What are ‘near enemies to the truth’? Borrowing this phrase from Buddhism, I use it to refer to slightly distorted versions of spiritual teachings—statements that are close to a profound and subtle truth, but are distorted just enough to make a big difference over time. When we’re talking about deep and fundamental truths, getting it a little bit wrong doesn’t matter in the short run, but it does in the long run, just like a tiny adjustment to the rudder of your boat makes little difference at first, but after 1000 miles, it lands you on a different continent.
Now, some people object to the use of the word ‘wrong’ in the previous sentence, subscribing as they do to the idea that the only necessary criterion for truth is it feels true to me. This view is as dangerous in spirituality as it is in politics, because it usually means I want it to be true, so I'm going to believe it, regardless of the facts. If you don't see how dangerous this is, or if you doubt whether there really are facts or universal truths, please read the second half of the first blog post in this series.
Understanding the Near Enemies to the Truth, and why they are near enemies and not the truth itself, is hugely important for any spiritual seeker who wants to get past the beginner stages and into the deep (and deeply fulfilling) spiritual work. Having said that, it’s important to note that if a Near Enemy is near enough, it can be a Temporary Ally for a beginner. But as the stakes get higher in spiritual practice, there is no such thing as ‘close enough’ anymore, and your comforting affirmations must be sacrificed on the altar of truth, or else your spiritual progress stalls. With that brief orientation, let’s look at this week’s Near Enemy.
Near Enemy #4: negative energy
First we have to establish what we mean by ‘energy’. There's only one definition that applies across the board, in physics as well as spirituality: ‘the power to do work’ or ‘the power to transform’. In light of this definition, what would ‘negative energy’ mean? It could only mean some force that somehow drains your energy, reducing your power to do work, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual work. Some people believe that others somehow possess this nefarious power: spending time with these ‘negative people’ drains of your prāṇa-śakti or life-force energy. I contend that this belief is false, and that the reason spending time with some people is draining is simply because you are not setting healthy boundaries for yourself, and that is draining. This reframe is absolutely crucial for one’s spiritual life: instead of blaming the other person for ‘draining’ you, take responsibility for feeling drained when you don’t tell them the truth. Such as, “I’m sorry, but I really don’t have the time or energy to listen to you right now,” or “I care about you but honestly I need space from this relationship right now,” or whatever the truth actually is. You choose how much time to give someone. You choose whether or not to draw a boundary. You choose whether to speak your feelings and honor your own needs. And if your response to me is, “But I’m afraid that they will get upset or will judge me if I draw a boundary and speak the truth about my needs,” well then that is where your spiritual work lies. You dishonor yourself if you don’t draw a healthy boundary before you feel drained, and you dishonor the other person if you don’t tell them the truth. And please be super crystal clear: the other person is never the one draining you. You are draining you.
Of course, it’s also possible that certain people trigger your samskāras, and if you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to digest those samskāras as they get triggered, that can feel draining. Or it may be that certain people article ‘negative thoughts’, e.g. defeatist, denigrating, or pessimistic thoughts, and if you yourself are liable to believing such thoughts, then being around those who reinforce them will feel draining, and it’s better not to be around those people. (See below for more on this.) But in any case, the buck stops with you. Your inner state is never someone else’s fault.
So ‘negative energy’ in the literal sense does not exist, nor is there any such thing as an ‘energy vampire’—that phrase usually just refers to a needy human who’s willing to take as much as you’re willing to give, and who doesn’t deserve to be demonized for that. It’s your job to shepherd your resources, not theirs. Having said that, of course it’s okay to say to them something like: “Hey in future could you ask me how much time I have to hear you? Because I don’t like having to interrupt you and set a boundary in order to take care of myself.”
Having said that, there are those who believe that they can drain your life-force energy through something like ‘black magic’. All the available evidence suggests that this can only impact you if you believe it can, through the power of the ‘nocebo effect’ (a negative version of the placebo effect).
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But this is only part of the picture. A lot of people these days use the phrase ‘negative energy’ to refer to negative emotions. Let’s address this hugely important issue. Nondual Tantrik philosophy implicitly argues that no emotions are negative, bad, or wrong. None. Zip. Zero. Zilch. There is simply no such thing as a negative emotion. Let’s examine the reasons that it seems otherwise. 1) there are emotions that you don’t like to feel; 2) there are emotions that seem difficult to ‘handle’; and 3) there are emotions that seem to drain you. These are the emotions we wrongly call ‘negative’.
