Practicing happiness 04

When you feel like crap “just feel better” is the most unhelpful-sounding advice. After all, there are reasons why you feel bad right now, it’s not simply a choice, right?

Well that’s true: it’s not simply a choice; it’s also a practiced habit. That’s why feeling bad comes easier than feeling better, at first.

As I’m learning about attachment theory, I can see how feeling better is like a child turning to his or her parent or caregiver for security, comfort, reassurance and affection.

Perhaps the sense that feeling better is trivial or not enough is related to our attachment style? If we never learned to find genuine security and comfort with a parent or caregiver then we implicitly never learned to value simply feeling better when we feel bad.

Bitter self-reliance

For me the inability to find reliable security and comfort in my attachments led to a kind of resignation towards suffering, and self-reliance in seeking to avoid future suffering.

That’s why “feel better” seems insufficient to me…I never learned how. Ingrained in my childhood was more of a “endure until it goes away” approach to suffering, followed by an intense search for deeper answers that promised to help me “overcome” suffering forever.

And that pattern has helped shape my life. Alongside my perennial search for “answers”, I’ve done my best to avoid suffering as much as possible while also silently enduring whatever conditions I consider unavoidable.

Securely feeling better

That’s why feeling better is ultimately such a powerful thing to learn and practice especially when I feel like it’s “not enough”.

Every moment of intentionally feeling better is retraining my mind and body into a completely new pattern capable of maintaining equilibrium and balance.

Imagine what a difference that makes, to go from an attitude where suffering is inevitable (and can only be overcome through extreme effort) to one where suffering can be quickly and effectively neutralised and soothed, and the opposite – genuine good feeling – can be developed and grow.

That’s why those moments where I feel bad, and feeling better seems insufficient, are the most valuable moments to practice.

Love is not earned

Children lack insight into the minds and motives of adults, so as children we tend to take other people’s behaviour at face value.

I could never understand why things were often bleak and unpleasant at home. It didn’t make sense to me; but over time I concluded that I must have done something wrong, or failed to do something right and thereby earned these unhappy interactions.

Those thoughts stayed with me for a long time. In my interactions with new people I would be mindful of their possible expectations and my own “performance” according to those mysterious criteria.

I worried about making mistakes or doing something wrong in other people’s eyes. I would often second-guess people’s words and my own actions, trying to predict possible offences and conflict.

All that anxiety and effort stemmed from the false childhood premise that I was being treated according to my worth or desert, and these were lacking. I brought these thoughts to new interactions and looked for evidence to confirm them.

A new premise

With the benefit of knowing how I create my reality with my thoughts and focus, I can look back and see that things were not as bleak as I make out. If I hadn’t taken to heart the bad moods and cruel comments, there was plenty of room to manoeuvre.

If I had applied the Abraham-Hicks principles I would have had a much happier childhood.

It’s okay that I didn’t. My unhappiness has given me a correspondingly magnificent desire for joy, freedom, and expansion.

But looking back is helpful in this moment because I don’t want to keep those old thought patterns going anymore.

My new premise is that instead of getting the treatment I deserve, I get the reality I allow. God wants me to be happy, His love and blessings have never stopped flowing into me. It’s up to me to enjoy the flow instead of resisting it, to look to where the blessings are instead of where they aren’t.

There is no stream of bad things raining down on me because of some fault or error of mine. There are only good things that I allow, or resist.

Life is as good as I allow it to be; I am as happy as I allow myself to feel. Searching for my own faults and trying to avoid making mistakes was itself just the product of a misunderstanding.

There is no degree of personal perfection required to turn your life around. There is no correction of faults or errors required before people start treating you right. We do not earn God’s love and blessings, they are freely given.

We just have to accept them.

Seeing the best in others

The greatest help we can be to others is to not join them in their misaligned thoughts.

Sometimes we find ourselves thinking that other people need our help. They need to be rescued, assisted, and it is our job – our responsibility – to make them feel better.

But this has to be false.

We create our own reality, and our emotions are a direct response to the thoughts we are focused upon.

When other people feel bad, it is because they too are focused on misaligned thoughts.

