Evil, hey? Now there’s a strong word for you. Except in certain quarters, it’s fallen into general disuse these days, smacking as it does of moral judgments and all. Yet here’s Confucius, master of wisdom, using it in an admonition that he says sums up all he has to say. What do you suppose he means?
Well, at dictionary.com, the first meaning of “evil” is “immoral” or “wicked” –the meaning that’s driven the word underground for the politically correct. But its second meaning, the dictionary says, is “harmful” or “injurious.” And this, I think, is the meaning that Confucius intended. “Think no harmful thoughts.”
In the English language, ‘evil’ is ‘live’ spelled backwards. What limits life, what injures or stifles it, is evil. And that’s exactly what we who wish to live full, rich, glowing lives want to avoid.
If our intention is to build a life of positivity—of thriving, flourishing well-being and joy—we would do well to pay attention to the counsel of Confucius. “Let there be no evil in your thoughts. Or, as it’s echoed in the Western world by Hippocrates’ dictum, “First, do no harm.”
The Faces of Evil
It’s easy to spot blatantly evil thoughts—the ones filled with loathing, rejection and rage. We all have suffered from our hours of negative intensity. But luckily, for most of us, total mental upset isn’t the norm.
For most of us, the positivity busters are the lesser, everyday evils that undermine our flourishing that we hardly notice at all.
They’re stealthy creatures, I tell you. And more than that, they’re everywhere. In fact, they are so everywhere, that in some places they’re accepted not only as the norm, but as high fashion, as if they were sophisticated or something. Yuck!
If you’re going to live a positive life, you have to know how to recognize them and to be on guard for their appearance.
The Purpose of Negativity
Not every negative thought is harmful. Living a positive life doesn’t mean you never have legitimate concerns or genuine challenges. To live positively is to live face-to-face, full-on in the midst of the real world—with all its brutality, suffering, setbacks and ignorance—in a creative and healthy way.
The purpose of negativity is to call our attention to problems so that we can begin to deal with them constructively. Think of it as a variety of pain. It’s a signal that we need to notice something is wrong. The harm comes when we get stuck in the identification stage and don’t move from there toward discovering ways to solve, or manage, or creatively cope. Getting stuck in negativity is like becoming a hypochondriac who’s always searching for evidence of disease.
The first step to take to keep from getting stuck, or to break free when negativity has become a persistent part of your life, is to look at the pattern of your habitual negative thoughts.
In general, they come in three forms:
- Comparisons and
These are the fault-finding devils. They scour our worlds–both the outside world and our personal, inner ones—for flaws and feed on them, using them as fuel to reproduce. Keep feeding them and pretty soon your whole experience is swarming with them.
They’re harmful because when they swarm they steal our abilities to see reality clearly and to respond to it in open, healthy and creative ways.
Let’s take a look at how they work.
By putting you in a chronic state of looking-for-things-that-are-wrong, complaining pumps your stress level. It builds and perpetuates your discomfort and unease. It narrows your focus and keeps you fixated on problems. And what we focus on always expands in our experience. The world is as filled with good as it is with bad; but when we’re primarily focused on finding problems, problems are what we’ll see.
Complaining is such a common toxin in our social environment that we don’t even recognize how often we fall victim to it. Maybe you remember the purple bracelet phenomenon that swept the country a few years back. Minister Will Bowen started a movement at his church where everybody got a purple bracelet to wear, and when they caught themselves complaining, they had to switch it to the opposite wrist, just to help them notice how often they were doing it.
The idea swept the country. Bowen eventually wrote about it in his book, A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted,and even landed on Oprah’s show calling the viewers’ attention to their tendencies to complain.
People who tried his purple bracelet technique were amazed to find out how often they complained, and how frequently complaining formed the basis of their conversations. Look back over the past week and see how many of your own conversations were really just gripe sessions—about the weather, the traffic, the government, your losing sports team, management’s latest proposal, your partner’s bad habits or your kids’ unwelcome new behavior.
Gripe-Fests, Gossip and Commiseration
Complaining is particularly pernicious when it becomes a group gripe-fest, where everyone in the conversation is trying to top the last guy’s complaint with one that’s even bigger. While it’s disguised as bonding, in reality it’s hostile, evoking the participants’ anger, hurt and dissatisfaction and elevating the stress levels of everyone involved.
