How to unlearn conditional happiness

I recently told a friend struggling with feeling appreciated that:

No one can appreciate you more than you appreciate yourself.

But I think there’s probably a better way to explain it, albeit a less pithy one.

What I was trying to say to my friend was that it doesn’t matter how hard he tries to get others to appreciate him. His sense of appreciation is limited by how much he appreciates himself.

If you are unwilling to appreciate yourself, respect yourself, love yourself, value yourself, then no amount of seeking those affirmations from others will succeed.

I know this is a bit of a cliche, but it’s no platitude.

We have the capacity at any time to regard ourselves more positively, but instead we defer this positive self-regard, setting conditions for ourselves to attain it.

Most theories suggest that we have a natural approval for ourselves as children, but are conditioned to lose it as we grow up.

As we attach to our parents or carers, we learn how to relate to ourselves from how they relate to us.

A self-absorbed, unavailable parent who can’t put aside their own frustrations to show love and comfort to their child teaches the child to apply the same conditions within themselves.

“I can’t show you love and affection because you spilled your milk, or because you won’t listen to me, or because I have more important things on my mind”

So the child learns that love and affection are conditional…they are only forthcoming when the conditions are just right.

The parent has the capacity to let go of their concerns and give the child the love and affection he or she needs. But they choose not to, albeit under the influence of their own weighty internal conditions.

Likewise, we ourselves have the capacity to let go of our concerns and conditions and give ourselves the love, affection, respect, appreciation, and other qualities we desire.

Have you ever looked at a happy, well-adjusted person and wondered “How dare they?” How do they let themselves off so easily? How do they treat themselves so well when they haven’t done anything to merit it…at least not by our harsh standards.

Or perhaps you assume they must have done something to earn it. They must be special or different, or perhaps you are the one who is different in some deficient way?

But the truth is that the capacity is there in all of us, to love ourselves, treat ourselves well, with respect and kindness and…whatever is required to feel happiness and joy in our lives.

That’s what we most desire from others. But it’s a paradox: the only way to get what we want from others is to accept it first in ourselves.

Otherwise we will sabotage our own efforts – either by trying too hard and too desperately, or by picking the wrong people, or the wrong timing, or going about things in completely the wrong way.

You may not walk around thinking it consciously, but implicit in your desire for others’ love and approval is the recognition that then you will be able to feel good in yourself.

And that’s what creates the paradox. You refuse to feel good now because you believe you’re not good enough or deserving enough. You haven’t met the conditions you internalised while growing up.

Then you meet someone and you think “if this person loves me, or appreciates me, or approves of me, that will mean I’m good enough now!”

So the other person becomes the condition of your own self-approval. It doesn’t really work though, because self-approval is intrinsically unconditional. External factors are irrelevant.

When your parents or carers mistreated you, their excuses were irrelevant too. It’s because they were irrelevant that they cannot be resolved, and if you’re lucky, you will have observed these never-ending patterns of behaviour in people’s lives.

You can start to witness that people who find excuses for mistreating you go on to find more and more excuses. People who love to complain have a knack for finding things to complain about. People who live in misery carefully avoid things that might draw them out into happiness.

And if you can see it in others you can probably see it in yourself too, the artful way you flirt with calamity or keep yourself in a state of anxiety. It’s immersive and it feels “real”, but every now and then you can see the genuine multiplicity of options that surround you, the unfathomable range of directions your life could go, and how suspicious it is that you nonetheless keep it firmly on a single track.

That doesn’t mean you’re doing it “wrong”, it just means you can change when you’re ready, when you want to.

The best part of that change is to realise you can give yourself, enjoy for yourself, the wonderful positive feelings that you thought had to wait until conditions were met.


On the virtues of cherry-picking

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Matthew’s extensive comment in response to my Yoga post raised some interesting points and deserves an equally considered reply:

The irony of all this talk of cherry-picking is that the actual picking of cherries is surely a tedious and taxing task that requires the virtues of fortitude (so as to keep going) and temperance (so as to not eat all the cherries straight away).

But I take your point, though I ought to clarify that I never expect anyone to actually take up what I’m advising, whether it be making their own beer or realising that atman is Brahman.

