About 2,500 years ago, the Buddha stated that unhappiness is the result of ignorance.
2,289 years later, in 1781, the great Western philosopher Imannuel Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, agreed that humans are indeed ignorant (although happiness wasn’t his main concern).
While ignorance usually has a negative connotation, in this case it is simply an observation: the human mind tends to misapprehend reality.
Thus, we are all ignorant of true reality.
As long as we remain unaware of this misapprehension we will suffer and be unhappy.
In order to be happy, or at least happier than you are now, you need to dislodge ignorance from its source: your mind.
Identifying, accepting, and tearing out the roots of our own ignorance is the key to happiness.
But to do this mental weeding, you need to examine the realm of personal experience.
Why Examine Experience?
Have you ever considered how you “experience” anything?
What comprises your experiences?
How do you experience love, hate, joy, sadness, jealousy, and excitement?
To start, consider the elements of experience.
We have these things called a brain and body (which are clearly one thing), this separate thing called the mind, and whatever is apart from us–whatever is “out there”.
These three elements come together to produce experience.
The process by which this occurs is the most important thing you probably never studied.
Instead, this examination is relegated to philosophy and spiritual pursuit; neither of which are deemed particularly worthy by the standards of today, whereby only subjects that lead to high paying jobs are studied.
The ass-backwardness of societal education, one that uses education as a means to capital accumulation and material acquisition, without happiness ever being addressed, is so staggering that it beggars belief.
Through all my schooling, from one of the top public high schools in New Jersey to a pretty good large public university, I was offered one chance to examine happiness.
And that was in the form of one lecture by a business professor at the end of my last semester at the University of Maryland.
It was the most popular lecture on campus. Honestly, it wasn’t all that profound. But is shows that the student body was thirsting for a productive way forward.
Here is the situation in the United States today as I see it:
Increased wealth and technological “progress” is accompanied by increasing levels of personal and societal alienation, anxiety, stress, and decreasing levels of happiness.
I would argue that this distressing state of affairs is due largely to our own personal and societal ignorance, and that by admitting and accepting our ignorance, and living intelligently with it, is the only way to increased happiness.
The Process of Experience
Much of how the brain works currently remains a mystery, and frankly, we don’t even know what the human mind or human consciousness is.
But we do know some things about the brain, and we can observe how the mind works.
Start with a question:
Do we experience “experience” passively? Do we sit back and observe the world around us?
That’s how it seems. But we know this is false.
In fact, we are very active in our experience. We are one half of our experience because our experience is of ourselves and whatever it is that is happening “out there”.
So if we at least partially create experience, will your experience of life ever be the exact same experience as someone else?
Of course not.
While we do experience the world around us, our experience is only “our” experience. It is not the “true” experience, since no two people, or ethnic groups, or countries, can ever possibly have the same exact experience.
We can have similar experiences, but never the same experiences.
So much pointless conflict occurs due to differing experience on both a personal and societal level.
Ignorance of reality is what leads to almost everything bad in the world.
And the reality is that, in many cases, what is proclaimed, costumed, and paraded around as truth, is just our strongly stated opinion.
A poorly informed opinion, it turns out.
Here is why.
Inherent Limitations of Reason
In Kant’s landmark work, the Critique of Pure Reason, he wasn’t saying that reason is a bad thing. After all, the only reason we know anything is through reasoning, and certainly I am using reason to write this blog post.
What he said is that there are limitations to our reason.
These limitations are baked into our very human existence: the limitations are our very own human senses.
First, we know that the only way we can experience what is “out there”: be it other people, our environment, or events, is through our senses, primarily sight, touch, and hearing.
The problem with our senses is that they are limited.
We know that there are spectrum of light that we can’t see, and sounds we can’t detect, while other animals can.
Here is a simple example of how our limited senses can cause major damage–we can’t see microscopic organisms that cause disease and sickness.
The inherent limitations of our own senses led to thousands of years of medical ignorance, misplaced blame, and religious fanaticism, and/or supernatural explanations of events that were beyond our understanding due to the limitations of our senses.
Yet, for better or for worse, our senses are all we have.
It is our senses that detect the outside world and then pass that sensory information to our brain.
Our brain is then tasked with making sense of all this information.
But our brain is not simply accepting the incoming sensory information. Our brain is actively filtered this information.
It is organizing, categorizing, labeling, cross referencing, calling on previous memory, comparing, and ultimately producing our thoughts and beliefs.
All of this is going on behind the scenes, non-stop, all day long.
And this leads to limitation #2.
There are limits to human attention. We can’t possibly pay attention to all the millions of bits of sensory information that are flooding our brains at any given moment.
