To Protect or to Accept: A Buddhist response to Negativity
Before I begin, I want to say that I am thinking out loud here, using writing to help me think through a complicated issue. I have been practicing Buddhism, independently, for about 12 months; however, Buddhism is infinitely complex and I am by no means an authority on Buddhist philosophy and practice. Any comment I make here about Buddhism is my own personal understanding.
It would be helpful to give more information about the negativity I have been experiencing, but to do so would be difficult without breaking the confidentiality of those concerned. Suffice to say, the situation has involved consistently antagonistic, intimidating and aggressive behaviour and communication that is accusatory, blaming, belittling and defensive. Those concerned refuse to accept responsibility for the behaviour and have been unresponsive to feedback and attempts by others to address the behaviour.
The conflict between protection and acceptance came out of a conversation I had with a spiritual friend for whom I have a lot of respect and who has also been involved in this negative situation. She advised me, in relation to some issues we are going through in relation to dealing with very negative people, that I should protect myself from their negativity, perhaps using the popular “White Light” protective meditation, mentally creating a shield of white, protective light around yourself which prevents negative energy touching you.
This led me to reflect on whether seeking to protect myself from this negativity was in fact the wisest response. It is a popular practice in new-age spirituality and one I have used myself in the past. Like many in the West, my path to Buddhism came via new-age spirituality which introduced me to meditation and Eastern thought. However, as my practice and understanding of Buddhism deepens, I have developed some doubts about whether protection is the right way forward.
Buddhism teaches that one of the main paths to spiritual growth and, ultimately awakening or enlightenment, is the acceptance of all things, as they are in this moment. This means bowing to all that is, cultivating equanimity and the wisdom of acknowledging that, “it is the way it is”. This is opposed to pushing reality away, rejecting reality and wanting things to be different than they are. The latter is, in our society at least, our normal view, yet it is at the root of so much of our suffering.
This acceptance must apply equally to all phenomena, whether we perceive it as “negative” or “positive.” In fact, negativity can be our greatest teacher. This prayer or affirmation, derived from Buddhism, and part of my daily practice, comes to mind:
“May all circumstances serve to awaken heart and mind, especially those circumstances I deem to be challenging, and may my life be of benefit to all beings.”
We have such a low tolerance for negativity, whether internal or external. Much of our culture is based on this running away, hiding and avoiding of pain and suffering. Yet if we were to stay with our experience, in the present moment, whether that experience be what we deem “positive” or “negative”, internal or external, we find a place of deep healing and peace. By allowing room or space for both joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, we transcend these emotions and connect with our inner peace.
Pema Chodron puts it well, saying “To stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge - that is the path of true awakening.”
These negative circumstances and negative people provide us with a test. Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. It is easy to accept pleasant people and circumstance, but practicing acceptance with regards to people and circumstance that we find difficult or challenging is a true path to spiritual growth and transcending the ego.
Following on from acceptance, another great path to enlightenment and spiritual growth in Buddhism is compassion. Compassion is a path to enlightenment because it helps us come home to the truth that we are not separate from each other, from the absolute or universal consciousness.
We each just want to be happy and free from suffering, in whatever level we understand that. We were each born vulnerable and helpless, we each grow old, experience ill health, experience suffering, loss, separation from those we love and ultimately death. Experiencing directly the pain and suffering of others, as well as the suffering they cause, is a way to deepening our compassion. We know also that unconscious, “negative” or unskilful behaviour invariably comes out of a place of hurt, pain and suffering. If someone is making life difficult for people around them, you can be sure they’re doing worse for themselves. Allowing our hearts to be softened and touched by other people’s “negativity” is training in deepening our compassion, as well as our acceptance and equanimity.
Many of us have come, through personal development and spiritual practice, to understand that we must accept our own inner negativity in order to transcend it. Rather than run from our pain and anger, we must bow to it, sit with it, accept it and observe it as it arises and fall away, like all things, subject to the law of impermanence. Yet many of us, myself so often included, fail to recognise this same wisdom when that negativity comes from “outside”, from “other” people. I so often fall for this fallacy in my dealings with the negativity of others.
However, this dualistic understanding of the world is based on ignorance, the mistaken identification with an illusory sense of “self” that is somehow separate from everybody and everything else. “We are One” is not just symbolic or metaphorical, it is metaphysical – ultimate truth. Therefore to differentiate between the pain and anger “inside” and the pain and anger “outside” is a mistaken view. Not to mention the fact that, “with our thoughts, we create our reality.” It is not the person’s behaviour, per se, that causes our anger or irritation, but our view of their behaviour, our thoughts and perceptions around it. Given that our own thoughts and beliefs play such a fundamental role in how we interpret and respond to the behaviour in question, the line between where the anger or irritation comes from starts to blur. Is it really “external” at all?
Acceptance doesn’t mean being a door mat - accepting the realities of your life as they are does not mean complete passivity. You can take whatever action feels authentic and appropriate in order to resolve the situation, but you try to do this from a place of acceptance, with a peaceful mind and with positive, wholesome intentions for the greater good of all concerned. If anger arises, if the thought “how dare they”, or “they have no right!” arises, it arises out of ego, out of that small sense of self. However, if you can see that another’s behaviour is harming themselves, you and everyone involved, providing them with feedback is often the best approach. Otherwise, they will continue to act unskilfully and harmfully, creating negative Karma, the conditions for future unhappiness and suffering, for themselves and others. The difference between this response and one driven by the ego is often invisible to the outside world, the difference is internal, one of attitude and intention. Then, the hard part – let go, forgive and move on.
“Judge nothing, you will be happy. Forgive everything, you will be happier. Love everything, you will be happiest.” (Sri Chinmoy)
If the negative behaviour continues, we possess the power to respond in a variety of ways. Taking a grievance out against your boss, ending your relationship with your partner – all are feasible options, providing they come from a peaceful, accepting mind. Ultimately, you have to love yourself enough to, if necessary, walk away from a negative situation or limit the involvement of a negative person in your life, though in some way, by walking away, I’d feel that I’d missed an opportunity to learn something really important about myself and others.
I suppose what I’m supposing, is that using a white-light protection meditation to protect us from other people’s negative energy and only allowing in positivity or “love and light”, is denying the Buddha’s first noble truth -- that life, in its current form, living from the ego rather than our true nature, is suffering. Attempting to protect ourselves from sadness, pain and anger, whether our own or that of others, is what Jack Kornfield calls a form of “neutered” spirituality in which we close ourselves to a large part of our experience. And by rejecting reality in this way, we close ourselves to the many gateways to awakening that we encounter every day.
Though I fail at compassion and acceptance every day, in many ways, I do find that my daily spiritual practice and meditation makes it easier for me to live and act from a centred, peaceful place. Loving Kindness (Metta Bhavana) and Tonglen meditations are particularly helpful for cultivating love, compassion, empathy and equanimity towards those people and situations that ‘press our buttons.’ I find, at this stage of my development, that I can often apply this approach to the small stuff; minor irritation, inconsiderate drivers, etc. But the bigger things can often circumvent my acceptance.
Perhaps one day, after many years (or perhaps lifetimes) of committed practice, I will have raised my consciousness to a level that I am beyond “positive” and “negative” and, by my presence and life, bring peace, love and light to those around me.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this protection versus acceptance debate. It’s still something I’m very much thinking my way through!
Wishing you health, peace and happiness,