NEGATIVITY: The Evil King Goes Hungry




The Evil King Goes Hungry

It is impossible to build one’s own happiness on the unhappiness of others.

—Daisaku Ikeda

It is the summer after my third year of college. I have returned from spending a month at the ashram and am now interning for a finance firm. I’m at lunch with a couple of my colleagues—we’ve grabbed sandwiches and brought them to the concrete courtyard in front of the building, where low walls crisscross the hardscaping and young people in suits eat speedy lunches, defrosting in the summer sun before returning to the hyper-air-conditioned building. I am a monk out of water.

“Did you hear about Gabe?” one of my friends says in a loud whisper. “The partners tore apart his presentation.”

“That dude,” another friend says, shaking his head. “He’s sinking fast.”

I flash back to a class Gauranga Das taught called “Cancers of the Mind: Comparing, Complaining, Criticizing.” In the class, we talked about negative thought habits, including gossip. One of the exercises we did was keeping a tally of every criticism we spoke or thought. For each one, we had to write down ten good things about the person.

It was hard. We were living together, in close quarters. Issues came up, most of them petty. The average time for a monk’s shower was four minutes. When there was a line at the showers, we would take bets on who was taking too long. (This was the only betting we did. Because: monks.) And though the snorers were relegated to their own room, sometimes new practitioners emerged, and we rated their snores on a scale of motorcycles: this monk’s a Vespa; that one’s a Harley-Davidson.

I went through the exercise, dutifully noting every criticism I let slip. Next to each, I jotted down ten positive qualities. The point of the exercise wasn’t hard to figure out—every person was more good than bad—but seeing it on the page made the ratio sink in. This helped me see my own weaknesses differently. I tended to focus on my mistakes without balancing them against my strengths. When I found myself being self-critical, I reminded myself that I too had positive qualities. Putting my negative qualities in context helped me recognize the same ratio in myself, that I am more good than bad. We talked about this feedback loop in class: When we criticize others, we can’t help but notice the bad in ourselves. But when we look for the good in others, we start to see the best in ourselves too.

The guy sitting next to me on the wall nudges me out of my reverie. “So you think he’ll last?”

I’ve lost track of what we’re talking about. “Who?” I ask.

“Gabe—he shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, right?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I say.

Once I’d spent time in the ashram, I became very sensitive to gossip. I’d gotten used to conversations with primarily positive energy. When I first arrived back in the world, I was awkwardly silent. I didn’t want to be the morality police, but I also didn’t want to participate. As the Buddha advised, “Do not give your attention to what others do or fail to do; give it to what you do or fail to do.” I quickly figured out to say things like “Oh, I’m not sure…” or “I haven’t heard anything.” Then I’d shift the conversation to something more positive. “Did you hear they’ve asked Max to stay on? I’m psyched for him.” Gossip has value in some situations: It helps society regulate what is acceptable behavior, and we often use it to see if others agree with our judgments about other people’s behavior and therefore our values. But there are kinder ways to negotiate these questions. More often, we use gossip to put others down, which can make us feel superior to them and/or bolster our status in a group.

Some of my friends and colleagues stopped trying to gossip with me altogether; we had real conversations instead. Some trusted me more, realizing that since I didn’t gossip with them, I wouldn’t gossip about them. If there were people who thought I was just plain boring, well, I have nothing bad to say about them.


You wake up. Your hair looks terrible. Your partner complains that you’re out of coffee. On the way to work some driver who’s texting makes you miss the light. The news on the radio is worse than yesterday. Your coworker whispers to you that Candace is pretending to be sick again.… Every day we are assaulted by negativity. No wonder we can’t help but dish it out as well as receive it. We report the aches and pains of the day rather than the small joys. We compare ourselves to our neighbors, complain about our partners, say things about our friends behind their backs that we would never say to their faces, criticize people on social media, argue, deceive, even explode into anger.

This negative chatter even takes place throughout what we might consider to be a “good day,” and it’s not part of anyone’s plan. In my experience, nobody wakes up and thinks, How can I be mean to or about other people today? or How can I make myself feel better by making others feel worse today? Still, negativity often comes from within. We have three core emotional needs, which I like to think of as peace, love, and understanding (thanks Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello). Negativity—in conversation, emotions, and actions—often springs from a threat to one of the three needs: a fear that bad things are going to happen (loss of peace), a fear of not being loved (loss of love), or a fear of being disrespected (loss of understanding). From these fears stem all sorts of other emotions—feeling overwhelmed, insecure, hurt, competitive, needy, and so on. These negative feelings spring out of us as complaints, comparisons, and criticisms and other negative behaviors. Think of the trolls who dive onto social media, dumping ill will on their targets. Perhaps their fear is that they aren’t respected, and they turn to trolling to feel significant. Or perhaps their political beliefs are generating the fear that their world is unsafe. (Or maybe they’re just trying to build a following—fear certainly doesn’t motivate every troll in the world.)

