Like many people, finding happiness used to be my goal in life, and as an avid consumer of personal development products I learned a lot of techniques for getting there. You’ve probably heard many of these: think positive thoughts, force yourself to smile, take a warm bath, and so on.
For a while, I diligently used these methods, and at first they did a fairly good job of perking me up when I fell into a funk. But pretty soon, I noticed that using these techniques was starting to feel like a big effort. Constantly countering negative thoughts with positive ones, “turning my frown upside down,” and so on, began to consume a lot of time and energy. And I started wondering: is happiness worthwhile if I have to work so hard for it?
From Rejection To Curiosity
When I started getting deeper into mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation, and really noticing what was going on inside me, my perspective on happiness began to change. What I began to see was that my emotions are really just sensations I feel in my body. For example, sadness for me is a heavy feeling in my stomach, and anger is a heat and tightness in my lower back. (These words may mean different sensations to you.)
Another thing I started noticing is that, once I began seeing my emotions as simply physical sensations, they didn’t seem like such a problem anymore. Before, when I’d start experiencing that heaviness in my stomach that I called “sadness,” I used to resist the feeling, telling myself “come on, chin up, there’s nothing to be sad about.” My shoulders and my stomach would actually tense up as I tried to push the feeling away.
But today, when I get that feeling, my reaction is more like curiosity than rejection—“oh, it’s that sinking in my belly again,” I’ll say to myself calmly. And when I have this curious perspective, I start noticing things about my sadness that I never saw back when I was trying to squelch it. For instance, I notice that the heavy feeling seems to have a particular shape, color and temperature, and that it doesn’t just sit there—the energy actually moves around quite a bit before it fades away.
Most importantly, when I stop treating sadness as a problem, acting in spite of how I’m feeling becomes much easier. When my attention is no longer focused on how awful it is to be sad, how I’d rather feel better, and so on, I can start actually thinking about what I want, and going after it, despite the sensations I’m feeling in my body. Sadness, and other so-called “bad moods,” don’t have to paralyze me anymore.
I’d Rather Be Peaceful Than Happy
Today, I think of my goal in life as peace instead of happiness. No matter how amazing my life becomes, I’m probably going to have “negative” feelings from time to time, and when those emotions come up I want to calmly allow them and even be curious about what they have to offer me. I haven’t got this down completely—I have moments when I find myself fighting my emotions and telling myself I should feel differently. But when I’m able to be at peace with whatever experience I’m having, life becomes a lot easier.
Of course, if techniques for making yourself happy are working for you, more power to you. Everyone’s mind and body is unique, and different approaches work for different people. But if trying to make yourself happy is feeling like a lot of frustration and work, I invite you to try something different for a moment.
When you feel unhappy, instead of resisting the feeling, try focusing on how that unhappiness feels in your body—like I talked about with the sinking feeling in my stomach. What sensations tell you that you’re unhappy? Notice how just asking this question changes how you relate to what you’re feeling. Instead of being something threatening that you need to push away, your unhappiness becomes an object of curiosity. And the more you inquire into it and understand it, the more peaceful and composed you can be when it comes up.
Link Love: I want to spotlight Duff McDuffee’s new blog, Beyond Growth, which looks like it will be a welcome step forward in the evolution of personal development writing. I thought about Duff when I was doing this post because I was saying something kind of counterintuitive and his writing often does this as well.
When people talk about the benefits of being an entrepreneur, they usually speak in terms of getting to be their own boss and the financial rewards of owning a business. I think these aspects of entrepreneurship are great, but my favorite thing about it is actually the opportunities it offers me to grow as a person.
Over the last few years, my business has given me the chance to try things I would never even have considered when I was a salaried employee. I’ve had the opportunity to learn how to use recording equipment, draft marketing copy, design a website, make public appearances, write a book, interview authors, network with others in the personal development field, and—you knew it was coming—much, much more.
At a deeper level, beyond just learning cool new skills, I’ve had the chance to experience emotional highs and lows I wasn’t exposed to in my previous job. One of the emotions I’ve had the opportunity to feel a lot more often is anxiety. The first time I did each of the things I just described, I felt at least a little afraid that I was going to embarrass myself and that I was “wasting my time.” The fear showed up as a tension in my chest and shoulders.
Expanding My Experience
When that fear and tension arose, I used the approach that my mindfulness practices have taught me for dealing with sensations that seem intense and threatening. I just sat there, relaxed my body, breathed, and allowed the feeling to peak and then pass away.
When I allowed the feeling to flow through me, I came to realize that my body could take it—that having the feeling couldn’t actually hurt or destroy me. On the other side of this experience, I felt calm and relaxed about the action I was going to take, and similar issues that came up later on didn’t bother me as much.
So, entrepreneurship has given me a chance to expand the range of sensations I can be with and tolerate. That’s what I think personal growth is really about—becoming willing to be with more and more sensation, until you have total choice in how you can live your life, and you aren’t shying away from any experiences because you’re scared of what you might feel. Buddhists call this developing “equanimity”—freeing yourself from suffering by learning to accept any experience life gives you.
