The Opposite Good Quality
In this Address, I am going to explore how we can apply a principle in our lives which can help us to become better people. If you have heard Bridget Spain’s wonderful Address to this year’s General Assembly, you may remember that one of her points was to recommend that we apply our spirituality in our daily lives. “Live a spiritual path, not just talk about it”, she said.
I’m speaking today to a piece of guidance for living in harmony with others, and for being happier ourselves. To my understanding, that’s a practical aspect of spirituality. It was for St. Paul; and, 3000 years earlier, for Krishna. And anyone can use it in our everyday life.
It’s called “Practising the Opposite Good Quality”.
Perhaps you have heard that principle elsewhere? If so, please be patient while I explore and explain. And I’ll first now state an important assumption. I assume that all of us want to be good people – that a preference for good is active within every one of us. To do good, and to be good. And, secondly, I assume we don’t always manage it. I know I don’t! We like being kind, caring and considerate. We want to be forgiving, we want to get on with people, and we want to look after ourselves sensibly and be healthy. But it doesn’t always happen. Our life isn’t like that all day, every day.
Practising the Opposite Good Quality is a way of changing our self from within so that it does happen more frequently. So that we live as our better selves more often.
The principle is this:-
** If you want to be free from a habit – free from a habitual way of being - do two things: get away from situations that provoke the habit; and practise the opposite good quality. **
Two guidance points there. Hopefully, they’re easy to remember.
Keep away from tempting situations.
And don’t focus on the problem. Instead, focus on the opposite of what you want to get away from, and let the harmful habit wither away through neglect. Focus on what you positively want to create in yourself. Focus on what you are going to become.
I have found this to be one of the all-time best pieces of guidance.
Let’s explore some examples of how it can work.
Take anger, for example. I used to get angry quite often and quite strongly. Now, I may get irritated at times, but real vicious anger happens only occasionally. I’m still not always free from anger, but I’m a lot freer now than I used to be. I know, from within.
What’s made the difference? For several years – maybe about seven – I have been actively cultivating gentleness. Gentleness is a quality I appreciate in myself, and in other people. And through persistence with daily meditation I have also become more peaceful. Between them, gentleness and peacefulness – new habits for me, new ways of being – have worked as opposite good qualities to anger.
You see, the way the principle works is that we actively, consciously, intentionally mindfully make a point of bringing into our lives the positive quality we want to develop in ourselves. It works because as we remember to bring the opposite good quality into our life, and into the moments when we need it most, the more it takes root in our mind, and from our mind this new positive quality gradually becomes part of our normal way of being.
And the pattern we want to be free from gradually fades, un-tended – not by actively pushing it away, trying to get rid of it. The weird thing about trying not to do or feel some habit or way of being is that this actually strengthens it! It puts our attention on it. That attention is what makes it stronger even while we think we are working to weaken it.
One way I think of this is to say that the subconscious mind does not recognise the word “not”. It simply notices what we put our attention on; the more intense the attention, the deeper the groove it cuts in the subconscious.
The same goes for worldliness and spirituality. We awaken more spirituality within us by giving it time and attention. Such as by speaking inwardly to God in the gaps between activities. Such as by making time for our spiritual practices – I mean practices such as meditation, singing, Spirit-centred reading and contemplation, Unitarian ‘Heart&Soul’ hours on Zoom, mindful walking, and prayer. All these are practices that help one’s spiritual self-development, but some will appeal more to you personally than others. With any of them, practised frequently over time, we rebalance our life at least a little towards nurturing our all too easily neglected spiritual needs. And we may find ourselves making some little adjustments, ones to enable us to still fully do everything that matters most to us and what we love to do for others.
Similarly, practising the opposite good quality can be effective to free oneself from a risk of slipping into shame. Shame is the judgement against oneself “I am bad”. I am a bad person. There’s a sentence people use, isn’t there: “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Strictly speaking, yourself is the only being you can be ashamed of. Shame is a negative judgement about yourself.
The good quality which best counters it is self-esteem – that’s to say: full acceptance of oneself as a person, of worth, equal with everyone else, a person who can give and receive love, fully deserving of respect and of a fair place in society – unconditionally, free from need for entry tickets to acceptance such as money, slimness or connections.
There is a religious sect I have attended meetings of, which believes that shame is a virtue! I do not share that perspective at all. There’s no positive place for shame in my theology. Every person is a direct expression of our creator; we are made exactly as Perfect Spirit wants us to be.
Sometimes of course, a person does a bad thing. Then it’s the action that’s evil; not the person – a person is never evil. As a Californian workshop leader I knew long ago rightly affirmed: “a project can be a failure; a person never is”.
Now, a good theology is helpful for strengthening one’s self-esteem. Unitarians are in general well placed in this regard compared with some faith groups, because by-and-large we are positive about human nature and don’t accept teachings about human unworthiness or that we are all “sinners”.
But of course there is more to improving one’s self-esteem than having a sound theology. If this is a “tough ask” for you, it’s probably more a matter for your counsellor, or the self-help section of your library or your web-browsing time, than for me as your Lay Preacher! I’ll only say by way of “p.s.” that giving and receiving love, and using a little of one’s time for giving any kind of service to others, both have good reputations as self-esteem boosters.
Hopefully you have got at least a general sense of how “practising the opposite good quality” can change one’s life for the better. And how it’s adaptable to all unhelpful mental patterns you come to be aware of.... selfishness, greed, unkindness.... there are too many possible patterns to list.
One necessity for progress is persistence. Just as plants you put in the soil for ground-cover take time to spread and take over from the weeds that previously covered the ground, so it is with our minds. It takes repetition many times for a new ‘pattern of being’ to get established in one’s mind. It takes conscious awareness, choice, and will. It takes keeping on and on.
And, for those of us who connect in some way with a Spirit greater than ourselves, let us be confident that Spirit is with us and for us. Our heartfelt connexion with Spirit is our resource for this, along with all the many other aspects of bringing good into our lives and radiating that good into our worlds. The Great Spirit longs for us to be happy. Spirit longs for us to live with pure minds filled with light and love. Spirit is on our side.
May we all be blessed.