Saturday, January 10, 2015

Is Negativity a Habit?

In my many years living in intentional community I have seen that people who are otherwise idealistic can yet be negative owing, largely, to habit. I have noticed, for example, that one customary way to express friendship, intimacy, trust, and bonding is to "let your hair down" and "tell all."

In spiritual groups, nonprofit organizations, and other idealistic settings, it is the norm to affirm an upbeat, positive, and cheerful attitude. But this is simply not always possible because each of us has our ups and downs. But here I am not talking about mere ups and down. Here I am talking about what can become an entrenched habit.

What I have observed is that confiding in another person too often goes in the downward direction of digging in the dirt of one's fears, anxieties, regrets, and resentments -- things that you don't normally admit you are holding onto. Worse than that is that this digging can develop into a habit: merely something to talk about (again and again and again).

Thus, when good people get together one-on-one or in smaller, bonded groups, the whispered confidences become less than upbeat. It is too bad that sharing negativity (including fear) signals that "you are my friend and I trust you." Sometimes we all have to "let off some steam."

But it can become a habit. I've come to see that the negativity some people express is in no small way because they don't know what else to talk about! I have several friends -- good people and otherwise intelligent -- who repeat the same old junk every time he or she has a one-on-one conversation. In part their social skills may be inadequate; in part, in fact, they aren't that "bright" or at least mindful (even if in areas of skill and expertise they are rather accomplished).

A case in point surrounding a useful habit for the ego is a friend who frequently expressed her "exhaustion" in spite of being consistently day-in and day-out the most energetic person around! This habit was useful because she could use it as a tool to keep a person at bay whom she didn't like; or on the basis of a subject she didn't wish to discuss; or an attitude she thought inappropriate. Over time her co-workers and friends felt her cold and inaccessible and often turned that towards themselves assuming they must have done something wrong or were not liked.

Certainly we all have such moments when fatigue renders us brain-dead. So it is understandable to a point, but not past the point of an ingrained habit that snubs others and their sincere needs. A counselor once told her, with some intensity, that for one year she should not say to anyone how tired she was. (Maybe it helped. I don't know.)

A habit like that is, further, is a tool for the ego to extract sympathy from others. Sympathy is a very deep and usually true form of sharing, friendship and intimacy. Too much, however, of the wrong kind simply pulls the sympathizer into the swamp of the other's self pity. Couples have to watch this tendency. My motive for supporting my spouse's frustration at a co-worker might be more for the reason I get "points" in the sympathy and negativity bank for when I need them. It would be better to be silent or to say something positive or helpful (maybe later, though). Paramhansa Yogananda warned couples (as did Swami Kriyananda) not to reinforce each other's negativity.

But others I see, and very commonly, simply don't know what else to talk about and feel that in order to have a conversation and express their genuineness and friendship necessitates revealing some negative attitude or opinion, as if in a whispered hush. And that's where the habit can start to form.

I've come to understand why, in part, my spiritual teacher (Swami Kriyananda) and his guru (Paramhansa Yogananda) did not engage in small talk with those close to them. There is such a tendency to "confess," to "reveal," and to say things like, "Frankly....."

I said "Frankly" once when I was in the car, alone, with Swami Kriyananda. He had invited me to drive with him to the nearby town (Grass Valley, CA) and I knew he had some things to say to me. At one point, I began a sentence with "Frankly....." and he cut me short. He knew that I was about to dump some negative opinion on him. Though he never "always" did one thing or another, nor ever "never," I witnessed occasions where once he got the gist of what someone was expressing, he'd cut them off so that they wouldn't augur further down the rabbit hole of negativity.

In counseling, too, and based on his example, I will do something similar, especially if it's about someone who isn't present in the room!

Some of the techniques that Swami Kriyananda taught us (and received from Yogananda) included responding to another's person's negativity with positive, counter-comments or illustrations. He said be on your guard because even in spiritual settings, negativity (which is in each of us) rears its cobra-head, ready to strike. Newer people to a group are often sought out by the negative and merely talkative, self-important types, eager for an audience and new victims. Such people, having been unmasked, are more or less ignored by the more positive and creatively engaged doers.

Such people begin with positive praise of the goings-on, and then, conspiratorially lowering their voices, thrust the dagger of negativity by telling the real story of so-and-so or such-and-such. Avoid such human cobras, Yogananda counseled, like the plague. Stay positive. In this world which is a mixture of good and bad, anyone can find fault with anything or anybody. What's the point, unless some grave injustice or personal duty is at stake and some positive action can be taken to make amends.

Another is: if you have a concern or even a complaint, talk to those responsible, at least potentially, for correcting the situation. Don't talk idly to anyone who will listen to you but will be powerless to make the situation better. (That reminds me of people who argue or shout about all the bad things going on in the world about which they themselves have no intention of lifting a finger to change. I sometimes joke, "Why don't they call me? I have the solution to ALL the world's problems!)

I find that, over the years, I prefer to be friendly but to avoid rambling small talk if I can and still be polite. I don't impose spiritual conversations on others if I either have nothing to offer in that direction or sense a lack of interest.

Lastly, learn how to NOT respond to a person. Just listen and look at them. When you don't react, they will, at first not know what to do or say. In the end, they'll "shut up" or likely change the subject or simply walk away. You should also learn how to have the courage to do that, too: "Ah, excuse me, I've got to go....I've forgotten something".....or just plain, "Excuse me" and walk away.

Aging can produce negativity, too. I don't know what the brain chemistry is on this. Some get sweeter and others get irritable or worse. Patience and silence and short visits, where possible. Outside and third party help might be a good idea.

BTW: Logic is not a solution to negativity: of any kind. Positive feeling, sympathy short of supporting negativity, and a smile ready to act or suggest solutions is usually better.

When a friend gets into a slump but you know he or she is not normally negative, then you can jolly 'em along with a poke in the ribs, a smile of understanding and then positive words of encouragement and so on. A person steeped in negativity will soon tire of your positive responses and will eventually leave you alone.

The essence of what I want to share in these words is the observation I have made that humans sometimes use negativity as a form of bonding. Watch for this in yourself and your friends. Work with yourself patiently to transcend this all-too-normal tendency. Teach yourself when you are with a close friend or loved one, to express admiration, respect, devotion and inspiration for things or people in your life; for the beauty of nature; and gratitude for each and every thing, big or small. Keep your conversation positive and you will be a true friend. In time your friendship will be sweeter, more comfortable, and deeper!

May we always be a Friend in God,

Nayaswami Hriman