Is Positivity Always Positive?
Dear Society, we need to talk about positivity...
Today I want to write about something which I think is very important, and heavily tied to contemporary yoga: our relationship with positivity. As I sit here and mentally prepare myself to go back to work and the physical classroom in less than a week, I find myself musing over the idea of positivity.
To understand the context from which I write about this topic, I should first say that I am diagnosed with GAD but I am highly functioning, and that I am a multiple trauma survivor. That being said, I've also often surprised people with how positive I come across.
Nothing I say or write is ever intended to come across as "the truth", but rather "my truth" - which also can change as we all grow and learn. My views are based on personal experience, my education and philosophy.
TW: While I always try to keep my posts and rants as trigger- and activation-free as possible, there is mention of mental health here due to the nature of the post.
We live in a society - at least from a western perspective - where the default answer to "How are you?" tends to be some variation of "I'm fine, thanks"... no matter how we truly feel. There tends to sometimes be a mentality from certain people in that if you're depressed, you should just try to be happy; if you're anxious, you should just try not to worry; if you're in pain, you should just try yoga. Now, while all these sentiments usually come from a good place, albeit a non-empathetic one, we kind of have to change the norm surrounding mental health and well-being.
Indeed, in many cases, the picture of well-being might portray a zenned out, well-balanced individual who never cries, never has breakdowns, works out and eats healthy. While there is some truth to this idealized imagine, in my opinion, in that certain patterns and behaviours lead to a state of well-being, we have to remember that well-being is subjective. For one person, well-being might be that well-balanced individual as given in previous statement, and for another, it might be that they got out of bed and had a shower today. Neither is more valuable than the other.
What I mean is this: We should not attribute ideas of value to a standardized image of well-being, because we are all on different journeys and have different expressions and human experiences. The idea of "just smile" comes from a lack of understanding of subjective suffering - maybe the one expressing "just smile" hasn't gone through a similar situation and have a hard time empathizing, or perhaps they did indeed go through the same or similar situations and found that the mantra or intention of "just smile" helped them. This doesn't mean that our subjective experiences is universal truth - my shoes don't fit your feet, and that's okay.
Feeling "Less Than" in Yoga
Sometimes this idea of a 'universal norm of well-being' makes its way into the very practices and circles which otherwise should be very open-minded to subjective experiences. Yoga and mindfulness are intended for every body and every mind - this means exactly that: every individual are on a unique human experience, and while we can meet up and sometimes feel a connection in shared experience, we also experience the world through our own eyes and perception. Whether you believe in a Higher Consciousness that links us all or not, the person living their life usually experience their subjective truth, unless they are of a practice or mindset in which they work towards putting away the Ego and connecting with the Higher Self of all living beings... or, if you're not inclined to believe in a unified consciousness, well, we're all quite literally seeing life through our own eyes and perception and two different people can re-tell the same scenario in entirely different ways.
In Yoga and Mindfulness I sometimes see this idea of the universal norm of well-being as expressed in a feeling of "less than". I think a very common area of insecurity and comparison to "standards" is in the asana practice of yoga: if we can't bend into that yoga magazine or Instagram-able pose, we're less worthy as yoga practitioners or yogis and might connect a practice meant to be soothing for the Self with negativity and self-doubt or even self-scorn. Now, there's nothing wrong with being able to nail beautiful poses and empowering yourself by sharing this with others. It is not the fault of the yogi that can "nail" a mermaid pose to feel bad for those who feel "less than" because they use a strap for it (just remember that Ego is something we're working against in yoga - I'm all for empowerment, but let's keep it mindful, right?).
Let's make my point very clear, here: Yoga is for every body. Props are positive tools for exploration of poses for your body. The pose will look different on different bodies. You are all beautiful and you are entirely valid in your practice.
Similarly, in mindfulness (focusing on meditation as a mindful practice here), there might be an idea that if you cannot clear your mind and meet every challenge in life like an Enlightened Being, perhaps mindfulness isn't for you. This is a huge, and extremely harmful, misconception. There is nothing wrong with being able to live that balanced life - more power to you! There is also nothing wrong for feeling out of whack and struggling with emotional reactivity, a cluttered mind during meditation and just overall humanity - what a beautiful thing the varied human experience is.
Let's make another thing very clear, here: Mindfulness is for every mind. Mindfulness is a tool to help you feel better. not another imposed standard to try to uphold.
Is There a Different Way?
