Are we all trying too hard to be positive? I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but I think maybe we are. As the psychotherapist Philippa Perry wrote recently: “The demand that we be happy undermines our lives. Every life involves pain and pleasure and if we try to banish pain and drown it out with pleasure, or otherwise numb it or distract ourselves from it, then we don’t learn to accept it and modify it.” Amen to that.
The power of negative thinking is something I have been thinking about a lot recently, since immersing myself in the works of 82-year-old Pema Chödrön, Oprah’s Buddhist guru. And there are a lot of works to get through, as she has written 16 books. Hopefully, I, too, will live to 82 and by then I will have read them all. Handily enough, in case I don’t live to 82, they all say pretty much the same thing – which I mean in the nicest way – and can be summed up with her mantra: “Acknowledge that right now you feel like a piece of shit.”
Some people are shocked by this. How can this be Buddhist thinking? How is that helpful? How do you get to happiness by focusing on that? Why is this nice lady telling us that we are shit? Chödrön’s message is counter-intuitive: focusing on and obsessing about joy, fulfilment and pleasure is not the way to achieve any of these things. She insists that we accept the reality of how we are feeling, no matter how painful. It is only by accepting what is actually going on that we find out anything useful about ourselves.
Yes, they will be uncomfortable. Yes, they will probably make you cry. Yes, they will cause you physical pain. But sit with them and endure them
This is, of course, very typical of Buddhist thinking. All Chödrön’s work develops the idea that we struggle to live in the present. The present is painful to us, because we are constantly being reminded of something (usually bad) that happened in the past and/or because we constantly fear something (usually bad) that might happen in the future. If we can settle into how we are really feeling right now, in this moment, no matter how painful the feeling, then we can come to some kind of self-acceptance. And that in itself brings a kind of peace.
Chödrön encourages us to sit still for a moment, and ask: “What is really threatening you right now?” (Unless you are actually in physical danger. In which case, please run away immediately and continue your journey into Buddhism another day.) The answer is probably your thoughts and fears. But they are just thoughts and fears. Sit with them. See how it feels if you sit with them. Yes, they will be uncomfortable. Yes, they will probably make you cry. Yes, they will cause you physical pain. But sit with them and endure them. This is not touchy-feely friendly stuff. It’s brutal.
Frustrating though I find some of this philosophy, I’ve been trying to get my head around it for a few years now and it’s starting to make sense. (Yes, I said “a few years”. You can’t rush the important stuff.) It’s not really about negative thinking, although this is how it is sometimes billed. It’s really about putting yourself back to neutral, accepting that things can be tough, because that is life, and trusting yourself to endure difficulties. It’s not much of a meme or a hashtag and it takes a lifetime to accept it. That’s OK. I am planning to get to 82. There is time.
Viv Groskop’s show Vivalicious is at Underbelly at the Edinburgh Fringe until 26 August.