Finding Your Power to Be Happy – Chapter 1

FINDING YOUR POWER TO BE HAPPY

Seven Practices to Bring

Unconditional Happiness into Your Life

D.E. Hardesty

 

Preface

The peculiar thing about us humans is, we spend a lot of time working to find people and things that will make us happy. In fact, we seem to spend the majority of our time doing this. However, there is no guarantee that any of this effort will work. There are lots of people who have hordes of people around them, and who have lots of things, but have been unable to make themselves happy.

The truth is, happiness can be had with little effort. Have you ever been happy for no reason at all? Of course you have. Without anything changing in life, happiness just appears.  We see it in young children all the time. In fact, we expect to see it in children. If you happen to ask a smiling child why he or she is so happy, at best the answer may be, “Because.” For an adult this may be an unsatisfying answer, but for the child it is the truth — happiness exists “just because.”

As we age we seem to lose touch with happiness-for-no-reason-at-all. We see a world where everyone is striving for stuff, striving for popularity, striving, striving, striving. The natural fount of happiness we once enjoyed disappears as we join them. However, that happiness is not gone. All that happened is we lost our connection to it. This book is about recovering that connection.

We all grow up believing that if we work hard, and if we are good people, we will enjoy good relationships with others, good health, success and a long life. Obviously this is not true. There are a lot of rich old people who are not happy. What we have, what we do, and the other circumstances of our lives do not provide authentic happiness. Instead, happiness comes from inside of us, and all by itself enables us to have secure relationships, good health, more success and longer lives.

So, what is the secret of being happy? Being happy is a little like flipping a switch. When it’s on you are happy and when it’s off you are not. It’s so easy. How else can you explain being happy for no reason. What you need to do is learn to turn it on, and keep it turned on. This book discusses seven practices that help you do that.

There is a lot of wisdom available about how to be happy. Most of it is thousands of years old, but some is quite new. The seven practices we will look at incorporate this wisdom to help you learn how to turn on happiness in your life. This kind of happiness does not require changing anything in your life. All you have to do is learn to turn it on.

* * *

I came of age in the seventies, in and around San Francisco, which was a center for many Human Potential Movements and practices. It was then that I had my first important experiences of a new way of being in the world. It was a different way of being than anything I had previously experienced. Many times, I noticed that my waking mind had stilled. As we used to say, the inner dialog had stopped. And when it stopped, it left a kind of excitement, peace, and happiness that I had not previously known.

These were memorable experiences for me because my ordinary way of going about the world used to involve a constant stream of thoughts involving doubts, dissatisfaction, fear, and anger. The sense I had of myself during these remarkable times stayed with me. It kept telling me that I had to find ways to repeat them.

Over the next forty years I learned how to regularly let my awareness settle into a place of simple happiness and joy. I usually did this in meditation. However, I also learned to bring this way of being back into my normal world of living and working.

When my daughter was in college, and beginning to think about graduate school and work, she was unsure of the direction she should take and asked for advice. As she and I talked, I began considering everything I had learned in a new light. I had found my path to happiness, and I was living it. She was just starting on that path. What should I tell her?

My first bit of advice to her was obvious. You should do what you are good at and what you like to do. It was the liking what you do part that was the stickler. What does one really like to do? I thought, if you can find your purpose in life, then you will probably like doing what it takes to accomplish that purpose. Then, I began to realize that, underlying all purposes is the desire for happiness. I began to see that if you can find happiness, the rest of your life pretty much sorts itself out.

If happiness is the purpose, then how do you “get happy?” This is obviously a question for the ages and there are myriad opinions. Still, I set it as my goal to find out what others have said about this. On the surface, nobody agrees on exactly how to bring happiness into one’s life. However, beneath the surface there is a common denominator in all approaches to being happy. This book describes what lies at the heart of those approaches.

In many ways this book is my own quest for the truth of happiness: what it is, what it is not, and how to welcome it into my life, and yours.

* * *

This book offers time-tested advice on how to find unconditional happiness. I do not mean to give advice to anyone seeking help with a psychological condition. I am just a writer and a seeker of truth. I am not a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.

* * *

I want to express gratitude to my wife Beth for patiently reading several drafts of this book, and providing her wise comments and criticisms. Beth and I have been on a long spiritual journey together and along the way she has learned much that I have not. Her input has been invaluable. Also, I want to thank my daughter, Rebecca, who provided much needed guidance on Western philosophical thinking, and whose original questions inspired this book. Thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, DC, healer and friend, who provided much needed encouragement and insights. Finally, thanks to Jo-Ann Langseth for her work in editing this book. Jo-Ann’s knowledge of the subject matter and insights greatly improved the book.

D.E. Hardesty

March 2015

 

 

 Chapter 1

The Power to Be Happy

You have the power to be happy. Despite anything that has happened to you, or anything that may happen to you, you have the power to be happy. I am not saying you will be happy every second of your life. Bad stuff happens, and you will react with pain, grief, or anger. These are immediate but temporary responses that come with being human. Luckily, they usually occupy little time in your life. The rest of the time you can be happy.

Nobody is a victim of life. Nobody’s happiness is hostage to what happens in life. You are a free being with the power to choose the way you feel. You can be happy regardless of anything that happens or does not happen to you, and regardless of the chaos that is in the world or your life.

