October 30, 2019

The Case for Feelings: why “Negative Vibes” are not Toxic.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Elephant Journal (@elephantjournal) on

Chances are, if you’re on this particular site and reading this article, you’ve encountered one or more people who have an intolerance or outright disdain for what they label, “Negative Vibes.”

People who equate spiritual mastery with allowing only positive high vibrations into their minds, energy field, or personal space. 

When I was 15, I read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand for the first time. I fell in love with her words, her ideas, and most of all, her characters.

These amazing men and women, who seemed completely in control of themselves, were ambitious, driven, intense, passionate, adventurous, and wildly alive. They were characters who faced struggles head-on, and refused to be defined by the dominant teachings and ideas of their time. They believed life did not have to be grim. Life did not have to be a struggle or a burden. They believed a life of happiness and joy—on their own terms—was not only possible, but a right of human existence.

In the words of The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark:

“But you see,” said Roark quietly, “I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.”

Rand’s characters were confident, and in many instances arrogant in their convictions. Champions of individualism. Persistent and self-disciplined. There is a reason why the philosophy of Ayn Rand has always been considered a philosophy of the young. 

Except there was a problem: in scene after scene, we see these characters repress their feelings and emotions in favor of logic and reason. We see them place a higher value on philosophical idealism, over the complex and messy truth of the human experience. They encouraged a certain ruthlessness when it came to what they considered undesirable or dangerous emotions. 

Compare the emotional ruthlessness of Rand’s characters with the “only good vibes” crowd of today, and you might see how the two share a similar need for the management and control of themselves and their environments, with an underlying shared premise that negative emotions are toxic, and must be avoided at all costs. 

Where Rand’s characters champion logic and reason, the self-proclaimed good vibe “spiritual masters” of today champion positivity and high energy vibrations. In the end, the result is the same. I see this as a form of spiritual bypassing and toxic positivity, which encourages the repression of unwanted feelings, and the systemic denial and abandonment of self. 

Rand may have been an atheist with a fierce disdain for religion, spirituality, and anything she deemed mystical—but her characters treated feelings and emotions with the same contempt and arrogance of any positivity-only guru alive today. 

What is spiritual bypassing?

Introduced by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood in the 1980s, spiritual bypassing is defined as “the tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”

I see it as a self-defense mechanism meant to manage and control ourselves and others, and avoid or escape the realities of our life and the world around us. I have found any denial of self to ultimately be a form of self-abandonment. 

Here is where I might lose some of you. I’m a Christian. I know for many of you, that word alone will trigger an immediate shutdown, and anything I say from this point forward (if you haven’t already stopped reading) will be tinged with higher levels of doubt and skepticism. I get it.

And while I won’t apologize for my faith, I will tell you it took a long time and a boatload of what can only be described as actual miracles to arrive at this place. I will also tell you I don’t blame you for doubting when you haven’t had the same experiences as I have. Let me further clarify, I am a Christian in the way Christ intended, meaning I practice love.

That said, I am a firm believer that you cannot have true faith without an experience of faith—and I have a deep and profound respect for whatever you believe or don’t believe when it comes to God, the universe, spirituality, energy vibrations, and the like. 

I also (here’s where it’s going to get interesting), practice Zen in the lineage of Maezumi Roshi. And, in my lineage, we do a lot of sitting—what we call shikantaza or more commonly zazen (i.e. I sit and stare at walls a lot).

There is often confusion about the point of meditation. My teacher would say that the point of meditation is not to become more peaceful, less prone to road rage or temper tantrums, increase focus, or even to reach some state of samadhi or enlightenment (although all of those things could be by-products of meditation).

The point of mediation is to wake up to ourselves and our life as it is. 

In my own practice and Christian faith, I have never once encountered someone who was considered a spiritual master, teacher, prophet, or the like who encouraged the repression of emotions, who denied or attempted to push away the suffering of the human experience, or who instructed others to attempt to endlessly manage or control (a form of grasping) the vibrations of themselves or others in an attempt to exist solely in a field of happiness, joy, and positivity. In fact, I have seen the exact opposite.

