Thoughts On Pessimism

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    Questions & Answers

    Q: I have a friend who sees the world in a pessimistic light. This person is highly suspicious of people and situations, and sees, as well as experiences negativity at most turns. Why is this and what does it mean? What can be done to help someone of this nature?

    Deepak Chopra replies:

    A: First, it helps to understand the real nature of the problem. Imagine the self as a huge steamship, fully loaded, set on reaching a destination. When you set eyes on this ship in mid-journey, you don't see it being loaded, leaving port and settling on where it wants to go. By analogy, when you see your friend, you meet her at a given moment, but she is sailing through her life fully loaded with past influences – all of us express our entire lives in this very minute. The minute is fleeting, but the momentum carrying us forward is immense.

    Your friend’s pessimism isn’t about what’s here and now. It’s about the fully loaded cargo she’s carrying. Here and now you are tempted to say, “See? There’s no reason to be suspicious or negative. It’s a beautiful day, we all love you. Be happy.” This approach never works. Not because your friend is stubborn but because this beautiful day and your loving feelings are a tiny fraction of her reality, her fully loaded cargo.

    If you want to help someone in such a situation, keep the steamship analogy in mind. Her ship isn’t going to change course unless she wants to steer it in a new direction. You can travel with her, showing her a new direction. But don’t take responsibility. This isn’t your journey, it’s hers. A good deal of negativity is ego-based. Beneath the surface, at a subtler level of the self, she is afraid and insecure. She wants your loving support, and sometimes the clouds clear and she sees that you want the best for her. Keep offering that subtle influence of love and support. Don’t confront her head on (her ego will only get more stubborn), and don't be tempted to psychoanalyze her. She and you are both on a journey, and if it happens that you exchange a burst of light on the way, appreciate that and be alert to the next time you can share a moment of clarity.


    Deepak Chopra is the President of the Alliance for A New Humanity

    Michael Berg replies:

    A: What we see is who we are.

    When we are in a good place, we see goodness all around us. When we are in a bad place, we see darkness. We might think we’re picking up these flaws in others because we are smarter or better. But the deeper truth is our judgments are merely an indication of where we are at spiritually.

    Kabbalah teaches that within everything in this world can be found good and bad aspects. We choose – consciously or unconsciously – which part we wish to see. That choice is a reflection of who we are.

    When we meet someone for the first time, we can focus on their positive or negative qualities. The direction we go in is a choice we are making. The same goes for new situations. Obviously there are times we need to discern the pros and cons of people or situations because it affects our well-being. That’s part of life. But most of the time when we judge it is not out of necessity to make a decision, it is simply because our negativity causes us to see negativity in others.

    In addition to indicating where we are at, there is an exchange of energy when we judge someone. Kabbalah explains that focusing on someone’s negativity actually brings that energy into our lives! Certainly, no one wants to consciously bring negativity into our lives, which is the whole concept; we are unaware.

    This week, the lesson for us is twofold. First, be aware of this concept: what I see is where I am at. Develop within yourself the proactive ability to focus only on the good in people or situations. Second, know that by seeking out the positive in others and in all aspects of life, you are awakening – and strengthening – that goodness inside of you.

    – Michael Berg
    Michael Berg is Co-Director of the Kabbalah Centre

    Cynthia Bourgeault replies:

    A: I am not so sure it’s a question of nature, but of nurture – or lack thereof. We live in a world where fear and cynicism are running sky high, where traditional institutions of faith and culture are breaking down, and where our dislocation from nature and the natural rhythms of life leave our souls a little pent up and crazy. Suspicion and pessimism are pretty good defenses against a world gone mad. But the great spiritual teachings of the ages have suggested a radically counter-intuitive response. When this same question came up in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov, the wise elder Fr. Zossima said in response, “Go help someone. Reach out to a brother or sister in need. Feed the hungry, heal the sick – (or at least, take on your small share of the task) – and then, only then, will you come to know that the world is trustworthy and God is real.” His point is tough, but true: First the eye of the heart must open, and only then will one see confirmation in the external world. As long as suspicion and pessimism are being projected, suspicion and pessimism are what the cosmos will confirm.