Yours is the power to choose what to think about, what to look at, and what to feel. You have the power to choose how you’ll experience life. This power enables you to find happiness inside of yourself, instead of waiting for life to be perfect. In simple terms, you have the power to control your mind, and with this power you can choose to be happy. With all this power at your disposal, your life can be heaven on Earth.

Now you may say, “If I have this power, why am I not happy? I have been slogging through life for a long time, and I am tired, bored, and unhappy doing it. Why can’t I be happy?”

The simple reason is that it takes practice. It takes practice to learn to search inside of yourself for happiness instead of constantly chasing after it in the world.

The purpose of this book is to show you where real happiness comes from, and how you can enjoy it into your life. The good news is: You need do nothing to bring it into your life. You just need to know what it is and how to stop doing what prevents you from experiencing the happiness that is your birthright.

Why Do We Want to Be Happy?

When it comes right down to it, everyone just wants to be happy. According to the Dalai Lama,

It is a fact – a natural fact of life – that each one of us has an innate desire to seek happiness and to overcome suffering. [1]

Our need for happiness is so great that, once we remove pursuits aimed at staying fed, staying warm, and caring for our children, we do most of what we do to be happy.

The philosopher Aristotle said that people choose happiness for its own sake, not to achieve some other purpose. If you have true happiness, you do not need anything else.

The wish for happiness is basic to us. Why is this? What is it about happiness that makes us want it so much? We want it because being happy makes an enormous positive contribution to life. The benefits are so great that you may find that aiming for happiness is a lot more important than many of the other things you do.

Let us look at some of the benefits of being happy:

  • It is true that good relationships can make people happy. However, evidence suggests that happy people are better at establishing good relationships.
  • Happy people are more successful in life. Success does not always make you happy, but happiness can make you successful.
  • The evidence shows that happy people are healthier, both physically and emotionally. Happy people live longer. [2]
  • Happy people are creative. People who worry excessively about what they do narrow their focus, while happiness leads to an expansive creative mood.[3]

In short, happiness, by itself, improves nearly every aspect of life. It is the glue that holds a good life together.

In addition, happiness may be “adaptive.” Adaptive behavior helps us perform better in the world. In other words, happy people may be better able to cope with whatever life throws at them. Perhaps we instinctively know this and seek happiness as a guide to living successfully.

Beyond living longer and healthier lives, we may seek happiness for other reasons. Many people believe that each of us exists for a specific purpose. Although there are many beliefs about that purpose, nobody can say with certainty what it is. However, perhaps as we align our lives with our purpose, we become happier. Said another way, perhaps the closer we get to true happiness, the closer we are to realizing the purpose for our time on Earth. I do not know the nature of that purpose, but I believe that happiness is vital to it.

If happiness underlies and animates our purpose, then aiming for it seems a reliable way of moving toward that purpose. In other words, if you let what makes you happy be your guide, there is a good chance that you are on your path to fulfilling your purpose.

Irrespective of the good reasons for being happy, we want happiness. It is the way we are. All by itself, it makes life worth living.

One of my favorite songs from 2014 is (no surprise) “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams. One of the lyrics is “Happiness is the truth!” The man is definitely on to something here.

Finding Your Power to Be Happy

To be happy, you have to learn that lasting happiness is always available to you, and that it is unconditional. To be unconditional means that it arises within you naturally, and does not result from anything you do, anything you have, or any other condition of your life. All you have to do to be happy is to experience this truth of happiness. What helps you to have this experience is to practice letting go of your attachment to your desires for what you may mistakenly think makes you happy.

What I have just said is the simplest explanation of your power to be happy. To truly understand it requires a lot more. My explanation is like a photograph of an onion. It is accurate — but you need to start peeling off the layers of the onion to get at its core. That is what the remainder of this book is about.

In this chapter I summarize the seven practices aimed at helping you find your power to be happy. All of these practices will be explained further in the chapters that follow. Most of what I will cover comes from ancient wisdom. I am not breaking any new ground. What I am trying to do, however, is organize this information in a fashion that makes it easy to follow and incorporate into your life.

Practice 1: Learn the nature of unconditional happiness. Such happiness is not the same as conditional happiness or sense pleasures.

Deep inside all of us, at the center of our being, is an unending font of lasting happiness. There is no consensus as to where it comes from, but it is real. This happiness is deep down, satisfying, lasting, and unconditional.

Unconditional happiness is not a feeling you get from taking a big bite of something sweet, and it is not the joy of sex or the thrill of victory. These are mere sensations. It is not the temporary rush of feeling when something good happens to you. Unconditional happiness is not a sensation, and it is not temporary. It does not relate to how you feel right now, or how you feel about something in particular. If you allow it to be, it is your emotional ground of being.

If I were to ask you, “Are you happy?” You might say, “I am happy, and I have been happy for a long time. I cannot imagine myself being unhappy.” This characterization of how you feel describes the lasting happiness that I characterize as unconditional happiness. This happiness exists for no reason at all.

You might also answer, “I was happy last month when I got a promotion, but the new job is stressing me out now.” Here we are talking about conditional happiness. It is what you feel when something good happens. These are temporary, or transitory, states of happiness.

You may also report happiness that results from a pleasurable sensation. Sight, sound, taste, hearing, smells, feeling, and thoughts all cause pleasant and unpleasant reactions. You might say, “Listening to this song on the radio always makes me feel good.”

