The Inner Road to Happiness

Some time ago, while sitting at a restaurant having lunch with my granddaughter, Kushi, she mentioned how happy she was working as a camp counselor and that she loved the relationships she had formed there. After a moment, I asked her what she thought made people happy. She said, “I know that things don’t make me happy. Having things is nice, but that seems more about comfort than being happy. For me, being happy means living the life I love and doing the things I love”.


We all want to be happy. Ask anyone what they wish for and chances are that is what they will say. Most of us know that happiness is not something we can “have” or “possess”. But although we all know this we do it anyway. If we believe that happiness is something we can have, we push and pull, coerce and plot to get it. Based on this belief happiness has a very short shelf life, like buying Yankee tickets or a new suit. The game is soon over and the new suit goes out of style after a season or becomes worn and soon replaced.


If we believe happiness is an outside experience we should be able to control by our actions we will find it is very elusive. And we open the door to blaming ourselves or blaming others when it does not occur. We say, “if I only said it this way, or if I only did it that way” or “if only I bought a different car, if only I had taken that job happiness would be mine”.


Happiness is an Inside Job


We might ask ourselves why in a country where there is so much wealth and opportunity, so many people are angry and unhappy. Why is it that no matter how much we possess we believe happiness is always just around the corner, in the next store, or meal or activity?


In his book The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama writes that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness, but, he writes, “happiness is not found in things themselves but what we take from them”. This is counter to our belief often derived from our consumer driven society which suggests we are empty or lacking inside and will only be happy if we buy the latest gas grill or model car. But true happiness is a way of being in the world rather than a mood based on whether conditions are favorable or not to what we believe will bring happiness. What we take from an experience then is based more on our attitude and state of mind than about the thing itself.


Viewing happiness as a state of mind means that it is a life stance rather than a reaction to shifting outside circumstances of comfort or discomfort. It is not the same as pleasure. When we cultivate a happy state of mind we can have it even when difficulties arise. In this state we ground ourselves in viewing ourselves, others and things around us with positive regard regardless of the circumstances. The experience of happiness is rooted in us. We are more able to stand in life situations with presence.


From a spiritual practice point of view the source of our happiness is inside, and readily available. We cultivate it when we view positive and negative experiences as a natural part of life to be met and worked with. This does not mean we walk around with a happy grin all day or deny the pain and struggles of life. It is more about letting go of our expectation that things should go as we want them to go. Then we can take from the event or situation what we can in order to grow, mature and make peace with. We don’t get happiness, we choose to be happy.


We may not be in control of what happens to us in our life but we do have a choice in how we respond to it.


For example, Jenny, a client in her mid-thirties, came to see me for counseling after discovering her husband’s long-time affair with a younger woman. She was distraught, angry and grief-stricken about the affair and filed for divorce. All she remembered was her husband saying he wanted someone who was happier and more independent. “This” she said to me “is not what I had planned.” For three months she expressed endless worries and fears about not being able to go forward without her husband and endlessly castigated herself as to not being “good enough” to make the marriage work. Then one day she came into our session, looked at me and said, “I’ve just realized that I’ve been so afraid about being alone that I haven’t realized I have been on my own, taking care of myself for a long time. I was not happy in my marriage; I was trying to make him happy as if my fixating on making him happy would bring some to me. It didn’t but I am good enough and deserve someone to love me.”


Over the next six months Jenny and I continued our sessions. She made great strides and realized that her divorce had opened the door for her growth and maturity, as she put it “discovering my own life path rather than paving someone else’s.” When we were about to end our sessions she said that although her divorce was painful, her journey through it taught her a lot about herself. It uncovered an untapped confidence and ability within to handle losses and difficulties. So for Jenny was the divorce positive or negative? The answer of course is “yes”.


The Nature of life is Change


When the Zen Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki was asked what the essential teaching of Zen was, he said: “not always so”. Not always so means everything changes. It is the nature of life that nothing stays the same, even from moment to moment. It is an incontrovertible fact of life.


Looking out the window this morning the golden sun rises, as the day goes on it lifts, now hot white in a white sky, the morning shadows retreating. Later, as evening approaches it runs red and in the soft evening air now a pale rose before dropping out of view. Truly, is there anything we can we hold on to? No one would say “yes” yet this is exactly what we attempt to do. It is the origin of our suffering because it is impossible.


In the Buddhist tradition the word for suffering is “dukka”. It translates as a fundamental disappointment or a pervasive dissatisfaction born out of our attachments, and these attachments are often based on fear: fear of change, loss, love, approval or vulnerability among others. In our desire to avoid these feelings in order to feel safe and secure we deny the changeable nature and messiness of life. We go off in search of consistency and purity. But life is not a straight clean line or neat equation but quixotic and chaotic. The river of life brings both joy and sorrow.


