Zen and the Art of Negativity

If you’ve read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you’ll know there isn’t a particularly happy ending – at best, it’s…ominous. The narrator, who has some form of mental illness, as we discover through the text (my guess is schizophrenia – it haunts the brightest and the best, although it doesn’t discriminate, and, as a merely mediocre landlord to the beast, I could see certain similarities – the book was clearly either well-researched, or, more likely, written from personal experience.)

You’ll also be aware that negativity – John’s refusal to engage with “technology”, Chris’s refusal – or inability, since it’s suggested he’s displaying the same precursors to schizophrenia as were missed in my adolescence – to settle down and “behave”, the narrator’s absent past – frames everything of importance in the book, and also provides its backdrop – the “negativity” of the world above the timber line – snow, ice, cold, and short, sharp days. The high country of the mind, the wilds of intellectual pursuit. The boundaries of madness.

It’s the negativity of the book – the refusals, the failures, the ominous ending – that make it so compelling, so memorable.

The narrator doesn’t flinch from his condition, from the condition his son likely shares – schizophrenia is known to be inherited – he just sits with it.

That is the essence of Zen – that we do not deny feelings, but “just sit with” them; we don’t shriek “no negativity!” as we fling up our arms in horror – we sit with negativity, until the urge to run feels more like an old, favourite dressing gown – and then we look at what’s going on behind the feeling.

But the point is, we have to feel negativity before we can understand it, and we have to understand it before we can move on from it.


I recently found six books in a series by Dana Stabenow in a charity shop; I already have, and have read, the first three books.

Stabenow writes murder mysteries set in the Alaskan interior – the “last great wilderness”.

In order to survive in any wilderness, be it Alaska, the desert, or merely an isolated, remote, rural village, you HAVE to be negative – you’re not going to “beat” nature, you’re not going to have anything more than a subsistence lifestyle if you’re living off the land, and the sooner you acknowledge that, the quicker you’ll be living a peaceful, satisfying life.

The positive people, the dreamers and the innocents, end up broken – wildernesses are hard, they’re unforgiving, and they don’t cut slack.

It’s why the negative types among us like them so much – we grok them, in a way positive people never can. We know we’re not going to make it out alive, but we’ll enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts.

And that’s what negative people see when they enter a wilderness – a ride, not a battle. Positive people are the ones who talk about battles; with the wilderness, with their own inner nature, with terminal illnesses.

They talk of battles, and they break when they lose.

Negative people know we’re beaten, but, until the death-blow comes, we’ll play the game, have a little fun before we die.


Functionalities, Not Polarities.

People will queue round the block to tell you how “dysfunctional” and “toxic” negativity is – they’ll drown you in studies that “prove” that negativity shortens your life, that it leads to obesity, diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and whatever the terrifyingly fatal illness du jour is.

People are wrong. Negativity isn’t “toxic.” It is not harmful to be a negative person – it is harmful, however, to be a dysfunctional person.

Negativity, in the right hands, and as a natural attitude, can be completely functional.

An example of functional negativity:

“I’m no good at sales – I’m more of an ideas person. A retail job wouldn’t really work for me.”

This is functional because it identifies a problem – the person’s lack of sales skills. It identifies an area of strength (ideas.) it acknowledges a truth, that a retail environment probably isn’t the best fit for this person, and leads to a logical process from which to come to a decision (the person has stated they are better at ideas, therefore, they can focus their energies on finding opportunities to be paid for having ideas – marketing, advertising, writing, creativity consultancy, business development, etc.  The negativity of “I’m no good at sales” clears the mental decks of a whole raft of careers that would have been unfulfilling for this person, thus freeing space for them to play around with careers that might work out.

Dysfunctional negativity, on the other hand, is often directed at others in an attempt to shield the self; for example:

“You’ll never get a job if you go around thinking you’re better than everyone else.”

Actual meaning: “I don’t think I’m even as good as anyone else; I’m worried I won’t make progress with my own career because I don’t know how to talk about my achievements – I don’t want to sound arrogant, or make people think I’m boasting -and how dare X person not feel awkward and embarrassed about being out of work?”

Of course you’ll get a job by “thinking you’re better than everyone else” – that’s how getting jobs works. You go into an interview room, or you approach a recruiter or manager, with the attitude that “I’m the best person you’re going to stumble across this decade, pal” – and you tell them why you, rather than the other 10 folks waiting out there, or the other 110 sending speculative applications, should be given a salary, desk space, and the various perks of employment. They’re not going to give you those things because you’re a nice person who makes good cups of tea. (Unless being nice and making cups of tea are the actual main parts of the job.)

