How to stay positive around negative people?

A reader wrote in explaining a difficult interaction with some relatives, where a great moment was ruined by a very negative comment, which led to their question:

“My question is, how to stay positive in a negative, toxic environment? My way is to not engage as I know I will never get them to see my point of view. There are many people like this around us.”

Many years ago my wife and I had a consultation with a very old and very highly respected buddhist nun called Sister Chân Không. We asked her what to do about some relatives who were causing us quite a lot of suffering at the time. Without skipping a beat, she gave us her answer: “Short, positive contact”.

It’s become a mantra for us where difficult people are concerned ever since: Short Positive Contact! There may be people that we just can’t avoid seeing in our lives, but who make our lives difficult. The only answer is to keep meetings few and far between, brief, and as much as possible, positive.

How to make them positive? Sometimes this might mean we feel more comfortable meeting in a restaurant than in one of our homes, where the meal gives a fixed beginning and end to the amount of time we’ll spend together, and being in public tends to encourage better behaviour!

Sometimes it might mean just bringing these people to our own house, and not going to their’s, so we feel more solid on home ground. It may mean planning a specific activity that seems to keep things in balance. The point is to feel as comfortable as possible with the plan to begin with.

As the reader says, “My way is to not engage as I know I will never get them to see my point of view. ” Quite right! Not engaging in the negativity is a very good plan. As is excusing oneself and walking away from a difficult conversation, or changing the subject whenever tricky topics come up.

I had a relative-in-law who was quite a hypochondriac, and hated any conversation about ill health. Whenever this topic came up, he’d immediately say, “So what’s going on in the football these days?” cleverly changing the subject. The Spanish call this tener mano izquierda – ‘to have left hand’. With this trick he escaped many a conversation that was toxic for him.

Of course, wherever possible it’s best to keep very negative people out of our lives altogether, and surround ourselves with positive people. When we can’t, as well as the above strategies, there are two more things that can help a lot.

Firstly, to make sure we are bolstered with as much of our own inner-positivity as possible. It’s like dealing with air pollution in the city – the healthier we are, the more walks in the fresh-air of the countryside we take regularly, the better our bodies deal with bad-air days. The more we find the best ways to keep ourselves happy and positive, and look after our own inner-lives, the better we can deal with difficult-people days.

Secondly, there is empathy. Why is this difficult person so difficult? What has happened in their lives to make them like this? What fundamental life-need are they lacking that is making them so unhappy and hard to be with? Very few people are naturally toxic or negative, something has made them that way.

If we can stand for a moment in their shoes, or look at where they have come from, or what they are lacking, and get even a tiny idea of the suffering in their lives, it can make the situation much easier for us if we need to spend time with them. This deep looking and understanding has made a big difference to my relationship with some people in my life, but it can also help us not to be too affected by the angry driver in the car behind, or the grumpy waiter or waitress in a restaurant – something’s up with them that we can’t see.

So, empathy, empathy, empathy, and if total avoidance isn’t an option: Short Positive Contact. As short and as positive as can be.


If you have a question related to the kind of topic found on this blog – awakening, art, creativity, life! –  that you would be happy for me to answer as a blog post, please send it to me via the contact page. Q and A’s help me to understand what I read, see, and appreciate. Comments are welcome via the same contact page. Thank you.

What can artists do for us?

Summer Grasses

Spring grasses

In this madly commercial world in which we live, it seems to me that the artist shows us, or reminds us, of the other side of the coin. The other day I was walking in wild parkland just outside Madrid, making a note of all the wonderful things I saw…

Highways of ants collecting seeds, a stalk passing just a few metres above my head, beak clicking… the first swallows of May, blown in on the night’s storm and swooping and feasting on insects over the lake, the grasses already tinged with gold, swaying in the breeze, a small golden beetle crossing my track…

I revelled in all this because David Hockney reminded me recently of the deep beauty of the world that we hardly ever stop to really look at, and because Thoreau reminded me to walk and walk and walk and see the wonders of the world as I do so, and because my mother, inspired herself by artists, had pointed all these treasures out to me over and over again in my childhood.

And I realised that as I saw all these wonderful things out in world that morning, that I couldn’t even begin to think about wanting more things, or marketing or business, because everything I was looking at on that walk existed on a completely different spectrum that fulfilled me in a completely different way.

And this is what artists – be they writers or poets or painters or musicians or bloggers, all creative people – are doing for me these days. Pulling me out of the mad swirl of 21st century life to remind me of other, incredible things.