Conditional happiness and sense pleasures come and go in life. We cannot usually do much about them. We hope the good feelings will last for a while and that the bad ones will be brief. The nature of conditional happiness and sense pleasures is that they are temporary. In addition, they usually result from what you do. If you stub your toe, you have pain, which is a sensation. If you ride a roller coaster, you experience the sensations of excitement and thrills.

Unconditional happiness can underlie all of these temporary feelings. It can be a constant in your life. Once a temporary feeling of happiness, unhappiness, pleasure, or pain is over, unconditional happiness is a feeling to which you can always return. It can be your emotional state during times when nothing in particular is happening to make you happy or give you pleasure.

The purpose of this book is to help you find unconditional happiness. Some call unconditional happiness tranquility, joy, equanimity, harmony, or peace. The label is unimportant because the experience defies description. It involves feelings of freedom, and letting go of the hold that your day-to-day cares and concerns have on you. It is also the sense that everything is OK. Such happiness has the power to change your entire world for the better.

Let me give you an example of how unconditional happiness can change your perspective.

Every Sunday morning my wife and I go to the local farmers’ market, and while we shop, I usually watch the people there. I remember one morning when I was happy and glad to be alive. As I looked at the people, each face had a glow. What I saw all around me was an outward reflection of what seemed to be inner joy. I do not know what I actually saw, and it really doesn’t matter. What I experienced was the world that my happiness created for me. It was a great way to start the day.

Practice 2: Learn that unconditional happiness arises naturally from your deepest self. It does not come from what happens to you in life.

Unconditional happiness is natural to you. Whether you experience it or not, it is your ground of being, and the unconditional happiness you feel arises from deep within your unconscious. Such happiness does not result from anything you do in life.

You are born with this happiness. It is your birthright. Some believe that what you experience as unconditional happiness is your deepest self as it touches the Divine, God, or some other power or spirit of the universe. It could also be a natural experience of the human body. Nobody knows its ultimate source. In this book, I refer to the ultimate source of unconditional happiness as Source. Regardless of its true Source, when it arises, you experience it as real happiness.

Though it is natural to us, we seem to grow up believing that lasting happiness comes from what we do in the world. You have to give up this belief before you can begin to allow unconditional happiness into your life. You can experience unconditional happiness by letting go of your self-centered fixation on what you think will make you happy, but this is not easy! You have to train your mind to start looking inward for happiness, not outward.

For the most part, what you do in life and what you receive in life provide only conditional happiness and sense pleasures. These emotions are temporary. Unconditional happiness is natural to you but may be overwhelmed by unquenchable thirst for sense pleasures and conditional happiness. You may mistakenly believe that sense pleasures and conditional happiness will provide the lasting happiness you want.

Your power to be happy lies in your ability to turn your attention away from what you assume will make you happy, and toward unconditional happiness. Turning your attention away from these desires is easier once you fully understand that what you do and what you receive in life are not the sources of unconditional happiness. Understanding that you have the innate power to be happy is the start of your journey to lasting happiness.

Trapped in the Belief that Happiness Comes from Stuff

Minds are rational, and reason says that you become happy only when good things come your way. In the world that you see, every effect has a cause. Because it is rational, your mind may be on a never-ending search to do something that brings happiness to you.

The mind bases the way it thinks on what it sees in the world. It sees something happen, which causes something else to happen, and something else, etc. This frame of reference is all that the mind knows, and from which it naturally infers that to be happy, something has to happen. Therefore, it impels us to keep doing something to find happiness.

When Janie was three, she got a wonderful toy for her birthday. This toy brought her happiness for a long time. For her, the toy was the cause, and happiness was the effect. From then on, what she mainly wanted was toys. Sometimes they made her happy and sometimes they did not, but she never forgot the lesson she learned when she was three. For the rest of her life, her way of being happy was getting more “toys.”

Most of us are firmly attached to our ideas about how to be happy in the world. This attachment makes us keep doing or trying the same things to make ourselves happy.

What you do can provide pleasurable physical sensations, or ego elations, which can temporarily mimic happiness. Food and drink, entertainment and sex all provide temporary distractions and pleasures, which can substitute for happiness. These sensations, however, do not last, and are not nearly as satisfying as real, lasting happiness. Shallow sensations of happiness may feel good, but you cannot seek after sensations forever. Either your money or your body is going to give out.

Conditional happiness may last for a while, but, like sense pleasure, it eventually fades. This happiness is, in a sense, a peek at the real thing. However, because the mind believes that such happiness comes only from doing or having something, once that something is gone, the happiness goes with it.

On the other side of the coin, we grow up learning that negative things make us unhappy. Bad things happen, and we react emotionally. There is much grief in the world, and all of us at some point will experience painful physical and emotional sensations. However, negative events and circumstances do not affect unconditional happiness, and they are usually temporary.

If you can accept that good things happening in the world result in sense pleasures and conditional happiness, but not lasting happiness, you are ready for the real work. Once you accept this truth of happiness, you can start to train your mind to think in a different way.

To bring lasting unconditional happiness into your life, you have to train yourself to look inward for it, not outward. Once you do this, you can naturally let go of your self-centered preoccupation with pleasures and conditional happiness. Of course, you can still have fun; you can still feel all manner of pleasure and you can still experience intense happiness when something good happens. Nothing lessens the wonderful feelings. However, your basic feeling of happiness no longer depends on what you do in the world.

Happiness for No Reason

The pleasant and unpleasant sensations that come from what you think, do, and say occupy relatively little time in your life. Most of the time you are just living, going through your day with little happening to make you happy or unhappy. Yet, during these seemingly fallow times, you may spontaneously feel happy. Why is this? How could you be happy for no identifiable reason?

