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What to do when we feel negative?

The two following sutras are part of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, one of the hallmarks in the history of Yoga and meditation in general, dating around 1600 years back.

vitarka-bādhane pratipakṣa-bhāvanam || 2.33 ||

“Upon being harassed by negative thoughts, one should cultivate counteracting thoughts.”

vitarkā hiṃsādayaḥ kṛtakāritānumoditā lobhakrodhamohapūrvakā

mṛdumadhyādhimātrā duḥkhājñānānantaphalā iti pratipakṣabhāvanam || 2.34 ||

“Negative thoughts are violence, etc. They may be [personally] performed, performed on one’s behalf by another, or authorised by oneself; they may be triggered by greed, anger, or delusion; and they may be slight, moderate, or extreme in intensity. One should cultivate counteracting thoughts, namely, that the end results [of negative thoughts] are ongoing suffering and ignorance.” *translations by Edwin Bryant

These passages address a fundamental issue in human life: what to do when the mind takes a negative shape, in the form of thoughts, moods, or emotions?

This problem is so painstaking that, together with the qualified professions addressing these, the shelves of bookshops are full with promises of self help, positive thinking, and positive action; not only paper try to bear the answers, but also social media has given birth to a new category of service, that of the ‘life coach’, who tries to deliver positive mindsets to followers. And we could easily trace this universal need back to the ‘mythical’ figures such as shamans, healers, priests, and the ‘elderly’ present in traditional societies.

The classical Yoga philosophy has some points to add too.

The first, and a very important one, is that the first sutra here specifically says “when” we are harassed, not “if”. This means we will not be able to avoid having negative thoughts. They will come from time to time, causing some amount of suffering (or on its less dramatic form, frustration with life). It doesn’t seem like a big deal to understand it, but enormous relief can come from knowing that there is nothing abnormal in feeling bad. And, so far, no religion, psychological system, thinker, or social media entrepreneur has been able to eradicate all ‘badness’ from our human world. Acceptance is always a first step, because now things can be analysed in a ‘cooler’ way, without the heat of anger, greed, and delusion.

Speaking of these three, according to the author they are the cause of such negative thoughts. And what are the negative thoughts? Those directed towards violence, untruthfulness, appropriation of what is not ours, sexual misconduct, accumulation (greed), uncleanliness, discontentment, luxury (together with laziness and lavishness), disinterest in understanding oneself, and lack of faith in good principles (or faith in unworthy ones).

Sounds like a lot of breeding beds for suffering, but we could stay mostly with the first one, the thought of nonviolence. In the classic Indian texts, in general the first term to be mentioned in a list is the main one. Therefore, being non violent is ultimately the objective, practice, and result, of all other points. This means, for example, that always saying the absolute truth might not be appropriate if that results in violence. Discretion, on this sense, could also be understood as being truthful.

Now that we have a clearer picture of the negative in life, the question regarding how to eradicate it (for most of the time) is expected. The Yoga tradition has many suggestions. A well known one is to target the body and release the somatic stress which accumulates in our system. Even better if this process is done with the aid of breathing techniques that are proven to have a beneficial effect on the nervous system. Once the system is pacified it can be easier to see things with more clarity, patience, and consciousness, facilitating the cultivation of positive thoughts.

Another suggestion to purify the mind which is on the Sutras is to develop thoughts of friendliness with happy people, compassion to those that are suffering, joy towards people who shows virtues and good qualities, and indifference towards the non-virtuous.

This last point is important, the one on indifference. We can understand it also as being equanimous, equipoise, or with an unshaken stability. When negative impressions come to our field of attention, it is easy to be carried away and encourage them. Like gossiping, when one small story leads to a comment, that leads to another reminiscence, and so on, enlarging the initial problem. Establishing oneself in a more detached frame of mind, being able to observe the thoughts or emotions that arise, can lead to a greater possibility of acting or not acting at the right moments and with the correct intentions.

The support for this mind can be greatly developed through a meditation practice, the study of these philosophies (which helps in finding meaning for the development of virtues and goodwill), and by the way we organise our lives. Here we have the meeting of Yoga and Ayurveda, which ultimately aim at reducing suffering and unsatisfaction in both body and mind.

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