Crime. Recession. Terrorism. Tsunamis. Unemployment. In our times — the so-called digital age – the messages we see and hear every day, all around us, are scary. We are constantly being exposed to disturbing stories and images and it can feel overwhelming.
The primary problem lies with us: we are so used to our negative thinking that we are rarely aware when we are doing it. Stop and think for a moment: how often do you say to yourself “how fat George has grown” or “I can’t believe Jane still does <fill in the blank>”? I ask this as someone who had one of the most critical and judgmental thought patterns I’ve ever encountered. Nor am I perfect now — I do still engage in those old patterns from time to time; I just do it much less.
Let me state from the outset: just because things didn’t go perfectly in the past doesn’t mean they never will. Just because we have been rejected and disappointed by our past relationships, it doesn’t mean that we will always be alone and unloved. Just because we’ve suffered failures and bad luck doesn’t mean that we always will. We are the masters of our own fate, no matter whether we are propelled forward from fear or optimism.
I believe that we best achieve change within the world by starting with ourselves, and then influencing the people around us. With that in mind, there are a number of strategies to employ – things I call ‘magical aikido’ – that can calm your fears and transform the negativity into something much more positive.
First, Clear Your Environment
Who do you spend most of your time with? Many of us spend the majority of our time at work and sleeping. IT just goes to follow that our co-workers would have a profound effect on our mental state. I will bet you that many of them are complainers or criticizers. Complainers have a never-ending litany of things wrong in their lives (an inward-looking perspective) and criticizers find fault with everything (an outward-looking perspective). All of this negative talk can have a profound impact on our health, our state of mind, our relationships, and our ability to cultivate peace in our lives and in the world. Complaining and criticizing is safe; we don’t have to think about it, because it requires no energy, no creativity, and no shift in perspective.
I truly believe that there is no practical, emotional, spiritual, or social benefit to endlessly rehearsing our ‘victim’ stories. I am not saying that there is no place to talk about what is bothering us! There is a huge difference between talking about daily challenges with a view to resolving them as best we can and the habitual, unconscious cataloguing of all the things wrong in our lives. And criticism is a vital skill — without it how can we point out what is missing or isn’t working properly.
To shift the perspective of a complainer, I offer you this technique: When he is about to start his (usual) litany of woe, interrupt him and tackle the complaint head on, perhaps offering a suggestion for resolving the problem. We are trained to not interrupt someone who is talking, so when you do so you are sending a powerful signal. By restating the complaint in more neutral terms (“You seem very overworked/ unappreciated/ upset”) you indicate that you do understand the problem. When you offer a solution, you are helping them break the cycle and start thinking about solutions, not the problem itself.
For criticizers, the approach needs to be less subtle. Here I recommend the ultra blunt (and somewhat confrontational) “Would you rather be right, or part of the solution?” A slightly less confrontational version is to say: “You seem to have a very clear understanding of <the situation or issue>. I bet you have clear solutions, too. I’d love to hear them!” You’ve got to be direct; criticizers are so focused on looking outward they usually fail to realize that they’ve become part of the very problem they otherwise see so clearly.
I also mean clearing your environment literally. Clean it up. Get rid of dust bunnies, wipe as much of it as you can down with a solution of 1 part vinegar, 2 parts water and make it shiny clean. If you’ve got a rug, sprinkle it with baking soda and let it stand overnight, then vacuum it up (check with maintenance to see if it’s ok to have them do it at your office). If you can get the privacy, try doing a space clearing ritual at your office; definitely do one at home. For ongoing space clearing, I put together a spray bottle with 25 drops of eucalyptus oil, 15 drops of cinnamon oil, and 10 drops of lemon oil in a cup of vodka mixed with a cup of distilled water. Whenever I am alone in the office I give the air a good spritzing, and always on Monday morning.
Take a look at your environment(s), both work and home. While you are looking, ask yourself:
- Is the space clean and uncluttered?
- Does it excite and inspire me?
- Does it provide me access to the tools I need to work and live effectively?
- Does it make me feel happy and productive?
- What can I do to make this space a more enjoyable and productive place to spend my time?
Make your space as clutter-free as possible — get rid of everything that just takes up space and distracts you. Ask yourself: Do I love this? Do I use this? and, Do I need this? If the answer is no, get rid of it and make room for what you do love and use and need.
Then, Clear Your Mind
Ideally we’d all walk around clear-headed and right thinking, each at our best. In reality, some days it’s about all we can do to just to walk around, never mind with a clear head or thinking right. This section is guidance for working towards the ideal, not an admonishment that we haven’t achieved it.
Two things that make a huge difference in being able to have a positive outlook are getting enough quality sleep, and getting some exercise. Apparently most of us are sleep deprived: we need 7.5-8 hours of sleep every night. And exercise seems to be the cure for all ills. Getting 30 minutes of exercise that makes you sweat and slightly out of breath, every day, seems to clear the mind and refresh one’s outlook on life, as well as improving your overall health.