I started this blog years ago after reading two Q and A’s in one of my favourite books – Answers from the Heart, by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh is mentioned constantly in this blog, as he was the artist who awoke something inside me many years ago, my own need to wake up.

He is asked: What can we do to help save the earth, what can artists do to contribute to the improvement of the world? And he answers:

“The artist, the actor, the filmmaker, the novelist may be inspired by a desire to [help people] to touch the seeds of joy, of peace, of happiness in themselves, helping them to remove and transform the seeds of discrimination and fear and craving. The artist can do all this. If you are motivated by that desire, you will have so much joy and energy that fame and power will not appeal to you any more. Nothing can be compared with that kind of joy, knowing that your life on Earth is beautiful and helpful.”

…and elsewhere he continues:

“Filmmakers should make films that inspire awakening. Journalists should write articles that help people to wake up.”

I’m a blogger, I thought at the time in response to his answers, and started this blog with a desire to share what I’ve found helpful, inspiring, and awakening.

Do I find it joyful? To the extent that I can get out of my own way, that I can quiet the doubting voice in my head that says “who are you to talk about all this stuff?” When that voice is quiet, and the writing or recording is flowing, this is one of the most enjoyable things in the world.

So… Create! Draw, write, sing, paint, play! Enjoy it! Share it! And make time for other people’s great art. As the commercial world with its ads and social media and its shopping and shopping and shopping swirls faster and faster around our heads, appearing unstoppable and uncontrollable – remember, art can stop time! Art can bring us back to superhighways of ants out in the fields collecting seeds, or the weave of a spiders web, to swaying spring grasses and a stalk swooping overhead.

May enough art and artists slow us all down, and awaken enough joy and common sense to keep our world on the right track.


Today’s post answered a question of mine, what can artists do for us? If you have a question related to the kind of topic found on this blog – awakening, art, creativity, life! –  that you would be happy for me to answer as a blog post, please send it to me via the contact page. Q and A’s help me to understand what I read, see, and appreciate. Comments are welcome via the same contact page. Thank you.


Dialogue with my Inner Zen Master

Me: I’ve got this underlying tension.

Inner Zen Master: Why?

Me: I suppose I worry too much about lots of things.

IZM: Haven’t we been over this before? Didn’t I find you all those self-help books to read?

Me: Yes, yes, but it’s still there! Not always, but often!

IZM: Well, why don’t you let go of it and have some fun?

Me: What?

IZM: Yes, just, you know, let go.

Me: Of the underlying tension?

IZM: Yes!

Me: Easy for a Zen Master to say!

IZM: Well, what causes it?

Me: Hmmm, worrying about everything I suppose.

IZM: Like what?

Me: Health, what to eat, what to do, where to go. Whether to give up the odd glass of wine or not. Mainly those things.

IZM: What did you do today?

Me: Had a healthy breakfast, went for a long walk, sat down to do some work.

IZM: Worrying?

Me: Not really, pretty much the perfect day actually.

IZM: Seems like you are doing fine then.

Me: Yes, I suppose you are right!

IZM: So?

Me: OK, thanks. But…

IZM: Look. How much worry are you capable of?

Me: Pfffff, oceanic quantities on a bad day.

IZM: How much inner peace are you capable of? True answer.

Me: Well, based on the times I’ve really got in touch with it… I’d say boundless amounts.

IZM: Which do you need more of in your life?

Me: The boundless inner peace.

IZM: Well, choose that every time worrying comes up.

Me: Ah. Wow. That makes sense.

IZM: So go and do it! And have a bit of fun while you’re at it!

Where you put your focus is where you are…

Morning walk

If I focus on bad things all day I’m unhappy. If I focus on good things all day I’m happy.

The other night I was pondering some distressing episodes from my childhood. Later that day I was a horrible dad to my children. I don’t think this is any accident.

The next day I read a beautiful piece of writing (by Nick Cave) about being kind, and later on I found myself being much kinder to my children.

To experiment with this idea of focusing in the right direction I plan a week of making ‘Lists of Good’.

Here’s todays, just up to lunchtime:

List of Good, Tuesday

– Got up at 6.30 am and got some work done in my invaluable, secret private time while everyone else sleeps.
– 6 km walk before work in Madrid’s Casa de Campo park.
– My son and I are massively enjoying Calvin and Hobbes collections.
– Spent 10 minutes watching ducklings in the park.
– I’m alive! Being alive is incredible in it’s own right!
– I’ve got some excellent books to read (Thoreau biography and Journals).
– I’m writing.
– It’s a wonderful sunny day!
– I crystallised a desire to be kinder to my children:

Let me be kind to my children every minute of every day. As kind as they were to me in all their innocent beginnings, as kind as I need to be for them to grow up kind and extend that kindness on. Let me be kind to myself and kind to my wife, and kind to everyone I come into contact with. Above all, let me be kind to my children.