For another example, we all have friends who turn a catch-up phone call into an interminable vent session describing their job, their partner, their family—what’s wrong, what’s unfair, what’s never going to change. For these people, nothing ever seems to go right. This person may be expressing their fear that bad things are going to happen—their core need for peace and security is threatened.

Bad things do happen. In our lives, we’re all victims at some point—whether we’re being racially profiled or being cut off in traffic. But if we adopt a victim mentality, we’re more likely to take on a sense of entitlement and to behave selfishly. Stanford psychologists took 104 subjects and assigned them to one of two groups—one told to write a short essay about a time they were bored, and the other to write about a time when life seemed unfair or when they felt “wronged or slighted by someone.” Afterward, the participants were asked if they wanted to help the researchers with an easy task. Those who’d written about a time they’d been wronged were 26 percent less likely to help the researchers. In a similar study, participants who identified with a victim mindset were not only more likely to express selfish attitudes afterward, they were also more likely to leave behind trash and even take the experimenters’ pens!


We’re social creatures who get most of what we want in life—peace, love, and understanding—from the group we gather around us. Our brains adjust automatically to both harmony and disagreement. We’ve already talked about how we unconsciously try to please others. Well, we also want to agree with others. Research has proven that most humans value social conformity so much that they’ll change their own responses—even their perceptions—to align with the group, even when the group is blatantly wrong.

In the 1950s Solomon Asch gathered groups of college students and told them they were doing a vision test. The catch was that in each group, everyone was an actor except one person: the subject of the test.

Asch showed participants an image of a “target” line first, then of a series of three lines: one shorter, one longer, and one that was clearly the same length as the target line. The students were asked which line matched the length of the target line. Sometimes the actors gave correct answers, and sometimes they purposefully gave incorrect answers. In each case, the real study participant answered last. The correct answer should have been obvious. But, influenced by the actors, about 75 percent of the subjects followed the crowd to give an incorrect response at least once. This phenomenon has been called groupthink bias.

We’re wired to conform. Your brain would rather not deal with conflict and debate. It would much prefer to lounge in the comfort of like-mindedness. That’s not a bad thing if we’re surrounded by, say, monks. But if we’re surrounded by gossip, conflict, and negativity, we start to see the world in those terms, just like the people who went against their own eyes in Asch’s line experiment.

The instinct for agreement has a huge impact on our lives. It is one of the reasons why, in a culture of complaint, we join the fray.

And the more negativity that surrounds us, the more negative we become. We think that complaining will help us process our anger, but research confirms that even people who report feeling better after venting are still more aggressive post-gripe than people who did not engage in venting.

At the Bhaktivedanta Manor, the temple’s London outpost, there was one monk who drove me crazy. If I asked him how he was in the morning, he’d tell me about how badly he’d slept and whose fault it was. He complained that the food was bad, and yet there was never enough. It was relentless verbal diarrhea, so negative that I never wanted to be around him.

Then I found myself complaining about him to the other monks. And so I became exactly what I was criticizing. Complaining is contagious, and he’d passed it on to me.

Studies show that negativity like mine can increase aggression toward random, uninvolved people, and that the more negative your attitude, the more likely you are to have a negative attitude in the future. Studies also show that long-term stress, like that generated by complaining, actually shrinks your hippocampus—that’s the region of your brain that affects reasoning and memory. Cortisol, the same stress hormone that takes a toll on the hippocampus, also impairs your immune system (and has loads of other harmful effects). I’m not blaming every illness on negativity, but if remaining positive can prevent even one of my winter colds, I’m all for it.


