What if most of our unhappiness and disappointment was due to a misunderstanding of the nature of the way things are?
And what if our misunderstanding of the way things are is due to how our brains interact with the world around us?
Does that mean that happiness is obtainable if you start to see things more clearly?
Can a better understanding of the brain help us be happier?
From my experience, and according to thousands of years of human literature written on the subject, is yes and yes.
But, and there is always a but, it takes work. Reading, learning, discipline and contemplation.
My next series of blog posts will explore a fundamental aspect of happiness: how we experience the world.
In particular, I’ll examine why the frame of mind you bring to any interaction will determine the nature of that experience.
How Do You Exist?
Since it is we who “experience” the world, let us first examine how we really exist.
Last year I discovered a neat little book called “How To See Yourself As You Really Are”, written by the Dalai Lama.
The main point of the book is that the human mind believes that things exist in their own right. Make no mistake, we, and all phenomenon, do exist. It’s just that they don’t exist in the way we perceive them.
Take you, for example.
You see yourself in the mirror and observe your features: the color of your hair, your eyes, the texture of your skin, the whiteness of your teeth. In your mind, you exist as a concrete separate entity.
But consider this: if it weren’t for one exact sperm from your father, and one exact egg from your mother, you wouldn’t exist at all. If a different sperm had reached your mother’s egg, you wouldn’t be reading this.
Another consideration: you don’t look the same as you did 10 years ago. Like it or not, you’ve aged. Your body has changed.
When you look at life this way, you realize something hugely important.
We are all conditional and impermanent, in a constant state of change. We only exist because of other events that have occurred, and other people that lived. And we only survive because other people are alive.
Modern Americans are not self sufficient in the least. We don’t make our own clothes, hunt our own food, pick our own vegetables, build our own houses.
We rely on doctors, engineers, lawyers, construction workers, factory workers, immigrant labor, artists, designers, musicians, athletes, oceans, forests, animals and plants.
Our very being, as individuals and a society, are wholly dependent, and inextricably linked, to other humans and our natural environment.
Yet that isn’t what we see in the mirror.
Why is This Important?
The reason this is important is that so much of our unhappiness as individuals and a society is due to the fact that we ignore this interconnectedness. We don’t understand the process of change and the importance of conditions.
We focus on ourselves so much that we don’t notice that we actually exist inside an enormous interdependent system. Everything in our lives becomes about us. Our successes and failures. Yet it’s rarely so simple.
Here’s a scenario. Guy meets girl at a bar. They talk, exchange numbers, Facebook stalk, and go out on a few dates. They find that they have some things in common, and then, inexplicably, everything falls apart. What went wrong?
The girl’s only explanation is that things have changed, the “spark” has died. The guy proceeds to blame himself, wondering what he did wrong. Or maybe he gets angry at the girl for leading him on and figures he was being used and that she was secretly seeing other guys. Either way, he wasn’t good enough.
The possible scenarios are endless. And the truth is really neither here nor there and, in fact, quite inconsequential. It’s only important for our minds that can never rest easy in not having closure. But the closure doesn’t change anything.
Our Conditional Lives
What the guy doesn’t realize, and would probably feel a lot better if he did, is that all our interactions are dependent on a set of conditions. A series of events led up to that guy and girl meeting. The stars aligned. If any of the conditions hadn’t materialized, the meeting would never have taken place.
What if the guy had met a different girl the week before? He may have been with that other girl, or not have noticed the new girl, or had no interest in talking to the new girl.
What if the girl was already in a relationship? The meeting likewise may not have taken place, or she may not have been receptive to his advances.
In his quest for answers to what happened, the guy has taken himself, and his relationship, out of the context of the everchanging fluid world around him where nothing stays static. He viewed himself as a separate entity and fixated on the idea that it was he who caused everything to fall apart.
But this is not necessarily the truth.
Our Selective Acceptance of Change
We are very selective about noticing the conditionality of all things.
On an intellectual level we all know that things change. Feelings, opinions, tastes, preferences, life circumstances, our bodies, everything is in a perpetual state of change.
But we can be so resistant to this unstoppable process! A process that, ultimately, we have no control over.
It just so happens that the things we enjoy, we want them to remain permanent, but they never do. This frustrates us. And when they do change, we panic and scramble to try and put it back together again or try to replace whatever it is that was lost. Yet nothing is ever quite the same.
The inability to “let go” of impermanent things is a primary source of dissatisfaction and unhappiness in our lives.
Upon discovery of this fundamental reality of the conditionality and impermanence of our earthly existence, you may feel severely discouraged about this lack of control.
It’s Nothing Personal
On the other hand, you may feel like a giant burden has been lifted off your shoulders. I know I did.
I used to take everything so personally. Anything that I perceived as negative was taken as a rejection of me, like I had done something wrong, or there was something inherently wrong with me.
But then I realized it’s not necessarily my fault.
Conditions change, and conditions are almost never under my control. If I lost a client, perhaps the conditions of their life had changed. Maybe they were having money issues, or family problems. Sometimes the person likes you a bit too much and it gets uncomfortable for them. In my experience, many people would rather just disappear instead of discussing uncomfortable situations. I’m guilty of having done this, too.
What Do You Control?
The two things you can control is your effort and how you live.
If your effort is good and are living ethically, then you can be satisfied with who you are and needn’t get down on yourself.
On the other hand, if you give no effort, or lie, cheat, manipulate, try to control others, or engage in any other negative behaviors, you are sowing the seeds of your own unhappiness and discontent. You might obtain “stuff”, but you surely aren’t obtaining any happiness, because happy people don’t engage in those types of behaviors. It wouldn’t occur to them to do so.
One other thing you do control, although it takes awareness and practice, is your attention. Throughout most of our day, our attention wanders from one thought to the next without us being aware of it. If you can harness the power of your attention, and focus it on the right things, you may find your life improve dramatically.
But that is for the next post.
PS. If you found this post interesting or helpful, it’s a sure bet someone else will, too. Please “Like” on my Facebook page or re-post. The re-post results in greater viewing. Thanks!