Practicing (un)Happiness

Working on improving my mood these past months has had some results, but in typical melancholic fashion I’ve resisted doing it systematically because I can’t ‘see’ the whole system clearly yet.

Nonetheless I’ve gotten to a point where I can slightly shift what I call my ‘baseline’ mood. My baseline mood is how I feel about life generally when I’m not focusing on any particular topic.

If I pay attention, I can imagine life being “perfect” exactly as it is right now, and how that would feel. Previously my baseline mood has been dominated by a sense that things are far from perfect, that there are many many aspects of my life that need to change before I can be happy.

But this is the kind of conditional happiness that can never be fulfilled. It’s systemic unhappiness, and I’m beginning to see that my automatic behaviour in everyday life keeps the dissatisfaction alive.

If you feel bad, you will more easily find things to focus on that perpetuate bad feelings.

If you feel good, you will more easily find things that perpetuate good feelings; but for now “feeling good” is the exception rather than the rule.

Expecting bad things to happen

Because I’ve been working on feeling that life is “perfect and getting better”, I’ve been more and more aware of the daily habits of thought and attention that contradict this feeling.

This is a good sign, because it means I’m no longer accepting these thoughts so easily. It’s as if I’ve been going along with a current, and now I’m turning in a different direction.

My baseline mood has previously been influenced by the expectation of bad things happening. Not terrible, awful, objectively bad events; more like repeated irritations, nuisances, and unthinking insults from a world that is essentially unsympathetic.

It’s the kind of feeling you might have if your home had been built and designed without any consideration for human habitation or comfort, and when you went to complain you were told “What did you expect?”

It’s the kind of feeling you might have if you went on to discover that this is just how homes are built…that it’s cheaper and easier and more convenient to build them like this, and everyone else accepts it.

They might have doors that don’t shut, windows that don’t open, uneven floors, kitchen benches too low, shower too small, and a thousand other gratuitous insults to basic use, but what did you expect? You would be a fool to expect any better.

That perspective doesn’t feel very good. The implication is that you don’t matter, that no one cares, and that your complaints are entirely invalid.

This is just the way it is, that’s all. Resisting, complaining, or wanting it to be different is a waste of energy at best and a moral failing at worst. Or so you think.

Do I need to add that this makes for a depressing experience of life?

Expecting good things to happen

Lot’s of people try positive thinking, imagining that if they repeat the right words or try to fake feeling good they’ll magically transform their life.

But if you consider my negative worldview as sketched above, you can see that it’s not just about good things or bad things occurring. It’s more about the deeper orientation of reality toward us.

If you think reality has a persistently corrosive effect on your experience then it doesn’t really matter what isolated “good things” happen to you.

“Positive thinking” is not some new power to be wielded against a callous universe; it’s more a realisation of the thoughts and feelings that make the universe seem callous – or compassionate – in the first place.

In every religious system reality itself is oriented toward the good, toward happiness, toward life. Evil, sin, suffering and death are metaphysically subordinate to good, happiness, life – and existence itself.

The idea that existence or reality itself is callous and unfeeling is not true, and the ensuing expectation that bad things will happen is likewise false.

This belief and expectation is instead  a form of resistance or delusion, and it is kept alive in our own minds with repeated efforts and re-iterations.

If we forgot to keep looking for bad things or disappointments, this belief and expectation would grow weak.

But instead we practice it more assiduously than anything in life, continually reasserting that the universe itself insists on your being unhappy.

You can try it for yourself: start looking for good things to appreciate in your life, and see how quickly your thoughts turn to problems, mistakes, fears, and failings.

Some people find it easy to practice correcting themselves at this level. For me – maybe for melancholics generally – it feels better to identify the underlying worldview and look to correcting that, before seeking to change the ensuing habits of thought.

Here my background in religious and spiritual systems helps a lot, because I already know intellectually that existence is fundamentally good. My negative belief can’t reconcile itself with my deeper knowledge…the negative can only persist because I tend not to give it my full attention.

