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Negative Negativity

According to Chogyam Trungpa, it isn’t ‘negativity’ that is the problem but our reaction to it. This – says Chogyam Trungpa – gives rise to what he calls negative negativity.  Negative negativity is when we react to negativity with yet more negativity – in other words, it is when we are anxious about being anxious, angry with ourselves for being angry, resentful of ourselves for being resentful, critical of ourselves for being critical, and so on. We could also say that negative negativity is when we feel sad about feeling sad, unhappy about being unhappy…



When we talk about being ‘unhappy because we are unhappy’ this sounds rather ridiculous, if not to say nonsensical – of course I am going to sad about being sad. I am hardly going to be happy about it! I am hardly going to be OK about being sad! And yet although it sounds ridiculous to talk about not being sad about being sad, it isn’t – we just have to look into it a bit more deeply. It doesn’t necessarily follow that being unhappy means that I am also going to be unhappy about being unhappy – if I am unhappy and yet I can see that it is perfectly understandable that I should be so, then this ‘understanding’ implies acceptance and acceptance means that I can see that it’s OK for me to be unhappy. I feel bad but it’s OK to feel bad. So in this case I am not unhappy about being unhappy – i.e. there is no ‘negative negativity’!




When we look at it like this it becomes immediately apparent that being accepting of our own ‘negative’ states of mind is not necessarily such an unlikely (or impossible) thing at all. It is – on the contrary – perfectly possible. We all have fluctuations in emotional state and this is of course quite normal, quite natural – if we didn’t then this ‘absence of ups and downs’ would be a sign of underlying suffering in itself. What we call ‘negativity’ is very natural and having this understanding implies (as we have already said) a degree of acceptance about how we feel – whichever way that happens to be. I realize that it’s not the end of the world just because I’m feeling unhappy. I’m allowed to be to feel unhappy!




It sounds very obvious to say this but it isn’t necessarily so obvious because it can easily happen that we lose our ‘accepting-ness’ of feeling unhappy or feeling angry or feeling frustrated. What happens then is that we react to these unhappy states of mind by automatically judging them (or reacting to them) as not being OK, and just as soon as I judge my state of mind as ‘not being OK’ (or as being ‘not allowed’) then this is negative negativity.



Negative negativity means that I get stuck in the mental state I am reacting to and so it actually magnifies the suffering that I am going through. It makes matters worse not better! This is ironic because the whole point of me reacting against the mental state in question is that this should make it go away. I am fighting against the unhappy mental state, I am trying to push it away or clamp down on it. I am trying to get rid of it, which is a pure ‘knee-jerk reflex’ on my part. But because of this knee-jerk reaction I am exacerbating the situation – because of this automatic reaction I am entrenching myself in the unhappy state of mind, which is the very last thing I want to do. I accentuate and intensify the suffering that I’m going through by my attempt to help myself.




The reason reacting against the unhappy mental state causes me to get stuck in it is because – as Krishnamurti says – my reaction to the mental state is an extension of this very same mental state. If I am afraid and I react against to this fear then this reaction to the fear is an extension of the fear! If I am anxious and then I automatically react against this anxiety then this ‘automatic reacting’ is itself anxiety – my ‘reacting against the anxiety’ is the anxiety spreading, in other words. If I get frustrated with my frustration then this is an extension of the same frustration. If I am angry and I react against my anger then this is necessarily an angry reaction and anger doesn’t free me from anger, it perpetuates it.



If I am in a resentful state of mind and I react against this state of mind then this is going to be ‘resentful reacting’ and so I am going to be caught up in the resentment all the more. If I am critical of myself, judgemental against myself, blaming of myself, and my ‘knee-jerk reflex’ to this state of mind is to be critical of it, judgemental of it, blaming of it, then this reflex is going to draw me into this unhappy state of mind all the more – the negative self-evaluation is going to ‘feed on itself’ and become stronger and stronger as a result of my reacting to it. The more I react the more energy I will give the mental state and the more energy I put into the mental state the more power it will have to afflict me and make me suffer, and the more it afflicts me and makes me suffer the more I will react to it!




This type of vicious circle is the hall-mark of negative negativity. This is what negative negativity is all about. Really, all that is happening is (as we have said) that the original painful or unhappy state of mind is spreading out and spreading out like ripples in a pond until it has taken over everything, until there is nothing else but it. It ‘infects’ everything else, like a virus does. We could say that the painful or unhappy state of mind arises from a core (or seed) of mechanical reacting – there is a reaction going on which is saying “This isn’t OK”. There is a fundamental lack of acceptance, in other words, and it is this fundamental lack of acceptance that is generating the ‘negativity’ – i.e. the anxiety, anger, frustration, resentfulness, bitterness, self-hatred etc, which then proceeds to envelop or surround everything like a ‘bad atmosphere,’ like a kind of all-pervasive ‘toxic smog’…



Negative negativity means that I react to this painful state of mind by saying that it isn’t OK for it to be there. In other words, I am reacting to the pain caused by me saying “This isn’t OK” by saying “This isn’t OK” again, only this time I am referring to the negativity caused by my non-allowing or rejecting attitude rather than the situation that I was originally reacting against! So the original mechanical reaction to say “This can’t be allowed” in response to some kind of difficulty spreads out and out, ripples out and out, propagates out and out, and so duplicates or reproduces itself over and over again like a virus of the mind. If I go with this initial reaction then this perpetuates it (obviously enough!) and if I fight against it then this also perpetuates the underlying reaction because all I am doing here is ‘reacting against my reacting’.



