Glass Half Full
In the wake of pandemic-mandates curtailing and even eliminating many holiday celebrations, I’ve been thinking a lot about the yoga concept of pratipaksha bhavana. This concept comes from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, who codified the ancient oral teachings of yoga somewhere between 500 BCE and 400 CE. Applying the concept of pratipaksha bahavana serves overcome the inherent negative thoughts and emotions we experience such as anger, greed, pride, sadness, worry and tension.
Understanding Pratipaksha Bhavana
“When disturbed by negative thoughts, cultivate the opposite mental attitude.”
~Yoga Sutra of Patanjali 2.33
Literally translated, pratipaksha means “opposite” and bhavana means “emotion or sentiment.” Sometimes described as practicing positivity, modern science refers to pratipaksha bhavana as “cognitive reframing or reappraisal.” Cognitive reframing, however, doesn’t always come easily, especially when life, or a pandemic, gets in the way of our plans. During difficult times it’s much easier to focus the negative. Pick up any newspaper or turn on the TV for a myriad of examples of the pervasive negativity evident in our culture today. We can’t escape negativity, but we can reduce its impact on us.
“If you have negative thinking that comes from anger, greed, or delusion, whether you are actively in it or just thinking about it, the fruit will be unending suffering and ignorance. . . . Take another view, re-frame your perspective on the situation.”
~Yoga Sutra of Patanjali 2.34
Patanjali doesn’t paint a very rosy picture of the fruits of negativity, namely unending suffering and ignorance. Honestly, I think we’ve suffered enough in 2020. Why heap more suffering on ourselves by dwelling on the negative? I’m not saying don’t mourn the losses which have been devastating and far-reaching. On the contrary, we need to acknowledge the suffering and disappointment, but seek to balance it by recognizing the gains as well.
Think of it this way: Over the course of a single day, we put out roughly 6,000 thoughts. In turn, these thoughts become the energy that we transmit to the world and ultimately the essence of who we are. If our thoughts are positive, loving and kind, then that is who we become and shapes the energy we send out into the world. On the other hand, if our thoughts are negative, dark and unhappy, that also influences us and consequently the world around us. This is where the yogic practice of pratipaksha bhavana becomes beneficial. We can choose to see the glass as half full rather than half empty.
As we approach this unique holiday season, what if instead of focusing on not being able to celebrate with family or engage in holiday traditions, we focused on gratitude? Not only does gratitude help to reframe the current state of the world, but it also has proven benefits for a physical and mental health.
Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude boasts many benefits. When we express gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for emotions. They enhance our mood immediately and make us feel ‘good’. In addition, studies have shown that grateful people tend to be more confident, have better self-esteem and better relationships.
There are physical benefits as well. For example, in studies grateful people reported better sleep, less fatigue, less depression, and lower levels of systemic inflammation (an immune response that can have negative effects on the body, including the cardiovascular system). Further, grateful people experience significant decreases in blood pressure and often have better health overall. Keeping these benefits in mind, it makes sense to make gratitude a regular practice, even in normal times.
Reframing Holiday Celebrations
So, how to put this into practice? Consider your disappointment over not being able to gather for a family holiday meal. Could you reframe it by focusing on the fact that you are able to replace the in-person celebration with a virtual gathering? Over the last number of months, I’ve often wondered how people during the 1918 pandemic coped without Zoom or Facetime as a means of communicating. There is much to be thankful for regarding modern technology, even if you have a love-hate relationship with it.
Dread the annual holiday office party? Perfect excuse to skip it this year. Or perhaps this year affords you the opportunity to scale back on gift giving traditions that have become unwieldy. The pandemic is perfect excuse for dial back without the risk of hurting anyone’s feelings.
Creating New Traditions
Consider other holiday traditions that can be enhanced or replaced with more meaningful ones. For instance, you may actually have time to write holiday cards. If you’re like me, I can’t count the number of years I reneged my intention to send them. Caught up in the busyness of the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, many a New Year’s Eve has arrived without me having written even a single card. This year presents an opportunity to change that.
Personally, I’m looking forward to a quiet holiday at home for the first time in almost 25 years. I’ve loved being the host of our extended family gatherings over the years. But I have to admit, I’m relieved to have a year off. And who knows, letting go of being the host may open the door to some new traditions.
While most people would agree that as a whole we’ll be happy to say goodbye to the year 2020, applying the principal of pratipaksha bhavana can serve to reframe how we remember this unique year.
Yes, there is much to mourn, and practicing positive thinking won’t entirely remove the sting of lost jobs, the death of loved ones or not seeing our grandchildren. However, focusing on our blessings can provide us with an equal number of reasons to celebrate and feel grateful.
Wishing you and your family a holiday season of peace, joy and laughter! And here’s to 2021 being a better, brighter year.
**originally posted December 2020.