We want to be happy. Everyone, everywhere, is trying to find—and hold onto—happiness. We do everything we are supposed to do: diligently follow the instructions, practice the techniques, and still, more often than we should be (given the amount of effort we are putting in) we are not consistently happy. As a psychotherapist and interfaith minister, I have spent the last two decades watching people feed their addiction to happiness; they get their short term fix here and there, but end up back on the street searching for happiness yet again, even more desperate. The thing we want most and spend the majority of our time trying to accomplish eludes us.
We human beings are remarkable creatures,. We can do anything we set out to do. So why not lasting happiness? Why is there such a split between our desire for happiness and our ability to hang onto it? After many years of listening to people talk about their failed attempts to hang onto a state of happiness, I began asking myself the following questions: What is this thing we call happiness? Is it achievable? Is it reliable? Is it sustainable?
As I studied the state of happiness, I became intensely aware of its fragility. When our life circumstances change and we lose the object that’s been making us happy…poof, our happiness is gone. When uncomfortable feelings appear within our state of happiness or the object that was bringing us happiness no longer works, happiness again disappears. We are constantly acquiring and losing happiness.
I began to see that it is not our efforts to create happiness that are flawed, but rather, our choice of happiness as a goal. Happiness is the wrong goal for this life. Happiness relies on our ability to control circumstances that, no matter how hard we try, we cannot control. Happiness relies on circumstances staying the same. Life always changes, uncomfortable feelings always arise, and what we want is always in flux. This is the nature of life. The choice of continual happiness as a pursuit is irreconcilably flawed.
Normal life is not easy for anyone. Why then do we expect ourselves to be happy all the time? This foolish expectation creates tremendous suffering. Rather than trying to hang onto something whose nature is transitory, we can discover a state of wellbeing that is able to withstand and flourish within the inherent volatility of a human life. We should be grateful for happiness when it is here, but as a goal for life, it is unwise.
Is there something larger, deeper, more lasting than happiness? Is there a state of well-being that can sustain itself in the midst of the changing circumstances and emotional shifts that life includes? Is there a way to feel grounded and well even when the contents of our life are not? If so, what shift must we make to discover this state that is deeper and larger than happiness?
For a long time, I used my spiritual practice to try and achieve peace and happiness. And I did, in stretches. And yet, again and again, when life presented its toughest challenges, inevitably, the peace and happiness that I had achieved slipped away. Somewhere along the path I got tired—luckily, tired of trying to get to peace and happiness, or rather, of getting there and watching it disintegrate. And with my weariness came an interesting development: I got curious about what was actually true. I stopped trying to do something with what I was experiencing, to change it in any way, and just let myself see what was there, to experience what I was experiencing.
No longer trying to get to somewhere else, my meditation practice, and consequently my life, could then be what it was, whatever that meant at any particular moment. It was through this shift that I began to glimpse a state of being that is radically different and amazingly okay, a state that is deeper and more eternal than happiness. Indeed, it was not until I stopped trying to create happiness—as a way out of now—and started investigating what is here—a way in—that I discovered a doorway to something far more blissful than happiness had ever offered.
We spend our lives trying to get to some imaginary there, where lasting happiness awaits. What we don’t know how to do is to get to here, where we are. We discover well-being when we shift our focus toward this moment and what is actually here. The secret to well-being is counter-intuitive: allow whatever is happening inside you to happen; don’t do anything with it.; don’t judge it; don’t try to change it; don’t turn it into an identity—something that says something about who you are. Allow the feelings, allow the thoughts, allow all experience to happen within you without turning any of it into a story about you and your life. When we let go of achieving a particular outcome with our experience and meet our experience as it is—wanted or not— we discover a state of deep contentment that relies on nothing and no one, and is inherently and eternally ours. Indeed, we discover who we really are.
Excerpted from the upcoming book, Inviting A Monkey to Tea: Befriending Your Mind and Discovering Lasting Contentment. (October, 2012, Hohm Press)