Once upon a time, there was a girl who prided herself on being prepared for every possible lousy outcome. She anticipated every pitfall, mentally conjuring every worst-case scenario. Having a vivid imagination and a pessimistic outlook, she positively excelled in the negative.
This girl thought optimists were suckers because they’re so often disappointed. Since she believed nothing in her experience ever worked out according to plan, she thought it was emotionally safer to just expect the worst. After all, if on the rare occasion something did go well, she could be pleasantly surprised.
There’s a big problem with this kind of thinking: dwelling on the negative ushers in more negative. We tend to find just what we’re looking for. We attract it.
I know a lot about this. Because I was once that girl.
I don’t think I was born with a dark cloud over my head. Always full of ideas, my natural inclination leans toward hopefulness and possibility. Somewhere along the line, though, fear and disappointment got the better of me; I donned my cynical armor and tried not to expect too much. I guess I thought it was easier that way.
But it isn’t easier. The burdens of anxiety, anger and regret are just too heavy for my shoulders. Maybe it’s naïve to view the world through rose-colored glasses, but I think I’d rather be innocent than bitter.
Which brings me to one of my favorite yogic attitude adjustments: pratipaksha bhavana. It means taking a negative thought and replacing it with its opposite, positive thought. It’s a basic tenet of joyful living. It sounds simple, and it is. I’m learning that sometimes it’s not easy. But it’s necessary.
On any given day in my ordinary life, 15 things might go well and just one thing will get bungled up. Guess which one I’m thinking about – dwelling on – all day long? Right: the bungled one. It’s almost as if negativity is a magnet, pulling me away from the good stuff. It’s such a waste, really. If I allow my mind to focus on the rude driver, the bad weather, etc., it doesn’t just make me grumpy. I also miss the moments that make life sweet, like the exuberant greeting from my dog or the gentle tone of my husband Ret’s voice when he says my name.
I’d like to blame the media for turning us all into grisly rubber-neckers, stopping the traffic of life to gawk at its horrors when we could turn the other way to watch a spectacular sunset instead. But the truth is, no one can choose my thoughts but me.
When I was much younger, I had a job I really disliked. OK, I hated it. Each day I showed up for work with my heart on my sleeve, and probably a crabby expression my face, too. One of my coworkers took note and would say to me, “Lee, every day that you wake up is a good day!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know,” was my standard, somewhat biting reply.
Decades later, I feel like I owe this woman an apology. She was right, of course. Every day that I wake up is a good day, because the alternative is a day when I don’t wake up… So every day, I need to seek out the positive. Where I focus my attention, energy follows. Do I really want to spend my energy on the things that sap my spirit?
About a dozen years ago, at the urging of a friend, I started keeping a gratitude journal. I didn’t want to do it. It was a time of great distress in my life and I wanted to point out all the rotten things I saw in the world. But she insisted. She instructed me to write down five things for which I was thankful every day. I could write anything, but it had to be sincere and I had to do it every single day.
At first I was resistant. My entries looked like this:
- The sun came up today.
- I don’t live in a third world country.
- My dog is cute.
- I have a job.
- I’m not in the hospital.
Then came the nights when, just as I was getting into bed, I realized I hadn’t written in my journal. I’d have to really think back over the day to remember what happened and find something good to report. Surely there was something? My entries started looking like this:
- I had lunch with a friend. It was nice.
- My boss liked my presentation.
- It rained today. We really needed the rain.
- The boys got good report cards!
- Talked with Dad today. Love my dad!
Over time, the assignment became almost a game as I tried to find gratitude in everything. Instead of lamenting over how much new tires cost, I was happy to have a car. When my then-teenaged sons whined about some terrible injustice at school, I was glad they were talking to me about it. That summer, I decided to stop complaining about the Georgia heat because then I wouldn’t have the right to grumble about winter. I didn’t want to be one of those people who gripes about the weather all the time.
Little by little, I found myself looking at the bright side. And I started seeing God’s hand everywhere, guiding me, showing me the way. I only had to open my eyes.
All these years later, my journal has morphed a little but my practice of pratipaksha bhavana continues. Believe me, it’s a practice – I have to work at this to stay focused or my old tendencies will rise back up to the surface and wreak havoc. Besides keeping the journal, a couple of things have really helped me:
The first thing is surrounding myself with people who point me to the light when I can’t find it myself. Sometimes we don’t see ourselves clearly because we’re looking in a fun house mirror. I need people like Ret and my mom as much as I need oxygen.
And the second thing is giving it away. All this experience looking for the silver lining in my own life has made me a much better encourager to other people. The bonus is that serving other people, especially sharing hope and happiness with them, always makes me feel better too.
Gratitude journal entry, Sept. 17, 2016:
- My boys are really terrific men. I’m so proud of them.
- Fall is on the way, with its cool air and pumpkin spice lattes.
- Ret is writing music – I love seeing him so happy.
- It’s so nice to share the sofa with my sweet dog, Lacy.
- There is peace in my home and in my heart tonight.