Again and again throughout the Bible, we see a pattern of God using broken people. Abraham and Sarah were old—in fact, Sarah was 90 years old when she conceived Issac, and she died at 127. Elijah was suicidal. In 1 Kings 19:4, Elijah begs God to take his life, saying, “I have had enough, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.” 

Job was bankrupt. Rehab was a prostitute. Noah was a drunk. David was a murderer. I could go on and on. God and his son Jesus have always favored those who have suffered, over those who have not. 

Please do not misunderstand me—I am not arguing that you must choose to suffer or create more self-suffering by focusing solely on the pains of life. I am arguing that suffering and painful emotions are not only powerful teachers but also help us better relate to those who have walked through the same fire. 

Think about it, even Jesus suffered. The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus. Not to mention the physical pain and emotional scars from his own crucifixion. Matthew 27:46, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”

Jesus, the only son of God, experienced fear, pain, frustration, discouragement, grief, and immense suffering. But he did not repress his feelings. He did not reach for a higher vibration. What did he do? He wept. 

It was through his own pain and suffering, Jesus learned compassion, patience, humility, acceptance, grace, and love. 

Similarly, Pema Chödrön (who was a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche founder of Shambhala), has this to say about difficult emotions and feelings (or, as some would label, “low-vibrations”):

“Lean into the sharp points and fully experience them. The essence of bravery is being without self-deception. Wisdom is inherent in (understanding) emotions.”

The Buddha said, “All I teach is suffering, and the end of suffering.”

Ram Das described it this way:

“We’ve lived our lives with negative images of ourselves, from childhood on, and we’ve built upon those images, and built upon them, and they became very heavy weights. These thoughts about us are a part of our ego, and they’re manifested through our roles of child or husband, wife, breadwinner, all of those roles. They’re built upon the thoughts of, ‘I’m not truthful’ or ‘I’m not likable,’ ‘I’m not good’—all of those negative images. Once you identify with your soul you start to taste the love in your true self, in your spiritual heart and it’s different than all of the loves you’ve ever had. It’s just different; it’s unconditional love.

Now you have the clarity and the vantage point of being able to see your incarnation through the perspective of the soul—it gives you a panoramic view of your incarnation. Only then can you develop compassion, first for yourself and then for others.

When you see someone who is hurting, typically you think and then act from your mind, ‘I must go to them.’ But from the vantage point of the soul, you know that somebody is hurt, but you also recognize that the hurt is part of all of us. In other words, when you identify with your soul everybody is part of us. You don’t react in a way of, ‘I’m going to help that person’—it’s like one hand pulling the other hand out of the fire. It’s all part of the same body. That’s true compassion.”

And he continues, when bad or negative thoughts arise in his own mind, rather than shutting them out he says, “I love my thoughts. I love them to death.”

So what does God do with those who have suffered?

I have spent the entirety of the last two years in non-stop grief. Not normal grief where you can somewhat predict how you’ll flow through the stages of denial, bargaining, depression, anger, and acceptance—but complicated grief.

Every day, I felt more empty, more alone, more like nothing mattered or would ever matter again. I also dealt with anticipatory and ambiguous grief where, at first, I was grieving someone who was still alive. A kind of preemptive grief which is very difficult to understand with logic—and even more difficult to explain to strangers. My best example would be, imagine what it’s like to grieve the loss of a mother or father with dementia. They are still with you—and yet they are gone.

What I noticed is, on an instinctual level, grief (what some would call a negative, low-vibration emotion) makes those around us fearful, uncomfortable, and judgemental. 

Think about it (and I think I’m paraphrasing Mr. Rogers here), when someone is crying, what is the first thing most of us do? We hand them a box of Kleenex. It’s as if we are saying, “I’m sorry you’re hurting and in pain, but I really need you to clean up your emotional mess.”

We are constantly trying to tell others how to manage their grief. Judging them for grieving too long, or not long enough. Encouraging them to move on more swiftly from one tragedy or another, so we can all go back to feeling comfortable again.

In the end, it really comes down to fear and control. When we channel fear and not love, we start to have ridiculous expectations of ourselves and others. We start saying things like, “stop being negative,” or “why can’t you just think positively”—and while we often mean well, what we are ultimately conveying to the other person is, “you are not safe here…your feelings are not safe here…please go away until you are less human.”

