A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine moved to Barcelona to begin a contract job. Within minutes of arriving at the airport all his luggage was stolen, including his wallet, with his money and the contact details for his job in it. At first he was in a state of panic, wondering how he was going to survive. He didn't speak Spanish, and didn't know anyone in the city. At first, he approached people at the airport, telling them what had happened and asking for money, but no one believed him. He went to the police, but they were unhelpful too. For the first few nights he slept rough on the streets, or on the beach, and stole food from finished plates outside restaurants.
However, once the initial panic and fear faded away, he felt a strange sense of well-being. One night, after about two weeks of being homeless, he fell asleep on the beach with a feeling of liberation inside him, and a sense of being - in his words - ‘in tune' with a deeper part of himself. As a Buddhist, he recognised that this was a spiritual feeling, connected to ‘letting go of my normal identity and status.' From this point, his perceptions seemed different too - his surroundings seemed more real and beautiful. Eventually he went to the British Embassy, who loaned him the money for a return flight, but he felt no hurry to go back home - in fact, he waited another week before buying a ticket.
Another acquaintance told me how, after many years of unhappiness, she finally began to feel a sense of well-being in her late forties, when she went into her menopause. Part of the reason for this was, she believes, because she stopped being concerned about her appearance. As a younger woman, she had always been beautiful and had a lot of attention from men. As a result, her sense of identity had been bound up with her appearance; she'd always made an effort to look as good as possible, wearing a lot of make up and spending a lot of time shopping for clothes. Being thought of as ‘beautiful' made her feel special.
At first, when she realised that her beauty was fading and that men were no longer as attracted to her, she felt a sense of loss. But soon this switched to a sense of liberation, as she began to realise that she didn't actually need the attention. She began to let go of her attachment to her appearance, and realised that, by placing so much emphasis on it, she'd lost touch with her true identity. She began to feel more authentic and much happier.
The key to understanding these experiences is the concept of attachment. Normally, as human beings we're psychologically attached to a large number of constructs, such as hopes and ambitions for the future, beliefs and ideas about the world, knowledge, status and achievements. At the same time, there are more tangible attachments such as our possessions, our appearance and our jobs or roles. All of these attachments support our sense of identity like scaffolding. They are the building blocks of our sense of ‘I'. We feel that we are ‘someone' because we have hopes, beliefs, a job, or because we're successful and attractive, and so on.
We think we need these attachments to feel happy, but paradoxically, letting go of them can bring - at least for some people - a deeper kind of well-being. Letting go makes us aware that the attachments actually clutter up our minds, and overburden us with demands. We feel a sense of clarity and openness, now that our ‘identity scaffolding' has dissolved away. There's a new sense of energy too, since our mental energy is no longer consumed by maintaining the attachments.
But even more importantly, psychological attachments seem to obscure a deeper, more authentic part of ourselves. This ‘core' of our being doesn't need external happiness, because somehow it exists in a natural state of fullness and contentment.
In other words, it may be that we've been looking for happiness in the wrong place: not outside, but inside. It may be that true well-being comes not from accumulating things, but actually letting go of them.