How faith transforms negative into positive
And is commitment necessary?
The New Mindscape #T3–2
Some of the greatest religious figures in history are persons who seemed not to have a trace of negative energy in their hearts. They always responded to negativity with positivity, with compassion and love, or at least with detachment and neutrality.
We can’t imagine Laozi getting angry at anyone. In the Daodejing (ch. 78) it is said,
In the world nothing is more tender and delicate than water.
In attacking the hard and the strong nothing will surpass it.
Buddha is the exemplar or serenity and compassion. He said,
“Compassion and tolerance are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.”
We know that Jesus said,
But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil;
but whoever strikes you on your right
cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matt. 5:39)
In the Qur’an, it is revealed that the two key attributes of God are “the compassionate, the most merciful”, and it is written that “He has prescribed compassion upon himself” (6:12, 6:54). Following the Qur’an, Mohammad led the community of Islam to give up a tribal culture that was based on revenge and vendetta.
ʻAbdu’l-Bahá, who spent forty years of his life in exile and in prison, always showed love to his oppressors. He said,
“When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love.”
Figures of compassion in your mindscape
These are fine and lofty principles, you might say. Many people agree with them, but it’s too hard to put into practice. How can these ideas help me deal with anger, hatred and negativity?
If these religious figures are an object of consciousness in our mindscape, and if we keep in our mind their qualities of love and compassion, positive energies of love and compassion will flow into our mindscape.
When negative energies of anger and revenge boil up in me, those negative energies might not take control of me. If I turn to Jesus or Guanyin, for example, I will open my heart to their energies of love and compassion, and the negative energies of anger will subside.
If you don’t have experience with religion, you might find this difficult to believe. You might say, “Guanyin is just a statue”. “How can I receive positive energies just by thinking about Jesus?”
Well, let’s say I tell you about my best friend Joe, and that he makes me happy. But you’ve never met Joe, so you can’t understand in what way he can make me happy.
Similarly, suppose I mention ʻAbdu’l-Bahá, Jesus or Buddha to you. If you don’t know about them — or if you don’t know them personally but only heard some things about them — it’s also rather meaningless to you.
When we have good friends, we keep in touch with them regularly. By maintaining a good relationship with our friends, we gain positive energy.
Religious people gain positive energy and strength by praying. Through their prayers, they maintain a good relationship with Allah, Jesus, Buddha, or a god or holy figure, who is thus maintained as an object of consciousness in their mindscape.
This object of consciousness comes from outside you, and you give it a place in your mindscape, where it acquires a life in your mind.
On the one hand, these figures or deities are not you. They come to your consciousness from the outside world: you learn about them from others, from society. On the other hand, residing in your mindscape, they become part of you.
They are said to have universal love and compassion for you. Stories people say about them, and teachings people learn about them convey this image of love and compassion.
Some people will be indifferent to these images, or what they hear about them is mostly negative. But for many people, the stories, or some experience they have, moves their heart. They gain a positive energy from these figures. God, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, Krishna or Guanyin become objects of consciousness within their mindscape. By praying to them regularly, they receive and reinforce the positive energies associated with the object of worship.
These figures tell you they love you, and this triggers a reaction of gratitude or love within you. You have a reaction that helps you maintain a relationship with that figure. For example, Jesus loves you no matter who you are. No matter what you did, how poor you are, how weak or strong you are, how lonely you are, how rich you are, no matter all the good things or bad things you have ever done in the world, he loves you, and he loves you all the same. These figures are with you even if you are a broken person, suffering and struggling alone.
The relationship generates positive energy. That’s how religious people can say they get so much strength and positive energy from God. The religious object of consciousness is in your mindscape, with you all the time. When you pray, you bring the object of consciousness back into the center of your mindscape, receive positive energies from it, and empower it with positive energies.
Gratitude and tests
One common way of generating positive energies in religion is through gratitude. In our life, when we have been treated unjustly or unfairly, negative energy rises within us. When we think of this, when we complain, the negative energy surges up again. On the other hand, when we feel like we’ve been rewarded with something that makes us feel happy, we generate positive energy.