There is a reason, however. It is because happiness is your basic ground of being. If you are feeling happy, you are experiencing what is natural to you.

Good and bad experiences cause immediate and temporary sensations. Real happiness, however, is natural and unchanging. If you were not blocking it from your awareness, you would experience happiness as your permanent state.

Doing Nothing Calculated to Find Happiness

Taoist philosophy has a lot to say about the misconceptions we have regarding what it takes to be happy. This philosophy goes back 2,500 years to the Tao Te Ching, written by the sage Lao Tzu. Chuang Tzu provides more guidance on this philosophy in Thomas Merton’s book, The Way of Chuang Tzu.

The teachings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu do not provide specific steps to arrive at your goal of happiness. Instead, their wisdom prepares the mind to accept the idea that you can have great happiness without doing anything to get it. Chuang Tzu summed up the Taoist philosophy of happiness nicely when he said that his “greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is calculated to obtain happiness…” [4]

Of course, even in Taoist philosophy, true happiness does not just land on your doorstep. Notice that Chuang Tzu did not say that he did nothing at all. He said he did nothing “calculated” to gain happiness. In other words, he did nothing with the goal of getting happiness. You can live an active life, and happiness can be at the heart of that activity. However, if the aim of the activity is happiness, then it can disappear like the morning mist.

You have lived your entire life in a cause-and-effect world, where something happens only if something else causes it to happen. What is true of your day-to-day physical activities may also be true of the activities of your mind. Everything we can think of or imagine happens because something caused it to happen. Unconditional happiness, however, does not have a cause.

If it does not have a cause, what can you do to be happy? You have to work to prepare yourself to experience it. You need to turn the focus of your attention away from desires for what you believe will make you happy, to make room in your life for real happiness.

Happiness is something that is always right here and right now. You need only allow yourself to experience it. In other words, lasting happiness is one of the few emotions that can arise from a milieu of not doing anything. It is unconditional. Once you discover this truth, and learn to practice this truth, you can find it.

Irrational Happiness

Taoist philosophy says that lasting happiness comes after your mind has finally given up the idea that it is something for which you must search. Chuang Tzu wrote, “You never find happiness until you stop looking for it.” [5]

Of course, the notion that you can find lasting unconditional happiness without looking for it is a paradox. How do you find something without looking for it? This idea is so foreign to the way we think that it is even difficult to imagine. It’s hard to think about how to find something without looking for it because it’s not rational, and the mind works with reason. We were born to reason our way through questions, and our nature as reasonable, logic-using beings works against finding the answer.

The truth is that you can experience real happiness for no reason at all. Free yourself of your mind’s belief that happiness comes from what you do or have. Then you can shift your attention to a place of awareness where lasting happiness exists without cause. When you do so, the paradox that had its abode in the “head”quarters of rational mind simply disappears. In other words, you do not have to search for something to make you happy; you have to stop the search and learn to recognize your fundamental happiness.

Unconditional happiness is beyond the reach of the rational mind. It does not come from anything; it just is. It is, in a sense, irrational happiness. If you conduct your search for it using rational methods, you cannot be lastingly happy, because you will find only conditional happiness. Conditional happiness can result from what you think or do, but it disappears when the conditions that created it are gone. Unconditional happiness has no cause, so it cannot disappear.

It seems irrational that you can have lasting happiness without doing anything to get it. However, the truth is that seeking something to give you happiness is a surefire way to keep it hidden. If you commit yourself to your mind’s never-ending but fruitless quest for what provides happiness in the world of cause and effect, you trap your attention. Your attention is not free to experience the happiness that is already inside you. If you never give up hunting for pleasure and conditional happiness, you can never set free the lasting happiness that is natural to you.

It is likely that your mind is full of plans and strategies for future happiness, based on what you believe made you happy in the past. Unfortunately, focusing your attention on all of your plans, strategies, hopes, and desires for pleasure and conditional happiness fills your mind with dissatisfaction about your life, and prevents you from experiencing real happiness. The nature of your mind’s search for something to make you feel good works against your happiness.

Let me tell you the story of someone who might have managed to stay happy, even though he should have been miserable. According to Greek legend, Sisyphus was a man who loved life and sought to live it his way — a way that greatly angered the gods. To get back at him, the gods inflicted on him the perfect punishment: a life of misery and hard work with no purpose. They made him push a boulder up a mountain, only to see that boulder roll back down the mountain, over and over, forever. The tragedy is that while he was pushing his boulder up the mountain, he knew it would always roll back down.

Despite the utter futility of Sisyphus’s life, the writer Albert Camus imagined that Sisyphus could be happy. How could anyone believe that Sisyphus was happy? Common sense says that despair should fill every second of his existence, because he knows that he faces an eternity of hard labor, without purpose or meaning. I agree with Camus, and so would many others whose ideas we will explore in this book. Despite everything, Sisyphus could be happy.

If Sisyphus were happy, his would be irrational happiness. It would have to come naturally from his deepest self, because what he was doing could only make him miserable.

Have Faith in the Irrational

If you give yourself a chance, you may experience moments of real happiness that seem to come from out of nowhere. Your mind may not believe this is happiness. Your mind may tell you it’s a fake, that it is irrational. I have been there and done that, and I guarantee that this can happen. You may have a lot of experience with your mind telling you that you cannot be happy unless something good happens. It takes time to unlearn this way of thinking.