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Taking what is offered.

Lately I’ve been reading about “acceptance” as a spiritual practice.

To accept means to take what is offered.

Acceptance as a spiritual practice is about taking life as something offered, especially the parts of life we usually reject, deny, ignore, or struggle against.

The Old Testament begins with the story of the origins of human suffering.

In this story, human beings once existed in a world that was entirely good.

Eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil opened the first humans’ eyes to good and evil, ruptured their relationship with God and brought about suffering and death.

The orthodox interpretation is simple: human life and happiness lies in union with God. Yet the first humans ate from the tree against God’s explicit command. Regardless of the precise significance of the tree itself, the act of disobedience was enough to break the relationship with God and introduce suffering and death into human experience.

Obedience comes from the Latin obedire which literally means to listen, or to hear. It is fitting in this context that humanity fell from the paradise of communion with God because they ceased to listen to God and instead sought to be “like God” in their own right, through knowledge of good and evil.

Nor does the story say that they were wrong. They did become “like God”, and their eyes were opened to good and evil.

In our own experience, knowledge of good and evil doesn’t refer to an objective, theoretical understanding, but to an immediate, practical and subjective sense of what is good and bad for us. We see the world in terms of our own personal profit and loss.

One interpretation of the death and resurrection of Christ is as the ultimate sign of how we can return to paradise – through a reversal of the fall.

The crucifixion that formed the central motif of Christianity for millennia denotes an act of faithful acceptance of suffering and death in direct opposition to the knowledge of good and evil that otherwise rules our lives.

In anticipation of his death, Christ’s words encapsulate the answer to the fall:

Going a little farther, He fell facedown and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.”

Christ’s crucifixion and death is presented as the ultimate atonement on behalf of all humanity. Atone is a contraction of “at one”, its literal meaning is the same as union or communion.

The union of God and humanity was broken by the human pursuit of knowledge of good and evil. The path to re-union is indicated by Christ’s acceptance of God’s will for him. As the quotation above demonstrates, the answer to the fall is to accept God’s will in spite of our sorrow and suffering. Knowledge of good and evil is thus not extinguished or abandoned. It is still there, just as the tree of knowledge stood in the garden both before the fall and after. But putting the will of God ahead of the knowledge of good and evil means we no longer eat the fruit of that tree.

The way of the cross is the return to paradise, as Genesis tells us:

“at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.”

The way to paradise is guarded by a flaming sword, just as the way to eternal life is found through death on a cross. The way to the tree of life looks like death. In losing our life, we save it. We can’t return to the garden without passing through the fire.

What does all of this have to do with acceptance?

Acceptance means to willingly take what is offered, and if we apply it to the sufferings and struggles in life it implies not only that we willingly take them, but that we regard them as something offered.

Eden is not a literal garden; the paradise consists in union with God. This union cannot be attained if we adhere to our own subjective sense of what is good and bad for us. Acceptance of the life we are given does not mean pretending that everything is good. It means that we align our will with something greater than our own sense of good and evil, profit and loss.

That is the choice before us. If we adhere to our sense of good and evil we will continue to pursue a self-interest dictated by fear and desire, struggling against the reality before us. If we accept reality in spite of our fears and desires, then we are accepting the life that is offered us right now by God.

Maybe your first thought is “well God can keep that reality, I don’t want it”. But that’s pretty much the point here. Acceptance is a different state from our usual play of good and evil.

If you think it would be pretty bad to accept parts of your reality, then you’re operating from the knowledge of good and evil. If you think you can try accepting this bad reality just to see if it changes into a good reality, then you’re still operating from the knowledge of good and evil.

That’s why accepting reality is so hard. It’s hard because it transcends our usual measures of good and evil. It takes us to a place we almost never visit, a place where we are no longer ruled and burdened by obsessive self-interest.

But let me tell you again that it is hard. Really, really hard.