How to not let negative emotions own you

Man in anguish on knees
Photo by mwangi gatheca on Unsplash

Negative thoughts and feelings are not your own. They come from conditioned patterns and habits. People, places, and objects do not have inherent power over you insofar as putting you into a negative state.

The suffering of preferences

I have just spent six months at Clear Sky as a karma yogi. Karma Yoga is the path of selfless service for others. A big part of it is doing what needs to be done, which means that you often don’t have a choice of what tasks you do. More than once, I have been assigned tasks where resistance and negativity arose. Not because they were inherently unpleasant tasks or unreasonable requests, but because the human experience involves preferences (one of which is not being told what to do!).

There was one task where I was asked to create labels for a dozen or so houseplants that had just been donated to Clear Sky. The labels would help people know how to care for the plants well, such as how much water or light to give them. A perfectly reasonable request, I think you’d agree, and yet I experienced some resistance to doing it. The beauty of this program, of being immersed in mindfulness practice all day, is that you don’t get to distract yourself and ignore your own resistance. So I got to watch the thoughts that came up, such as, “Now there are more things to take care of” and “It wasn’t my choice to bring in the new plants.” And I couldn’t put off the task, as I might have at home.

Also, I clearly saw my attitude around the task. I was not very optimistic about the project because I did not have a lot of interest in plants and I had a view that there were “too many” to look up and research. In fact, hadn’t my initial resistance just created a convenient view that it was an unreasonable task?

If these were my plants, then, there wouldn’t have been any labels. Yet here, everyone was counting on me to label the plants so that we knew how to care for them. With this motivation, I looked up the names of the plants online and even used a plant identifier app, where you would take a picture of the plant and it would be identified. When I finally printed out and laminated the labels for the plants, people started to notice and I commented on how well the labels were done.

Let it be, then let it go

I realized that before, my ego had felt some sort of power and satisfaction from not wanting to label the plants. Does that resonate? How we randomly own a feeling and make it our reality, whether it feels good or not?

When I fought through the resistance and then started receiving appreciation, I had no choice but to let go of the negativity. That was a shift, a big learning for me. I gained more freedom by doing something I was not comfortable with, and as a side benefit I now know more about plants. When I go out, sometimes I see a plant in a restaurant and know the name of the plant.

Reflections on negativity

I’d like to share some thoughts and insights from this and other experiences. Of course, much of this was also taught to me directly by my teachers and trainers here, yet through the karma yoga and mindfulness practice, I would say they became real to me.

  • Becoming angry and negative is not someone else’s fault, nor is it your own fault. We are not our emotions. They’re part of what’s going on. Owning our feelings doesn’t mean identifying with them, it means not projecting them onto others and also not blaming ourselves for them. We can admit “this is what’s happening” and then:
  • When you become more aware of negative states when they arise, it becomes easier to let them go. This is where tools and training can help, such as meditation, mindfulness, and working with others who will ask, “how’s your state right now?” so that we are less likely to skip over, deny, or even embrace negative states that otherwise own us.
  • Behind any negative state, there still exists bliss, clarity, and spaciousness.

A closing anecdote:

One day, I was helping make a group breakfast in the kitchen when someone asked me to hurry up with the toast. It was a perfectly natural part of working together and getting the food ready on time. Yet anger and irritation arose when she said this to me. The new me, instead of taking it out on someone else later or carrying the feelings around, tried to pause and create space between the irritation and myself. This was when I realized that the anger and irritation weren’t really “my” anger and irritation. With this, it became less personal. When I made toast, she thanked me for it and then it was easier to let go of the negativity.

By Richard Nathaniel

Edited by Andrew Rogers