Like gripe-fests, gossip is seeking to form bonds, too. You think you’re letting someone into your inner circle by sharing confidential information about someone—most of which is better left unsaid at all. Gossiping proves to others that you’re not to be trusted with their private, personal stories, that you will capitalize on someone else’s misery or mistake for your own gain.
Sometimes complaining takes the form of commiserating, reinforcing someone’s perception of herself, or of her group, as a victim. On the surface, commiserating may look like sympathetic concern, but what it really does is deepen beliefs in helplessness. It disempowers.
If you find yourself involved any of these kinds of social complaining, the best course is to remain silent and simply observe what’s happening. Or, if you have a chance, steer the conversation in a more positive direction.
Criticizing, someone said, is complaining with an edge. Whether it’s aimed at someone else or at you yourself, criticism is a complaint made personal.
Aimed at someone else, it’s a sign of insecurity, a cheap ego maneuver we use to bolster our own status by pointing out how lousy someone else is, or looks, or does something. Uttered to someone’s face, it’s manipulative and controlling. Always, it’s a fault-finding behavior that keeps us from appreciating the good in others. Instead, it drives wedges between people.
When you continually criticize people, you destroy the trust and confidence of everyone around you. They come to suspect you have knives to throw at their backs, too, the moment they turn them.
When turned inward, criticism is a signal of flagging self-esteem, a way of punishing ourselves for falling short of some ideal. But worse, it robs us of our ability to look objectively for constructive ways we can move in happier directions. It’s a kind of self-defeating cowardice, a surrender of our power to control our own lives.
“But sometimes,” you might say, “criticism is meant to be helpful, to show someone a better way to do what they’re doing or to help them recognize and correct a mistake.” True enough. And if you need to deliver those kinds of suggestions to people—or to yourself–you’ll find some excellent guidelines on how to do it with kindness in this article by Leo Babauta at Zen Habits.net.
Have you any idea how amazing you are? How one-of-a-kind? Who you are this very minute is so huge and valuable and profound that words cannot describe you. When you try to understand yourself by comparing yourself to something or someone else, to squeeze all that you are into one tiny definition or to weigh your worth by making lists of what you think you are not, how it hurts your soul!
Comparing one person to another to see who is “better,” makes people into objects and segments them into pieces. Learn to see people as unique, complex wholes, each valuable in his or her own priceless way.
All of us want to understand ourselves and others more deeply, and part of that is understanding who we are in a social context. But we need to bear in mind that no one expresses every trait equally. We are each a unique combination of attributes and abilities, of talents, strengths and skills. And it’s in living these most fully that we find meaning and joy.
To look to others for ways in which we can use our personal attributes more creatively, more powerfully, more broadly or with more focus is to learn from them. But to spend one instant in sorrow or pain, or to rate ourselves less valuable because someone else’s attributes are not ours is to blind ourselves to who we are. And to compare pieces of one person to another is not to see either of them at all.
Like complaining and criticizing, blaming is another way we have of passing the responsibility buck to someone else instead of accepting it ourselves. And like all evasions of personal responsibility, it’s a surrender of our personal power.
Yes, sometimes other people fail to meet our expectations or to keep their promises, and our lives take different turns or seem more complicated as a result. And yes, disappointment hurts. But seldom do people fail you intentionally or with malice in their hearts. And blaming never solves the problem; it only evades it, leaving the deeper complication of resentment in its tracks.
The Paths to Positivity
Because these three varieties of negativity are everywhere around us, we all fall prey to them. But they do rob us of our well-being; they do steal our optimism, our serenity, our abilities to respond to life with creativity and gratitude and joy.
The answer is to become aware of how automatic they are in our own individual lives and to make it our business to replace them with helpful, loving, solution-oriented thoughts. Here’s how:
1. Notice Your Negativity
If you want to build your positivity quotient, you do have to become aware of the number of complaining, comparing, and blaming thoughts you allow yourself to entertain. Start out by making it a goal to recognize them.