We live in a culture addicted to distraction. And at the heart of our need for distraction, lie feelings we are attempting to avoid.

What we fail to consider is grief is a necessary part of life. We are all impacted by heartbreak, the death of a loved one, or a cherished animal companion, and even the ending of our youth can cause grief. It’s a universal emotion like fear, heartbreak, joy, or love. And the only way we can understand the grief of others is to first walk through grief on our own. In this light, grief (feel free to substitute anger, depression, frustration, or rejection) isn’t a negative emotion or even a low-vibration but an essential and fundamental teacher. A vehicle through which we gain increased compassion, and a lens through which we can see the world through fresh eyes.

In Matthew 5:4 it says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” In my experience, this comfort comes by way of collateral beauty and unexpected grace. When we are in the midst of suffering, whether through heartbreak, grief, resentment, anger, or fear, we often slow down. We stop rushing through life. We notice more. A leaf falling from a tree and floating effortlessly to the ground, the sound of children’s laughter somewhere in the distance, the twinkle in the eye of two lovers as they smile at one another across a room. We are filled with an ironic and mildly inconsistent sense of deep appreciation and wonder. In the midst of sadness and struggle, we find our world fresh and renewed.

As we slow down, as we become less hurried, less frantic, and quieter, we find God’s grace. God draws us closer to him—Psalms 34:18, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed,”—knowing that only when we have walked through our own fire can we comfort those who are experiencing similar pain. 2 Corinthians 1:4: “[God] comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.”

When I hear people talking about low-vibrations versus high-vibrations, or positive energy versus negative energy, I think they’ve gotten it backward. No matter what your beliefs or lack thereof, it is not the energy, emotions, or vibrations that are the problem—it’s how we view their meaning. If we are scared of ourselves, scared of our own feelings, and scared of the shadow side which exists inside us all, of course, we’re going to want to push difficult emotions or negative vibrations away. To build walls and fortresses to protect us from anything and everything which drains us or causes discomfort.

But, I have to question, is this wise?

I am reminded of a story Craig Kielburger told. 

“There was a period in my life when I stopped reading the newspaper. Because every time, when you woke up in the morning, and you picked up the newspaper it always had a story that was angry, and depressing, and frustrating, and it felt like it was always the same. Maybe a different country, maybe a different twist, maybe a different region of the world—but it was always the same. War and violence and suffering. And so I just didn’t even want to look at it. Until one day, I was talking to one of the members of our board of directors, an amazing man and an amazing supporter of our work by the name of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And of course, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting against apartheid in South Africa. I told him how I had stopped reading the paper. I had just started at University at that point.

I remember, he looked at me and he said, ‘College boy, what are they teaching you in school? You’re looking at the world completely the wrong way.’ Because when the newspaper arrives at his door in the morning, he doesn’t look at it as a collection of all the war, and the violence, and the poverty, and the suffering—but instead—and the Archbishop is obviously a deeply religious man—he said he looks at that newspaper every day as God’s To-Do List delivered right to his front door for him. And how he starts his morning, is by laying the newspaper out flat on his kitchen table, and he reads it with his kids, and now his grandkids as literally a menu of issues in the world that need his help. He even said, it’s conveniently divided as a menu. If you want to help on local issues, it’s the first couple pages. And then national, keep going. And then international, as you flip. That simple way to shift how we look at the world. That simple change is incredibly empowering.”

I have found, when we are willing to make friends with ourselves and the world around us, to dance with our fears, to fully see and accept ourselves, only then we can see how every feeling, every vibration (even negative low-energy vibrations) can teach us how to come closer to ourselves, and in return, closer to those around us.

Only then, can we better answer our calling and better do the work we are meant to do to be of benefit to the world. 

It starts with having the courage to lean in, rather than building walls and safe spaces for self-protection. Mustering the fortitude to walk through the world brokenhearted, knowing when our hearts are broken, they are open, and that’s how the light gets in. All while harnessing the bravery to continue to lean into the discomfort, hurt, pain, rejection, and fear—so we can push through to the other side. 


Read 2 Comments and Reply

Read 2 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Erica OGrady  |  Contribution: 270

author: Erica OGrady

Image: @elephantjournal

Image: Graehawk/Pixabay

Editor: Catherine Monkman