If we are noticing other people feeling bad, it is not up to us to make them feel better. In fact, if we are noticing that they feel bad it most likely means that we too are focusing on misaligned thoughts.

If you love someone and you believe God is with them, and you know they have their own journey and their own inner guidance and their own inner being constantly showering them with love and appreciation, then what exactly is the problem?

Rescuing people

Some of us grow up with patterns of thought where we feel accountable and responsible for the happiness of others.

The flip side is that we are always on the look-out for other people’s displeasure and unhappiness, with the disempowering premise that they can’t feel better without outside help.

It’s an unhealthy need to be needed and fear of being hated or blamed. But it doesn’t have to persist in us because it is only some thoughts with a bit of momentum.

No one needs rescuing

No one needs rescuing, no one can be rescued.

Everyone has access to the same relationship with God, and none of us is the special conduit of grace for anyone else.

We need to look past the appearance of their neediness and struggle, and recognise that this is really a matter of our own perception and our own thoughts about them.

If you feel bad about someone else’s struggle you are the one feeling bad. And trying to feel better by “helping” them is really an attempt to make yourself feel better by changing your circumstances.

They don’t need your help. You need your own help to focus on thoughts that feel good. Maybe thoughts about them and how capable and wise they are. But it’s still your thoughts that control how you feel and the reality you create.

Other people are as wise as you. Other people are as close to God as you. Other people have their own emotional guidance and experience as much as you. Other people’s happiness depends not on you but on God and their own thoughts.

So let them all off the hook. Other people are not your responsibility. You are not accountable for them or to them.

Everything is going as well for them as it is for you. They are as much on their path as you are on yours. Things are going very well for them, and you’d see it (and so would they) if you just stop focusing on thoughts that don’t feel good.

Raising happy children

It’s actually not difficult, since children are naturally happy and find happiness easily.

All you really have to do is not actively undermine them and you’re already ahead.

I took to heart some painful lessons from my own childhood, and so with my kids I make an effort to:

Not belittle them, their efforts or their interests.

Not criticise, pick on, or draw attention to perceived faults.

Not mock, ridicule or laugh at them.

Limit the harm

We aren’t perfect. I get angry, frustrated, and can be petty or stubborn.

But I make an effort to limit the harm my bad mood might have on my kids.

I apologise to them, and explain that even if they’ve done something wrong, they aren’t to blame for my mood.

Sometimes our reactions as parents can be remarkably childish. It’s important to admit that and apologise rather than dig in and get defensive.

Focus on happiness

As part of my own efforts to be happier I’ve taught my son the “feeling game”, which is basically about finding good things to focus on rather than bad ones.

He’s taken to it with enthusiasm, and will even remind me of it when I’m frustrated or tired.

He has learned through his own experience that focusing on the wanted aspects of life is far more enjoyable than whining about the unwanted.

I don’t think we have to be perfect to be good parents. But I hope at least that my kids will grow up with a clear sense that happiness is accessible to them, and that my honest admission of my slip-ups and shortcomings on this path will aid them in their own journey.

The things I learned on my spiritual quest

I started my spiritual quest 20 years ago. That quest is pretty much at an end, so what did I learn along the way? What would I now consider worth sharing with others?

In the beginning I thought it was simply a matter of reading the right books and following their instructions. I set out to compare and contrast the different religious traditions’ essential spiritual teachings and try to glean from them the essence of a unified spiritual path.

But the most important lesson is entirely the opposite:

a spiritual path must illuminate our individual circumstances, qualities, and experiences.

While I sought the one single universal path, instead I discovered over and over again that what worked for others didn’t work for me.

It’s a lot like learning a martial art or Yoga: I thought that if I just did the training I would eventually master it. But while the training theoretically works the same for everyone, in practice we aren’t all at the same starting point.

With old injuries, underlying weaknesses, bad habits, varying degrees of talent and insight… training can actually do more harm than good for some people.

After many years of training I eventually went to see a sports physio who immediately identified some aspects of movement that were preventing me from fully benefiting from the training.

I’ve learned that the spiritual path is even more like this, to the point that good spiritual teaching assumes none of us is at the ideal starting point.

