By Karin Ryuku Kempe
Winnie the Pooh, a bear of little brain, had a friend who was a donkey. His name was Eeyore, and he was a confirmed pessimist. He used to say, “If it is a good day… which I doubt.” When I was a young girl, Eeyore was my nickname in my family. I was a serious little girl, sensitive to the negative; there was a sense of unspoken and dark suffering in the world which I absorbed from a young age. As the oldest child of a man who had fled the holocaust at age fifteen and carried significant survivor guilt, perhaps some of this was second generation trauma—I don’t know. But in this you will also easily recognize our old friend, the negativity bias, the way we are as human beings wired to look for potential problems and danger, and to prepare for them.
We all have this tendency, some more than others. Scientists at the University of Glasgow have identified four distinct basic expressions across cultures associated with primary emotions: fear/surprise, anger/disgust, sadness/grief and happiness/joy—a bit more developed on the negative side. This bias has evolutionary benefit, keeps us safe and prepared, but can undermine our natural sense of joy, confidence and satisfaction. All of us have different personalities and early conditioning, of course, but for those of us who tend to the negative, there are specific exercises to help us to stay in balance. I’ll just mention one: the Three Blessings, or Three Good Things. Within two hours before bedtime, bring to mind three things that went well, that gave you pleasure, that you enjoyed or are grateful for. Doing this regularly for a few weeks helps to reframe our negative bias, and the effects can be long lasting. And we sleep better too.
But at a deeper level, an optimist who imagines and counts on positive outcomes is just as deluded as a pessimist… because we actually don’t know the future; we can’t even fully know the present. Our practice is not to hold onto our ideas of the future or the past but to meet today. Our path is not concerned with cultivating a particular bias but is the absence of bias; it’s the discovery of our Not-knowing Mind, the mind that has not already decided. Our Beginner’s Mind, fresh and open and unlimited, is the antidote to despair and indifference; it is attentive, interested and awake in each moment our real life offers us, and it’s always available.
Master Yunmen said, “Every day is a good day.” This “good” is lived as we enter into this day today, as a mystery, as the unique day which it is—letting our judging, our hopes and our fears slip away by bringing our actual experience to the fore. Rachel Carson wrote: “One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’” Because each day is a new day, we haven’t seen it before, and of course, we won’t see it again. It’s unique, a gift. A pale yellow tulip standing straight in a mound of snow, the dialogue of morning bird calls. Our glasses fogging up above our mask. Hopeful dreams and dreadful fears arise but float away in the crisp air. It’s a good day.