Cheerfulness has gotten a bad rap lately. When so many terrible events are in the headlines day by day, the encouragement to be cheerful is often considered unrealistically optimistic. But it’s a skill worth having.
Even a classic spiritual teaching like “return love for hate” can be challenging to accept. I find myself often tempted to hope for “bad outcomes” to happen to people who are engaging in heartless actions and mean speech. I have enough practice in cultivating loving kindness to not go too far in that direction, though. Even so, I am encouraged when I come across phrases that inspire me to refresh my commitment to acting in loving ways.
Here’s something I read the other day that cut right through the negativity I had been indulging in: “Don’t become hateful like your enemy.” That stopped my negative thinking, reminding me that it was a dead end that only puts more negativity out into the environment.
Then, as it sunk in that negative thinking would make me “like my enemy,” I realized that I also had to let go of the very idea of an “enemy” as well as let go of the negative thinking about that “enemy.” I appreciated the wakeup, and it nudged me to shift my thinking ––to pray that whatever is hardening people’s hearts towards their fellow human beings be removed and replaced by humane loving kindness.
As I made that shift, I became cheerful with relative ease, and felt grateful that I was willing to make these shifts. I saw that through years of putting effort into the view and practice of “loving kindness towards all beings,” I had developed the skill to be cheerful. And that skill was protecting me from propagating hard-heartedness. I had never thought of it in quite that way before.
That struck me as an extremely fortunate situation. First, I had been lucky enough to learn this view and practice from kind teachers. And second, I had managed to continue contemplating that view, and persisting in its practice, until it resulted in being able to maintain a cheerful heart.
Cheerfulness isn’t merely a habit (that would get boring). Cheerfulness is an art and a skill. It takes practice to turn away from our familiar grumpiness or worry or self-criticism, and turn toward love and positive regard for ourselves and others. Like a bullfighter, we can learn to elegantly and fearlessly invite, and then gracefully avoid, the sharp horns of negativity and pain. It’s exciting and challenging!
We can cultivate and strengthen our ability to maintain a sense of cheerfulness. And the best times to develop this skill are when we are tested –– when things go “wrong.” We can welcome our reactions of fear, anger, and disappointment as opportunities to shift quickly into a beneficial view, with a strong stance and a wave of our red cape!
Being cheerful when things are going right is easy. That doesn’t require much inner strength. We could be cheerful for days or months and, believe we are free of negativity if we happen to be enjoying a prolonged stretch of things going “right.”
I have a friend who was living in a paradise for an extended time. Every day he posted blissful scenes from that heavenly environment on social media. When he left paradise, he met chaos and flight delays at the airport.Those obstacles sent him into overwhelm, frustration and tears. To his credit, he gathered up his courage and sent a photo of himself looking his worst! He also shared that he was giving himself permission to feel intensely upset –– without self-judgment and without acting out.
I thought that was a fantastic example of recovering from the possible double pitfall: prolonged good fortune, followed by a sudden downfall. My friend’s response to his airport “downfall” showed he hadn’t let his experience of good fortune habituate him to a sense of entitlement that could have infiltrated his attitude. He “freaked out” emotionally, but he didn’t act out on others. And then! He shifted into self-encouragement and renewed his cheerfulness by posting that photo of his bedraggled appearance at the airport.
I don’t know what my friend said to himself that helped him quickly shift back into a state of cheerfulness. But here’s one way I do it:
1. I can catch my tendency to stress and anger, noticing when I feel the discomfort. Here comes the bull 😉
2. Then I ask myself, “Are you too afraid to be kind and encouraging right now?” That question usually stops me and provides space for a couple of deep breaths. Then I can swiftly turn, with a quick shift of attention. A sweep of the red cape!
3. That shift of attention –– from my anxiety and discomfort, to asking an interesting question –– makes it possible to soften and reconsider my assumptions. It’s usually some kind of negative assumption that is actually stressing me out.
4. Then into action. I’ve evaded the horns of the bull, but now what? I take action. I stand my ground, and generate a cheerful thought. I might even smile to myself, to get the positive thought started: I can make a wish or a prayer for everyone’s highest benefit. Or I look around to see if there’s something helpful I can do, even if it’s just to make a silly joke, to make someone smile.
As I have continued to develop this skill, I find that I can cheer up and be kind to myself –– and others –– more and more quickly when things seem to go wrong..
Practice makes perfect!
Here’s a skill worth developing: remaining cheerful and kind, even when our projects are not accomplished exactly as we had hoped.
––Jack Elias & Ceci Miller
The Outrageous Guide to Being Fully Alive