How to Cultivate Positive Thoughts in Negative Situations

How to Cultivate Positive Thoughts in Negative Situations
You know what it’s like to have a splinter in your finger: No matter how hard you try to ignore it, all you want to do is get it out. You grab tweezers or even a needle to get the job done. It might hurt, but once it’s gone you feel a tremendous sense of relief. Only then can you get on with the more important aspects of your day.

Negative emotions are like splinters. They pierce your consciousness, inflame your mind, and consume your thoughts. Think about the last time you felt hurt or angered by the harsh words or actions of another. Remember how you held on to your pain, processing it in your mind like an endless one-sided argument? People often hold on to emotional splinters for years. Millions end up in therapy, talking for hours about the problems they can’t let go of. This can lead to antidepressants that leave you less aware of your worries, but also less aware of life in general.

Yoga offers a way out, and it doesn’t take years of counseling or a prescription for Prozac. It’s called Pratipaksha Bhavana, and it’s a simple practice that can transform your life. This Sanskrit term means cultivating an opposite—or positive—thought when you’re in the throes of inner drama. It’s a pathway toward extracting emotional splinters that paves the way for self-healing. You learn to replace anger with compassion, violent thoughts with peaceful ones, or hate with love.

Anyone who has found himself or herself in a state of deep anger or hurt knows that shifting your feelings is easier said than done. You become psychologically and neurologically habituated to these sharp, dramatic emotions to the point that you find yourself overreacting to challenging events, making the tiniest splinter of a perceived negative experience feel like shrapnel piercing your heart. With time, however, the shift will take hold.

Try It

Put Pratipaksha Bhavana to practice: The next time you find yourself in a negative situation, leave the disturbing environment and find a place where you can feel safe, peaceful, and calm. Then try to put the incident into perspective. Ask yourself:

  • Are you overreacting?
  • Could you lose a friend or become estranged from a loved one?
  • Are you going to let this ruin your day?
  • Is it really worth all this suffering?
  • How might the outcome be different if you just let it go?
To ease the tension, sit for a few minutes and contemplate positive thoughts such as the beauty of nature, the miracle of your breath, or the life of a great sage or saint. You can focus on cultivating the opposite emotion from the one that welled up inside you. Replace condemnation with compassion, resentment with forgiveness, or fear with courage. You can also explore what role you played in creating your drama. If it’s a pattern in your life, you might contemplate how to react differently in the future. This is much more than just counting to 10 and letting off the steam, it’s teaching yourself a different way of dealing with life and with your emotions. In the process you create a new inner chemistry that supports calmness and contentment.

Begin this practice the very next time you feel a negative reaction start to consume you. Breathe in the opposite emotion, be it acceptance, gratitude, forgiveness, or whatever feels appropriate. Visualize that emotion permeating your entire being with every exhale. Notice what happens as you practice the inner alchemy of yoga.