Love of Life

Boating in the Retiro Park

I once heard the artist David Hockney gently raging against the health sections of newspapers, saying they are just filled with fear and lurking dangers. ‘That’s not health!’ he says, it’s just a fear of death, and as far as he is concerned, that’s a waste of time.

‘The opposite of fear of death is LOVE OF LIFE!’ he says.

What a great idea! You can walk around all day shrouded by a fear of death or you can jump up, kindle your internal fire and love life!

You can see Hockney’s love of life in his paintings, they shine with bright colour, they prod us in the ribs, stating clearly: ‘have you really looked at the world? Are you walking around in a dream or are you looking at this bright, shining, life? Are you really seeing the world as it is in all it’s glory? Wake up and love life because it’s absolutely incredible, much more so than you ever thought!’

‘To lose the present is to lose life’, says my old friend Thich Nhat Hanh, he and Hockney would get on well. They both see the world in front of them, sparkling with colour and light and possibility. They both see.

Highly recommended documentary: DAVID HOCKNEY ~ The Art of Seeing

A New Kind of Yardstick for Life

Images in this post: Shape and Light and Moment in Madrid

Did I do something to relax today?

Did I take it slowly instead of rushing at some point today, just once?

Did I do something playful and purposeless today, perhaps reading, biking, playing with the kids?

Did I look after my body, even doing something nice for it for 2 minutes, today?

Did I smile at someone today? To myself?

Did I wish myself happiness, ease?

If I did any one of those things I can count this as a wonderful day. And if I didn’t, and I notice, and I smile at myself for noticing and think, ‘doesn’t matter at all’, then I can still call it a wonderful day.

None of this was taught to me as being important, I was taught to look at other yardsticks in measuring my success in life: ladder-climbing, being recognised as being incredible in some way or another, getting on in the world, earning lots and having lots, striving away tirelessly, on and on and on.

This left me with a peculiar sense of ‘purpose’, a need that can drive me into turmoil, wanting to do great things, wanting to do more than ‘enough’. A sense of purpose that I can also be very grateful for, as it’s helped me enormously to achieve things that make my life wonderful in so many ways. Without our purposeful striving and effort, my wife and I wouldn’t have our business – Notes in Spanish – that pays the bills and makes lots of people happy as we help them to learn Spanish. Without the hard work and skills and yardsticks I learned at school, I wouldn’t have the free time to write this post.

But my purpose-yardstick is way out of proportion to a happy life. It always asks too much of me, which is what leads to the inner turmoil. I think I can calm it down enormously, so it looks more like this:

Did I do something that fulfils even in the tiniest way my need for meaning and purpose today? Perhaps work a little on our business, write a little, share something wonderful, do something for the family or be a good husband or dad? Just put one foot forward in any of those directions? Any of the above will do, even just 2 minutes of a single one of them. That’s enough. And if I didn’t, I can smile at myself again for noticing and think, ‘doesn’t matter at all, you are only human’, or ‘it’s fine, you’re on holiday!’ and I can still call it a wonderful day just for having been alive in it, and to have experienced this great life passing by.

Selfish walking meditation photography

After loving photography for most of my childhood and adult life, I sort of gave up a few years ago, put off by the amount of time it was bringing me back to the computer – where I was spending far too much time for work already. But recently that has changed…

I bought a new camera to make videos for our Spanish learning website, and it has got me back out onto the streets again….

I’ve also been inspred by a couple of photographers I discovered randomly on the web, Mattias Burling, and Eric Kim, especially his posts on Selfish Photography and Walking Meditation in Street Photography

So I’ve been spending a lot of time walking the streets of Madrid and El Escorial (the first three pictures in this post), taking Selfish Photos – photos I like, rather than thinking how many likes they may get on Instagram…

I was particularly keen on getting an umbrella photo…

I love this one, ‘greeting the chef…’

This dog on the train, such doleful eyes… so loving…

A wonderful building rising from the trees like a great ship…

Eric Kim says it takes 100,000 photos to get a good one, and he may be right. I took these last two about ten years ago, and I think they are my current favourites of all time. From the streets of Cordoba, and Madrid.

I’m thinking it’s worth far more to get out onto the streets of Madrid to do something that makes me happy, than to be thinking about happiness all the time 🙂