A negative (but functional) job seeker is in a good position: they’re quickly able to identify what they don’t want, what won’t work for them, and focus on what will be a good and rewarding fit.  A positive job seeker, on the other hand, will yap on endlessly about how “committed to the process” they are, and how they’re “sure the right job is out there”, and all the happy-de-do-dahs they can “offer” a potential employer – and get overlooked, because you’re not meant to be “offering” employers anything – you’re meant to be telling them that they need the skills, knowledge and abilities you have, and that they’d be a damn fool to try and pretend they don’t. And you can only do that if you’ve first been negative enough to dismiss the things that don’t work for you.

Focus on your weaknesses – they’re the things you need to kick out the door.


Our Dying Days

Death is the ultimate negative, the black-and-white still that throws everything into sharp relief.

Death is the thing people most want to avoid talking about – to avoid thinking about.

Death is uncomfortable for mortal, thinking creatures, because we believe we should have been able to out-think our mortality.

And yet we need to remember what a negative, in the photographic sense, truly is.

It’s the genuine, true image, the one from which all others can be recreated, the one that can’t be altered.

We conduct blackmail campaigns with negatives, not photographs (or used to, in the analogue days, at least).

Negatives are valuable, and death is, perhaps, the most valuable negative – because, at the moment we accept our death, we step outside of any hold or claim life tries to entreat upon us.

St. Patrick’s Day

The day everywhere in the world forgets the signs there used to be, on shop doorways and in hotel lobbies, reading

No Blacks, No Gypsies, No Irish, No Dogs.

The day “being Irish” (even if you’re not, or only 1/8th, or less even than that) is celebrated, but no apology is made for the appalling treatment many Irish “navvies” received digging canals and laying railways.

The day everyone wants to be the people who, time and again, have been driven from their homeland. The people whose language was ruled illegal, whose country was divided up by disinterested foreigners.

The Irish have made a trademark of homesickness. They’ve become successful in exile – it often happens; necessity being the mother of invention. The same is true of diaspora Jews, and many middle-class African-Americans – the story of exile is retold as the story of success, as the outsider having an edge, the itinerant becoming integral.

We celebrate that whilst we conveniently forget the loneliness, the sorrow, and the bitter, brutal resentment that lies in the hearts of all exiles – however much we try and hide it.

I’m half Irish, my father having come to England, alone, at the age of 19, following the death of both his parents, because there was no work in his homeland.

I’m also schizophrenic – but a functional, self-aware schizophrenic; twice exiled, first from “normal”, “sane” society – I can’t manage prolonged interaction with people, crowds, noise, or decisions. My tolerance for stress decreases as I age – sometimes, it seems, almost daily. My memory, thanks to antipsychotics, is patchy at best. I’m not always myself, and I don’t always remember the things the person others believe to be “me” has said or done. But I’m exiled from the ranks of the mentally ill, too – because I know what “normal” looks like, and I continue to strive for it. Because I can, and do, identify and set up coping mechanisms. Because I’m able to be mostly independent – although I know I’d be lost without my wife. I’m told, over and over again by other people with mental health issues, and the psychiatric community, that I’m “lucky” – and then I’m told, over and over again by the “sane” section of society that I’m broken. Weird. A freak.

I am lucky. But I’m also broken.

Where there are no shadows, no light falls either.

A Bad Day, A Bad Life – Not A Bad Mindset

Imagine you go out one morning to drive to work, the same way you always do. You get in the car, key the ignition, and –


The engine’s not even turning over. Nothing’s happening.

You try it again, and again.

Still nothing.

What do you do?

Do you tell the car how grateful it should be, how there are hundreds of other cars that are never washed, never have a nice shiny new air freshener hung from their rear view mirrors? Do you remind it of the “luxury valet service” it had last month? Do you go on about how much money you’ve spent on it, how much you’re relying on it?

Do you call it lazy, selfish, negative – or do you call a mechanic, understanding that something’s wrong, and needs to be fixed?

Every car is a little different – my grandfather’s first car, for instance, didn’t do hills. My parents’ first car didn’t do puddles of more than two inches depth. Back before I was diagnosed with the health issue which means I can’t drive, the Micra I toyed around with had no concept of “reasonable steering”, and the handbrake never fully released.

But none of these cars had “anything wrong” with them – aside from their little quirks, they worked fine, passed MOTs, and gave good, if somewhat intermittent, service.

We understand this about cars – why not people?

If someone has a mental health issue, it’s not because they’re a “negative person” – their mind has quirks, it can be a little temperamental, and, sometimes, this leads to interruptions and frustrations to their journey through life.

But it doesn’t make them broken.

