The Happiness Trap


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We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. T S Eliot

It is always fascinates me watching how my blog posts unfold. It feels like a force beyond me is involved.

At first there is nothing, no ideas, no words. I don’t tend to force my writing anymore. I don’t set targets to write a certain amount of words or publish a certain amount of posts. I know that the ideas come when they come.

This post began with the recurring theme in my life of presence, of the power of now.

Then the magnetic force of intention comes into play and suddenly related ideas are being fed to me from everywhere. I see books, have conversations, things pop up online.

This is a kind of synchronicity. The coming together of meaningful events or ideas that provide significance or guidance. Events that occur coincidentally and with meaning, that cannot be explained by the usual conventions of causality. To me synchronicity is the meeting of intention and attention.

I read a wonderful story about actor Anthony Hopkins and synchronicity. Anthony was seeking a copy of the book of the movie he was making, The Girl From Petrovka by George Fiefer. The book was out of print and so you can imagine his surprise when he sat down at a London Underground train station and saw that very book sitting on the bench.

Years later as Anthony was filming the movie, the author George Fiefer dropped into the set and was lamenting that he had lost his only beloved copy of his book that he had painstakingly annotated. Anthony pulled the found copy out of his coat and asked, is this the one? It was. The very same copy.

Not only had Anthony found the book when he needed to read it, but the author’s notes in this copy had significantly helped him to prepare for the role.

Another powerful example of synchronicity was described by Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was deliberating on whether to get out of Vienna during the Nazi reign. He had a young pregnant wife, but was also concerned for his parents who did not have visas to leave for America with him.

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Feeling conflicted he went to a cathedral and prayed for guidance. Returning home he found a marble slab that his father had rescued from a destroyed synagogue, it contained a fragment of the Ten Commandments “Honour thy father and mother.” So he stayed.

Frankl helped untold numbers of people during his time in the concentration camp, and after with his powerful work on the importance of life’s meaning.

In the end he lost his parents, wife and unborn child, but he had made the choice based on what he believed his life meaning was, to help others through their trials.

Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfil or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself, by giving to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is. Viktor Frankl

I read this story in an article in The Atlantic on Frankl which posed the question of whether meaning is more important than happiness. It suggested that happiness can be a rather selfish pursuit, always focused on our own comfort and needs, and that when these needs are fulfilled there is little incentive to care about anyone else.

Meaning, on the other hand, tends to make us search for our place in the web of life, and on how we can contribute for the wellbeing of others. As a recent psychological study in the U.S. found, the pursuit of happiness is associated with being a ‘taker,’ while the pursuit of meaning corresponds with being a ‘giver.’

So what does all this have to do with my theme of presence and the power of now?

Well, to start with, I think we can only appreciate meaning and synchronicity when we are fully present, in the moment, not rushing around preoccupied with past worries and future fears. And…

Oh well, I may as well just tell you the whole story.

A few weeks ago I was at work, in the library. I found myself in the not-unfamiliar position of finding a task I could do at the back of the library away from everyone as I was feeling pretty upset. Yet again I was trying and failing to have a relationship with the man I love. Yet again I was left confused, gutted, and distraught.

As I wallowed mindlessly in my heartbreak, the stocktake scanner beeped at me, alerting me to remove a book from the shelf.  A book called The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

This a book that so many people have told me I should read over the years, and I had tried, but it never really resonated with me.

This time I started reading and it was like a life-support system. I know that sounds dramatic. But the reality is, after decades in and out of suicidal depression, I have some pretty well-worn neural pathways that take me to that dark place very quickly. The only way out is through extreme mindfulness, but it’s not easy to be mindful when you feel that bad.

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There was something quiet and simple about the Power of Now. Tolle wastes no time in telling the reader how to be mindful, so I just kept doing what he said.  Then the dark thoughts came back, then I’d do what he said, then… Well, you get the idea.

Focus attention on the feeling inside you. Know that it is the pain-body. Accept that it is there. Don’t think about it – don’t let the feeling turn into thinking. Don’t judge or analyse. Don’t make an identity for yourself out of it. Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you. Become aware not only of the emotional pain but also of “the one who observes,” the silent watcher. This is the Power of Now. The power of your own conscious presence. Then see what happens. Eckhart Tolle

It’s no overstatement to say I was amazed by the contrast between how I felt when practicing presence or mindfulness and how I felt as soon as I slipped back into my pain-centred being. And it wasn’t that I was avoiding the pain I felt, I was feeling the pain, I just wasn’t adding to my pain by dredging up all the ‘whys’ and ‘what ifs’ of past and future focused thinking. In the now I was just very sad. And then I just was. And it wasn’t that bad. To just be, now.

This is not the first time I’ve used mindfulness techniques, and Tolle is by no means inventing anything new here. It was just the right messenger at the right time.

I was reminded of reading a book called The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. Also focusing on mindfulness, the book describes how our thinking, as tied up as it is in fight or flight parasympathetic stress responses, can add significant suffering to our lives, particularly in the form of anxiety and depression.

Harris advocates using mindfulness to accept and create space for our feelings, whilst allowing our actions to focus on our core values. For example I may feel sad and fearful, I can acknowledge those feelings, breathe and be present, yet still act with dignity and do whatever I need to do today. That may be work, or taking care of children, or even taking care of myself.

Happiness is not a goal. It is the by-product of a life well lived. Eleanor Roosevelt

In a follow-up book The Reality Slap, Harris describes his grief at hearing his son’s autism diagnosis, and his journey back to finding worth and joy in life again. Harris is adamant that his approach is not about avoiding feelings, or affirming away challenging emotions.

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In yoga class, the teacher is taking us through the five niyamas. Last week’s theme was santosha. Santosha is contentment, but not the contentment that comes from getting what we want. Rather santosha is the contentment we find within, that enduring inner flame that continues regardless of outside circumstances.