So, what is my implication here? That positivity is bad? No - positivity as its own thing is good. It's entirely valid to have a positive outlook on life, and for those that maintain a positive outlook, it is a source of strength. But that doesn't mean that it's the only way to relate to a mental well-being, and it is absolutely not a requirement for yoga or mindfulness. When positivity becomes a standard by which we judge our success, validity or self-worth, it becomes toxic positivity, which is entirely bad. When we start feeling guilty because we're not smiling and we're not okay, that's bad. It's not the fault of the positive mindset, but rather our tendency to turn things into norms and standards in society to attribute worth which is the problem. If you're swept away by that, don't feel bad. It's human.
Another problem with toxic positivity is also the associated guilt that comes with a positive mindset for some; how can I be happy when others are sad? How can I enjoy this when others suffer? Well, my view on this is as follows: our human experiences are different, for better and worse. If you feel bad about the state of the world, be the change you want to see. But don't detract from the things that keep you energized and maintain your well-being. You can't pour from an empty cup, so if we detract from our own well-being to give unto others, we're not fixing the suffering, we're just re-delegating it from others onto ourselves - and there's not even a guarantee that this will fix the suffering of others, so now we're just all miserable instead.
There is an option to positivity. If positivity has become something toxic in your life, I present: non-reactivity. As I said, positivity is fine, but if your relationship with it is a little troubled, non-reactivity is a wonderful tool, in my opinion, to help out with that.
What Is Non-Reactivity?
Non-reactivity... it sounds like I gotta detach from everything, doesn't it? Well, yes and no. Sure, there are lifestyles where you practice the art of detachment - in fact, it's a part of yoga, but we don't all have to relate to yoga philosophy the same way. Remember: yoga is for every body and every mind. If we don't adapt yoga philosophy to our own circumstance, we will likely struggle to go through our own human experience and grow as we're meant to, because you'll more than likely feel a disconnect with the philosophy you're trying to force.
So, it can be detachment, but it can also be something else: a discipline for the mind.
Now, if you're one of the people that have avoided meditation because you think it's not for you because your mind is too cluttered during meditation, I got news for you: meditation is for you, just the same as yoga is for you if you're inflexible. What I mean is that the practice of meditation is the art of quieting, or at least somewhat controlling, the mind. If you have an active mind - good, that's your challenge... work with what you're given, baby. You got a wonderful journey ahead of you, but it might not be easy, but that's okay. We can thrive in discomfort.
Non-reactivity is a core part of meditation. It is the act of becoming the observer.
This means that instead of being swept up in emotion and respond (usually through fight-flight-freeze), we observe the situation and/or emotion, and study it with a clear mind. We acknowledge that our beautiful mind is merely trying to protect us through survival instinct when it gets swept up in emotion, it just cannot separate between different kinds of threat. Let me give an example:
We'll call our person "A". "A" just found out something traumatic. What the trauma is doesn't matter, all traumas are equally valid. "A" is feeling distraught, but instead of being swept away with sorrow and having a physical reaction alongside the emotional, "A" decides to sit down and meditate. "A's" mind is swirling, but "A" just keeps breathing slowly and consciously, and instead of trying to press away the feeling of distress, "A" decides to 'invite it in' and studies the emotion. Instead of being swept away with the stream of feeling until "A" gets a panic attack, "A" instead decides to study the physical reactions to this feeling. "A" feels their heart beating faster, their lungs wanting to hyperventilate, the slight shake in "A's" body, but "A" let's it happen while breathing calmly and consciously. Slowly but surely, "A's" body might realize that the body is physically safe, and does not need to fight, flee or freeze. "A" tries to ground themself in the here and now - remembering that the past already happened, and the future is yet to come and cannot be predicted.
Next, "A" studies the emotion and the thoughts it brings. "A" might even think "I acknowledge you, distress, and I acknowledge X and Y thought", and then "A" tries their best to remember that thoughts and emotions do not define us. That it is okay to feel this, but that nothing is permanent, and so "A" might try to let the feelings go. Maybe "A" calms down, and then can study the situation from a non-reactive space and perhaps respond calmly to the situation, or "A" is still upset. Either is fine. Either way, "A" tried to respond non-reactively. The intention is what matters.
Before I write an entire book, I will wrap this up with a suggestion meant in loving-kindness (aka metta): next time you feel guilty, or pressured, by positivity, or feel "less than" because you can't just smile through something, remind yourself that you are human. Maybe even sit with your human experience and study it curiously, befriend it, and understand why the reaction is there. Allow yourself to just be, because you are so much more than enough, dear one.
Ps. Feel free to watch my rant on the topic too. Thanks!