Gratitude is a critical spiritual practice and is an essential source of positive energy. Every day, we should be grateful for our blessings, for everyone and everything that gives us what we have — our family, our friends, our teachers, our mentors, even the air we breathe, and the plants and animals that make our life possible. By being grateful and mindful of our blessings, positive energy is generated in our minds.
We can always complain about many things in our lives, like the noise outside, the virus, the work we have to do, and so on. We all have things that we can either be grateful for or complain about. Take breathing. Every human on this earth breathes; we can either be thankful for being alive or complain about the polluted air we are breathing. Ultimately, the choice is ours, and if we are grateful, we can live a life full of positive energies.
A common intention in prayer is to thank God for all the good things in one’s life.
This gratitude is often even extended to one’s failures! Failures in life can be seen as spiritual tests.
For example, if you fail a test, the disappointment gives you negative energy, as well as, perhaps, the negative judgements of others. But some people look at the situation differently. They think that there is an opportunity for them to grow and learn from their mistakes. In that sense, the failure that gave them the negative experience transforms into something positive.
Back to the example of Jack; when Jack punched you, you got angry and upset, which are all negative energies. However, that incident might also make you reflect, and you realize what you did that caused Jack to hurt you. You learned why Jack acted angry towards you, or why you get upset so easily. Therefore, you can turn something negative into something positive, and learn and grow from the experience.
Religious people might thank God for making Jack punch them. They might take the situation as a test that helped them grow stronger. Then they extend their gratitude even to those who did something terrible to them. When you are able to do that, you have completely the vanquished negative energies.
Our relationship with religious objects of consciousness, and practices such as prayer and gratitude, can help us to transform the negative into the positive.
Is belief necessary?
Is it necessary to “believe” in God or in a religion for these things to happen?
Imagine somebody who doesn’t believe in the existence of any god. As she studies the specific knowledge of one religion, and engages in its practices, including praying or meditating, she gains positive power from the corresponding role models, companions and teachings in the community. Some teachers and mentors teach and guide her. Every day, she feels happy about these things even though she is not a religious member. However, she’s joining in doing things that religious people usually would do. So is she an atheist? Is she a believer in this religion? Or is there another name for someone like this?
In modern society, we tend to divide people into “believers” and “non-believers”. But this kind of dualism doesn’t correctly describe how things happen. Take Chinese religion as an example: many people go to temples and pray by burning incense. While they are there, Buddha or a lotus might be in their mindscape, but they might not necessarily “believe” in them. They might join a Buddhist practice, meditation, and other things that a Buddhist would participate in, without being a “member”.
On the other hand, somebody else might say “I am Buddhist” but he never does those things. They might never go to the temple, or never do anything to do with Buddhism. So, who is religious and who is not?
In the Baha’i faith, the distinction between believers and non-believers is minimized. Whether they identify as Baha’is or not, they work together to create vibrant communities in which more positive energy will be developed.
By learning how to pray, they plant the tree of divine energies in the centre of their mindscape. By gathering to pray with others, they create a collective atmosphere full of positive and supportive energy. They join study circles in which people learn and share positively with one another. They learn to run classes for children and youth, in which by tending to the growth of young souls, joy and positive energies are generated. They orient themselves to act to build positive communities. All of these things create situations for more positive energy to be generated and sustained, which helps to shift the focus away from negativity and to eventually dissolve negative energies.
Therefore, it is possible to engage with different types of religious objects of consciousness, try them out, experiment, and investigate without being a committed member of that religion.
But is spiritual growth is more effective if you have commitment?
It’s possible to try things out, to experiment, to participate without being a committed believer. But there’s a difference if you commit to being loyal to your friend or to a marriage, or if you commit to going to the gym. The commitment will compel you to invest yourself and to advance further in the relationship, and then there is going to be a difference. For example, you commit to going to the gym thrice a week instead of occasionally. Your decision to commit will make a difference. We commit to things we believe in, and that belief makes us execute and perform. Participating in religious activities without committing is a good way of learning, and it has benefits. However, there will always be a difference between committing or not committing to a religious group, just like for anything else.
This essay and the New Mindscape Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change, with the support of the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.