Negative behaviors surround us so constantly that we grow accustomed to them. Think about whether you have any of the following in your life:

  • Complainers, like the friend on the phone, who complain endlessly without looking for solutions. Life is a problem that will be hard if not impossible to solve.
  • Cancellers, who take a compliment and spin it: “You look good today” becomes “You mean I looked bad yesterday?”
  • Casualties, who think the world is against them and blame their problems on others.
  • Critics, who judge others for either having a different opinion or not having one, for any choices they’ve made that are different from what the critic would have done.
  • Commanders, who realize their own limits but pressure others to succeed. They’ll say, “You never have time for me,” even though they’re busy as well.
  • Competitors, who compare themselves to others, controlling and manipulating to make themselves or their choices look better. They are in so much pain that they want to bring others down. Often we have to play down our successes around these people because we know they can’t appreciate them.
  • Controllers, who monitor and try to direct how their friends or partners spend time, and with whom, and what choices they make.

You can have fun with this list, seeing if you can think of someone to fit each type. But the real point of it is to help you notice and frame these behaviors when they come at you. If you put everyone into the same box of negativity (“They’re so annoying!”), you aren’t any closer to deciding how to manage each relationship.

On the day I moved to the ashram with six other new monks traveling from England, they told us to think of our new home as a hospital, where we were all patients. Becoming a monk, detaching from material life, was not seen as an achievement in and of itself. It simply meant that we were ready to be admitted to a place of healing where we could work to overcome the illnesses of the soul that infected us and weakened us.

In a hospital, as we all know, even the doctors get sick. Nobody is immune. The senior monks reminded us that everyone had different sicknesses, everyone was still learning, and that, just as we would not judge anyone else’s health problems, we shouldn’t judge someone who sinned differently. Gauranga Das repeated this advice in brief metaphorical form that we often used to remind ourselves not to harbor negative thoughts toward others: Don’t judge someone with a different disease. Don’t expect anyone to be perfect. Don’t think you are perfect.

Instead of judging negative behavior, we try to neutralize the charge, or even reverse it to positive. Once you recognize a complainer isn’t looking for solutions, you realize you don’t have to provide them. If a commander says, “You’re too busy for me,” you can say, “Should we find a time that works for both of us?”


The categories above help us step away from the negative person in order to make clearheaded decisions about our role in the situation. The monk way is to dig to the root, diagnose, and clarify a situation so you can explain it simply to yourself. Let’s use this approach to define strategies for dealing with negative people.

Become an Objective Observer :

Monks lead with awareness. We approach negativity—any type of conflict, really—by taking a step back to remove ourselves from the emotional charge of the moment. Catholic monk Father Thomas Keating said, “There is no commandment that says we have to be upset by the way other people treat us. The reason we are upset is because we have an emotional program that says, ‘If someone is nasty to me, I cannot be happy or feel good about myself.’… Instead of reacting compulsively and retaliating, we could enjoy our freedom as human beings and refuse to be upset.” We step away, not literally but emotionally, and look at the situation as if we are not in the middle of it. We will talk more about this distance, which is called detachment, in the next chapter. For now, I’ll say that it helps us find understanding without judgment. Negativity is a trait, not someone’s identity. A person’s true nature can be obscured by clouds, but, like the sun, it is always there. And clouds can overcome any of us. We have to understand this when we deal with people who exude negative energy. Just like we wouldn’t want someone to judge us by our worst moments, we must be careful not to do that to others. When someone hurts you, it’s because they’re hurt. Their hurt is simply spilling over. They need help. And as the Dalai Lama says, “If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.”

Back Slowly Away :

From a position of understanding, we are better equipped to address negative energy. The simplest response is to back slowly away. Just as in the last chapter we let go of the influences that interfered with our values, we want to cleanse ourselves of the negative attitudes that cloud our outlook. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who has been called the Father of Mindfulness, writes, “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything—anger, anxiety, or possessions—we cannot be free.” I encourage you to purge or avoid physical triggers of negative thoughts and feelings, like that sweatshirt your ex gave you or the coffee shop where you always run into a former friend. If you don’t let go physically, you won’t let go emotionally.

But when a family member, a friend, or a colleague is involved, distancing ourselves is often not an option or not the first response we want to give. We need to use other strategies.

The 25/75 Principle :

For every negative person in your life, have three uplifting people. I try to surround myself with people who are better than I am in some way: happier, more spiritual. In life, as in sports, being around better players pushes you to grow. I don’t mean for you to take this so literally that you label each of your friends either negative or uplifting, but aim for the feeling that at least 75 percent of your time is spent with people who inspire you rather than bring you down. Do your part in making the friendship an uplifting exchange. Don’t just spend time with the people you love—grow with them. Take a class, read a book, do a workshop. Sangha is the Sanskrit word for community, and it suggests a refuge where people serve and inspire each other.

