The Value of Negative Experience

November 24th, 2014






“A happy childhood has spoiled many a promising life. Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.”


– Robertson Davies




Nature, nurture or…



It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking who we are is determined by outward circumstance. While this may be partially true in terms of opportunity or appearances it has very little to do with our internal experience of the world and even less with what we become through them.



Mona Lisa



In other words, the detail of what happens to us matters less than what we become through those experiences. It is only our grasping mind that tries to control all the shifts in our life.



Stangely, this is rarely talked about in the healing arts. Quite the opposite in fact. Our outward circumstances are normally given far more weight and credence. At best, we are given some advice to help us cope with them. The concept that the negative experiences of our life might serve as a springboard to become stronger and wiser is rarer still.



As children we are like open sponges absorbing whatever happens while accepting it as ‘just how things are’. We may not always like our experiences but we have (usually) not yet developed a frame of reference outside of our own situation to become analytical about it. While we are largely powerless to influence much about our childhood we are also not responsible for what happens to us at that point.



Adulthood is another matter however. With increased power and independence comes an increase in responsiblity and, hopefully, greater self awareness.




Conditioned responses



We have discussed the role of the psychological terms ‘ego’ and ‘super ego’ several times in the Monday Conscious Health blog. What both of these have in common is that they attempt to exert control over our behaviour.




The super ego does this at a collective level in our socio-cultural tribes by imposing values of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. It tries to pass these off as universal truths when in fact they are merely relative to that particular group.



One of the biggest amplifiers of these values is found in media. Through opinionated slanting of news, films, TV shows and the like we are taught what are acceptable actions and reactions to common situations. We learn that in a given situation we should feel a certain way or take a certain action.



Now all this is understandable human behaviour as far as it goes. There are two main problems with it however:



  1. It is an illusion
  2. While it may reflect our human foibles it does not address or allow for the ‘being’ of a human being. It includes no concept of transcedent experience or the possibility of a choice arrived at that is independent of outward circumstances.



Let us look at these reasonable looking imposters.




The illusion of conditioned reactions



There are plenty of examples where something that begins as a seductive illusion can serve to enlighten us if we are paying attention…



light illusion



A story I often tell my clients to illustrate this is the case of the two blind Iraeli computer hackers. These two brothers were eventually found guilty on a technicality (they were two clever to leave a more incriminating digital trail) and sentenced to two years in jail.



Six months after their release they had created a successful (legal) business partnership with the sheriff that was responsible for arresting them. It made headlines and they were interviewed about it.



When asked about their experience of prison life they replied: “We were never in prison. Oh, sure, we had free room and board for a time while we were working on our next business plan but we were never in prison.”



Lest one gets the impression they were staying in luxury conditions, the brothers were housed in separate cells and communicated by tapping morse code through the concrete walls.



Our perception of life then does not have to be determined by our outward cirmcumstances. Who is to say that even what we are conditioned to think of as negative experience cannot be beneficial to us?



We do not have to become the reactive victim of previous conditioning. When we finally realise that we can choose how we shall react and act in any situation we become free to be our true self.




The choice of being



Here is a concept that many people have a difficult time comprehending: We can choose how we experience the world. The difficulty comes because of two misundertandings:



  1. We continue to see ourselves as the victim of circumstances that have nothing to do with us.
  2. We look at the world through a moral filter driven by our ego’s dualistic interpretations of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – supported by the aforementioned super ego values of our socio-cultural tribes.



The whole concept of freedom of choice and therefore the responsibility we have for our choices can become overwhelming for a conditioned, moral mind (for a further discussion on the moral mind, click here)




Why would anyone choose a negative experience?



Because the Self wants to experience it all. Despite the concerns of our moral mind driven by an ego looking to protect self-interest; despite the super ego values of our cultural tribes that attempt to influence what we should or should not think, feel, do or be; we still have the capacity to choose. And that may be exactly what we do:







Once our moral mind stops grading experiences positively or negatively we become free to make the most of every experience. Who is to say that a subjectively negative experience is not exactly the thing that helps us evolve our understanding of our Self?



Look back on some your own experiences that seemed difficult at the time and then see where they have taken you now. Illness, heartbreak, changing economic fortunes, accidents, loss and so on can all become grist for the mill of expanding consciousness.



All of this begs the question:



Is negative experience negative at all?



blue footed boobie



In my early twenties, I interviewed people in a retirement home about their lives. The common theme in their replies was that they did not regret what they thought at the time were the mistakes they made. With the fullness of time they saw how it helped them understand themselves better. If they had regrets it was regarding the things they did not do for fear of creating a negative outcome that, ironically, they feared they would regret.




‘Hindsight is 20/20’ as the saying goes and these elderly citizens now realised that, at the level of personal growth, there are no negative experiences – only endless chances to understand ourselves better through those experiences.




That is the value of experience.





Till the experience of another Monday presents itself once more,





© Jeremy Halpin all rights reserved. All images are the author’s own unless otherwise indicated or if the original source is unknown at the time of writing. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking the button in the bottom right hand corner of the page – or share it on the social media of your choice. If you have any wishes or questions regarding subjects to be discussed on this blog use the contact information below. Jeremy is also available for seminars, lectures and personal consultation:




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