Thunder God, Tawaraya Sotatsu
Photograph by the author
I’ve been party to some discussions about negativity lately where one good friend forwarded a longstanding hypothesis of his about it, suggesting that we are always negative, but that we just don't see it—which is, to a certain extent, true.
Yet the nature of negativity, and the way it functions, deserves an in-depth examination.
A number of years ago, I suggested to people that I was working with that we undertake a long-term study on a single subject, and proposed negativity. It was a mistake on my part, because everybody immediately became very negative about the idea. It was almost comical to see their reaction to it; everyone was completely identified with the reaction, and they couldn't see that they were already, immediately, negative, which was part of the whole question in the first place.
Just why are we negative?
For many years, I've noticed that I'm often more negative in the morning. To me, it’s always seemed that it has to do with the speed at which my centers are working, and the degree to which they’re integrated. The less connected my centers are, the more negative I seem to be; and they are always at their worst in terms of speed and intercommunication in the morning when I wake up.
It's true, I find that I have a powerful countervailing energy in me in the morning; there is a complete and organic sensation that opposes the problem, such that I have a certain power against it. Yet the negativity is undeniable.
Some weeks ago, I was in China, and woke up in the middle of the night, about 3 AM, lying there in the dark. This is always a remarkable moment in which, I find, it's possible to observe specific things that arise, since so much of my habitual inner system is shut down. The landscape clears itself off, so to speak—the fog lifts—and it's frequently possible to observe a specific thing that's arising in me from the outside of it, as it were.
On this particular morning, I saw negative thoughts arising; one after the other. They seemed to come absolutely from nowhere; yet at the bottom of each one, at its base, was fear. Each one of the thoughts rose up from this root of fear like a separate stem that produced a flower of negative thought. Each of those flowers was a threatening—even terrifying—thought about something that could go wrong in the future, over which I was basically powerless.
All of my fears are like this, I find; they are fundamentally imaginary in the most literal sense. That is to say, they create an image of something that isn't real and they project it on the screen of my awareness, presenting it as though it were the truth. It's very much like watching a fictional television series and somehow believing that all of it is fact. I know that the people on the screen are actors, and that the circumstances are completely contrived; yet a large part of me becomes deeply invested conviction that all of what is happening is true.
Fear functions exactly that way, as far as I can see, in most cases. There is a difference, of course, when one’s life is in immediate danger; that's a different story. But my imaginary fears – the ones which my psyche seems to delight in tormenting me with — are just like these TV shows. They aren’t real. No matter how much I forecast and project, it's impossible that events will turn out quite the way I expect… or fear… them to.
In any event, when I become negative, it's not just a private thing. Occasionally, I blow up. I lose my temper and I yell at someone. This is quite typical of most of us. There are some few exceptional individuals (like my wife) who hardly ever blow up and lose their temper; but for the the most of us, on average, we do get upset and yell. It usually happens abruptly, unexpectedly, and often even over something minor; and it can be very intense, even explosive.
While my friend was hypothesizing about how we’re always negative but just don't know it — again, there is some truth in this — I pointed out that these explosive episodes don't necessarily indicate a perpetual baseline of negativity. I liken their arising to what happens in bombardier beetles. For those of you unfamiliar with this insect, it's capable, when attacked, of emitting an amazingly powerful jet of toxic liquids sprayed in the direction of the aggressor. It achieves this by taking two otherwise inert chemical substances that it stores in special glands and bringing them together in an explosive chemical reaction.
This is precisely how that type of negativity works in us. The body stores various reserves of different (chemical, material) energies which are relatively inert in their own forms, but highly reactive when brought into contact with one another. Some of these chemicals are kept in close proximity to one another and held in reserve against emergencies. Because it's quite expensive to use energy this way, the body only brings these energies together when it perceives a real threat. (This is much like poisonous snakes, who don't use their venom every time they bite, but only when it's absolutely necessary. Venom is costly in biological terms; and the energy of anger is equally costly in its own way, so we ought only use it when it's truly needed.)
Unfortunately, because of its force, explosive anger has an addictive quality, and some people become enamored of using it, or have broken mechanisms in them that constantly bring these chemicals together even though there ought to be a much clearer function of separation. Individuals like this are usually labeled bipolar by medical professionals, because the extremes of their behavior stand in marked contrast to one another.
Anyway, we’re like bombardier beetles; when these substances in us are brought together, they blow up. Gurdjieff explained this phenomenon in precisely the same terms when he was speaking to Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous. It is, I'll admit, a technical point; yet it illustrates the fact that we aren't, by default, perpetually negative. We are perpetually resistant, though; and that is a different question. But in terms of being perpetually negative, it simply isn't true.
We need our negativity; there is a lot of force there. It's just how we use it that matters.
Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.