“Successful” But Stagnant
When I worked full-time as a lawyer, I mostly sat in my office and drafted briefs and letters. This was much easier for me to do than what I’m doing now. Writing is one of my strongest natural talents, so I could usually rest assured that the work I did would be well-received. It was an ideal job for me in many ways, but it just didn’t offer the same growth opportunities.
Because I didn’t have to confront fear, or other intense emotions, very often, I didn’t get much chance to expand my capacity to tolerate sensation. So, even though I was making good money and had a job others saw as prestigious, my personal growth felt stagnant.
One key reason I decided to start my own business was that I knew there were so many experiences I hadn’t explored yet, and I wanted to expand the boundaries of who I was and what I was capable of.
Process Over Product
The perspective I’m offering here is different from what many of us are used to. In our culture, we’re accustomed to valuing only the product—the end result—of what we do in our careers. We suffer through the work day and the tasks we have to do—hating the process—to chase the money, prestige, vacations, and so on that our careers promise us. And if we end up losing our job or our business fails, we often think we have “nothing to show for” the time we spent working.
When we think in terms of using our work as a tool for personal growth, we start to see how valuable the moment-to-moment process of working can be. If we do something for work that constantly pushes our edge—regularly trying new and sometimes scary things like public speaking, making affiliate deals, and so on—we constantly grow our capacity to tolerate experiences. We learn to be at peace with more, and more intense, sensations in our lives.
So, even when we try a strategy for growing our business and it fails, we can be sure we’ve grown as human beings by trying. And when we succeed at something, that success is just icing on the cake of the inner strength and freedom we gain by taking on a new challenge.
I’m on the Radio this Wednesday!
I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be appearing on Seeing Beyond with Bonnie Coleen on Wednesday, June 24, at 7:30 a.m. Pacific (U.S.) time. Bonnie has interviewed some amazing guests in the past, including Wayne Dyer, Doreen Virtue and Guy Finley, and I’m honored to be added to that list. I hope you can join us.
I find puffins irresistible. When I see them (or pictures of them) my usual instinct is to hug myself and say “aww,” or coo like a newborn.
Why am I telling you this? Because becoming able to get so much pleasure out of funny-looking seabirds, and admit it on the Internet, was a major step in my personal growth. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to feel all snuggly looking at puffins—or maybe I would have let myself feel that cuddly sensation, but felt kind of guilty and uncomfortable about it.
You Don’t Always Have To “Earn” Pleasure
Why? The reason was that the joy I get from looking at puffins isn’t something I have to earn. I don’t have to ace a standardized test, climb some corporate ladder, run a hundred miles, or do anything else to experience that pleasure. In the past, I believed it was wrong for me to take pleasure in things I hadn’t worked for. Doing that would make me lazy, mediocre, or something else unpleasant.
Finally, in my work on myself, I came to accept that there’s nothing shameful about taking pleasure in things we haven’t “earned.” Because so much of what we can enjoy in life is available to all of us, free of charge or effort—walks in the woods and sunsets, for example—this greatly increased my quality of life.
The Deeper Meaning Of “Expanding The Comfort Zone”
On a deeper level, this is an example of what I think much of the “personal development” work many of us are doing is really about. We tend to assume, when we start “working on ourselves,” that we have a specific material goal in mind—more money, a relationship, a more athletic body, and so on. That’s the kind of thing I thought I wanted when I began my personal growth journey. Later on, however, I discovered I was more interested in experiencing emotions and sensations I hadn’t let myself feel before.
In other words, I think what many of us are seeking in our “inner work” is to expand the range of sensations we’ll allow ourselves to feel. For me, it was giving myself permission to feel “unearned” pleasure. For others, perhaps it’s becoming able to tolerate fear—the fears that come with starting a business, getting into an intimate relationship, taking up rock climbing, and so on.
We might even say that one goal of the personal growth process is to find what Buddhists call “equanimity.” Roughly, this is the ability to accept, without fighting or fleeing from, all the thoughts and sensations you experience in life. The more equanimity you achieve, the more you can let yourself experience joy, fear, anger, sadness, and so on without judging or repressing those emotions.
Yes, I Can Even Bring Freud Into This
We can also think of this process as working to quiet what Sigmund Freud called the Superego, the judgmental part of our minds that tells us what we are and aren’t supposed to do and experience. My Superego used to tell me it wasn’t okay to appreciate puffins and similar things because it’s wrong to take pleasure in something you haven’t “earned,” and in the end I learned to put the Superego on mute (at least, when it comes to that issue).
Other people struggle with their Superegos in different areas—perhaps they’re trying to overcome the belief that it’s always wrong to feel angry, or that it’s wrong to charge for their products or services. When they learn to quiet their Superegos, they find living the lives they want much easier.
My point is that even something seemingly “trivial” like learning to appreciate the cuteness of animals, the feeling of the sand under your feet at a beach, or the intricate patterns in the veins on a leaf, can be a significant step in our personal growth. This is because, the more sensations we let ourselves experience, the more complete we can be and feel as human beings.
(I was inspired by Albert Foong’s recent post about writing shorter blog entries to try this lean, mean 682-word piece on for size. I went even further out on a limb and tried using a photo too! I hope you liked being part of this experiment.)
Productivity From Within Announcement
I’m looking for bloggers and writers in other media interested in reviewing my new e-book, Productivity From Within. If you are interested, please drop me a line.