If I try to fight against my reacting I get stuck in reacting all the more! I start off by reacting to the negativity by saying that “it’s not right for me to feel that things aren’t right” and then I react to my reaction by saying that “it’s not right for me to say that it’s not right for me to say that it it’s not right”. I judge my judging and say that that I shouldn’t be judging, and then I judge my judging of my judging and say that I shouldn’t be doing this either!



I am essentially trying to fix the painful feeling that is caused by my non-acceptance of my situation but my attempt to fix this painful feeling is making it worse: my attempt to fix the pain that is caused by my fundamental non-acceptance is itself based on ‘non-acceptance’ and so my fixing indefinitely perpetuates (or extends) the situation rather than bringing it to an end, which is what I want. The problem behind negative negativity is therefore my automatic reacting, which reacts to itself and compounds itself rather than helping the situation – it didn’t help us in the first place and it certainly isn’t going to help if we keep repeating this same ‘dysfunctional’ (or ‘suffering-producing’) tactic over and over again. I just don’t know what else to do…




‘Automatic (or mechanical) reacting’ essentially means that we are shutting down. We are closing off. We are saying that something or other (some situation) isn’t acceptable, isn’t allowed. We’re saying “No” to this situation, we’re closing the door on it. But the situation isn’t going anywhere – it isn’t going to stop being there just because we say NO to it. This trick doesn’t work the way we think it will. It ‘backfires’ on us in a curious way – by shutting the door on it we are in effect making ourselves go away, not the situation!



By reacting mechanically in this way we are actually retreating from reality – fighting with reality means escaping from reality. We are actually becoming escape artists! By saying so emphatically, so inflexibly that the situation shouldn’t be there, isn’t allowed to be there, we are in effect ‘absenting’ ourselves from what is going on. We don’t want to be present with the difficulty, but by not being present with the difficulty we end up not being ‘present’ at all…




Just to repeat this key point: when I automatically react to a difficult situation what I am doing is not being present with that situation. My ‘cure’ for the problem is to not to close off to it but when I close off to the difficulty in this way I am at actually shutting down generally.



I can’t shut down to one part of life and yet remain open to all the other aspects – if I shut down at all then I shut down globally. I can’t just absent myself to the bit I don’t like and yet at the same time remain present to everything else. That’s an impossibility. It just doesn’t work like that because in shutting down to the difficult part of life I am shutting down to life itself. It’s ‘all or nothing’. I’m either orientated towards being present or I’m orientated towards being absent. I’m either open or closed.



There’s no picking and choosing in being aware – if I am to be present then I have to be present to everything that is going on, difficult or not. If I try to be present only for the pleasant things (which is of course a very appealing idea!) then what this means is that I am actually opting to be ‘absent’, I am actually opting to be ‘not present at all’…




Whatever our difficulties are therefore, they can be seen as provocations to be absent, enticements to be ‘not there’. The difficult states of mind that we refuse to accept automatically trigger us to be absent, they automatically trigger us to be not there. They keep us ‘shut down’. Every time we start to emerge from our hiding place they will appear and send us back again in a hurry. They will send us packing. But this works the other way around too – it works against us, but it can also work for us. These same difficulties, these same triggers, can also work as invitations to be present. They can remind us to be present, support us in being present, and so in this way the difficulties that we would otherwise be avoiding or complaining about are actually working as supports, not hindrances.



All that is needed in order to bring about this turnaround in my approach to life is for me to let difficulty be a stimulus for me to ‘be here’ rather than a trigger for me ‘not to be here’. I use the fact that I am in a difficult situation as a means of reminding myself to be present, instead of letting it be a reminder to be absent! The default situation for all of us is to automatically see any difficult or painful state of mind as being ‘wrong’ or ‘acceptable’. Pain or difficulty is straightaway labelled as ‘an error to be corrected’; the mind instantaneously slaps a negative evaluation on the challenging situation and from this point on we react to the label not the reality. From this point on we have no interest in the reality – we have no interest in it because we already know that it is ‘bad’…




