Happiness Day 23

What will you focus on?

I just watched a woman cross two lanes of busy traffic, holding her hand out to stop or slow the cars as she hurried to catch the bus.

The cars let her through, the bus waited, she caught the bus.

It was pretty audacious, but also admirable.

The person I was with couldn’t see it in that light. He was annoyed at her on behalf of the drivers and insisted she was wrong to do it because it was against the law and dangerous too.

She went too far!

I’m not saying she was right or wrong, that’s not the point. The point is that I’m my reality she would have missed the bus.

I would never have been so audacious as to cross through traffic like she did. But at least I can respect and admire her own focus and determination to catch that bus!

What impressed me further is the difference in our perspectives. The person I was with felt bad watching her because he could only see the unwanted aspects of the situation.

I felt surprise, admiration, and excitement at seeing someone so focused on their goal that they transformed obstacles into stepping-stones.

After all, I’ve seen busses drive off as people hurry to catch them. They won’t necessarily wait.

But watching this woman so audaciously cross the road, I feel the driver must have waited for her out of sheer admiration for her effort!

Physical illness Wellness

These principles apply to everything.

I’ve had an upset stomach these past couple of days, but it wasn’t until this morning as I drove my son to school that I found a better way to focus.

My stomach feels unwell…but my head feels really clear! I can only focus on one part of my body at a time. Which part will o focus on? Clarity or discomfort?

Remember that whatever we focus on will be magnified and strengthened.

Choosing to notice how clear-headed I feel, I appreciate the clarity and feel good about it. My clarity grows and expands. And as I appreciate it, anything contrary to it is just tuned out.

Weight loss and happiness

It’s been over a year since I published The Weight-Loss Paradox: an enlightened approach to body weight and diet.

I reread the book recently and what struck me was how intense it is. It’s like a concentrated dose of all the principles and ideas that helped me lose weight and change how I was eating.

Reading it again helped me get back in that mindset, and to appreciate what an intense period of reflection it was.

Ultimately any major behavioural change requires a lot of focus and energy. What made this approach work for me?

Above all it’s about clarity – clarity of purpose and clarity of method. It’s much easier to commit to a path when you know for certain that this path is the right one.

Looking back on it, I can’t say that it’s the definitive approach and I doubt that any approach to diet and weight loss will work if you can’t find it within yourself to focus and change.

It doesn’t matter how straight the path if you refuse to walk it.

In hindsight what I would most like to explore in greater depth is the relationship between our motivation to change, and the need to find sources of happiness other than eating.

I touched on it in the book, but my own motivation was already well established by that stage. For people who are reading, rather than writing, the book – is it really enough to just look for alternative sources of pleasure and enjoyment?

I think next time around I would make this question more central, because I don’t think it’s a coincidence that eating too much goes hand-in-hand with insufficient sources of happiness and enjoyment.

Many of us think we would be happy if we lost weight, but it’s likely the other way around: we would lose weight if we were happy.

And to achieve happiness we need something more than just a change to our eating habits.

What if we made happiness central to our lives, trusting that issues like body weight and lifestyle choices would gradually shift?

After all, over-eating and being overweight are not the happiest experiences in life. As I get deeper into positive-thinking it seems obvious that we overeat partly because we don’t know how to treat ourselves better.

Saving our best advice for others

A friend is worried about 4th year med, stressing out about the changing circumstances and expectations, afraid of failing.

I offered lots of advice, but none of it seemed truly satisfactory.

In the end, I asked what she would tell me, if I were in her situation.

We both knew the answer: stop whining. Just do what you need to do. Do your best, try your hardest, if you pass you pass, if you fail you fail.

It’s a comfort because there’s no ambiguity. Either you have what it takes to pass, or you don’t. Passing is either dependent on your efforts or it isn’t.

But what intrigued me is how clear the answer is when we’re looking at other people’s circumstances. Call it ‘the clarity of not caring’ if you like.

Not that we don’t care about others, but we don’t care in a way that obscures the obvious course of action.

When it comes to our own lives, we’re blinded by worries and possibilities. We lose the clarity that lets us be frank with others.

It reminds me of a passage from Zhuangzi:

When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets –
He is out of his mind.

His skill has not changed, But the prize
Divides him. He cares,
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting –
And the need to win
Drains him of power.

It’s not easy, but when we’re struggling with a problem we can sometimes benefit by imagining someone else in that situation and what we would then advise them.

I once read a book by a psychologist that suggested we have greater insight into ourselves when we look at our objective behaviour rather than using introspection.

These methods aren’t foolproof, nor are they necessarily always the right approach. After all, our advice to others isn’t exactly omniscient, is it?

But it can at least help us gain clarity, temporary respite from fears and desires that otherwise cloud our assessment of the situation.

Who practices?

I started reading books about mysticism and religion when I was a teenager. They appealed to me because they seemed to offer the ultimate self-control, insight into the true nature of reality, and freedom from suffering and pain.

It wasn’t until very recently that I found a book on mysticism which explained the path in sufficient depth and detail to make a difference. But at the same time, those intervening years were full of the kinds of life-events that made me ready to hear the same teachings with greater clarity.

I had finally realised that what I viewed as self-control was actually an undesirable state of inner tension, that wanting to be free from suffering was driving me to reject reality, and that seeking to understand everything was just a subtle way of seeking control.

So I found these deeper teachings and practiced them. The core of it was a practice of recognising all one’s reality – both internal and external – as consisting to the best of our knowledge in the form of mental impressions.

Taking a Cartesian angle: is there anything that is not – to the best of our knowledge – a mental impression?

This doesn’t mean that there is no external reality, or that things are only mental impressions. The point of the exercise is simply to recognise that mental impressions are the total of our experience.

This teaching runs very deep. Subject-object dualism, cause and effect, imagination and sensation, the persistence and identity of objects over time, all of these are experienced as mental impressions.

The only thing that is not experienced as a mental impression is our consciousness of mental impressions. Consciousness is like the eye that can see everything but itself. Yet we know it exists because we see by it.

This radical teaching and mode of practice reduces our experience to the simple dichotomy of forms and consciousness – where consciousness is experienced as empty of forms.

But since the forms themselves lack substance and permanence, this distinction is ultimately insubstantial. Hence the Heart Sutra:

O Sariputra, Form does not differ from Emptiness
And Emptiness does not differ from Form.
Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.
The same is true for Feelings,
Perceptions, Volitions and Consciousness.

Now take a moment to consider the nature of these teachings. They arose from the experience of some individuals, were written down, transmitted, and communicated broadly.

People hear the teaching, but it only takes root in them if they are ready for it. In those who aren’t ready, it is misinterpreted, dismissed, forgotten, or ignored. In other words, it is like the parable of the sower who sows the seed that lands on different kinds of soil and is eaten by birds, strangled by weeds, or on good soil grows up strong.

Some of us wish we are ready when we really aren’t. The difference between wanting to be ready and actually being ready is like night and day, especially when the teachings themselves pertain to the illusion of a self who is in control – a self who may even be full of the desire to be ready.

If we put aside the illusion of self-control we can see that reality is shaped by profoundly complex causes and effects. From this point of view, being unready is simply the outcome of various causes; readiness too is just the further development of additional causes.

You can’t make fruit ripen faster on the tree, it’s ready when it’s ready.

At some point we can therefore ask ourselves “who practices?” or “who is practising this teaching?” The answer that comes to us is as if the teaching is practising itself.

These moments of clarity do not last for me. I’m told they one day become permanent, but only when we are ready. Only when there is no more sense that clarity might vanish and be lost.

I need more practice.