Individual differences: temperament

Temperament is the first and most significant domain of individual difference.

What works best for a melancholic will not suit a choleric and vice versa. What appeals to sanguines won’t appeal to phlegmatics.

Recently I’ve revisited the spiritual texts I read early in my search, only to discover that those formative guides were predominantly written by cholerics.

I took to heart the overly intellectual and comparatively unfeeling approach of choleric spiritual writers, equating spiritual growth with arcane musings and a disagreeable view of the world.

But a melancholic should instead listen to their feeling first and foremost. Cholerics who elevate understanding or insight over feeling probably don’t have strong feeling to begin with.

In fact, for some cholerics their personal journey is one of learning to embrace the thinking function and not rely on their inferior or tertiary feeling function. The very opposite of my journey as a melancholic-phlegmatic.

Upbringing

The second domain of individual difference is upbringing.

The combination of temperament and upbringing set the trajectory for how we live our lives. In hindsight the story I’ve lived thus far is so heavily influenced by my parents and grandparents…I live out the influences of my early life, both the positive and the negative.

For the first five years of my spiritual quest I had no idea that family relationships and an unhappy childhood played a role in my depression and anxiety let alone my spiritual path.

Now when I look at the writings of spiritual teachers, I take in not only their temperament but their early life. My own circumstances were unusual and so were theirs, but in radically different ways.

It doesn’t matter how good or genuine a spiritual teacher is, they are still an individual in their own circumstances with their own temperament and formative experiences. Their teachings speak first and foremost to their own reality.

It’s up to us as individuals to find what works, and while we may stumble upon a suitable path with ease, it helps to know our own temperament and circumstances from the beginning.

A melancholic with a domineering parent will have a very different path from a melancholic suffering abandonment and neglect, let alone any of the other temperaments under the same conditions.

Life circumstances

The third domain of difference is our station in life.

In the beginning I took for granted that spiritual teachers were naturally inspired to share their insights and wisdom with the world.

Later I went through a cynical stage of assuming anyone with a publishing contract and lecture circuit was financially motivated and not to be trusted.

But more significant than those extremes of credulity and cynicism is the simple reality of a person’s circumstances in life, most importantly my own circumstances.

Who I am, the way I live, what I do day-in and day-out, these are all peculiar to me. I have friends who live very different lives, let alone the spiritual teachers whose works I used to read.

I’m not saying we should disregard people who don’t live like we do; rather that we benefit from appreciating the differences between our worlds and our daily lives.

Esther Hicks is a 70 year old American with an international following who currently gives regular workshops in various American cities and on several cruises each year.

Anthony De Mello was an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist who gave retreats internationally.

Jiddu Krishnamurti was the one-time scion of the Theosophical Society, groomed and educated to be the next “World Teacher”. He gave public talks, published books and lived with friends in California.

St John of the Cross was a 16th Century Spanish monk who was imprisoned in a tiny cell by his fellow monks and given weekly lashings, during which time he composed his most famous poem!

The Dalai Lama was never my cup of tea, but again it’s important to recognise the profound differences in his daily life relative to the millions of people who read his books and look to him as a source of wisdom.

I’m not trying to invalidate the wisdom and experiences of these various people, but what they teach invariably cannot be separated or removed from who they are and how they live.

We can benefit from the wisdom of others, but not by imposing their teachings onto our own lives. In fact we can often understand their teachings much better if we understand the teacher’s perspective as well.

The only caveat I’d offer is that there are some people who by temperament would be perfectly content to follow a straightforward spiritual path, but might have been pushed by their upbringing to be innovative, unique, or to try to stand out. (I’m looking at you, phlegmatics!). For such people, it could be a welcome relief to just adhere to a routine they like and not worry about the details or the origins of their method.

What your own life can teach you

The Abraham Hicks material often reiterates that words don’t teach, only experience teaches. 

I can vouch for this in my own life, given the vast quantity and array of words I’ve read from many and varied teachers. It is only through my experience that I have come to learn what does and does not help me to feel better.

Indeed, it is only through my experience of feeling profoundly miserable for twenty years that I decided “feeling better” should be my goal.

