TLDR : A primer for dealing with negative states
If you were to ask me what my baseline level of ‘happiness’ is : I would say it is around 9/10. But this doesn’t mean that negative states do not appear. I’ve been told I’m always calm too. This is definitely through intentional practice and ways of relating to experiences, not just a default state.
I have dealt with the arising of a fair amount of negative emotion, especially in the last few years. Regret, fear of loss, loneliness, desire, grief, aversion. Put whatever label on it.
This isn’t ‘negative’ or a bad thing in the convention sense. It kind of just is - the chain of cause and effect.
Life involves gain and loss. It is inevitable. You cannot have positive states without the negative states. The arising of negative affect is completely normal. It’s the ‘first arrow of suffering’ in Buddhist philosophy. You can’t go through life simply in a state of positive emotion. Feelings of anger, jealously, regret, loss, ‘what could be’, loneliness - they all are there. In every human. The proverbial ‘human condition’.
But the way you relate to the arising of these negative states is everything. It’s the proverbial ‘second arrow’ of suffering that one can let go of.
It is possible to ‘catch’ or become aware of states, and in that process- change the way you relate to them. One can ‘drop’ anger/sadness etc.
It’s the difference between being in a negative affect for hours, versus seeing it arise and dropping it within minutes.
The problem isn’t the problem, the problem is your attitude about the problem
Captain Jack Sparrow
Ways of Seeing
At the heart of whatever label you want to put on traditions : CBT / ACT / DBT / Buddhist philosophy / Taoism is the idea of changing the way you see.
The problem is never reality, because that simply exists. The problem is your perception of reality. The prison is never the place, but the perspective.
Many of these traditions along with new behavioural therapies (which are simply renaming of old practices) - involve changing the story one tells themselves about events. This leads to a place of acceptance. Because the cause of suffering seems to be ‘wanting reality to be other than it already is’.
Cause of suffering is wanting reality to be other than it is
The reality of life is that you cannot always change your external circumstances. You may be beset with an incurable illness, you will lose a family member, you might not be able to move location. You don’t 100% control the universe, and thinking you do is the start of delusion. Of course you can shift probabilities of a certain outcome with your actions, but they are YOUR actions, under your control.
So wanting reality to be other than it is + your inability to control == suffering.
The much wiser alternative is to change your perspective.
Rather than seek to remove all the pieces of glass on a beach (trying desperately to change external) - you can just wear some slippers (change your internal perspective).
Broadly, I think you can change the way you ‘see’ in two ways.
- Change the way you interpret the story - vehicle is ‘Journalling/Therapy/Actively manipulating the story’
- Change how you direct attention towards the story that is arising - vehicle is ‘Contemplative practices’ i.e. Meditation
Let’s explore some a few examples - although there are many more.
Journalling based practices
1. Negative Visualisation
This is a ‘stoic practice’ where one intentionally visualises negative outcomes in your life. Think about life if you lost your job, if you injured yourself, if you lost someone close to you. Think of the worst possible outcome.
This has a few benefits
- You appreciate what you already have, because it is ultimately on loan. It will vanish. For example : if you imagine losing your parent, you realise that this is the reality of the situation. You will lose your parent/friend/spouse/partner eventually. So you value the time you have with them now. If you visualise injuring your knee, you weirdly appreciate that you haven’t injured your knee and that you can still run on it. If you visualise your favourite cup smashing into pieces, you appreciate that you have it at the moment.
- Prepare for the worst. You can alter your expectations, and even sometimes mitigate the worst possible scenario.
- Realise that if the worst happens, you can still cope. By visualising the absolute worst, you strangely mitigate it, it doesn’t take you by surprise, because the possibility of the outcome is already preloaded into your mental model of reality.
For a systematic way to do this : Tim Ferriss has a template : ‘Fear Setting’.
2. Understanding Mechanisms
This involves dissecting scenarios that are causing negative affect and actively changing the interpretation. This is the goal of therapy I think in most cases - To reframe your interpretation of events such that it is healthy.
