Ever wondered why people rubberneck in traffic when there’s been an accident? Researchers attribute this to something called negativity bias—as they describe it, a tendency of the brain to focus on what’s going wrong so we can avoid potential danger and harm in the future. We’re told that some of the consequences of this bias are that we find ourselves getting sucked into bad news, or finding reasons why we can’t enjoy life, why our relationships are never going to work out or just plain worrying about what’s going to happen next.
Not too long ago I surprised myself when I realized I’ve been a longtime worrier. In my defense, I find it hard to believe that there's anyone who hasn’t succumbed to worrying now and then. But I’d been somewhat smugly convinced that the worry gene had been passed down to one of my brothers, not me. I just thought I was taking appropriate steps to plan for the future. Not! Unless “plan for the future” means to be unduly concerned with what might go wrong.
I’m interested in this negativity bias because at one point I would have described this as my experience. But while it’s said that the brain is at fault, I don’t believe that’s quite accurate. The brain is simply an organ in the body. It doesn’t cause me to do anything. The reality that I’ve constructed in my mind with my thoughts is what causes me to react the way I do. And that’s true of all human beings. Our poor brains really do get a bad rap. If that negativity bias were caused by an organ in the body, well, there’s not much we could do about that, is there? We’d be victims to our physiology. But that’s not true, either.
Rather than attributing our negativity to our brains, I think it’s much more useful to look at what we’re doing with our thoughts that makes us fear the worst. Yes, we may have had difficult or traumatic experiences in our personal history, but that’s quite common for human beings, and not all of us get stuck there. What is it that some people do to transcend the tendency to fear that bad things are inevitable?
Recently I noticed that I felt very different; relaxed, happier, much more optimistic and hopeful about my future. It’s funny to talk about “my future” because there’s really no such thing as the future; there’s only now, this moment. What’s actually happening is that I’m imagining a future, and whatever thoughts or actions occur is happening right now. And most of the time I imagine a future based on the past.
What I do with my thoughts is something I’m noticing more and more. To me, thoughts are like a huge box of crayons. There’s an infinite number of colors and I can draw anything with them. And I can make all sorts of different kinds of drawings, different sizes, different paper or canvas. There are infinite possibilities. I remember hearing an injunction years ago that sounded good but I just couldn’t apply to myself: make your life a work of art. I used to think that was a grandiose directive, but now I’m able to interpret it without the association of art as a highbrow or exclusive activity. Art is essentially about making, bringing ideas to life using raw materials that we’re drawn to: paint, paper, canvas, stone, food, whatever. Just the word “art” has too many associations for most people to appreciate that it’s simply the process of putting stuff together and seeing what happens. Where artists get stuck, and where we all get stuck, is when we get in a rut with what we do with the raw materials.
And for all of us, whether we’re artists or anything else, stuckness is caused by what we do (or don’t do) with our thoughts as they relate to those materials.
When I’m stuck in my thinking, when I can’t quite yet see what good can come out of a situation, I tend to start scaring myself by “what-iffing,” by letting my thoughts become a feedback loop of repetitious, unsettling imaginings about what I’m afraid might happen. There’s probably some assumption that if I just focus enough on what I don’t want to have happen eventually I’ll come up with a solution. But if I stop long enough to look at what I’m doing, that reasoning is not logical. Entertaining scary thoughts only produces more scary thoughts.
To hold on to scary thoughts for me is to hold onto a thought-created reality that’s based on scarcity and lack. What’s crazy is that I don’t really even believe that’s the way life is! So why do I get caught up in focusing on it? I think it’s a misunderstanding about how to handle thoughts. In my worst moments, I would give scary thoughts almost absolute power over me - letting them play out until I was just a wet rag of discouragement and inaction. I didn’t know better. I, perhaps like you, have been taught to analyze and scrutinize all my thoughts, especially the so-called negative ones, which has the consequence of making me unable to discern when my thinking is meaningful and when it’s meaningless.
I didn’t spend hours trying to figure this out. One day It just became obvious that I have a choice as to what I do with my thoughts. And when I realized I was focusing on a future that I didn’t want, it made sense to stop doing it. I didn’t need to “do” anything because the insight had its own momentum and after a while I noticed I wasn’t worrying. Just because a thought comes into my head and tells me to jump doesn’t mean I have to jump. But it also doesn’t mean I should ignore or suppress my thoughts. I can acknowledge them without having to become lifelong friends with them.
The great discovery I continue to make is that I don’t need to hold on to unhelpful, scary, discouraging or any other thoughts that keep me from going out and living my life fully. Going back to the art analogy, thoughts are the crayons of our lives. If I don’t like what I’m creating, I can put down the crayons that are not giving me what I want and choose others. Why would I continue to keep using the wrong tools that would give me something I don’t want?
When you stand at the front door of my house, you can see all the way through to the back - through the hallway, through the kitchen to the sunroom - all the way out past the back field and finally, to the wide, flowing river. I love being able to see so much open space. That lack of confinement, the expansiveness! Standing there, I’m reminded of the best way to handle thoughts that worry or scare me. It’s a saying that comes from the buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi:
Leave your front door and your back door open. Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.