spiritual practice | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Why I Don’t Force Myself To Be Happy

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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.

Spiritual Practice For “Realists”

I took a meditation course recently where I got involved in an interesting conversation with a few participants.  We’d just done an exercise where the instructor told us, as we were breathing slowly and deeply, to “inhale compassion and understanding, and exhale peace and wellness toward all beings.”  One student I spoke to after the exercise said she entered a state of peaceful emptiness as she listened to the instructor.  Another one, however, had trouble taking the teacher seriously.

“That exercise made no sense,” he said.  “I breathe air, not compassion and wellness.”  Not surprisingly, he told me he wasn’t getting much out of the course.  “I came here because my friend said meditation helped him,” he said, “but I’m just finding it boring.”

Later, when thinking about this conversation, I had a realization.  I recognized that there are probably many people who share this man’s perspective on spiritual practices like meditation, and thus have trouble finding peace or any other benefit through them.  More importantly, I saw that people with this mindset could likely get a lot more value out of spiritual teachings if they just made a subtle shift in how they listened to those teachings.

Listening Critically Versus Appreciatively

The man I described became bored and frustrated because he did what I call listening critically to the instructor’s directions.  His attention, in other words, was on evaluating whether the teacher’s words were true or false—whether what the teacher said was logical and factually correct.  Some spiritual teachers call this “listening with your mind,” rather than with your heart or being.

Because he was listening with this mindset, the man perceived the instructor as suggesting that human beings breathe compassion and peace as opposed to air, concluded that this statement was false, and thus decided the exercise was worthless.

As he mentally rejected the exercise in this way, he rendered himself unable to experience the feelings, and the state of consciousness, the instructor was trying to guide us toward.  What he didn’t see was that the teacher wasn’t trying to make a statement about how human respiration works—he was using his words to lead us into a relaxing and mind-opening experience.

In my view, if we want to get value from spiritual teachings, we need to listen appreciatively instead.  Rather than searching for truth or falsehood, we need to sit back and allow the teachings to create whatever emotional impact, or shift in consciousness, they may induce in us—to do nothing more than appreciate the experience what we’re hearing produces.  We can only benefit from the teachings if we, at least temporarily, let go of our need to evaluate and judge what we hear.

We might compare this mode of listening to the way we listen to a poem or a piece of music.  We simply allow the poetry or music to produce an emotional experience in us, and we aren’t generally listening for whether it “makes sense” or is factually correct.  Some associate this form of listening with the right hemisphere of the brain or feminine yin energy, and listening critically with the left hemisphere and masculine yang energy.  There isn’t space to discuss these ideas in detail here, but I offer them to give you a further taste of the distinct flavors of appreciative and critical listening.

We don’t try to evaluate some poetry and music for their truth or accuracy, simply because it would be impossible to understand how to do so.  For instance, it would be difficult to say whether a note or chord in an instrumental piece of music was “right” or “wrong.”  But we can imagine listening critically to, for example, poems written in full sentences, and music pieces with lyrics.  It would be strange, but doable.

For instance, suppose I chose to listen critically to Wordsworth‘s well-known line “I wandered lonely as a cloud.”  “Ridiculous,” I might say.  “What does he mean—he became a cloud and wandered?  That’s impossible—people can’t turn into clouds.  Or does he mean he felt as lonely as a cloud?  Clouds don’t get lonely—they’re made of water, and that doesn’t have emotions.”  In other words, I’d conclude that the first line of the classic poem was “false.”

I wouldn’t want to listen this way, of course, because it would completely ruin my experience of the poem.  If my attention were on closely scrutinizing “I wandered lonely as a cloud” for truth or falsehood, I’d deprive myself of the rich emotional experience it’s intended to create, and make myself—and anyone listening to me—miserable.  Similarly, because the man in the meditation course took the instructor’s words literally and dismissed them as untrue, he missed out on the peace and focus they were intended to bring him.

But You’ll Be “Brainwashed”!

Even if we do understand that many spiritual teachings are meant to be listened to appreciatively rather than critically, some of us still find ourselves listening to spiritual discourse with a cynical, hostile mindset.  I’ll talk about a few of the reasons why we sometimes adopt a critical mode of listening when we’re reading literature or doing exercises with a spiritual bent.  I’ll also suggest that, when we take a close look at those concerns, they aren’t as compelling or threatening as they might seem at first glance.