Our attention is usually directed towards a particular task, whatever it is that we consciously or unconsciously deem most important at that point in time.
Our inability to consciously process sensory information and live life at the same time means that most of our inner lives and outer world remain completely hidden from us.
If most of what occurs around us, in our immediate environment no less, never rises to our level of consciousness, what can we possibly claim to really know about the world?
Then What Is Reality?
Since we are not conscious of most of our life, that means we are not experiencing “Reality”.
What we experience is a mere representation of reality.
A very personal and private representation of reality.
This is how two people can witness the same exact event and come away with two different realities about it.
Neither person is lying, although they may be incorrect about what exactly they saw. Their minds simply produce two different versions of events due to their own mind’s unique mental processing of sensory information.
Between two individual people, say James Comey and Donald Trump, there are always three versions of a story: one person’s story, the other person’s story, and the real story (which will never be fully known because it isn’t remembered by either person).
Their “experience” is what was presented to them via the interaction of limited sensory information and the brain’s filtering process and then stored by human memory what can only be described as selective.
This is what both Buddha and Kant meant by human ignorance.
We run into trouble when we just don’t know how ignorant we really are.
Our Stubborn Mind Leads to Unhappiness
It’s rare that we are taught to challenge our beliefs in a systematic and productive way.
We are not taught to observe the way the human mind works, nor of the subjective nature of experience.
So it’s no wonder that we are so convinced that we know exactly what is happening and how things should be.
We know what other people are thinking. We know their wicked intentions.
We know how other people should treat us.
We know what we are supposed to do with our lives and how it should turn out.
We know what will make us happy.
We know it all!
Yet…..we really don’t.
Time and again our expectations are unmet. Time and again people disappoint us. Time and again, we fail. Time and again, someone else is happy at our expense. Time and again, someone takes the happiness that is rightfully ours.
Because life doesn’t work out like we expect or desire, we realize that life is uncertain.
And we don’t like uncertainty.
Every time we think we have things under control, when things start going well, something goes wrong. It all falls apart.
Knowing that disaster must be lurking around the corner, we can actually become suspicious of the good times.
The frustration and anxiety mount.
We experience fear.
We start assigning blame.
On a personal level, it ruins relationships. On a societal level, politicians exploit this fear for their own ends.
This has gone on for as long as recorded human history.
Uncertainty isn’t the problem, however.
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that uncertainty is at the core of the universe.
Uncertainty is the foundation of human existence.
We can accept it on an intellectual level.
The problem is that we don’t accept it on a experiential level.
When it comes to our own personal experience, we still seek to eliminate uncertainty by trying to control events, control other people, or elect politicians who provide an illusion of control and power.
We fear uncertainty.
And fear is a direct impediment to happiness.
But you don’t necessarily have to eliminate all fear. Instead you just have to live with it in a constructive manner.
Once we accept the limitations of our humans senses and thus the inherent limitations of our own personal knowledge; once we accept that societal, scientific, and historical knowledge will always be limited, the personal pressure to get things right is lifted.
You can’t do anything about uncertainty, and neither can anybody else. We are all in the same boat.
However, you can change your relationship to uncertainty, and this will change your experiences from negative ones to either neutral experiences or good experiences.
– You will not be so quick to anger (perhaps someone truly meant no offense with their seemingly outrageous remark).
– You will not be so offended from perceived slights (perhaps that person didn’t ignore you, he actually just didn’t hear you).
– You will not be so quick to argue (perhaps your boyfriend has no recollection of your request to pick up lemons from the supermarket).
– You will not look to sensual experience for happiness (all sensual experience is short-lived by nature).
– You will not believe that everyone is happy except you (no one posts pictures on Instagram when they are stressed out, depressed, or bored)
Nothing bad comes of acknowledging our limitations. The only bad comes from not acknowledging our limitations.
The Uncovering of Happiness
The harder and more diligently you search for happiness, the more it will elude you. It’s not a pot of gold found found on the other side of the rainbow.
In my experience, happiness is more uncovered than found.
It is revealed to you through experience.
I didn’t seek happiness.
Actually, that’s not completely true.
I did seek out happiness, but I never found it. What I thought was happiness, the few times I thought I experienced it, was through external sources: social life, girls, food, material acquisition.
Now I realize those things are just brief temporary pleasures. They were just momentary diversions from an unhappy reality.
Luckily, in 2005, I stumbled upon an experience that for me resulted in a more lasting happiness.
Back then, I was bored with life.
My five year battle with chronic pain in my feet had mostly ended, and I was tired of going to bars and drinking.
I needed something different.
So I resolved to learn salsa.
While taking my first class I had a feeling.
The feeling was, “I like this”.
And the more I went back, the stronger the feeling became.