Have faith in the irrational. At some point, you will begin to experience the depths of true happiness that are available to you as your birthright. Then you will know that the happiness your mind seeks by doing something to get it is the fake. You will know that real happiness is natural to you, and is within your power.

Practice 3: Learn to turn your attention away from your desires for conditional happiness and sense pleasures, and turn it towards unconditional happiness.

Unconditional happiness seems to lie deep within the unconscious, and must be invited into awareness for one to experience it. However, most of the time our attention focuses on conditional happiness and sense pleasures which, as we have seen, are temporary. It’s hard to drop the conviction that these can give us lasting happiness, but they cannot.

Our most pressing desires demand our full attention and prevent us from bringing real happiness into consciousness. To experience unconditional happiness, you need to learn to turn your attention away from these desires. When you do, your attention naturally turns towards unconditional happiness.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha diagnosed the cause of emotional suffering as our craving for what we want but do not have, and our longing to hold on to what we do have. Our attachment to what we want prevents us from turning our attention to unconditional happiness. I am not writing a book on Buddhism, but I cannot find a better explanation of why people do not experience the full, all-out happiness that is natural to them.

According to the Buddha’s analysis, if you can cure the disease (attachment to self-centered desires), suffering goes away. What remains is happiness. From the time of his enlightenment until he died 45 years later, this is what the Buddha taught. It is the second of his Four Noble Truths.

The Attention to Desire

Desire in this case means intense thirst, greed, need, or longing for what you do not have, and the craving to keep what you do have. The craving can attach to whatever circumstance gives you conditional happiness or pleasure, including wealth and power, and it can attach to your personal ideas, opinions, and beliefs – especially those pertaining to self-image.

We want sense pleasures and conditional happiness for their own sake, of course. They make us feel good. However, often we want them because we mistakenly believe that they can also give us lasting happiness. Remember, what we do or attain can give us conditional happiness or sense pleasures, but cannot provide the lasting, unconditional happiness that we all seek.

The need for lasting happiness is powerful. However, it aims in the wrong direction. It aims toward doing things and getting things in the world. It frustrates people when these things and experiences do not bring lasting happiness. This frustration only serves to exacerbate the need for them.

The desires for happiness, and what we believe brings happiness, are self-centered. This does not mean we are selfish people. Instead, our need for them is like the need to drink or eat. It is personal to us.

Self-centered desire attaches to what we want or want to keep. It also attaches to what we do not want. We want or desire to avoid what we believe will make us unhappy.

The best analogy I can find for self-centered desire is in the realm of addiction. Addiction is not simple want or need, but is instead a craving so powerful that you cannot ignore it. Like addiction, self-centered desire fills your awareness and pushes everything else to the side. Unlike addiction, however, which may focus on a single need, this desire attaches to all wants and needs, all experiences, and all people.

As in addiction, you can never permanently satisfy this self-centered desire. You may temporarily satisfy it by getting the “fix” of some “thing” or circumstance, but this only feeds the addiction. It will always return — stronger than ever.

Most of the time, our self-centered desires remain unfulfilled. For example, our need to keep what we have is never satisfied because nothing lasts. Focusing on our unfulfilled desires is a great source of unhappiness. In addition, the attention that we pay to them robs us of the ability to move our attention to unconditional happiness.

I am not saying that you should not experience sense pleasures and conditional happiness. You should enjoy them throughout your life. However, when you are finished enjoying them, you should not continue to focus on them. When they are here, enjoy them; when they are not here, do not allow your need for them to make you unhappy.

Driven by this thirst (selfish desire), they (people) run about frightened like a hunted hare. Overcome this thirst and be free.

~ The Dhammapada, 343.[6]

Practice 4: Learn to see the truth of happiness in yourself through mindfulness and meditation.

To shift your attention from self-centered desire toward unconditional happiness, you first must learn to see the truth of happiness in yourself. The way to see the truth of happiness inside of you is through the practice of mindfulness and meditation.

The truth of happiness involves knowing that unconditional happiness is natural to you. This truth also involves knowing that if you let go of your attachment to self-centered desires for sense pleasures and the conditional happiness of favorable circumstances, unconditional happiness can enter your life.

To see the truth of happiness in yourself, you need to practice both mindfulness and meditation. These are perhaps the most important practices in finding it. Seeing weakens the hold that your self-centered desires have on your attention. It also shows you where to focus your attention to experience happiness.

Mindfulness (Learning to See)

To see how your self-centered desires make you unhappy, you need to be mindful of yourself. To be mindful is to see the way the world is for you now. It is to be aware of this moment. If you see the world as it is, you do not trap your attention in your mind’s of the way it is. You also do not trap your mind in your beliefs about the way it is.

You spend much of your time in your mind, looking at your ideas about the world and your memories of the world. To be mindful is to pull your attention out of your mind and observe the world directly.

If you can be mindful of yourself and what you want, you may see that what you want will, more often than not, make you unhappy and perpetually dissatisfied. You may also see that getting what you want may make you happy for a time, but that it isn’t long before you move on to dissatisfaction and new desires.

Bill is eight years old and desperately wants a particular toy for Christmas. He has seen it advertised and can imagine himself happily playing with it. It is December 5, and he spends much of his time thinking about the toy. He is unhappy about having to wait. He has plenty of other toys, but he wants this one.