I’ve never had any form of therapy in my life, but weirdly, by writing down most of the events, I feel like I’m my own therapist. I’ve also been told I would be a good therapist, so maybe that’s the journalling paying off.
I am sure there are many systematic frameworks to do this, but the way I tend to do this is freeform.
- Write down the objective events : what thoughts and emotions arose. Try to bring back the events in as much detail as you can.
- What is the story you are telling yourself about this event
- How did you act unskilfully (what reaction/emotions)
- What were the consequences of your behaviour?
- How could you have acted differently?
- How ‘aware’/attentive were you?
- Next time / in similar scenarios : What will you do?
When you lose, don’t lose the lesson (D.L)
Always try and focus on how you could have acted differently. A stoic principle : you don’t control other people, you control your own reaction. By doing the above, you can turn even the most negative experiences into some form of ‘learning’. It reframes the events into something more positive, than something to lament and ruminate over. By putting it down on paper, it takes it out of the mind and exposes it to the light of day too. The whole process requires radical honesty.
3. Understanding interdependence
You have to appreciate that whatever negative states arise, is due to causes and conditions. When those causes and conditions change, then the emotion arising changes.
But you cannot stop the emotion from arising. You can’t have only positive without negative.
It’s important to realise, you can’t will yourself to get ‘rid of the emotion’. Wanting it to be other than it is, is the second arrow of suffering.
Observe, Accept and seek to understand.
By understanding the causes and condition, you can potentially work towards changing them. It’s like seeing a thorn on your foot that is causing pain. The unskillful response is to ruminate on the pain, and want the pain to be other than it is. The skilful reaction, is to see the cause of the pain, and simply remove the thorn.
There are situations where you may not be able to remove the thorn. But even just being aware that the pain is due to the thorn helps. You can stop feeling bad about feeling bad.
Contemplative based practices
This is such a huge topic. I don’t really know where to start. Maybe this post : Why Meditate?, but even that doesn’t scratch the surface.
1. Samatha/Anapana/Concentration based practices
This involves sitting down and seeing the arising of stories the mind generates in real time. The practice is then to direct attention back to ‘real life’ - to sensations in the body, or the sensations of the breath. Each time you successfully notice the mind has been distracted - you can bring it back to the ‘present’ and therefore strengthen the capacity to direct and sustain attention. The term ‘Mindfulness’ has been popularised, but often people distort what it means.
2. Vipassana/Dgozchen/Insight Based Practices
This involves dropping or loosening the concept of a ‘self model’. It involves the dropping of all stories. It involves loss of subject object relationships. There is simply experience arising within a space. This is hard to conceptually put into words. ‘Non dual awareness’. It’s a radically different way of experiencing life.
In times of acute stress, it may be hard to direct attention. The waves of emotions may simply too much to voluntarily direct attention from. In these scenarios you can change your environment and use certain techniques. Some of them are immediate, some of them take longer. They mostly act as distraction techniques to direct attention, so you can process the events at a more appropriate time if it is too overwhelming.
- Take a deep breath in as much as you can. Then one last short inhale to fully fill the lungs. Then exhale slowly.
- Go for a walk in the sun
- Listen to music
- Talk to a friend
When you take the time to look at the way you see things, the way you see things changes
I think I struggle with uncertainty more than most. A desire for security in an inherently insecure and ever-changing reality. It is like trying to hold onto a flowing river.
The events in the last two years have been fairly harrowing, so maybe I can take some consolation in that.
It’s strange because once you notice whatever pattern arises in the mind, you can drop it immediately. But by not paying attention, you follow the train of thoughts and that is ‘suffering’/‘misery’/‘dukkha’/ ‘hurt’ - whatever word you want to use. You know how it feels.
You can get better at noticing the patterns of the mind. You can subtly shift the way you relate to it.
The difference between being angry for hours/days vs noticing the arising of anger and dropping it immediately is everything. Pay attention.