Updated: Jan 7
When you think about what is keeping you from feeling content you will likely come up with a list of the things you don’t have or think you can’t get. You may remember things you loved that you lost, or traumatic, painful experiences that still haunt you. You might recognize a sense of unworthiness that says you don’t deserve to be happy, or that satisfaction is something other people experience, but not you. If you explore this deeper, you may notice a seemingly impermeable layer of sadness, grief, or despair that is constantly weighing you down and blocking your joy.
I recognized this in myself, and in other people, when I was in my late teenage years. I noticed that most people seemed to be constantly running away from this shadow of gloom within themselves. I saw how most of us were numbing, distracting, or using alcohol and other substances to make this unbearable sadness of life go away. And I realized that these approaches were not working, no one was really happy, and we were only addressing the symptoms of despair, but not the cause.
My determination to explore this led me to meditation and the teachings of the Buddha. Every other approach to happiness seemed based on avoiding what was really going on inside, and covering it over with a pretense. The Buddha taught that the way to happiness is to confront the shadow of despair directly, instead of always running away from it.
Meditation is a tool that enables you to investigate what is really going on inside you, so you can address your discontent at its cause. When you practice enough to settle your body and quiet your mind, you begin to see there is an aspect of you that is always anxious, worried, and afraid. This is the part you mostly identify with, and while it does experience moments of elation and well-being, these pass rather quickly.
The point of investigating the source of your suffering is to see that the part of you that suffers is not all of you. There is another part of you that is content and fully satisfied with things just the way they are. As you practice meditation and are able to become more still in body and mind, you begin to experience that subtle serenity and joy that is always there, if you go deep enough to find it.
Gradually, with a lot of dedication and practice, you begin to see that you can identify with the contentment instead of the anxiety, and the discontent simply fades away into the background. In this way you realize that happiness is a choice you can make, and does not depend on outside influences. You don’t have to have or be something that you are not already. You don’t have to prove yourself worthy, or compete with others for happiness. It is more a state of mind than something you have to struggle to achieve.
I know this may sound like fantasy or some new-age woo-woo. If happiness were that easy, we would all have it, right? Well, perhaps you missed the part about facing your grief instead of running from it, and becoming more conscious of the root of suffering through the dedicated practice of self-awareness. What I am suggesting is very different from new-age superstition which says you can simply override your fear by repeating “I am not afraid”.
The work of self-awareness can be really difficult, not because the process is complicated, but because you are determined not to face your deep sadness directly. You resist any notion of going into it because it terrifies you. So the work is really letting go of your resistance and allowing the fear to surface so you can see it for what it is.
Once you see that your fear is only part of who you are, you can learn to let it go. As you become better at letting go of the tension in your body and worry in your mind, then you experience the original joy that was there all along, buried beneath the panic. This takes effort, focus, and determination; however, it is a very different kind of effort than trying to get what you think you want and block what you think will hurt you. This effort is simply letting go of the habit of fear, and relaxing deeply into the present moment.
The path to real happiness is simple, but perhaps the most difficult thing you can do, because you have to learn to work with your thinking mind. Most of us are unfamiliar with directing our attention, letting go of thought, and learning to be present. This practice usually does take time, discipline, and effort. But in the end, isn’t your happiness worth it? Isn’t this the ultimate goal of all your other pursuits in life?
When you are ready to begin on this path, I hope you will think of me as a guide. There are two opportunities this Fall to spend time at Sky Meadow experiencing the very things I have mentioned here. Click one of the links below to learn more and register.