nuanced ancient teachings of great masters of the various Eastern traditions were twisted to mean, “just think groovy thoughts, man”. This couldn’t be further from the reality of these teachings.
What happens when we focus on positivity? From the start, it requires us to define for ourselves the spectrum of good/bad. If you’re living in a giant bubble and never have to make contact with other humans, this is a perfectly viable strategy. But since value judgments vary across every different type of person, using good/bad as your own moral calculus isn’t going to allow you much flexibility. Living life strictly using this sort of moralizing is like installing a very feeble operating system in yourself. Sure, you’ll function, but your capabilities will be severely limited.
When we obsess over categorizing an experience as positive or negative, we fall into the trap of dualism, a trap many ancient teachings sought to overcome. You can only lie to yourself for so long; how many people prevent themselves from experiencing life fully because they’re scared of negative consequences? And how many people don’t take care of the dirty work they have to take care of because they’re trying to force themselves to be positive?
Avoidance is not a spiritual strategy. When we meditate, we let every thought come and go. There’s no discrimination. There’s no sign that says, “Good thoughts only!” And there’s also no secondary layer to the thoughts we let come and go. As soon as we latch onto them and ascribe value judgments to them, we cease to be meditating.
So let me push my own revised New Age agenda: the power of neutral thinking. It sounds boring on paper but it’s actually quite a bit of fun. It’s a form of play in which we allow the mind to understand its own limitations while also taking every variable into consideration.
Instead of indulging in purely positive or negative responses to events, we try to find the nuance in every situation. As the scientists say, “For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.” Uncover the reaction. Then accept and appreciate both interpretations of the event. This way of approaching life allows us to penetrate the truth a bit deeper instead of seeing everything as a rollercoaster ride of either good or bad experiences. Every bad experience does have a silver lining, and every good experience has a warning attached to it.
This allows a lot more flexibility. Sometimes I like to think of it from the perspective of a military conflict, as war provides useful metaphors for life. There’s a reason so many non-military people read Sun Tzu’s Art of War. If you’re on side A, only side A’s success will vindicate you. If you’re on side B, only side B’s success will vindicate you. But in life we’re something in-between, neither a fighter nor a traitor, something like a spy. We benefit in strange and abstract ways from both our victories and our losses. So mull this over; the next time something ‘good’ happens to you, it may contain secret baggage. The next time something ‘bad’ happens, it may contain the seeds of fortune. There are a million ways to look at the little events of our lives, so we might as well approach this process thoughtfully.
To conclude I’d like to leave you with something that sums this approach up nicely, an old Taoist story:
“There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.”
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