The second ‘limb’ of yoga, the niyama are contracts with oneself. The practice of these niyama: self-purification (Shaucha), contentment (Santosha), self-discipline (Tapas), self-study (svadhyaya), and self-surrender (Ishvara Pranidhana), ideally create an environment of positive discipline in which to pursue the path of yoga.

Santosha implies a total acceptance of what is, with a particular focus on what is to be appreciated in any moment. It is unconditional contentment. It is an acknowledgement that underneath the hurly burly of life’s ups and downs is a true self that is always okay. The same self that Eckhart Tolle refers to. The self that exists only in the now, not thinking of the past or the future.

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Viktor Frankl

Try it for a moment. Take some deep breaths and bring your awareness onto right now. Feel the weight of your body sitting on the floor or a chair. Feel the air around you, listen to the sounds close by and in the distance. Just feel how it feels to be in your body, without judging your body, feeling the heartbeat, the breath, the blood pulsing. Feeling into your senses, into the experience of being alive.

If you feel any discomfort in your body, just breath and allow the discomfort. Observe it. Where is it in your body? Is it large or small? Does it feel hard or soft? Warm or cold? These may sound like strange questions, but it is amazing when we become fully present with our pain and observe it in this way how it does become a tangible thing, just another thing that is a part of us right now, it doesn’t have to totally define us though.

If you had a moment there where you managed to be present and stop thinking about the past or present, how did it feel? Did you feel that you had tapped into a real sense of living in the moment? Of being truly alive?

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So here I am.  Finding myself heart-broken, sad, angry, and all that is around me indicates a focus on presence, on meaning. On contentment. As much as I want to rail against this, experience shows me it’s the way. We always have a choice, life circumstances may be beyond our control, but our attitude towards them is not.

We need much less than we think we need. Maya Angelou

Wayne Dyer says that what you carry around inside of you is what comes out when life puts pressure on you. Like an orange that when squeezed will only ever produce orange juice, because that’s what inside. So the sadness and anger that comes out is from within me, it’s not anyone’s else’s.

Alternatively, those of us who can be present, contented, mindful, and centred in our inherent peace, will radiate that.

We become what we focus on.

When our goal in life is to be happy, anything less that that is a failure. All we can see is what we don’t yet have.

It is also fleeting. While we chase after that person, job, possession, or even that spiritual ideal, which we think will bring us happiness, we make our contentment external and conditional.

We also set ourselves up for a neverending cycle of chasing the ‘next thing’ to make us happy, we may even experience anxiety and depression when these things don’t work out, or don’t bring us the feelings we crave. This is the happiness trap.

When we focus on what meaning our life has, it is possible we can be quite unhappy with our external life circumstances, and yet by living a value-driven life, we can experience the true contentment that comes from doing something meaningful and lasting. Acting from values tends to create a lasting sense of worth, which in turn positively influences our inner contentment.

I learned this… That if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours… In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. Henry David Thoreau 

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Mindfulness is certainly the buzzword du jour. Its benefits continue to shine in research studies. Yet just how easy is it to practice?

My experience is that it’s only when my thoughts are problematic that I have the incentive to detach from them. Hence my mindfulness practice can wane somewhat when I’m feeling good.

Somewhat paradoxically, if I do not maintain a mindfulness practice when I am feeling good, when the bad times hit, it can be harder to start practising then. Who wants to be mindful of painful feelings? Like any practice, it takes time and consistency to train the mind. Being fundamentally lazy, I tend to fall back into old habits and well worn neural pathways pretty quickly.

Happy thoughts and projections for the future seem harmless and often quite pleasurable. It’s only when my thoughts turn to the dark side, as they have this last few weeks that I really recognise the need for me to be the master of my own mind.

Stuck at home with the flu, no TV, and very few distractions, I began to see how desperately I wanted an escape from my own mind. Social media was filled with the disasters of the world, which I felt both devastated by and powerless over.

Instead of escaping the present, I stayed with it. Left with little distractions, I made that choice to stay present, even though the present seemed pretty crappy.

What I found there was my true self. My essence. That part of me that is unchanging, unaffected by the external. The observer, the witness, my spirit. She goes by many names. I call her home.

For when we tap into this presence, all else falls away and our power, our awareness is brought into a state of oneness. We are centred and it truly feels as if all our disparate parts have come home.

We are fragmented into so many different aspects. We don’t know who we really are, or what aspects of ourselves we should identify with or believe in. So many contradictory voices, dictates, and feelings fight for control over our inner lives, that we find ourselves scattered everywhere, in all directions, leaving nobody at home. Meditation then, is bringing the mind home. Sogyal Rinpoche

I realise I have not been meditating so much, or journeying, of late. My spiritual practice has been entirely about my classes. Somewhere along the line I had lost that fearlessness that allowed me to delve deeper within.

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By attaching myself to external needs, I had neglected the internal ones. When those external needs weren’t met, I was left alone in the awareness that somewhere along the line I had abandoned myself.

What seemed like an external crisis became a necessary wake up call to reconnect with the power within. The power of presence. The power of now. It’s time to come home.

Little by little as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice, which you slowly recognised as your own, that had kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper. Mary Oliver

Blessings!

Sources:

There’s More to Life Than Being Happy from The Atlantic

The Mysterious Power of Synchronicity

Images from Facebook. Sources unknown.

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2 comments on “The Happiness Trap

  1. Powerful thoughts Christina, I happened across your blog through what might be synchronicity – searching images related to the happiness trap and being drawn to click on the sleeping idyll with rabbits alongside her.
    You write with beautiful simplicity and the yoga, development and spirituality resonates with me. Thanks for sharing,
    Bren

    Liked by 1 person

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