Allocate Time :

Another way to reduce negativity if you can’t remove it is to regulate how much time you allow a person to occupy based on their energy. Some challenges we face only because we allow them to challenge us. There might be some people you can only tolerate for an hour a month, some for a day, some for a week. Maybe you even know a one-minute person. Consider how much time is best for you to spend with them, and don’t exceed it.

Don’t Be a Savior :

If all someone needs is an ear, you can listen without exerting much energy. If we try to be problem-solvers, then we become frustrated when people don’t take our brilliant advice. The desire to save others is ego-driven. Don’t let your own needs shape your response. In Sayings of the Fathers, a compilation of teachings and maxims from Jewish Rabbinic tradition, it is advised, “Don’t count the teeth in someone else’s mouth.” Similarly, don’t attempt to fix a problem unless you have the necessary skills. Think of your friend as a person who is drowning. If you are an excellent swimmer, a trained lifeguard, then you have the strength and wherewithal to help a swimmer in trouble. Similarly, if you have the time and mind space to help another person, go for it. But if you’re only a fair swimmer and you try to save a drowning person, they are likely to pull you down with them. Instead, you call for the lifeguard. Similarly, if you don’t have the energy and experience to help a friend, you can introduce them to people or ideas that might help them. Maybe someone else is their rescuer.


Working from the outside in is the natural way of decluttering. Once we recognize and begin to neutralize the external negativities, we become better able to see our own negative tendencies and begin to reverse them.

Sometimes we deny responsibility for the negativity that we ourselves put out in the world, but negativity doesn’t always come from other people and it isn’t always spoken aloud. Envy, complaint, anger—it’s easier to blame those around us for a culture of negativity, but purifying our own thoughts will protect us from the influence of others.

In the ashram our aspirations for purity were so high that our “competition” came in the form of renunciation (“I eat less than that monk”; “I meditated longer than everyone else”). But a monk has to laugh at himself if the last thought he has at the end of the meditation is “Look at me! I outlasted them all!” If that’s where he arrived, then what was the point of the meditation? In The Monastic Way, a compilation of quotes edited by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, Sister Christine Vladimiroff says, “[In a monastery], the only competition allowed is to outstrip each other in showing love and respect.”

Competition breeds envy. In the Mahabharata, an evil warrior envies another warrior and wants him to lose all he has. The evil warrior hides a burning block of coal in his robes, planning to hurl it at the object of his envy. Instead, it catches fire and the evil warrior himself is burned. His envy makes him his own enemy.

Envy’s catty cousin is Schadenfreude, which means taking pleasure in the suffering of others. When we derive joy from other people’s failures, we’re building our houses and pride on the rocky foundations of someone else’s imperfection or bad luck. That is not steady ground. In fact, when we find ourselves judging others, we should take note. It’s a signal that our minds are tricking us into thinking we’re moving forward when in truth we’re stuck. If I sold more apples than you did yesterday, but you sold more today, this says nothing about whether I’m improving as an apple seller. The more we define ourselves in relation to the people around us, the more lost we are.

We may never completely purge ourselves of envy, jealousy, greed, lust, anger, pride, and illusion, but that doesn’t mean we should ever stop trying. In Sanskrit, the word anartha generally means “things not wanted,” and to practice anartha-nivritti is to remove that which is unwanted. We think freedom means being able to say whatever we want. We think freedom means that we can pursue all our desires. Real freedom is letting go of things not wanted, the unchecked desires that lead us to unwanted ends.

Letting go doesn’t mean wiping away negative thoughts, feelings, and ideas completely. The truth is that these thoughts will always arise—it is what we do with them that makes the difference. The neighbor’s barking dog is an annoyance. It will always interrupt you. The question is how you guide that response. The key to real freedom is self-awareness.

In your evaluation of your own negativity, keep in mind that even small actions have consequences. Even when we become more aware of others’ negativity and say, “She’s always complaining,” we ourselves are being negative. At the ashram, we slept under mosquito nets. Every night, we’d close our nets and use flashlights to confirm that they were clear of bugs. One morning, I woke up to discover that a single mosquito had been in my net and I had at least ten bites. I thought of something the Dalai Lama said, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” Petty, negative thoughts and words are like mosquitos: Even the smallest ones can rob us of our peace.

