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.

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The practice of love

Devotional mysticism is very appealing because it teaches that we can go through life immersed in a genuine and profound sense of love for God, for others, for ourselves and the whole of life.

This divine love is presented as the source of meaning, a deeper reality, a holy presence in which we live – even if we are not aware of it most of the time.

The poet Kabir likened us to a fish in water who complains of nothing to drink.

As he writes in another poem:

O seeker,

Where are you vainly looking for me,

For I am neither in your pilgrimage nor in your idols,

Not in your temples, not in your mosques,

Not on the holy river banks at Kasi,

Nor in silent lonely spots in the Himalayas,

Not in penances nor the routine of prayers,

I am not in fasts, nor in rituals,

Nor in renunciation even can I be found.

Do you not see my friend,

Who seeks me so earnestly, far and wide,

That I am here, beside you,

Where are you vainly looking for me

Who am here, close at hand,

Right within you,

To be found in no more than a moment,

If you ever care to believe,

Ever care to look. 

I read so many mystics when I was younger, it all blurred together, and I took from it what I wanted to see – which was an all-or-nothing effort of will to transcend the “ordinary” world.

I thought the practice of devotion was supposed to supplant all desires with a single one, and make us immune to the daily struggles of existence.

But that’s not really how it works.

I mean, it kinda is. Like a lot of mysterious things it makes sense in hindsight, but the descriptions don’t especially help you get there.

That might be because everyone is resisting it in their own ways. So even if someone tells you straight out “this is what you need to do…” you likely won’t listen.

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”, but more likely the teachers were all around you all the time waving their hands in front of your face but you were too stubborn and too stupid to open your eyes.

Or maybe that’s just what it took to get you there.

Regardless, divine love is supposed to be transcendent, unconditional, and pure. What that means in practice is that there’s no obstacle to love, if you choose to practice it. There are no necessary preconditions, no requirements, no milestones, no knots to untie…unless you make there be.

If you sit at a piano playing low notes, there’s nothing to stop you playing high ones instead. You just have to do it. You don’t even have to understand how it works and why, though some of you will probably want to.

You just need to choose, for the sake of feeling better, to practice feeling love rather than the other feelings you’re more used to.

The whole idea that we’ll feel better once we do this or finish that, or achieve our goals…No, unconditional love means you can practice it with no preconditions; and if you don’t practice it you’ll never get there.