I was around people who were smiling. I was around music. I was learning to dance (for the previous five years I couldn’t even stand up without tremendous pain).
Another benefit: my absolute inability to talk to girls in a loud atmosphere was negated, because now all I had to do was ask them to dance.
It felt good.
That studio was my refuge from my day job.
Because I learned quickly, I was eventually asked to help teach.
I was hesitant at first. I wasn’t sure of my ability to do so.
Knowing that personality is the most important thing in teaching, even beyond subject matter, one of my teachers said something to me that should have been obvious, yet wasn’t.
She said “Neal, people like you”.
The Great Revealing
In all my life, I had never once considered that thought!
My mind was so conditioned to focus on what I didn’t have.
I knew I was friends with plenty of guys (in my mental creation, girls had no interest in me).
But I never considered that they actively liked me. Our friendly relations just existed without any thought as to why.
I never noticed the basis of my numerous positive relationships, the fact that I was probably a likable person.
I only noticed the negative ones. Actually, they weren’t even negative. They just didn’t really exist beyond polite formalities.
But if those non-existent relationships were with people I deemed as possessing a higher social value than myself, that was bad news.
In a sense, I was just seeking their acknowledgement.
Not that I was actively seeking it, mind you.
I was just hoping for it.
I just wanted certain people’s acknowledgement because I judged their acknowledgment more important than other people’s.
When acknowledgement wasn’t received to my satisfaction, I interpreted it as me being inherently unlikable, unpopular, and doomed to an unhappy existence.
Now I know that it was my own ignorance of reality that created most of my problems when I was younger.
I never actively challenged my interpretation of experience, thus the roots grew stronger through every passing year.
But this dance studio experience was challenging my experience in a very direct way.
There was a great revelation occurring.
I couldn’t deny that I enjoyed teaching. I couldn’t deny that I felt exhilarated by the environment. I couldn’t deny that people did like me. And I couldn’t deny that women (some at least) did like me.
On the other hand, I didn’t know how to properly put all these new experiences in context, and how to prioritize them, but I knew what I felt.
I felt good.
And I hadn’t felt that way in a very, very, long time.
It wasn’t the end of the journey of self-exploration.
In fact, it was just the beginning.
But 2005 was when I started to live rather than just survive.
Implications for Happiness
Just like in my case, most of your unhappiness is probably due to incorrect beliefs in how the world really is.
Happiness is there in front of you. You probably just can’t see it yet since your mind is full of negative thought patterns that accumulated and reinforced over decades of life.
It takes time to unwind these patterns and replace them with new ones.
But it can be done as long as you keep one thing in mind:
Your thoughts and beliefs are mostly subjective opinions that were formed through limited sensory information and mediated by a mind that is selectively presenting the world to you to suit its present purpose!
The Good News!
Because we don’t know how reality truly is, and all we experience is a personal and unique representation of reality, we have the choice about what to believe about ourselves.
If there is no objective reality, meaning no one else has an opinion about you that is truer than your own, doesn’t it make sense to believe the best about yourself rather than the worst?
Why are so many of us ready to believe the worst rather than the best?
We completely ignore our inner-greatness.
You, I, and everyone else has a true power.
Not the illusion of power associated with presidents and dictators.
The power that we have is personal power, the personal power to do good and help others.
Power put to any other use is either physically self-destructive or spiritually self destructive; neither of which is conducive to happiness.
Look around you. We live in the wealthiest most prosperous nation in the history of the world, and most people are decidedly unhappy.
That’s happiness negation, right there.
In other words, happiness is not to be found in a material world based on consumption and diversion.
Your best chance for happiness is to live a values centered life and throw your efforts towards productive and positive pursuits that create happiness for you and others.
If you have read this far, I’ll assume this is a subject you are interested in. But it can’t remain in the realm of interest.
You have to live it.
You have to question the nature of your experience.
You have to investigate what it is you are experiencing.
You have to pay attention to those moments where you do experience feelings of joy.
Investigate their true origin.
Eventually, you need to trust those feelings. When your conscious thoughts are aligned with those inner feelings and values, you’ll know it.
The conflict raging within you will largely cease.
If you accept the premise that you don’t know how things truly are, and neither does anybody else, then there is a wonderfully surprising conclusion that is presented before you.
You get to choose what you believe about yourself and in that sense, happiness is very much a choice.
I now believe in my inner-greatness.
I know I can’t prove I’m great in any real sense, and I know no one else has to believe it, but I know no one can disprove it.
No one can say I have no inner-greatness.
So I choose to believe the best about myself.
It’s all opinion.
Having a good sense of self-esteem, ironically, comes from understanding that you are nothing.
Nothing, that is, except what you choose to believe.
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