Spot, Stop, Swap :

Most of us don’t register our negative thoughts, much as I didn’t register that sole mosquito. To purify our thoughts, monks talk about the process of awareness, addressing, and amending. I like to remember this as spot, stop, swap. First, we become aware of a feeling or issue—we spot it. Then we pause to address what the feeling is and where it comes from—we stop to consider it. And last, we amend our behavior—we swap in a new way of processing the moment. SPOT, STOP, SWAP.

Spot :

Becoming aware of negativity means learning to spot the toxic impulses around you. To help us confront our own negativity, our monk teachers told us to try not to complain, compare, or criticize for a week, and keep a tally of how many times we failed. The goal was to see the daily tally decrease. The more aware we became of these tendencies, the more we might free ourselves from them.

Listing your negative thoughts and comments will help you contemplate their origins. Are you judging a friend’s appearance, and are you equally hard on your own? Are you muttering about work without considering your own contribution? Are you reporting on a friend’s illness to call attention to your own compassion, or are you hoping to solicit more support for that friend?


Keep a tally of the negative remarks you make over the course of a week. See if you can make your daily number go down. The goal is zero.

Sometimes instead of reacting negatively to what is, we negatively anticipate what might be. This is suspicion. There’s a parable about an evil king who went to meet a good king. When invited to stay for dinner, the evil king asked for his plate to be switched with the good king’s plate. When the good king asked why, the evil king replied, “You may have poisoned this food.”

The good king laughed.

That made the evil king even more nervous, and he switched the plates again, thinking maybe he was being double-bluffed. The good king just shook his head and took a bite of the food in front of him. The evil king didn’t eat that night.

What we judge or envy or suspect in someone else can guide us to the darkness we have within ourselves. The evil king projects his own dishonor onto the good king. In the same way our envy or impatience or suspicion with someone else tells us something about ourselves. Negative projections and suspicions reflect our own insecurities and get in our way. If you decide your boss is against you, it can affect you emotionally—you might be so discouraged that you don’t perform well at work—or practically—you won’t ask for the raise you deserve. Either way, like the evil king, you’re the one who will go hungry!

Stop :

When you better understand the roots of your negativity, the next step is to address it. Silence your negativity to make room for thoughts and actions that add to your life instead of taking away from it. Start with your breath. When we’re stressed, we hold our breath or clench our jaws. We slump in defeat or tense our shoulders. Throughout the day, observe your physical presence. Is your jaw tight? Is your brow furrowed? These are signs that we need to remember to breathe, to loosen up physically and emotionally.

The Bhagavad Gita refers to the austerity of speech, saying that we should only speak words that are truthful, beneficial to all, pleasing, and that don’t agitate the minds of others. The Vaca Sutta, from early Buddhist scriptures, offers similar wisdom, defining a well-spoken statement as one that is “spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”

Remember, saying whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want, is not freedom. Real freedom is not feeling the need to say these things.

When we limit our negative speech, we may find that we have a lot less to say. We might even feel inhibited. Nobody loves an awkward silence, but it’s worth it to free ourselves from negativity. Criticizing someone else’s work ethic doesn’t make you work harder. Comparing your marriage to someone else’s doesn’t make your marriage better unless you do so thoughtfully and productively. Judgment creates an illusion: that if you see well enough to judge, then you must be better, that if someone else is failing, then you must be moving forward. In fact, it is careful, thoughtful observations that move us forward.

Stopping doesn’t mean simply shunning the negative instinct. Get closer to it. Australian community worker Neil Barringham said, “The grass is greener where you water it.” Notice what’s arousing your negativity, over there on your frenemy’s side of the fence. Do they seem to have more time, a better job, a more active social life? Because in the third step, swapping, you’ll want to look for seeds of the same on your turf and cultivate them. For example, take your envy of someone else’s social whirlwind and in it find the inspiration to host a party, or get back in touch with old friends, or organize an after-work get-together. It is important to find our significance not from thinking other people have it better but from being the person we want to be.

Swap :

After spotting and stopping the negativity in your heart, mind, and speech, you can begin to amend it. Most of us monks were unable to completely avoid complaining, comparing, and criticizing—and you can’t expect you’ll be completely cured of that habit either—but researchers have found that happy people tend to complain… wait for it… mindfully. While thoughtlessly venting complaints makes your day worse, it’s been shown that writing in a journal about upsetting events, giving attention to your thoughts and emotions, can foster growth and healing, not only mentally, but also physically.