We associate the teaching with some person or group from our past.  When some of us hear talk about “spirit,” “being,” or—in what to many is the worst-case scenario—“God,” we immediately start thinking about certain people or groups we dislike or distrust.  Our anger at those people arises and prevents us from getting any value or insight out of what we’re hearing.

Maybe, for instance, when we hear terms like “spirit” or “our divine nature,” our minds immediately conjure up images of “right-wing religious nuts.”  Or perhaps, when we hear nice-sounding phrases like “inner peace” and “shared being,” we immediately think of “airy-fairy New Age fluffheads.”  Maybe our parents are into Eastern religion and we have ongoing gripes with them.  Whatever the reason, because the teachings we’re hearing sound like something we assume people in these groups would say, we refuse to take them seriously.

Ironically, when we harshly judge spiritual teachings because we associate spirituality with people we’re angry at, we fall into the same narrow-minded thinking we condemn in those people.  If, for example, we refuse to read a book or article that uses the words “divinity” or “God” simply because we associate those words with intolerant religious conservatives, we’re engaging in the same intolerance we see in them.

However, an even deeper irony is that, although we may think we’re somehow thwarting the groups we oppose by viewing spiritual teachings with jaundiced eyes, we’re actually—in a sense—“letting them win.”  We’re allowing our memories of these people, and our grievances against them, to deprive us of the ability to listen appreciatively to what we’re hearing or reading right now.

For example, if we refused to ever read the Bible because we had a problem with some Christian group, or vowed never to read the Bhagavad Gita because we had a dispute with a Hindu group, we’d be letting our personal grudges take away the peace and consciousness we might otherwise experience by exploring those writings.

We’re afraid of being “brainwashed.”  Some of us worry that, if we listened to a spiritual teaching without carefully evaluating it for truth or falsehood, the proponents of that teaching might manipulate or “brainwash” us into serving them or giving them money.  Thus, we need to be constantly on our guard, making sure nothing deceptive slips past our mental defenses and compels us to do something we don’t want to do.

The funny thing is, we don’t seem to have the same concerns about listening appreciatively in other contexts.  For instance, we don’t tend to worry that, if we relaxed our judgmental minds and just allowed ourselves to absorb the emotional impact of a novel or poem, we might become the author’s mindless slaves.  What is it, then, that has us fear that spiritual teachings might overpower our wills if we let our guard down?

I suspect the fear of being manipulated into following spiritual doctrines often stems from the habit I discussed earlier—the tendency to condemn spiritual teachings because they sound like what some person we distrust might say.  Because we disagree strongly with a person or group, we reject anything that sounds vaguely like them as an attempt at “brainwashing” us.  As I said above, this deprives us of the ability to listen appreciatively to—and thus get value out of—those teachings.

We want to “think for ourselves.”  A while back, I recommended a book by a spiritual teacher I found illuminating to a friend.  He said he didn’t need the book, because he prefers to “think for himself.”  In other words, he was expressing the fairly common view that spiritual teachings somehow try to do your thinking for you.

Again, this perspective seems rooted in a fear of spirituality that is hard to fully understand.  When we read a book or news editorial that presents the author’s thoughts on some issue, after all, we don’t see the author as infringing on our right to “think for ourselves.”  What is it about spiritual thought that can have us get so protective of our minds?

But at a deeper level, in my view, many spiritual writings and teachings aren’t trying to give us new beliefs or ways to think.  Rather, they’re intended to guide us into experiences that transform our state of consciousness in ways that can’t necessarily be understood through thinking—much like the enthralling but difficult to describe way in which music, poetry and art affect us.  They are not attempting to “think for us” at all, in other words—they are speaking to a dimension of our consciousness that is beyond thought.

If you’ve had trouble benefiting from spiritual practices in the past, I encourage you to try the “appreciative” mode of listening I’ve described here.  See if you can let go, if only temporarily, of the tendency to evaluate and judge what you’re hearing.  Instead, try listening to or reading spiritual teachings as if you were experiencing a piece of art or music, simply allowing yourself to be affected rather than searching for facts or information.  I suspect you’ll experience a peace and awareness that will surprise you.

(This article appeared in the Carnival of Healing, located at http://www.yourjoyouslife.com/daily-inspiration-carnival-of-healing-153.html.)