The magical day finally arrives, and Bill has his toy. For a few weeks, he plays exclusively with this toy. He can hardly wait to get up in the morning and enjoy it. Then he is visiting a friend’s house, and his friend, Sammy, has a different, more interesting toy. Beholding the wonders of this new toy, Bill’s dream toy begins to pale. Desire is beginning to grow for a toy like that of his friend.

Self-centered desires often lead to dissatisfaction with the way the world is, and the result is unhappiness. Satisfaction of major desires can bring temporary sense pleasure and conditional happiness, but, even for little tykes like Bill, they are soon replaced with new desires and new unhappiness. And the cycle repeats itself, over and over. To weaken the hold of self-centered desires, you have to see the futility. You have to see that the cycle will never lead to lasting happiness. You have to see the truth of this in yourself.

Meditation

I devote later chapters to meditation, so here I will not go into the specifics of how, when, and where to meditate. Here, we examine the goals of meditation, and the way it fits within what we are looking at in this chapter.

Like mindfulness, meditation enables you to see. As you practice meditation, you can see the futility of desire. More importantly, in meditation you can learn to turn your attention to your eventual goal: unconditional happiness.

Meditation is nothing mysterious. It is merely the practice of focusing your attention. It is the practice of thinking what you want to think. People often think of meditation as mysterious and otherworldly. It is not.

As you will see in the chapters on meditation, you can sit while meditating, with eyes open or closed; you can meditate while walking around, and you can meditate while lying down. The only constant is your purpose in meditation, which is to focus your attention and keep it focused on your object of meditation.

Your object of meditation can be anything. For example, you can meditate on your breath or a physical object such as a flower. You can also meditate on a particular thought, such as happiness or compassion.

In meditation, you learn to choose to focus your attention and let other thoughts that come into your mind pass by, like drifting clouds. You learn to choose what to focus on, so your attention is not at the mercy of your reactions to the world, and your self-centered desires. Learning to control your attention and choose your thoughts opens for you the space to choose. Without this space to choose, you just react.

In everyday life, thoughts may come up and capture your attention without you being aware that it is happening. These thoughts can ruin your day. In meditation, you learn to find space in which to choose how you’ll respond to the thoughts that come up. You can think of meditation as the practice of the power to choose what to think about and what to turn your attention to.

Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Thoughts connected to your self-centered desires are powerful and pervasive. They are like addictions. These thoughts express longings for pleasurable sensations; the need to please (stroke and inflate) your self-image; and the need to avoid unpleasant things. Each little desire is not bad in itself. Rather, it is the pattern of automatically giving in to them that can ruin your life. Without learning to choose what to think about, you are at their mercy.

When you learn to choose what you’ll think about, you can learn to focus your attention away from what you think you want and more towards the spaciousness of unconditional happiness. At first, the feeling of unconditional happiness can be subtle. However, in meditation you can nurture this feeling so that it grows to fill your entire awareness.

Practice 5: Let go of your attachment to self-centered desires through acceptance, nonattachment, selflessness, charity, compassion, and forgiveness.

To reduce the hold that your self-centered desires have on your attention, you need to practice. You need to practice letting go of your emotional attachments to them, so that your attention is free to enjoy unconditional happiness. Later chapters cover practices aimed at freeing you from the grasp of your endless wants and needs. These practices are acceptance, nonattachment, selflessness, charity, compassion, and forgiveness.

Acceptance

Acceptance means that you emotionally accept your world as it is, whether it pleases you or not. Acceptance also means that you do not make happiness dependent upon the condition of your world being other than as it is. You may believe that things are not right the way they are, and your goal may be to improve them. However, you do not let any problems with the way your life is going disturb your happiness.

Nonattachment

Nonattachment is a state in which you do not attach emotionally to what you want. Your desires still exist, but you just allow them to be. You notice them but are not subject to them. If you are unattached, then they cannot dominate your attention, preventing you from shifting your attention to unconditional happiness.

You achieve nonattachment by treating all thoughts about what you want as mere thoughts that come and go. These thoughts come into awareness, and before you allow them to take hold of you, you accept them for what they are, and let them go. You can practice doing this in meditation.

Selflessness, Charity, Compassion, and Forgiveness

The qualities of selflessness, charity, compassion, and forgiveness are human qualities that place more importance on the needs of others than on your own. By practicing these qualities, you reduce your focus on yourself and your needs. In so doing, you weaken the hold that your self-centered desires have on your attention, thus freeing it to find unconditional happiness.

The Devotional Path to Letting Go of Self-centered Desire

All the major religions are either devotional or include branches that are devotional. For example, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and some types of Buddhism are devotional.

We do not usually view happiness as a goal of devotional religions. Christianity, for example, aims at salvation both before and after death. However, this does not mean that a devotional path cannot lead to happiness. Those committed to devotional practices such as Christianity or Bhakti Yoga report intense joy as awareness of God grows through devotion, prayer, and meditation.

As I said earlier in this chapter, happiness comes from our unconscious self. Some believe that this deep self is “God-conscious.” Among devotional people who are less self-centered than the norm, God-consciousness may arise.

The path to happiness (God-consciousness) through devotion is simple. You devote your heart and soul to God, fully accepting your lot in life as God’s will. Obviously, any need for life to be other than it is simply drops away. In other words, you naturally let go of your self-centered desires as devotion fills your mind and heart.