While I’ve found the Abraham Hicks material to be tremendously helpful, it’s also because I was ready for it. Just like the sports physio’s advice, it’s only after the prolonged experience of struggle that I’ve decided I just want to feel better, and that would be enough for me.

So that constitutes the end of my 20 year spiritual quest, as I have come to accept and welcome feeling good in my own unique circumstances without trying to justify or reconcile myself to the myriad spiritual teachings and methods that I once turned to for answers.

When can I start enjoying life?

I was taught as a child that if I just endured, shared in the burden, and patiently helped out, then we could all relax together when the struggles and the chores were complete.

I was taught that it was selfish to be happy and feel good and enjoy life when other people are suffering and burdened, especially when they are burdened for your sake.

I accepted and internalised these themes, and I even believed they were virtuous.

Messed up virtues

The first theme sounds a bit like delayed gratification, except that delayed gratification is still all about the enjoyment that awaits in the future, whereas I was taught to focus firmly on the burdens that exist in the present.

Not so much that it’s more satisfying to relax in a nice clean house; more that you should not relax when there are things that need to be done…and aren’t there always more things that need to be done?

The second theme sounds virtuous because it almost resembles compassion – sharing in the suffering and burden of others.

But it wasn’t compassion.

It wasn’t a happy person reaching out to alleviate another’s burden, it was the other way around: a suffering person resenting the happiness and ease of others, and enraged at the seeming injustice of it.

Learning to say no

So as I child I learned that a good person puts his own suffering ahead of his own enjoyment, and also puts others’ suffering ahead of his own enjoyment.

On my own I deduced intuitively that living this out to its logical conclusion would kill me. I would be utterly depleted by anyone and everyone who came to me with a burden or need because I couldn’t justify saying “no”.

Even when I finally learned to say no, it was still an act of self-preservation in defiance of these false virtues I’d accepted as true.

I felt guilty for saying no to people, because in my mind they were right to ask me to share their burdens, and I was wrong to refuse them.

Saying no was therefore an admission of fault and a moral failing.

Nothing is more important than happiness

I thought I was being virtuous by embracing suffering, and ignoble for shielding myself from others’ demands.

I thought it was selfish to put my happiness ahead of the happiness of others, and I had vague notions of hedonism and moral corruption looming as the only alternative to an austere self-denial.

So when I now say that nothing is more important than my happiness, I do so again and again against my own fading sense of messed-up virtue.

It is not wise to put suffering and burdens ahead of enjoyment, because even work and chores and daily routines can be joyful. But the only way to make them so is to put happiness first.

It is not compassionate to try to match other people’s negative feelings of struggle and burden, or to let others drag you down to their emotional level. True compassion understands that our own clarity, peace, and joy is the best antidote to others’ suffering.

Nothing is more important than my happiness.

So to answer the question posed in the title: the only time to start enjoying life is right now, immediately. If we aren’t learning to enjoy life right now, then we are not learning to enjoy it at all.

There is no excuse or obstacle to justify putting it off, and there is no future goal or attainment to make the learning of it easier.

That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from the Abraham-Hicks material: no matter what your condition or circumstances, you can always find relief somewhere, even if it’s by going to sleep. The path of relief, the path of least resistance to relief, is the same path that leads to happiness.

It might take a while to get all the way from wherever you are in the midst of severe anxiety or depression or despair, but you can take comfort in the knowledge that feeling better bit-by-bit is the best thing, the only thing, you can do.

Childhood 2.0 is a little buggy

My latest piece on MercatorNet is a reflection on recent experiences beta-testing virtual parenthood, grappling with the influence of new technologies on our way of life and the raising of our child:

Yet we couldn’t fault him, because as a mere toddler he only wishes to emulate his parents, to enjoy what they enjoy and do what they do. His excessive devotion to the computer and the smartphone is not his problem – it’s his parents’ problem. His crying and screaming are a rebuke to the idiot parents who expect their son to do what they do and enjoy what they enjoy only when it suits them; parents who want their child to live a happy and balanced life despite their own imbalanced habits.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/childhood_2.0_is_a_little_buggy