The real work of clearing the mind comes about by paying close attention to our thoughts. Every time we recognize negative thoughts and words, we need to immediately stop and re-frame the thought into an alternative reference, one that is positive and optimistic. If you can’t ‘hear’ your thoughts, start with your emotions.
The word emotion comes from the Latin emovere, meaning to “move through or out.” So emotions in their pure state do not cling to us or leave a residue — they are simply another form of information about our physical state. But most of us feed our emotions with negative thoughts. In short order, the guests take over the house, leaving us feeling out of control. To turn this unhelpful pattern we must sharpen our awareness so that we become sensitive to smaller versions of these emotions, early on, before they’ve grown out of control.
Micro-emotions come up all of the time in our everyday experiences. For example, someone makes a snide remark to me at a party. It isn’t a direct attack, but it puts me out of sorts, and I find myself a bit upset. The party isn’t as fun anymore, and I’m not feeling like I want to be social anymore. Perhaps I’ll leave earlier than planned. All because of one small comment. But if, instead I can recognize that I am feeling out of sorts, and that the cause is external, I can then also see how the emotion is influencing me, and choose whether or not I really want o stay or go.
This is hard work. There is no ‘time off,’ no way to make it easier, it’s just a repetitious creation of a pattern, a habit, of thinking. The good news is that it does become easier as it becomes more habitual. There is great value in understanding all the connections between the many layers and aspects of our reality. We learn to recognize how our interpretation of events affects how we feel and that, in turn, affects what we think, say and do. This becomes the basis for a powerful feedback loop and shows us where we have choices previously unrecognized.
Now, You’re Ready for Magickal Aikido
Initially, recognizing our choices won’t shift things completely. But as we start to actually make more micro-decisions the momentum turns, and those everyday moments help in breaking our unconscious patterns. Perhaps before, that snide remark might’ve led to spending the next 10 minutes on coming up with a smart rejoinder. Now I might say “hey, that was pretty snarky. Is something bothering you?” In doing so, I give myself the opportunity to connect on a deeper level with another person. I may be giving them a chance to realize their negativity and reframe it. I may be given a chance to help another person heal.
Over my desk – both at home where I am writing this article and at work — I have a picture of a set of Chinese kanji. One depicts crisis and opportunity and reminds me that “opportunity is always present in the midst of crisis.” The other depicts chaos, “where brilliant dreams are born.” These images are constant and active reminders for me of the value of disorder, or the unplanned, the unforeseen. They remind me to take advantage of the crisis and allow it to show me new opportunities, thereby taking a negative state (bawk! bawk! arms flailing) and turning it into a positive one (hey, look, we can improve this if we . . .).
As we become more self-aware, it can seem like the amount of negativity in and around us increases – it’s a side effect of the process, and it will pass. While it’s happening, you may want to use some specific responses.
1. Be aware and contemplative about the negative situation. Whenever possible, take time before responding and try to get perspective. Don’t look for blame, but acknowledge that conflict requires two participants and look for how you contributed. Look for the place where the misunderstanding occurred and be aware of it for the future.
2. Choose not to accept the negativity when it’s spewed your way. My manager recently lost his temper in a meeting, and ended up shouting at us. He left the meeting twice, and returned both times to yell so more. It was seriously unpleasant, but I reminded myself throughout that it was not MY fault that he was upset. I tried to note specific items he was upset about so I could look into them further. I made a conscious effort to keep my body and breathing relaxed. I acknowledged that there was nothing I could do about his anger in the moment, but I didn’t need to take it on.
3. Pay attention to how you respond to negativity. In the above example, I mentioned how I consciously kept my breathing and body relaxed. I’ve learned that when I’m freaked out, I start to hunch my shoulders, and my breathing gets shallow. One way to keep me from freaking out is to not let my body dictate my response, so I’ve trained myself to notice when I’m showing physical signs of stress.
4. Let people own their own negativity. Sometimes it feels good to just ‘dump’ for awhile. Wallowing in it isn’t healthy, but if you can be there for a friend or colleague and help them work through the negative situation, you can end up doing a lot of good. Talk to your friends and loved ones. It may seem obvious, but raising the topic allows you to get more information, and may allow your friend to open up about their concerns. Helping another person feel better about a scary situation is a wonderful way to feel better about it yourself.
When talking, it is better to keep to the facts and information you know than to speculate. For example, if you are talking about body scanners at the airport, it’s ok to mention your concerns that TSA agents aren’t allowed to wear radiation tags, and that the incidence of cancer among TSA employees has been increasing. You would probably want to avoid trying to figure out how a bomber would get around the security measures.
One of the worst aspects of external negativity is the sense of helplessness it engenders. The best way to combat that is look for ways to engage our normal resiliency and make positive changes. It may begin by looking into a topic more deeply; learning about an issue can often defuse our stress, making it more familiar. You may then choose to raise awareness in others about a terrible situation to try and change it. If you show empathy and courage to others, you will encourage them to do the same, creating an ever-expanding pool of strength in the face of a terrible situation. Every story of hope and triumph over a serious problem began with someone who refused to give up. That story could be yours.