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.

 

Best described as a “zen peacekeeper,” Marianne Elliott is an acclaimed author, human rights advocate and international yoga instructor who writes and teaches on creating, developing and sustaining real change in personal life, work and the world. She is the creator of the popular “30 Days of Yoga” courses and author of Zen Under Fire, a memoir about doing good and being well in war-torn Afghanistan. Click here  for more on the special offer for pre-orders of Zen Under Fire, available until June 1! 

 

 

Marianne Elliott is a writer, human rights advocate, and international yoga instructor. Trained as a lawyer, she helped develop human rights strategies for the governments of New Zealand and Timor-Leste, worked as Policy Advisor for Oxfam, and spent two years working in human rights in the Gaza Strip prior to her time in Afghanistan, where she served in the United Nations mission (2005-2007). Her memoir, Zen Under Fire, tells the story of her life and work in Afghanistan. Marianne writes and teaches on creating, developing and sustaining real change in personal life, work and the world. She lives in a converted church above the zoo in Wellington, where she is woken by the roar of the lions.

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