Optimist, Pessimist or Not

“The person over whom the future has lost its grip. How like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. No anxieties for tomorrow. Total presence in the now. Holiness!”
Anthony De Mello

People ask, “Are you a pessimist or an optimist?” “Do you see the glass as half empty or half full?” We’ll then try to decide whether we filter experience through a pessimistic or an optimistic belief system. The pessimist typically believes that things will not turn out well. Pessimists have the relative pleasure of not being surprised by bad news. They seem unwilling to risk hopefulness, because to hope and be disappointed would be too painful. The trade off is often a life lacking joy, and not infrequently, depression.

Optimists expect things to work out. They project hope and are more likely to see problems as temporary setbacks. They may be viewed as naïve by the die-hard pessimist, but they are more likely to get things done and live more fully because of their hopeful attitude. They may also be more likely to leave all their money at the casino.

Whether we are a pessimist or an optimist, we experience life through a filter of our beliefs. Whether we think things will work out or not doesn’t determine whether they will work out. The very idea of things working out depends on a limited view that likely depends on our personal ego. Optimism and pessimism are not the only options.

According to the legendary Taoist sage, Liehtze, an old man lost a mare. His neighbors expressed their sympathy. “What a misfortune for you!” “We’ll see,” he replied.
In time, the horse returned accompanied by a beautiful stallion. “What good fortune!” said the neighbors. “We’ll see,” was all the man said. The old man’s only son tried to ride the stallion, but fell off and broke his leg. The neighbors were concerned and said to the old man, “What bad luck for you.” The man merely said, “We’ll see.” Soon there was war and the army came through looking for conscripts, but because the man’s son had a broken leg, he was not taken away. And so it goes.

Good luck, bad luck, optimism, pessimism, a glass half empty or half full—each is a projection of our limited view onto an ambiguous reality. What would life be like if we saw the world without such filters? Would we seem foolish? Would we have to give up worry?

One reason to meditate is to learn to perceive more directly. We attempt to experience the world without prejudice and projection. Through observation of our mental processes we can notice when we are applying a mental filter, and perhaps we can stop it. When a glass of water is seen as neither half full nor half empty, but as a glass of water, we can stop philosophizing and quench our thirst.

Practice sitting with an empty mind. Observe your tendency to label and evaluate people, places, things, events and your own thoughts. Notice if worry crops up. If it does, drop it. If you fall into fantasy. Notice that too and let it go. Instead of sorting and classifying try just observing.

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© 2002 Tom Barrett