Practice 6: Live ethically, which reduces the power of self-centered desires as well as the guilt and regret that preclude happiness.

To live ethically is good for society and is good personally. To live peaceably together, people have to behave ethically. For the individual, acting ethically promotes happiness. When you act ethically, you do not suffer the disapproval of society, or the self-loathing and stress that come from guilt. In addition, unethical conduct comes from self-centered desires for what you believe will give you happiness or pleasure, even at the expense of others. Living ethically lessens these desires.

Yoga

Ethical living is a key part of the practice of yoga. Yoga teaching, especially in Raja Yoga, is clear about the way to behave in the world. Actions such as lying or stealing usually have their source in self-centered desires. As you focus on acting ethically, you begin to get at the root of the motivation behind unethical actions, which is self-centered desire.

In addition, in yoga a fundamental goal of ethical living is not to add to your “karmic debt.” Karmic debt is the result (fruit) of actions performed in the past, which you carry with you throughout life, and, if not resolved, into future lives. When the fruit of negative karmic actions ripens, something painful appears in your life that makes you unhappy.

What comes to mind for me when I think of karma, is Marley’s Ghost (in A Christmas Carol, by Dickens). In the story, he dragged behind him a “ponderous chain” of guilt that he’d forged in life. Dragging a great chain of guilt (the fruit of karmic actions) behind you is no way to happiness.

Buddhism

Ethical living plays a vital role in Buddhist teaching as well. The Buddha’s Eightfold Path is a guide to living in a way that helps you to reduce your desire for what you mistakenly believe will make you happy. This Path includes instructions on how to live ethically.

Taoist Philosophy

Taoist teaching, described in both the Tao Te Ching and Thomas Merton’s book, the Way of Chuang Tzu, stresses ethical living. To be in harmony with the Tao, which is synonymous with happiness – specifically, The Way to happiness — one must act ethically. It is difficult to come away from reading either of these books without concluding that ethical living is the only sensible way to exist.

Religious Devotion

Ethics plays an important role in religious practices, such as Christianity and Hinduism. Think of the importance of the Ten Commandments. As with yoga, Buddhism, and Taoist philosophy, compliance with religious laws can deepen religious practice and bring one closer to awareness of God by focusing attention away from personal desires.

Practice 7: Choose work that promotes happiness.

Your life’s work can either support your efforts at finding true happiness, or it can prevent you from achieving this goal. It is important that your work or schooling promote happiness. Because you devote so much time and effort to work and school, if they do not fit you, your happiness and emotional health are likely to suffer.

Too often, what we do at work negatively affects our openness to happiness. When we react negatively to what we do on the job or at school, we have to spend much of our leisure time undoing these effects.

What you do in life cannot make you lastingly happy. However, your reactions to what you do can be so overwhelming that they may get in the way of meditation or other practices aimed at finding true happiness. Therefore, you need to choose work that makes space for yourself. You need work that does not crowd your awareness with so much stress and worry that it prevents you from being happy.

According to the self-determination theory (SDT) of Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan (and common sense), work that promotes growth and happiness has several important characteristics. Your work (or schooling) need not feature all of these, but should have many of them.

  • The work does not harm anyone, least of all you.
  • The work meets your basic psychological needs for feelings of competence, relatedness to others, and autonomy.
  • The work focuses on goals that are intrinsically meaningful to you.
  • You love the work that you do.
  • You feel the work represents a purpose or calling in your life.
  • The work enables you to serve other people well.
  • The work facilitates flow experiences.

In the following paragraphs, I want to make some important points about them.

Work That Does Not Harm Anyone (Right Livelihood)

An important part of the Eightfold Path of Buddhism is right livelihood. The Buddha said that you should not earn a living at the expense of life, and you should not support those who harm their fellow humans or other sentient beings.

The well-known teacher of Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, describes right livelihood more broadly. His words capture my own sense of what the Buddha taught. He said,

…you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others. [7]

Work You Can Cope with Emotionally

It is important to choose work that does not continually provoke you to react negatively. Studies show high rates of depression among people in certain occupations. People in these occupations are more likely to experience stress and even tragedy. Some people can handle these situations emotionally, and some cannot.

A stressful occupation may cause you to react badly to what you experience daily. If it does, you may spend much of your time coping with your reactions. Such reactions can go a long way toward overwhelming your ability to be happy. You may not be able to sleep, and you will have little chance of enjoyment or satisfaction.

You need time, lots of time, during the day when you are conscious of what you are doing and not unconsciously reacting. By reacting unconsciously, I mean reacting to what happens in such a way that you are no longer in control of your thoughts and emotions. You want to avoid being in a state where you cannot turn off your negative thoughts and emotions.

Work That Flows

Flow is the name given to a specific experience that results from entering a task in a certain way. In Flow, you experience effortless involvement in the task and a sense of control. You may also lose your sense of time. Concern for self, and even awareness of self, disappears as you immerse yourself in the activity. Finding Flow in work is important because the more time you spend being happy, the easier it is to move into happiness as your constant state of being.

Flow is important for several reasons. First, it is an experience of nonattachment. As I discussed earlier, nonattachment is a state wherein you do not attach emotionally to what you want or need. In other words, what you want does not dominate your awareness. Flow activities provide you with practice in being nonattached. Although you are not consciously practicing detachment, as you would do in meditation, you are still not attached. The more time you spend in Flow, the more you get used to nonattachment as a way of being.