- You don’t have to wear a purple bracelet to catch yourself complaining, although outward reminders aren’t a bad idea at all. If you like the idea of a wristband, get one. Or use a simple rubber band—and to double its effect, snap yourself with it before you move it to your other wrist.
- When you take a break for lunch, or at the end of your day, review your conversations. How many of them were focused on complaints, or comparisons, or blame? What did you contribute? What might you have done differently?
- Journal about the complaints, comparisons or blaming you noticed yourself expressing throughout your day. How did you feel while you were doing it? Did you notice other people caught in their grips? What did you think about that?
- Share the exercise of spotting these three forms of negativity with a friend and compare notes with each other. See how you can help each other find ways to become more solution-oriented.
2. Acknowledge the Thought
Accept your negative thought habits as a type of thought that you have learned to entertain. Don’t fight against it, just notice and observe it, the same way you would begin to notice your automatic reaching for a donut if you chose to start watching your weight, or to catch your urge to make an impulse purchase if you had decided to live within your budget. Just say, “Oh! There’s that habitual thought pattern again.” Recognize it, realize it’s just a thought, and then let it go.”
3. Be Easy on Yourself
Look at changing your thought patterns as an interesting and beneficial exercise, no different than doing sit-ups or learning to make walking a part of your day.
If you discover that you want to beat yourself up, or to label yourself ‘bad’ because such a thought popped into your awareness, try doing a couple rounds of ho’oponopono: Say, “I’m sorry; please forgive me. Thank you (for helping me to recognize this thought); I love you (for the new awareness you’re giving me)” until you feel lighter, self-accepting and at ease. Or try a couple rounds of tapping if you prefer, using a script such as, “Even though I’m feeling critical/Even though I want to complain and blame, I wholly and completely accept myself.”
You don’t, after all, want to trade in a complaining or critical thought for a blaming one that’s just as harmful. (See? They really are sneaky critters!)
3. Look for Alternative Views.
If you’re complaining, change your focus. Look for what’s right in the situation. Look for ways you can change the situation or make the best of it. Look more broadly at the situation to find things in it you can appreciate or for hidden opportunities it holds. Ask what your higher self would do and listen for an answer.
If you’re criticizing, stop. Change your focus. Identify what you want instead of what you don’t want and see what creative approaches you can take to move toward it. Look for solutions. Look for ways to be helpful. Above all, ask how you can approach the situation with greater kindness, with a more open mind and heart.
If you’re blaming someone else for your problems, stop and ask yourself what you might have done to prevent them, or to help the other person be more accountable. Accept that something you did, or failed to do, may have played a part in creating the situation and look for constructive ways to move ahead.
If the situation is outside your range of influence or control, work to accept it as it is and to look for ways to deal with it creatively. Bathe the person involved, whether it’s someone else or you yourself, in forgiveness for the current situation and in appreciation for all the things they or you do that are good and right. Then turn your attention to correcting the parts of the problem that can be corrected, discovering a different way to go forward, or developing new plans or a new approach.
Celebrate the Rewards
When you look for what’s right instead of what’s wrong, what might work instead of what doesn’t, your creative juices really begin to surge.
When you look for ways to lift people up instead of tearing them down, you discover how beautiful they are, how lovable, and how much they actually like you in return. You begin attracting positive attention and drawing new opportunities your way. You find that people consider you engaging and want to spend time with you lift their spirits, because you see them so clearly, in such a good light.
What’s more, your problem-solving abilities expand; you see more possibilities and solutions in challenging situations. When somebody crushes your apples, you add a stick of cinnamon and have an energizing snack. You become more versatile, more flexible, and more innovative. Your optimism gets a boost because you begin to see that there’s always a way.
Like any positivity practice, learning to adopt a new way of thinking takes patience and time. But with every step you make forward, you’ll feel new freedom and empowerment bolstering your commitment. In the end, the ancient advice from Confucius is still relevant for us today. Keep evil from your thoughts and discover the beauty and truth that are left behind.
Have complaining, comparing and blaming been problems in your life? How did you raise your own awareness of them? What ways have you used to overcome them? How has your life changed by taking a different approach? Share you thoughts and ideas. I’d love to hear from you.