Stop being positive and just cultivate neutrality for existential cool

Whatever can be clever.
Whatever can be clever.
Image: Reuters/Jason Reed
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You’ve likely been asked how you see the proverbial glass: half full or half empty? Your answer allegedly reflects your attitude about life—if you see it half full, you’re optimistic, and if you see it half empty, you’re pessimistic.

Implied in this axiom is the superiority of optimism. Culturally, we’re obsessed with positivity—our corporations measure worker glee, nations create happiness indices, and the media daily touts the health and social benefits of optimism. Thus, the good answer is to see the glass half full. Otherwise, you risk revealing a bad attitude.

Rarely—if ever—is the complete answer to the question considered, however. Actually, the glass isn’t half full or half empty. It’s both, or neither. The glass is in a state of continual change, so no need to feel some type of way. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Things aren’t mutually exclusive, awesome or awful. Mostly they’re both, and if we poke around our thoughts and feelings, we can see multiple angles. To Hamlet, Denmark was a dungeon. But the real prison was his thinking, as he admitted.

Neutrality sets us free. It helps us see something more like the truth, what’s happening, instead of experiencing circumstances in relation to expectations and desires. This provides clarity and eliminates obstacles, making things neither awesome nor awful but cool.

Teachings of Zen by Thomas Cleary.
Enlightenment, the easy way.
Image: Shambhala

It can even lead to illumination. In fact, abandoning duality is the way to enlightenment in the Taoist and Zen Buddhist traditions. ”Truth has no this or that. The path has no ordinary or holy,” said Zen master Fu-Jung 1,000 years ago.

What he meant is that when we’re attached, preferring this or that, good or bad, we miss the big picture. We formulate opinions, preferences, sometimes misconceptions, and we cling to them though they cause suffering. We identify with our thoughts, and decide whether or not we like things before experience begins. Likewise, we decide the significance of events when their relevance is unknowable.

This choosiness—even when positive—lacks truthiness. It misses the fact that, almost invariably, everything is a bit of everything in differing degrees, and we don’t know what anything means when it’s happening.

Philosopher Alan Watts advises cultivating neutrality because it provides perspective. This is the key to true cool, a kind of existential stylishness. And it makes success and failure no big deal, which happens to make dealing with life just a little easier and makes us somehow more successful.

Penguin Classics Tao Te Ching.
The way laid out.
Image: Penguin Classics

The pressure to succeed—or to define success conventionally—can be subverted with neutrality. Things can go just so or totally awry once you understand that all things are fine, their upsides and downsides to be determined.

According to the Tao Te Ching, gain is loss and loss is gain. Successes create pressures that are unpleasant and even big failures can be instructive, thus are fundamental to success. That perspective provides resilience, the ability to keep going instead of getting stuck imaging how things could or should be or will be when things go some other way.

Plus, everything is relative and shifting, In an uncertain world with so many forces at play, the only thing that’s sure is that things could be different and won’t stay the same. You may as well stay neutral in that case, rather than get attached to a temporary state in which the glass is half full or half empty.

In the words of Taoist master Chuang Tzu:

There are no fixed limits. Time does not stand still. Nothing endures. Nothing is final…He who is wise sees near and far…He does not rejoice in success or lament in failure. The game is never over.

As for actually cultivating this cool, it’s not that hard to do. Just start by stopping. Emotions and notions fall apart on their own. The ancient Zen master Ch’eng Ku advised students:

It is essential for you to cease and desist from your previously held knowledge, opinions, and understandings…There is nowhere to apply your mind…You have to be spontaneous and buoyant, your mind like space.

Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton.
Old school cool.
Image: New Directions

In practical terms, it means detaching. As a human, you will inevitably feel or think when stuff happens. If you’re stuck in traffic, late for a meeting, and freaking out, feeling bad, that’s OK. There’s no need to put a happy face on a sad day, but—if you don’t resist what is—things will shift without you trying. Likewise when you’re delighting in a win. Be wary, keep cool, understand that everything is tentative.

Have no fear—you won’t become an emotional or intellectual zombie. But you also won’t be a prisoner in a hell you created with expectations. And should that happen, the keys to freedom are already yours. Thoughts and feelings, it turns out, are fleeting, merely passing clouds.