Second, while in Flow, you forget your self-centered desires as you focus on the task. The resulting happiness is a taste of the true happiness that is available to you all of the time.

Third, activities that you perform in Flow keep you in touch with your source of happiness. It is much better to work at a job that encourages Flow, than to work at one that continually strengthens the bonds of self-centered resistance and desire.

Unconditional Happiness Is a Step Along the Journey

Throughout this book, I am going to share ideas and practices that can help you find true happiness. Some of these practices have specific goals associated with them. Yoga and Buddhism both have the goal of complete liberation, or nirvana. The goal of devotional practices, such as those found in Christianity, is salvation and everlasting union with God.

In this book, I am interested in how these practices may also help you experience true happiness. It is not my intention to take anything away from the accepted goals of these practices. However, finding true happiness is a major step towards the final goals of all of these practices.

The goals of the various practices I discuss can be intimidating. If you are a Christian, heaven and final union with God may seem a long way off. It may not be something you expect to experience in life. In yoga and Buddhist practices, we aim for liberation and nirvana, which can take years — or lifetimes — to realize. I believe that true happiness is a significant step toward any of these goals. It may even be a requirement.

All the religious and philosophical practices I describe in this book have one common goal — to help you realize the Source of unconditional happiness. There may be only one Source, although it has many names. Each practice describes it differently and approaches it differently. Still, there may be only one. True happiness may be our experience of that Source.

Anything that increases your awareness of true happiness moves you closer to its Source. Rather than think of these paths as involving years of hard sacrifice, think of them as paths involving increasing joy. This is where these paths will lead. If you learn to turn your attention to unconditional happiness, you can move closer to the Source of happiness.

East Versus West

This book leans heavily on methods of finding happiness found in Eastern and Middle Eastern philosophies and religions. You might ask, what is wrong with modern Western ideas? Honestly, not many ideas about real happiness have come out of the West. Western thought usually revolves around conditional happiness and sense pleasures.

Note that I consider Christianity to be a Middle Eastern religion because Jesus lived in the Middle East. This religion is closely associated with the West, but its core wisdom originated in Israel.

The great sages and prophets figured out how to find lasting happiness thousands of years ago, and humans have not changed. The philosophies and techniques that came out of the East and Middle East worked then, and they work now. These are what I focus on in this book.

Western thinking has not much concerned itself with real happiness. The great Western philosophers seem mainly interested in the workings of the mind. However, happiness does not come from the mind. In fact, the mind can, and usually does, get in the way of real happiness.

Western psychology has focused on mental illness, not on happiness. Only recently has the new field of “positive psychology” begun to look at ways in which people can learn to live richer and happier lives. For example, the book Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, represents this new approach. More recently, books such as The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, provide guidance on simple methods that can increase your basic level of happiness. It is interesting that many of the practices in Lyubomirsky’s book, such as meditation, charity, and forgiveness, are the same as those advocated for thousands of years.

The primary difference between what I am talking about in this book and the techniques coming out of positive psychology may be the quality of happiness available. The goal of positive psychology may be to slightly increase happiness, to make “things” more pleasant through relatively simple techniques. Here, we are not so much interested in psychological boosters and soothers as we are in actually finding the true Source of happiness. This calls for a major shift in the way you approach the world, where the potential for happiness is far greater than we normally think possible.

Returning to Our Hero…

Earlier, we looked at Sisyphus, doomed to a futile existence of pushing a boulder up a mountain. Let us return briefly to our hero, straining against his burden. He is an athlete in his prime. His focus is complete as he forces maximum effort from his muscles. He cannot think of himself or his predicament. If he does, he will lose his footing and fail at his task.

As I think of Sisyphus, I think of a marathon runner, focused on movement, with no attention left for him/herself. If the runner loses focus, he or she might miss the pile of leaves, wet from the morning dew, and slip. Long-distance runners report the joy (the “high”) they get from racing. Even though their muscles may be “screaming with pain,” they push themselves to the limit. After the race, exhausted, they begin thinking of their next challenge, and the way they can go just a little faster. I can easily imagine that Sisyphus, like the runner, would experience the same “high” that comes from pushing oneself to the limit.

Let us picture Sisyphus at the top of the mountain. Just as he completes his task, the boulder thunders back down the mountain. Now freeze! Look at the face of Sisyphus as he stands there, exhausted. He sees the boulder rumble down the mountain and knows his toil will never end. Look into his eyes. What is he thinking?

We have now frozen Sisyphus in the space between the stimulus (the boulder rolling down the mountain) and his response. As Viktor Frankl said, his freedom lies in his power to use this space to choose his response. His freedom to be happy lies in choosing how to feel about what has happened. What will he do?

He can choose to feel triumphant, having succeeded once again in making it to the top of the mountain. He can start thinking about the next journey up. He can start wondering how to coax just a little more strength from his body to make the journey a little faster and a little better.

Alternatively, he can give in to despair. He can curse the gods who sit laughing at him as he drags himself down the mountain, once again, to face his endless task.

What would you choose?

 * * *

Notes

[1] His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Four Noble Truths (Kindle Locations 295-296). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[2] Achor, Shawn, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work (pp. 21, 41, 42, 52). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[4] Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu.

[5] Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu.

[6] Easwaran Ed., Eknath, The Dhammapada (Classics of Indian Spirituality) (Kindle Locations 2232-2233). Nilgiri Press. Kindle Edition.

[7] Hanh, Thich Nhat, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax Press, 1998), p. 104.

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