This state of affairs could be described as the ‘unconscious state of mind’the unconscious state of mind is the state in which we refuse to be there when anything difficult happens. Our ‘rule’ here is that any pain is to be straightaway avoided, dismissed, eliminated, gotten rid of in one way or another. Life thus becomes all about pain-avoidance strategies, so that the more pain-avoidance strategies we have the better we feel. The more skilful we are at avoiding the safer we feel. What we call ‘knowledge’ and ‘life-experience’ therefore comes down to the mere acquisition and accumulation of clever tricks – tricks to allow us to ‘get around’ difficulties. We get incredibly smart at ‘dodging the difficulty’, incredibly smart at ‘fixing the problem’. If we can’t fix it then we know a man who can… Life thus comes down to the very mechanical (or ‘reflexive’) business of learning (and then practising) a whole bunch of dodges and cheats and tricks and scams, a whole bunch of sneaky manoeuvres, a whole bunch of quick fixes and short-cuts….



This ends up of course with us getting very busy the whole time and the ‘busy-ness’ in question isn’t valuable in itself (although we will of course say that it is), but only valuable insofar as it allows us to avoid all the stuff that we don’t want to face up to. We’re kept busy on a full-time basis with all this manoeuvring, and what’s more, we are also kept on a full-time basis in the state of not being present!




Not being present can therefore be seen to be a consequence of our habit of reacting to mental or emotional pain so as to try to disallow it. On the other hand, as we have said, this pain can also function as a prompt to be present – it can work the other way around as well. In one way pain keeps us absent (i.e. it keeps us shut down to the world) and the other way it helps us to come back into the world – it all depends on whether we meet the pain consciously, or whether we ‘turn our back on it’ and ‘meet the difficulty with unconsciousness’, so to speak. Avoiding the problem exacerbates (and endlessly perpetuates) it, whereas being present with the problem means that there actually isn’t ‘a problem’. After all, the problem is only a problem because we don’t want it to be there! As we read in Chapter 17 of the Dao de Jing


It is by being alive to difficulty that one can avoid it.
The sage meets with no difficulty.
It is because he is alive to it that he meets with no difficulty.


Our own negativity (which is to say, our own ‘bad grace’ in the face of things ‘not being the way that we would like them to be’) is a difficulty like any other. If we react against our negativity (which is caused by not being conscious, by not being present) we simply become even more unconscious, even more absent, and this state of affairs infallibly breeds even more toxicity, even more negativity. This is clearly a one-way street leading to a very unhappy situation, a very miserable place. It is ‘an escalating downwards spiral’, a classic vicious circle, despite the fact that the ostensible logic behind our reacting is as we have said that we want to correct whatever it is that we are reacting against. Naturally enough, we just want to make the bad feeling go away and this ‘wanting’ gives rise to the reacting.




‘Reacting’ can take two forms – on the one hand we can (as we have been saying) take against ourselves and say that we are wrong to be angry, wrong to be full of resentment or hate, wrong to judging and criticizing the whole time, and so on, and on the other hand we can also react by justifying our negativity, by saying that we are right to be angry or hateful, right to be condemnatory or judgemental, right to be indignant or hostile, right to bitter or vengeful, right to be judgmental or critical, and so on, and this too is negative negativity. It is negative negativity either way and we get trapped in a ‘shut-down’ state of awareness either way. We get ‘locked up in ourselves’ whether we justify ourselves or recriminate against ourselves. And saying that ‘we get locked up in ourselves’ is only a turn of phrase because its not ourselves that we get locked up in but the pattern of our automatic reacting, which is all that is left of ourselves.  This ‘self-imprisoning’ process is what Chogyam Trungpa is talking about here in this passage taken from The Myth of Freedom –


Negative negativity refers to the philosophies and rationales we use to justify avoiding our own pain. We would like to pretend that these ‘evil’ or ‘foul-smelling’ aspects of ourselves and our world are not really there, or that they should not be there, or even that they should be there. So negative negativity is usually self-justifying, self-contained. It allows nothing to pierce its protective shell – a self-righteous way of trying to pretend that things are what we would like them to be instead of what they are.




The ‘negativity’ itself (whatever it might be) is therefore very valuable to us because it enables us to break free from this shell of automatic self-justification, this shell of compulsive self-righteousness and self-validation (or compulsive self-denial and self-condemnation), and come back to ourselves. This is in direct contradiction of what we fondly imagine to be the case; we don’t think that the negativity which we are reacting to is valuable at all – quite the contrary, we are acting on the basis of the mistaken understanding that the quicker we can get rid of it (or justify it) the better things will be!



Everything is therefore about ‘fixing the problem’. Everything is about ‘eradicating the pain’. But as we have said the pain and general unpleasantness and rottenness of the negativity is the key to becoming present, the key to becoming conscious, whilst the automatic or compulsive attempt to get rid of it (or validate it, if that’s the way we’re reacting) is the key – if we may put it like that – to nothing more than remaining in the psychologically unconscious state, which is ‘the state of being painfully absent from our own lives’….










Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.

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