As you’re scrolling through your social media, how often do you come across profiles full of quotes on staying positive? There can be the temptation to “keep our head above water and paddle like mad” rather than allowing ourselves to feel the full extent of our emotional range. Thinking that being positive is a better choice can give us the idea that it’s somehow a failing if we don’t eschew the uncomfortable emotions for staying in our “happy place”. Happiness and optimism have their place in our lives, but we lose a great deal of our self-awareness if we exercise too much control over our emotions, preferring one feeling over another.
I often think about my 10-day stay at a Vipassana retreat in 2014, where we were encouraged to feel everything with “equanimity”. That meant accepting ALL the feelings, including rage, grief, fear, boredom, and every little spinal ache and muscle pain from sitting for prolonged periods while practicing Adhiṭṭhāna (determined sitting). This involved not moving a muscle while I observed the intense emotions that such stillness was bound to bring to the surface.
When movement does not disperse the energy, all kinds of feelings and sensations arise. The point is to not attach to the pleasant feelings or fight against the unpleasant ones, with the understanding that all suffering occurs as a result of attachment and aversion. When you can feel all your feelings with equanimity, you are free from the addiction to any particular feeling and the adverse reactions to uncomfortable ones.
According to vipassana, one cannot be addicted to a substance or behaviour, but the feeling that it gives us. In other words, if we cannot accept uncomfortable feelings, we will do whatever it takes to generate and cling to the feelings we want to have.
This is why I see “positive thinking” as merely another way of attaching to a particular type of feeling and suppressing the ones we’ve been conditioned not to tolerate. Eventually, we have to pull up the rug and look at what we’ve hidden underneath it due to whatever conditioning we received from early childhood (example, the grief suppressed from being shamed for crying).
With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, all of those emotions we learned to tuck away a long time ago are being wrenched to the surface. Reactions on social media range from contacts exchanging factual information along with humorous tidbits and cat videos (I’m guilty of all of the above) to those who argue conspiracy theories with everyone on their feed. In the middle, are folks whose social posts are mostly positive sayings, which may genuinely come from a generally happy disposition. However, sometimes, we may be wallpapering our feeds with quotes as a way of immunizing ourselves from the discomfort of acknowledging the fear, frustration and uncertainty of the times.
Now, I’ve nothing against uplifting material (I like to post inspiring articles, too), but there is a certain mindset among some in the coaching community (and the social community at large) where anything that isn’t “positive” is somehow taboo. If you prefer to think and communicate happy thoughts, that is a valid choice. However, it can be a limiting one if it blocks a more profound discourse where we allow ourselves to feel everything that is brought to the surface by our current circumstances.
Call me an anarchist, but I find life gets more profound when situations appear to fall apart, because I know that not all growth is incremental. Sometimes, we need the rug pulled out from under us, so we will face our inner demons. I am deeply affected by the deaths and disabilities caused by the virus, and the disruption to life as we knew it. Seeing what my friends and family members who have had the virus have experienced, I understand that it’s hell on earth, and I follow all the protocols to the letter, doing my utmost to support the end of the pandemic.
However, when I look at the effects the pandemic is having on our world, when systems collapse or undergo major change as a result, it’s often the birthing ground of innovation and creativity. Observe how quickly vaccines were created and distributed when the world saw a universal need, and funds went directly to a cause that affects everyone. We are learning more about how to engineer better vaccines for the next pandemic. Improved treatments are being developed for those stricken with the virus. The emergence of new viruses is highlighting the need to look more closely at climate change and how it precipitates these medical emergencies. What comes out of the pandemic is greater knowledge about what we are doing to our world and ourselves, and the urgent need to get serious about these global issues.
Indeed, I see the pandemic as a teaching about Oneness. We now know that our very breath, our touch, how we treat each other and our planet can affect the people around us — and everyone they encounter. This is such a lesson in mindfulness, knowing that we are truly connected with everyone in the world. We only need to read about a viral cluster caused by one infected person to know how greatly we affect others, and why conscious action, care and compassion are so important.
When we only focus on the positive, we miss out on a lot of information. We disconnect from our inner guidance and we become numb to the wisdom that could be derived from world events and situations in our immediate surroundings. When we lose the ability to respond to our own emotional signals, we retreat into fantasy, false beliefs — anything to avoid our current reality. In so doing, the resulting reactions to our circumstances may become less constructive and potentially more disruptive or even dangerous for others.
This is also what happens when we choose to pay attention to only our pleasant feelings. We disregard the unpleasant shadow aspects of our psyche, trapped in the subconscious since we first suppressed them (often at a very young age). These shadow aspects attempt to rise to the surface with the emotional stamp of the experience that created them. If we refuse to acknowledge those patterns formed from early trauma, they will express themselves as physical illness, muscular tension, stress, breathing difficulties, and panic attacks, etc.
Triggered by current events, these aspects are being pushed to the surface, giving us an opportunity to support them to come to consciousness, and integrate them. The act of doing so gives us more energy and awareness, as we reconnect with those previously suppressed parts of our consciousness. Not only do we have more vitality, we make better decisions as more of our psyche weighs in on how we feel about our choices. We move forward with fewer emotional blindspots.
As challenging as shadow work can be, it allows us to move from reactivity to observation. When we can be present in the moment, noticing how we are responding to our circumstances, sitting with the variety of feelings and sensations that arise from our external stimuli, we can start to find space between stimulus and response.
We can move from immediate reaction (which can be projection or suppression) to an open curiosity about the feelings generated by events in our lives. We can learn to befriend the parts of ourselves that arise as fear, grief, anger, love, laughter, and every nuance in between.
When we stop trying to control how we feel, we experience more intuitive insights and more energy. It takes a lot of energy to suppress feelings, and when we do, we also hinder our psyche from giving us information. The more we feel, the more we know about our next move. We need our emotional intelligence along with our intellect for decision making. Otherwise, we spend a lot of time trying to “figure out” what to do next, and confusion ensues. If we don’t know how we feel, we don’t have a real sense of who we are, so we don’t know what’s right for us. Our intellect can take us only so far. We need to also sense our next step.
When we can accept all of our feelings, we operate from a greater understanding of ourselves, our place in the world, and how we need to respond to our circumstances. No longer addicted to having certain feelings, we are free to flow with life, to let it affect us, learn from it at a deeper level, and emerge from even the most difficult situations having become more capable of responding effectively to the next hurdle life throws our way. When we are willing to feel our lives fully, we don’t get hooked on “thinking positively” or shy away from upheaval. All of our life events are welcomed as opportunities to awaken.