We can be mindful of our negativity by being specific. When someone asks how we are, we usually answer, “good,” “okay,” “fine,” or “bad.” Sometimes this is because we know a truthful, detailed answer is not expected or wanted, but we tend to be equally vague when we complain. We might say we’re angry or sad when we’re offended or disappointed. Instead, we can better manage our feelings by choosing our words carefully. Instead of describing ourselves as feeling angry, sad, anxious, hurt, embarrassed, and happy, the Harvard Business Review lists nine more specific words that we could use for each one of these emotions. Instead of being angry, we might better describe ourselves as annoyed, defensive, or spiteful. Monks are considered quiet because they are trained to choose their words so carefully that it takes some time. We choose words carefully and use them with purpose.

So much is lost in bad communication. For example, instead of complaining to a friend, who can’t do anything about it, that your partner always comes home late, communicate directly and mindfully with your partner. You might say, “I appreciate that you work hard and have a lot to balance. When you come home later than you promised, it drives me crazy. You could support me by texting me as soon as you know you’re running late.” When our complaints are understood—by ourselves and others—they can be more productive.

In addition to making our negativity more productive, we can also deliberately swap in positivity. One way to do this, as I mentioned, is to use our negativity—like envy—to guide us to what we want. But we can also swap in new feelings. In English, we have the words “empathy” and “compassion” to express our ability to feel the pain that others suffer, but we don’t have a word for experiencing vicarious joy—joy on behalf of other people. Perhaps this is a sign that we all need to work on it. Mudita is the principle of taking sympathetic or unselfish joy in the good fortune of others.

If I only find joy in my own successes, I’m limiting my joy. But if I can take pleasure in the successes of my friends and family—ten, twenty, fifty people!—I get to experience fifty times the happiness and joy. Who doesn’t want that?

The material world has convinced us that there are only a limited number of colleges worth attending, a limited number of good jobs available, a limited number of people who get lucky. In such a finite world, there’s only so much success and happiness to go around, and whenever other people experience them, your chances of doing so decrease. But monks believe that when it comes to happiness and joy, there is always a seat with your name on it. In other words, you don’t need to worry about someone taking your place. In the theater of happiness, there is no limit. Everyone who wants to partake in mudita can watch the show. With unlimited seats, there is no fear of missing out.

Radhanath Swami is my spiritual teacher and the author of several books, including The Journey Home. I asked him how to stay peaceful and be a positive force in a world where there is so much negativity. He said, “There is toxicity everywhere around us. In the environment, in the political atmosphere, but the origin is in people’s hearts. Unless we clean the ecology of our own heart and inspire others to do the same, we will be an instrument of polluting the environment. But if we create purity in our own heart, then we can contribute great purity to the world around us.”


Make a list of five people you care about, but also feel competitive with. Come up with at least one reason that you’re envious of each one: something they’ve achieved, something they’re better at, something that’s gone well for them. Did that achievement actually take anything away from you? Now think about how it benefitted your friend. Visualize everything good that has come to them from this achievement. Would you want to take any of these things away if you could, even knowing that they would not come to you? If so, this envy is robbing you of joy. Envy is more destructive to you than whatever your friend has accomplished. Spend your energy transforming it.


We’ve talked about strategies to manage and minimize the daily negativity in your life. But nuisances like complaining, comparing, and gossip can feel manageable next to bigger negative emotions like pain and anger. We all harbor anger in some form: anger from the past, or anger at people who continue to play a big role in our lives. Anger at misfortune. Anger at the living and the dead. Anger turned inward.

When we are deeply wounded, anger is often part of the response. Anger is a great, flaming ball of negative emotion, and when we cannot let it go, no matter how we try, the anger takes on a life of its own. The toll is enormous. I want to talk specifically about how to deal with anger we feel toward other people.

Kṣamā is Sanskrit for forgiveness. It suggests that you bring patience and forbearance to your dealings with others. Sometimes we have been wounded so deeply that we can’t imagine how we might forgive the person who hurt us. But, contrary to what most of us believe, forgiveness is primarily an action we take within ourselves. Sometimes it’s better (and safer and healthier) not to have direct contact with the person at all; other times, the person who hurt us is no longer around to be forgiven directly. But those factors don’t impede forgiveness because it is, first and foremost, internal. It frees you from anger.

One of my clients told me, “I had to reach back to my childhood to pinpoint why I felt unloved and unworthy. My paternal grandmother set the tone for this feeling. I realized she treated me differently because she didn’t like my mother. [I had to] forgive her even though she passed on already. I realized I was always worthy and always lovable. She was broken, not I.”