To take the last first, emotions themselves are not draining or depleting; but believing in a story associated with (perhaps even generating) a given emotion can certainly be draining. Believing your thoughts, especially disempowering ones, is a significant energy leak. You will discover, if you can separate story from emotion, that the emotion itself—no matter how ‘negative’—makes you feel more alive, and only the story is depleting. This works out well for all concerned, because only if you believe an associated story (like “It’s so-and-so’s fault I’m feeling this way”) will you feel tempted to try to dump your ‘negative’ emotion on someone else (usually in the form of a blame story).
If the emotion is being generated by belief in your story (like “he’s trying to sabotage me,” belief in which generates anger or “he doesn’t love me,” belief in which generates sadness) then disbelieving the story will rapidly dissipate the emotion. But if the emotion is not being generated by the story, but only reinforced by it, then disbelieving it will not dissipate all of the emotion (for example: “I was able to disbelieve in the story ‘He doesn’t love me’, but I’m still sad he hasn’t called in four days.”). If that is the case, you need to digest the emotion to access its energy and life-enhancing power. Believing it is ‘negative’ inhibits the digestion process. Discard the belief that the emotion is negative, bad, or wrong, and then notice that you (probably) still feel averse to it. That is, you don’t like feeling sad or frustrated or whatever. Simply affirm to yourself, with conviction, “It’s okay to feel sad” (or angry, or afraid, or whatever) and soften toward the emotion. Bring it in close. Let it all the way in. And let it pass through the center of your being. As it does, it will intensify at first, then ease off, in one wave or many. In this way, you begin to digest it.
You see, at the center of your being is a ‘transformation station’, a kind of singularity that emotional energy needs to pass through to be integrated and/or released. (Actually, there are at least two ‘transformation stations’ — one in the belly and one in the heart region.)
People say of intense emotions, “I don’t know how to handle this.” But your job is not to ‘handle’ it. Your job is to digest it. And you do that by peeling off the associated story (if any), and letting the emotion all the way in and through.
Once you digest the emotion, you get direct proof that any emotion, no matter how ‘negative’, can add to your total aliveness, and enhance the joy of being alive. When comedian Louis C.K. learned how to digest his sadness, he realized “I’m lucky to live sad moments.” That gratitude is a key sign of successful emotional digestion.
Now, if you admit that none of your emotions are actually negative, then you will have to admit that nobody else’s emotions are negative either. But it sure can feel otherwise when that other person is throwing their emotional energy at you! What do you do then?
Now we come to one of the most revelatory aspects of this teaching. For a practitioner of Tantrik Yoga, having someone throw emotional energy at you is a golden opportunity. Throw open the doors of your heart—front and back—and let all that energy pour through you and add to your aliveness! (Maybe don’t make it too obvious how much you’re enjoying it.) It doesn’t matter what it is: all emotional energy, even anger and hatred, amplify your prāṇa-śakti. It’s nothing but a gift. However . . . it can be hard (or even impossible) to experience it as a gift if you buy the story the other person is selling. If their story is all blamey and put-downey, and you buy it, then the energy that the story rides on can feel like a dagger in your heart (or gut). But let’s be super clear: it feels like that not because the other person is hurting you (since they can’t, not with words and emotions anyway) but because you’re believing their story on some level. For anyone who is on the awakening spectrum, believing a thought or story is a choice. It may not feel like a choice, but it is. And you’re going to have to unbelieve the story before you can welcome and digest the gift of the energy. And that takes work.
I have a friend who, if his girlfriend turns to him looking angry or unhappy, immediately says “Uh-oh. Do I suck?” By that he means “Do you think I suck for something I did or didn’t do?” But it’s a telling statement because in general, if she believes he sucks, he’s gonna believe it too, and suffer, and mount an elaborate defense of himself and a campaign to prove (to himself as much as her) that he doesn’t suck. And that consumes a lot of energy, and so is draining. If he—or me or you—can let go of compulsive self-referencing and obsession with parsing the other person’s judgements and instead adopt an attitude of loving concern (“I wonder what need of hers is not being met? I’d like to see if I can meet it now or at least hold space for her emotional expression without making it about me”) then something magical and beautiful can happen: the other person has room to digest their emotions, and that results in greater ability to connect. Voilà! More love blossoms in the space between when you’re patient and mature enough to let all the other’s emotions move through, as well as your own. Love doesn’t blossom in spite of the other’s ‘negative’ emotions, but precisely because of accepting them. They are always an opportunity for greater intimacy.