At the same time, I would be remiss in suggesting that I am more virtuous than my contemporaries. So at minimum, I am writing for the pleasure of recognising that some things have a deeper meaning and a greater significance, yoga being one of them.

As the immortal sage Bruce Lee also wrote/quoted/paraphrased: when the wise man points at the moon, the fool sees only the finger.

Now, people can cherry-pick, but we take for granted some element of wisdom in their cherry-picking: that at least they are picking what they want, or at best they are picking something of value to them.

Yet stretching is not easy, it is painful and difficult. Why do people pick it? Have they been told to pick it? Have they been impressed by advocates of stretching who have promised great benefits? Have they tried it and found it deeply satisfying or beneficial?

I suspect the first point is that it (Yoga) looks exotic. In addition it is praised as beneficial. Subsequent experience shows that it is difficult, yet rewarding (either physically rewarding or rewarding in the “hey look at me I’m doing Yoga!” sense).

But in addition, I think we’re all told by multiple sources from an early age that flexibility is important and valuable. It’s a deeply ingrained message that we should aim to be able to touch our toes at any point in life, and Yoga seems to epitomise that goal; like running marathons epitomises fitness and endurance.

I think that the value you are calling ‘cherry-picking’ has likewise been extolled by multiple sources from youth. We idealise it as freedom and autonomy, and respect the person who ‘takes control’ and improves himself through his own choices and actions; who lives a rich and enjoyable life; a person who – importantly – is not bound by anything unpleasant or odious or unwanted.

The virtues extolled by traditional Yoga appear to conflict with this ideal. Few want to cherry-pick “stop picking cherries”, without some promise or other condition of reward. Look at Bikram: he’s incredibly wealthy, powerful, and famous thanks to his physical mastery of Yoga asanas. If he committed himself as fervently to the abstentions and observances, he would not be able to enjoy his wealth, power and fame. But for some reason, people do not look at his physical mastery as an imposition. They don’t look at the opportunity cost of all those hours of stretching and training. They don’t think fearfully of how much laziness and sloth and leisure time he has had to sacrifice. How much enjoyment he has lost and pain he has endured.

So if I may reverse the equation: we are all fools looking at the moon, and we don’t realise we only see it because it has been pointed out to us.

Every religious and spiritual discipline that I have come across contains the same essential points of abstention and observance, discipline and virtue. And in the past, or in the limited circles of religious adherents, exemplars of these disciplines are praised and the benefits of these disciplines are known and understood.

Zhuangzi wrote: Where lusts and desires are deep, the springs of the Heavenly are shallow.

But what the hell are the springs of the Heavenly, and why should I care? My lusts and desires are the backbone of my identity, and the thought of purposefully diminishing them is about as appealing as abandoning friends and family to go live in a tin shed in some godforsaken desert.

Yet the Patanjali Yoga sutra refers to them as “afflictions”:

2.1 Austerity, the study of sacred texts, and the dedication of action to God constitute the discipline of Mystic Union.

2.2 This discipline is practised for the purpose of acquiring fixity of mind on the Lord, free from all impurities and agitations, or on One’s Own Reality, and for attenuating the afflictions.

2.3 The five afflictions are ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and the desire to cling to life.

2.4 Ignorance is the breeding place for all the others whether they are dormant or attenuated, partially overcome or fully operative.

2.5 Ignorance is taking the non-eternal for the eternal, the impure for the pure, evil for good and non-self as self.

2.6 Egoism is the identification of the power that knows with the instruments of knowing.

2.7 Attachment is that magnetic pattern which clusters in pleasure and pulls one towards such experience.

2.8 Aversion is the magnetic pattern which clusters in misery and pushes one from such experience.

2.9 Flowing by its own energy, established even in the wise and in the foolish, is the unending desire for life.

2.10 These patterns when subtle may be removed by developing their contraries.

2.11 Their active afflictions are to be destroyed by meditation.

Clearly Patanjali didn’t understand that the purpose of meditation is actually to heal your body, make you rich, give you peace of mind, and stop you complaining about your employment conditions.

Securing our attachments, defending against our aversions, consolidating our ignorance, and celebrating our egoism: this is the ‘Yoga’ of modern life; – stretching optional.