The Bhagavad Gita describes three gunas, or modes of life: tamasrajas, and sattva, which represent “ignorance,” “impulsivity,” and “goodness.” I have found that these three modes can be applied to any activity—for example, when you pull back from a conflict and look for understanding, it’s very useful to try to shift from rajas—impulsivity and passion—to sattva—goodness, positivity, and peace. These modes are the foundation of my approach to forgiveness.


Before we find our way to forgiveness, we are stuck in anger. We may even want revenge, to return the pain that a person has inflicted on us. An eye for an eye. Revenge is the mode of ignorance—it’s often said that you can’t fix yourself by breaking someone else. Monks don’t hinge their choices and feelings on others’ behaviors. You believe revenge will make you feel better because of how the other person will react. But when you make your vindictive play and the person doesn’t have the response you fantasized about—guess what? You only feel more pain. Revenge backfires.

When you rise above revenge, you can begin the process of forgiveness. People tend to think in binary terms: You either forgive someone, or you don’t forgive someone, but (as I will suggest more than once in this book) there are often multiple levels. These levels give us leeway to be where we are, to progress in our own time, and to climb only as far as we can. On the scale of forgiveness, the bottom (though it is higher than revenge) is zero forgiveness. “I am not going to forgive that person, no matter what. I don’t want to hurt them, but I’m never going to forgive them.” On this step we are still stuck in anger, and there is no resolution. As you might imagine, this is an uncomfortable place to stay.

The next step is conditional forgiveness: If they apologize, then I’ll apologize. If they promise never to do it again, I’ll forgive them. This transactional forgiveness comes from the mode of impulse—driven by the need to feed your own emotions. Research at Luther College shows that forgiving appears to be easier when we get (or give) an apology, but I don’t want us to focus on conditional forgiveness. I want you to rise higher.

The next step is something called transformational forgiveness. This is forgiveness in the mode of goodness. In transformational forgiveness, we find the strength and calmness to forgive without expecting an apology or anything else in return.

There is one level higher on the forgiveness ladder: unconditional forgiveness. This is the level of forgiveness that a parent often has for a child. No matter what that child does or will do, the parent has already forgiven them. The good news is, I’m not suggesting you aim for that. What I want you to achieve is transformational forgiveness.


Forgiveness has been shown to bring peace to our minds. Forgiveness actually conserves energy. Transformational forgiveness is linked to a slew of health improvements including: fewer medications taken, better sleep quality, and reduced somatic symptoms including back pain, headache, nausea, and fatigue. Forgiveness eases stress, because we no longer recycle the angry thoughts, both conscious and subconscious, that stressed us out in the first place.

In fact, science shows that in close relationships, there’s less emotional tension between partners when they’re able to forgive each other, and that promotes physical well-being. In a study published in a 2011 edition of the journal Personal Relationshipssixty-eight married couples agreed to have an eight-minute talk about a recent incident where one spouse “broke the rules” of the marriage. The couples then separately watched replays of the interviews and researchers measured their blood pressure. In couples where the “victim” was able to forgive their spouse, bothpartners’ blood pressure decreased. It just goes to show that forgiveness is good for everyone.

Giving and receiving forgiveness both have health benefits. When we make forgiveness a regular part of our spiritual practice, we start to notice all of our relationships blossoming. We’re no longer holding grudges. There’s less drama to deal with.


In this exercise we try to untangle the knot of pain and/or anger created by conflict. Even if the relationship is not one you want to salvage or have the option of rebuilding, this exercise will help you let go of anger and find peace.

Before you start, visualize yourself in the other person’s shoes. Acknowledge their pain and understand that it is why they are causing you pain.

Then, write a letter of forgiveness.

  1. List all the ways you think the other person did you wrong. Forgiving another person honestly and specifically goes a long way toward healing the relationship. Start each item with “I forgive you for…” Keep going until you get everything out. We’re not sending this letter, so you can repeat yourself if the same thing keeps coming to mind. Write everything you wanted to say but never had a chance. You don’t have to feel forgiveness. Yet. When you write it down, what you’re doing is beginning to understand the pain more specifically so that you can slowly let it go.
  2. Acknowledge your own shortcomings. What was your role, if any, in the situation or conflict? List the ways you feel you did wrong, starting each with the phrase “Please forgive me for…” Remember you can’t undo the past, but taking responsibility for your role will help you understand and let go of your anger toward yourself and the other person.
  3. When you are done with this letter, record yourself reading it. (Most phones can do this.) Play it back, putting yourself in the position of the objective observer. Remember that the pain inflicted on you isn’t yours. It’s the other person’s pain. When you squeeze an orange, you get orange juice. When you squeeze someone full of pain, pain comes out. Instead of absorbing it or giving it back, if you forgive, you help diffuse the pain.