[I should note here that sometimes, even if you don’t believe the other person’s angry or spiteful words at all, they still hurt. If you’re truly not buying their story, then the pain you feel is simply natural grief that the other person is hurting so badly that they are unable to be loving or respectful, and might even want to hurt you. That grief is yours to digest, and of course you may need to step back from that relationship if it generates more pain or grief than you can digest.]
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We’ve established that there’s no such thing as negative energy: not in you and not in others. Even if someone doesn’t like their emotion and tries to dump it on you (along with the story that justifies dumping it on you), that’s a gift, if you’re emotionally strong enough to receive the energy and pass it all the way through. And if you’re not, and you believe some aspect of the story they’re selling (which makes the emotional energy get stuck somewhere, usually in a chakra, which usually hurts), then that too is a gift. How? Because, on the spiritual path, you need to be shown what falsehoods you’re still believing about yourself before you can dissolve them. And remember, someone’s story about you only really hurts you if, on some level, you believe it. In which case you are hurting you. And don’t you want and need to be shown your self-limiting beliefs so you can address them and dissolve them?
So a tāntrika doesn’t need to avoid so-called negative energy or so-called negative people. All charged human interactions are a gift, and offer empowerment. But on the other hand, a tāntrika needn’t—and shouldn’t—seek out such interactions either. Why shouldn’t? Because the ‘energy body’ (more accurately called the subtle body or inner body or emotional body), like the physical body, has a maximum carrying capacity. If you exceed it, you won’t be able to digest any more emotional energy, leaving you both hurting and depleted. (Which is why acknowledging your limited ‘bandwidth’ by drawing boundaries is so important!) There are practices in Tantrik Yoga to strengthen the energy body, but it’s super important to be humble and know your limits, because it can severely impact your mental-emotional-physical health to exceed them too often.
But surely there is such a thing as a negative person? Someone who relentlessly looks on the dark side of everything? Isn’t such a person draining to be around? Yes, but only insofar as you believe you ought to listen to them, entertain their propositions, and engage their words and thoughts. It is doubly draining to be around them if you depend on positive thoughts for your happiness, thoughts that are undermined by their cynicism. But even if you’re a tāntrika who’s become free of dependence on positive thinking, and knows how to digest energy, you still won’t choose to be around this ‘negative person’ very often, because a tāntrika naturally seeks synergistic relationships, where we give each other energy, motivated by love, simply because it’s joyful and nourishing to do so.
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Lastly, then, can a place have negative energy? With rare exceptions, I would say no. The vibration (for lack of a better word) of a traumatic event actually dissipates quite rapidly in most cases. It seems like a particular place can have negative energy because you feel disturbed or drained when you enter it. But in fact that effect is almost always because of the psychological associations the place has. For example, if you’ve recently cleaned up your house and your life after having been a mess, you’ll feel depressed entering someone else’s house that’s a total mess. Or if you’ve escaped the influence of a depressed parent, being in their house, or even a house that reminds you of them, will trigger your samskāras and you’ll feel drained. So, until your emotional body is stronger, avoid those places.
And what about malevolent or mischievous spirit-beings? Are they real? The Tantrik tradition teaches that there are countless noncorporeal beings all over the place, but you don’t really need to worry about them because just like humans, though a few of them want to help you and a few of them want to mess with you, the vast majority don’t give a shit about you one way or another.
Does a space need to be cleared of noncorporeal beings prior to spiritual practice? The Tantrik tradition does teach a daily space-clearing every day, and this practice can be effective and beneficial regardless of whether or not spirits and other bogeys are in your space or not. (There’s a video on this practice in my Facebook group.)
Lastly, is there such a thing as truly evil humans? That depends on your definition of evil. If you mean “people who are so damaged that they can do virtually nothing good for others, and most of their actions are harmful,” then yes. But I don’t consider them evil. Tragic, yes. Evil, no. Remember this maxim: everyone else is doing the same thing you are, all the time: they’re just trying to get their needs met the best way they know how. If the only strategies for need-meeting that they know are manipulative and/or violent, that is tragic and worthy of grieving. But such people deserve your compassion, not your condemnation. But please note that compassion does not equal permissiveness or approval.
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The joyous culmination of the spiritual life on the Tantrik path is the point at which the ‘energy body’ is so strong, there is nothing to fear and no situation, person, or place that must be avoided. It’s profoundly liberating to reach that point! In fact, it is liberation itself.
May everyone who reads this post birth a strong energy body and become forever free from enslavement to fear!
tathāstu! Śivo’ham! iti śivam!