    So how to break the vicious cycle? Fr. Zossima’s advice is still as true today as it was in his time: look for a chance to serve. Volunteer in a shelter, a food pantry, a nursing home: it will soften your heart. Spend time in nature, in a playground with young children; sing!; read love poetry; hang out with the "good, the true and the beautiful," however they speak to you. The problem is that we are starving – all of us, really – for the energy of beauty and goodness so long absent from our contemporary cultural experience. But we have to start making these energies ourselves – from within ourselves. That is not only an individual task; it is our collective human task and our planet will thank us for it.

    – Cynthia Bourgeault
    Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada.

    Shaikh Kabir Helminski replies:

    A: When our experience of the outer world is primarily through the filter of negative thinking, we gradually lose the capacity to experience life with an open heart. The thinking mind, at its best, may be a competent analyst and critic, but a purified heart is needed to perceive beauty and meaning, and the greatest suffering is meaninglessness.

    Years of negative mental and emotional habits of perceiving the world corrode the mirror of the heart. The soul can become infected with negativity and lose the capacity to recognize the grace, beauty and generosity of what truly is. The mind then becomes a very tight prison.

    Hope lies in two capacities of the soul: One is presence – a wider, meditative state of awareness that encompasses our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Presence offers a perspective on our thoughts and negative attitudes. Presence engenders a spaciousness which opens the doors and windows of the mental prison of negativity. Presence develops with meditation, inner silence and stillness, and mindful activity.

    The second necessary capacity of the soul that can free us from the prison of the mind is a knowing heart, a faculty that begins to reveal itself in that state of presence. The heart perceives the simple goodness of life, the exquisite beauty of simple being, of relationships, of existence. The thinking mind cannot arrive at this perception alone. The head says, “No,” and “But...” Only the heart responds with an unconditional “Yes!” Only the heart can grasp the goodness of being, discover meaning in life and be grateful.

    It’s simple, really, but the thinking mind will stubbornly argue otherwise until it is taught to be quiet and listen to the heart. Ultimately the thinking mind can be informed by the heart and translate the perceptions of the heart into language, communication and wisdom.

    If we are habitually negative, suspicious and cynical about life, we are dumping garbage in and around the house of the soul. If we see with a knowing heart, keep a positive vision, encourage ourselves and others, keep the faith, we establish beautiful gardens in the soul.

    – Shaikh Kabir Helminski
    Kabir Helminski is Shaikh of the Mevlevi Order, Co-director of The Threshold Society (

    Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes replies:

    A: Your friend has developed a protective defense system at seeing the world as a negative and unsafe place. Most humans are not born pessimistic, rather develop these tendencies as a result of early negative interactions, disappointments or trauma within their worlds, most likely in the immediate environment, i.e., family and/or caretakers. As a result, they find it safer to not have faith in things turning out right, or in believing that they will not always be wronged, struggle and suffer. This belief irrationally protects one from being continually disappointed. Unfortunately, these negative beliefs and feelings often attract negative energy from the universe, which in turn tends to reinforce their negative philosophy of life. These pessimistic feelings become so entrenched and familiar that they become like old friends. “Pessimism, when you get used to it, is just as agreeable as optimism.” –Arnold Bennet. Often, pessimists do not realize the impact that their negativity has on others: friends, families, co-workers and on just how much their “glass half-empty” feelings fulfill the very prophecy that “no matter what I do, things will always be bad.” Your friend needs to first realize that they have a pessimistic view of life and then must work hard at re-framing how they look at the world and how they came to have these beliefs. Anything your friend can do to help restore their faith and belief in the goodness of others, including themselves, can be helpful. For example, volunteer work is often a great way to start feeling better about oneself and give one a sense of well-being and meaning in the world. As a friend, injecting humor towards your friend’s pessimism is a relief mechanism for you and might help lighten your comrade’s heavy load, even if just for a moment!

    – Karen Binder-Brynes, Ph.D.
    Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes is a leading psychologist with a private practice in New York City for the past 15 years.

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