Life is out to get you


Left to our own devices we are couch potatoes. We as human beings only make changes or change our point of view when we lose what we hold most precious to keep. We like the security of predictability and some semblance of being able to stand on solid ground. We fear the lack of control as life randomly shifts and swings. But though not wished for change and uncertainty arrive at our doorstep like a terrible gift. Like Jenny, the terrible gift of her divorce and her resulting disappointment, loss and heartache opened the door to discover inner resources and possibilities she was not aware of.


Happiness then is more of a journey of ongoing self- discovery and growth by being broken open by life over and over again. The ground under us is always moving, nothing lasts, even from moment to moment. When we accept it, and choose to use the ingredients of our actual life rather than deny and turn away we find we are more balanced, open and yes even grateful for the life we are leading. We feel the warm light of happiness in us.


The Buddhist poem, The Identity of Relative and Absolute, tells us that the everyday and the Divine are not two separate things. One line reads, “Ordinary life fits the Absolute as a box and its lid.” This means that what we consider perfect, pure and eternal is not separate or opposite from the everyday experiences of our life. However depending on our learned beliefs and conditioned ways of viewing ourselves, we often think that we are lacking inside. We don’t consider looking within ourselves but to external things because often we don’t know how.


All the contemplative spiritual traditions tell us the source of true happiness is inside. That is the good news. The problem is we either don’t believe it, so have not developed the skills to discover it.


The mythologist Joseph Campbell said that we all have a basic longing to feel whole and alive. Campbell says that this is what we are really seeking in this life. To actually experience the rapture of our life rather than as the poet Mary Oliver wrote “to have just been a visitor on this earth”.


To consider happiness as an attitude or life stance means developing a sense of curiosity and wonderment towards our experiences and feelings even when the ride of life is painful and we feel out of control. It also means taking an interest in ourselves as we are. Like the metaphorical roller coaster ride of life in the movie Parenthood, we go up and then go down. As it is a journey it is impossible to plan what is around the next turn.


In order to achieve our goal of true happiness we must go beyond our belief about happiness in the conventional sense, which is marked by success or failure, good and bad, right and wrong. This truer happiness is based on asking a simple question: when difficulties or discomfort arise, what helps me to remain grounded and responsive rather than reactive? When we are able to do that we increase our chances of remaining positive and may help us work through troubles more effectively and with less pain. It also means we experience a greater sense of compassion.


The Practice of Meditation


One of the practices we use to experience happiness as a state of being is meditation. Meditation is about discovering our inherent goodness with things just as they are. It helps us remain grounded and balanced in the midst of both difficulties and ease. In meditation we learn how to stay open to the uncomfortable emotions that arise when difficulties occur. Through the practice of meditation we learn how not to bail out when emotional storms hit us. Instead we learn the value of remaining in the richness of the present moment. Rather than reacting based on our conditioned way of thinking. Instead, we simply (only) observe our thoughts, ideas and emotions as if watching a river flow. In meditation they all have the same value.


In essence the practice of meditation is being with ourselves as we are which includes both positive and negative elements. When we encounter some aspect of ourselves we don’t like or wish to condemn instead we open to it, receive it and stay curious about it in order to learn. No need to judge or attack. In this way what has been rejected or kept in the dark about ourselves is acknowledged and embraced. Like my client Jenny, when we become more accepting of our flaws and difficulties we grow to be more whole and alive.


Through meditation we realize that our wish for continual comfort and pleasure is impossible and we see how that longing can create difficulties for us. If we are alive, pleasant and unpleasant situations will occur. Our pursuit of only pleasure or security is exactly what blocks the experience of happiness. For when disappointment and loss occur we bail out. Not realizing that it is through life’s difficulties that the state of grace, creativity, new discoveries about ourselves and others and compassion unfold.


Through the practice of meditation we begin to discover the fact that all things are changing is actually what frees us. How? Because as one old Buddhist teacher wrote we develop the capacity to be with whatever arises without picking and choosing and see that whatever occurs is there for us to learn from and in the process mature in our humanity, feel more alive and yes, happy. Through the practice of meditation, we see our constantly striving thoughts whether they be about self- improvement or the longing to have life the way we want it. But meditation practice puts an end to always having to improve ourselves in order to “find” happiness. What we find instead is when we put an end to our desire for either having things the way we want or avoiding what we don’t want, happiness breaks through but of course we can’t hold on to that expectation either! Through this deeper way of relating to life, all events that unfold positive or negative are doorways to our happiness and awakening. It’s all in how we choose to work with it, and that, as we say is, the ticket.

1 Comment

  1. Vic Carlson

    What a beautiful insight from your granddaughter, Kushi!

    And we have so much to learn from Jenny’s journey, much like Rumi’s poem about the Guest House where some new sorrow sweeps in to clear the way for a deeper peace, as an old tension eases through the pain of letting go.

    Thank you for being such an open-hearted guide through the suffering that is inevitable in this life. Thank you for reminding us that true happiness is a mode of being, independent of the gains and losses we experience every day.

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