Forgiveness has to flow in both directions. None of us is perfect, and though there will be situations where you are blameless, there are also times when there are missteps on both sides of a conflict. When you cause pain and others cause you pain, it’s as if your hearts get twisted together into an uncomfortable knot. When we forgive, we start to separate our pain from theirs and to heal ourselves emotionally. But when we ask for forgiveness at the same time, we untwist together. This is a bit trickier, because we’re much more comfortable finding fault in other people and then forgiving it. We’re not used to admitting fault and taking responsibility for what we create in our lives.


Sometimes, when we feel shame or guilt for what we’ve done in the past, it’s because those actions no longer reflect our values. Now, when we look at our former selves, we don’t relate to their decisions. This is actually good news—the reason we’re hurting over our past is because we’ve made progress. We did the best we could then, but we can do better now. What could be better than moving forward? We’re already winning. We’re already crushing it.


The exercise above can also be used to forgive yourself. Starting each line with “I forgive myself for… ,” list the reasons you feel angry at or disappointed in yourself. Then read it out loud or record it and play it for yourself. Bring out the objective observer, and find understanding for yourself, letting go of the pain.

When we wrap our heads around the fact that we can’t undo the past, we begin to accept our own imperfections and mistakes, forgive ourselves, and, in doing so, open ourselves up to the emotional healing we all yearn for.


The pinnacle of forgiveness, true sattva, is to wish the person who caused you pain well.

I became a Buddhist because I hated my husband.” That’s not something you hear every day, but Buddhist nun and author of When Things Fall Apart Pema Chödrön is only kind of kidding. After her divorce, she went into a negativity spiral where she entertained revenge fantasies because of her husband’s affair. Eventually, she came across the writings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a meditation master who founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. In reading his work, she realized that the relationship had become like a malignant cell—instead of dying off, her anger and blame were causing the negativity of the breakup to spread. Once Chödrön allowed herself to “become more like a river than a rock,” she was able to forgive her husband and move forward. She now refers to her ex-husband as one of her greatest teachers.

If you want the negativity between yourself and another person to dissipate, you have to hope that you both heal. You don’t have to tell them directly, but send the energy of well-wishing out into the air. This is when you feel most free and at peace—because you’re truly able to let go.

    Negativity is a natural part of life. We tease and provoke, express vulnerability, connect over shared values and fears. It’s hard to find a comedy show that isn’t based on negative observations. But there is a line between negativity that helps us navigate life and negativity that puts more pain out into the world. You might talk about the problems someone’s child is having with addiction because you are scared that it will happen to your family and hoping to avoid it. But you also might gossip about the same issue to judge the family and feel better about your own. Ellen DeGeneres sees the line clearly—in an interview with Parade magazine she said that she doesn’t think it’s funny to make fun of people. “The world is filled with negativity. I want people to watch me and think, ‘I feel good, and I’m going to make somebody else feel good today.’ ” This is the spirit in which monks have fun—we are playful and laugh easily. When new monks arrived, they often took themselves too seriously (I know I did), and the senior monks would have a twinkle in their eyes when they said, “Steady now, don’t waste all your energy on your first day.” Whenever the priest brought out the most special sacred food—which was sweeter and tastier than the simple food we ordinarily ate—the younger monks would joke-wrestle to get to it first. And if someone fell asleep and snored during meditation, we would all glance at one another, not even trying to hide our distraction.

We needn’t reduce our thoughts and words to 100 percent sunshine and positivity. But we should challenge ourselves to dig to the root of negativity, to understand its origins in ourselves and those around us, and to be mindful and deliberate in how we manage the energy it absorbs. We begin to let go through recognition and forgiveness. We spot, stop, and swap—observe, reflect, and develop new behaviors to replace the negativity in our lives, always striving toward self-discipline and bliss. When you stop feeling so curious about others’ misfortunes and instead take pleasure in their successes, you’re healing.

The less time you fixate on everyone else, the more time you have to focus on yourself.

    Negativity, as we’ve discussed, often arises from fear. Next, we will explore fear itself, how it gets in our way, and how we can make it a productive part of life.





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