None of those cars could be fixed, no matter how many mechanics had a look at them.

There was nothing wrong with them – their drivers just had to accept their quirks, and work with them.

People were here before cars – shouldn’t we try and understand them better?


Moving on Because of Negativity, Not Moving on From Negativity

People talk about how we “need to move on from negativity.”

But, the thing is, we don’t need to move on from it – we’re already moving on because of it.

Negativity is dissatisfaction. And dissatisfaction drives progress, and always has done.

If we’d never been “negative”, we wouldn’t have decided that we needed central heating, electric lighting, cars, or the internet. We wouldn’t be looking at a future where tax is submitted online, where Amazon allows account access by selfie. We wouldn’t have created smartphones, with calculators, calendars, address books, cameras, and internet capability all in one device. We would never have come up with contactless payments.

If we weren’t “negative”, we wouldn’t care whether or not our hotel rooms were en-suite, whether or not they had televisions.  If we weren’t “negative”, we wouldn’t have moved to package holidays abroad, because we wouldn’t have noticed that other countries had better weather than the UK.

If we were never “negative”, we wouldn’t have seen the improvements and achievements in medical care that we have. We wouldn’t see more people looking to own property, rather than rent. We wouldn’t see people thinking it was “normal” and “automatic” to have cars, rather than use public transport.

Negativity is what drives us.  It is positivity that holds us back.

As Empty As A Monday Morning Church

Taking a Break

This was originally posted on an Asperger’s advocacy page on Facebook, but it’s relevant here, because so many people maintain that “not doing anything” is “negative behaviour” – and yet it can sometimes be the most positive thing you can do, in the long term.

Think of a church on Monday morning, when all the worshippers have gone, when there’s just the silence of old stones – which has a soft and subtle noise all of its own, if you listen hard enough – and the scent of flowers and furniture polish, the tracks in the carpet where the battalion of elderly ladies have hoovered and gleamed. Old wood, old stone, and memories.

You sit there, in silence, and absorb so much more of whatever your concept of “god” is than you would in the raucous din of worship, the embarrassing, cloying closeness of other people and their expectations that you won’t do anything “inappropriate” – like cry because it’s so beautiful, or rage at the invisible, improbable Being who, apparently, is responsible for the hell that is your life. Or laugh, at how ridiculous everyone seems, with their childish Daddy fixations.

We need to stop. We are not machines, meant to run forever with just a bit of oiling now and again.

Academics regularly take sabbaticals – whole years out to do something completely different, something that’s theirs

We all need that. Six months, say, of doing nothing – literally “whatever we want”, and six months of doing something “productive” (ie, that we acquire either knowledge or money from) but that we haven’t done before, don’t necessarily want to do forever, but that interests us.

It’s not “negative” to “do nothing” – you’re not “doing nothing” – you’re resting.

And, sometimes, that’s the most positive thing you can do.

That, and visiting Monday-morning churches.

Sunday Supplement

The next time someone tells you “don’t be negative”, ask them if they put on a jumper, or turn up the heating, when they feel cold.

If they answer “yes”, or variants thereof – congratulations! They’ve “been negative”!

Feeling “cold” is  a negation – it is an absence of warmth. Addressing feeling cold by taking steps to counter it is admitting you don’t like the sensation of being cold – hence, you are “being negative”. (You are “not warm”, and you are voicing that.)

Taoism holds that it is negative emotions that lead to positive ones – it is only through feeling pain that you can work to relieve it.

Imagine all the things that would never have been invented if no one had ever acknowledged being dissatisfied? Aeroplane travel, central heating, electricity, smartphones, computers, cars – the list is endless. The best things come from looking the worst feelings squarely in the face, admitting to them, talking about them, and doing something in response to them.

Purple Success

…”in previous times, to call someone “successful” was as nonsensical as calling them purple.” (Jacques Ellul, quoting Eric Fromm in “New Philosopher, Feb-Apr 2016)

Success. Everyone wants it, we’ll pay to learn how to (potentially) get it, we’re mocked if we don’t have it – but it’s an illusion, an invention. It’s not a part of some undeniable “natural order”, it’s not “inherent to the human condition.” It doesn’t really exist at all – but we allow the pretence of it to make us feel bad, to make us feel less than human, to tell us that we’re not good enough. To tell us we “can’t be negative.”

The thing is, success is a sociologically-constructed state. Negativity is feelings. And, although they can’t be analysed, put under a microscope, cut up, poked and prodded, feelings are real. Sociologically-constructed states are not.

Stop worrying that you’re not some artificial state. Start enjoying the fact that you’re feelings, that you’re real.