While revisiting Pema Chodron’s book on Happiness, I was reminded that the key to finding happiness is in studying how we make ourselves suffer. If we are clear how we create suffering it is much easier to generate more happiness in our lives. Everyone wants to experience more happiness, or a more constant state, in their life. We look for relationships, work and personal activities to increase our happiness. Social gatherings are often planned to increase our sense of fun and overall happiness level. However, maintaining our overall sense of happiness is challenging. Could it be that our definition or expectation of happiness may be misunderstood? In this week’s blog I thought I would explore happiness.
What is happiness and suffering? Happiness is a feeling which gives us pleasure, a sense of wellbeing and contentment. Happiness is a state of being that comes from within, it cannot be something one acquires. There may be situations, people or events that leave use with a feeling of happiness but it always comes from within. It is not an external thing like food. Happiness does not have highs and lows, like joy or excitement. Rather, it is a more constant state of being. Conversely, if you look up the word suffering in the dictionary you will find words like endure or experience discomfort/pain. Suffering is the mental formations that we create around some form of unpleasantness. It arises out of the thoughts and feelings we create around a situation.
We seek out happiness in relationships we form with friends and lovers. When we first meet someone we are excited. There is a greater sense of happiness within us which we want to maintain. We spend more time with people that make us feel good so we can continue to feel positive about ourselves and life. When relationships are no longer working for us what has changed? For the most part, it is our view of the other person that has shifted. We see them in a different way from our first encounter. The thoughts and feelings we have about the other person creates suffering within us, our unhappiness increases. Rather than projecting our suffering onto the other person, it would be more beneficial to look at what are the thoughts and feelings we have that are creating our anguish. The challenge lies in our expectations and beliefs about how our relationship should be rather than how they are. We live in the past or a future fantasy as opposed to being present with the here and now. There is a great deal of suffering we could reduce or eliminate if we could stop the continuous commentary going on in our heads. By taking ownership of our own thoughts, we see that it’s not the other person that is the problem but rather ourselves that are creating our suffering. Recently, while out with a friend I said something in a joking way. Later I created a whole story of how this may have upset my friend and how wrong I was in making the comment. I was worried about the impact it may have had upon my friend and the potential for hurt feelings. When I realized I was making it all up in my head and dropped it, my stress level subsided and my friendship seemed to be fully intact. The stories we make up in our head are often wrong and based in delusion rather than reality. Staying in the present moment with what is, lessens our stress and increases our happiness.
Our working lives can often be the place of much suffering. We seek out rewarding and fulfilling jobs that increase our happiness. We study in fields where our aptitude is strongest and come to us naturally. Yet, the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities can become quite stressful. Deadlines, mounding duties and employer expectations impact our thoughts leading to greater suffering. The stories we tell ourselves about how we are performing, how our boss views our contribution and what others think of us impact our thoughts about ourselves. Often, without justification, we critique and criticize ourselves in how we are performing. We use internal judging comments and negate ourselves. Our thoughts and feelings that we tell ourselves lead to our own suffering. We may be overly critical of a deadline we have not met or a report that has errors in it. Hearing the words and things we are saying in our minds will provide us with insight into how we are creating our suffering. More often than not our self-judgements are harsher than any others can give. I was recently facilitating a meeting with senior leaders. I had split them into teams to do some group work. As always some groups finished earlier than others. I was transposing their work into a PowerPoint presentation which was adding to the time they had to wait. In my mind I found myself creating a story about how I was holding them up and how they would be thinking negatively about the session. When I realized this and stopped my mind, my suffering subsided and in the end they felt the meeting was very productive.
Suffering comes from enduring and/or indulging our own thoughts about life. I am differentiating suffering from pain or physical discomfort. Suffering arises out of the thoughts we have about pain. In a recent reader’s digest there was a short article on the benefits of pain. Specifically, the author was writing about how people with leprosy lose their sense of pain and as a result have extensive injury to their fingers, toes and face. In this way, immediate pain is a benefit to us as humans. I considered if suffering was the same way. Immediate suffering lets us know that we have a belief, thought or perspective that is not serving us. If we have the awareness to see suffering when it arises and to simply let it go, we would suffer less and find greater happiness. Through the practice of meditation we can generate this awareness to see our suffering for what it is. Then through loving-kindness, we can gently put down the suffering thoughts that we are holding onto so tightly.
One last thought I will leave you with is in regard to unrealistic expectations. We believe life should unfold in a certain way. In today’s society, consumerism has created many false expectations regarding materialism. We need to have the latest smart phone, a newer house and car, frequent travel and save for retirement. Turning off the non-stop barrage of needs and wants can help us get in touch with ourselves. In doing so, we discover we need less and are able to look into our wants/desires. Happiness does not come from something external. It arises from the germination of loving-kindness, contentment and presence found in the immediate moment, here and now. Whenever you are experiencing suffering know that you are holding onto something that you need to let go of. My dear friend the Venerable Puntsok Chodron describes it this way – when you are experiencing suffering, simply put down the bag of shit and walk away.
May you be aware that happiness in found in every breath. Beyond that, there is nothing…
Blessings to all the teachers and sages who have come before me and shared their truth.