Recently, a friend asked me: “How do you stay optimistic when the world seems to be going so badly?”
It’s a question I asked myself often while I worked in Afghanistan, witnessing conflict, suffering and injustice. How can I continue to believe in goodness, when there is so much evil in the world? How can I be happy when my friends are suffering?
After the 9/11 attacks a boy asked his grandfather what would happen to the world. The grandfather said there were two wolves fighting inside his heart. One was vengeful and full of anger, ready to strike against the ‘enemy’. The other wolf was filled with love and belief in the basic goodness of all, ready to seek peace. The grandson asked, “Which wolf will win?” His grandfather answered, “The one I choose to feed.”
But how do we feed the right wolf? Here are four ways to stay positive in a negative world.
1. Choose where you place your attention
One of the first things many of us do when we feel overwhelmed by bad news is to turn it off, and there’s wisdom in this impulse. Choose carefully what you watch and listen to, but don’t switch off completely. Find a news source you trust, and stay aware. The world needs you to be aware.
2. Cultivate a compassionate heart
Allowing ourselves to be aware of suffering within and around us is essential for cultivating compassion. By feeling the pain of others, we increase our capacity for compassion and feed the right wolf. One meditation practice that helps this is simply to wish ourselves well and then extend that wish to others around us.
3. Train a steady mind
An open heart can leave us feeling unstable. We balance this by cultivating a steady mind. Meditation trains our mind to hold steady under the onslaught of disturbing images, thoughts and feelings, helping us maintain a sense of centre when the world spins out of control. Meditation helps me keep my attention on what is happening now – a powerful tool when fears about the future threaten to overwhelm us.
4. Take action
Taking action to promote peace and justice is one of the best ways to respond to a world of pain. If you don’t know what to do, find someone already taking action and ask how you can help. And remember: cultivating compassion, peace and faith in our own hearts and minds is also an action.