All of us want to be happy, yet we sometimes find ourselves feeling grumpy, hopeless, dissatisfied, or depressed. We may live in discontent or be sailing along just fine when something challenging happens, and we are triggered once again. Happiness is our birthright, our true nature, always available. So if happiness is obscured, it makes sense to wonder why, to ask: how have we turned away from what is so fundamentally true?
A paradigm shift is a revolution, a complete, radical change in how one views reality. With a paradigm shift, old assumptions and beliefs are seen to be false and no longer applicable, and a completely new, fresh way of being takes their place. Do you want to be happy? Consider the following, and prepare for the inner revolution.
Shift #1: From Being Unconscious to Being Conscious
Several years ago, my interest in freedom ignited, and I realized that in order to be completely free I needed to notice all the ways that I was bringing some form of suffering to myself. I saw the useless mental chatter that accompanied me as I washed the dishes. I discovered quite a bit of tension in certain muscles that never seemed to dissolve. And one morning upon waking, I noticed a subtle heaviness that was saying, “Oh, I need to deal with another day,” a feeling I had to slog through to get out of bed, and I realized that that feeling had been present most mornings for a very long time.
It was a lightbulb moment for me to see that my days began with the persistent whisper of a “no,” an experience that I carried around well into the morning. Strange as it may sound, I was excited to recognize this feeling, as I knew that once I saw it, it could never again have quite the same hold on me.
Much of our behavior happens automatically, outside of conscious awareness. We inhabit familiar patterns that are based on assumptions we have about the world, patterns that continue until we become aware of our behavior and question the truth of these underlying assumptions. For example, I was waking up every morning unconsciously dreading the day and assuming it was going to be difficult. Couples often repeat the same argument over and over, even though they vow not to. Someone trying to eat a healthier diet is defeated by unexamined habits of food choices and eating patterns. You might find yourself feeling angry or afraid on a regular basis without knowing why. These conditioned tendencies run deep.
There is nothing inherently wrong with not being aware. But if what we want is greater happiness in our lives, conscious awareness is the key, the first essential step toward freedom from automatic behavior patterns. We need to look at what is actually happening in our experience when we are triggered so we know what we are dealing with – the thoughts, mental stories, sensations in our bodies, emotions, and the reactions of those around us.
We can then ask, “Is this what I really want?” We recognize that bringing awareness to the experience of our lives opens up the possibility for change. When we see a familiar pattern beginning to take shape, we can choose not to perpetuate it. We become flexible and open to respond in a life-affirming way.
Seeing my morning resistance to the day sparked a momentous change. I saw that it was based on pessimistic assumptions that were not necessarily true. I started waking up looking for this feeling, smiling at it, then going about my business. Once I noticed it, it became small and powerless. Several months later, I realized that the feeling had not even appeared in a while.
When we start to become more conscious, we might not always like what we see. But what quickly becomes apparent is the opportunity to live a life that is no longer ruled by unconscious motives and habits that seem out of our control. We become totally alive to our experience as it is actually happening. No longer resisting, happiness has a welcoming space to bloom.
Shift #2: From Looking Outward to Looking Inward
For most of us, the usual way to solve problems is to try to fix something about the situation or other people. This is called the “if only” life: if only my husband would help more around the house, if only it rained less, if only my boss would acknowledge the good work I do. You get the picture. We look outside ourselves to change a situation that causes us trouble. Sometimes this works, but often we hit the wall of realizing the limited amount of control we actually have. People do what they do; situations occur unbidden.
The only real way to deflate the areas of unhappiness in our lives is the last one we think of – looking inward to examine our own reactions. Seriously consider this for a second. Say that your husband always leaves his dirty clothes in a pile on the floor and that each time you see them you feel irritated and begin a monologue in your head loaded with negative thoughts about him. You’ve tried talking to him about it, ignoring the clothes, picking them up, but nothing has changed your internal reaction. Now imagine this: if you did not react by feeling frustrated and running a litany of critical thoughts in your mind, it wouldn’t matter what he did with his clothes. He could do whatever he wanted, and you would remain clear and non-reactive.
The key is not to try to change something you have no control over, e.g., someone else’s behavior, but to examine your own reactions, to understand the nature of being triggered: what exactly is triggering you, what does the trigger consist of (thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, urges), what do you really need? This investigation, done in a kind and friendly way, brings a tremendous amount of compassion and understanding to yourself right where you need it. And as these reactions are investigated repeatedly, they tend to lose their power and melt away. Freedom begins to take hold.
Admittedly, what I am suggesting may seem difficult or feel unfamiliar. It takes courage to honestly look at ourselves, to see how we are making ourselves unhappy by our reactions. It is a move from insanity to sanity, from relying on the external world to make us happy to discovering that we can be happy no matter what happens. When our reactions subside, anything can occur, and happiness remains undisturbed.
Shift #3: From Living in the Future or the Past to Being Present
There is a lot of talk these days about being present. It seems like a good thing, a desirable state, but what does it actually mean to be present?
The truth is that it is impossible not to be present. When we think about or relive the past, we are not actually in the past, we are experiencing it in our minds – in the here and now. And when we project into the future about what may or may not happen, we are not actually in the future. When the “future” comes, we are experiencing it in the present.
In actuality, we are always in the present; it just doesn’t seem that we are because our minds are so actively involved in thinking about the past or the future. And where can happiness be found? Yes, in this present moment.
Say you are looking at a photograph of an enjoyable time during your recent vacation. You are being reminded of an event that already happened, but the holding of the photograph, the looking at it, the warm glow of happiness you feel, even the playing out of the memory in your mind are all happening in the present.
When you begin to take an honest look at your thoughts about the past and the future, you will see that most of them are based on fear or lack, not on happiness. We worry, analyze, doubt ourselves, criticize, and obsessively plan. We think about what we need that we don’t have and how a situation other than what is happening would be so much better. And we run these thoughts in our minds over and over with very little useful function. Does any of this sound familiar?
When the mind becomes quiet, even if just for a moment, a deep, pervasive sense of peace is apparent. Joy may bubble up for no reason. We feel happy and connected. The experience of being present is always available to us; it is a sense of coming home to a place we never actually left. It may be veiled by the active thinking mind, but when we refrain from feeding thoughts with our attention, we see that reality is always here, completely reliable, never disturbed.
Life is so incredibly rich. There are sounds, sensations in the body, emotions, sights, great intimacy with all things. And when we allow solutions to appear from this peaceful space rather than figuring them out in the mind, clarity emerges. Moving from the past and future of the mind to the present is the beginning of being truly alive.
Shift #4: From Criticism and Judgment to Appreciation and Gratitude
When the intention arose in me to become very aware of my inner experience, much to my chagrin, I noticed that my thoughts were often critical and filled with judgment – not just of people around me, but of myself as well. These were unpleasant stories that appeared spontaneously – before I knew it, I was harshly condemning someone in my mind.
As I delved into the experience of these thoughts, I found negativity, disconnection, and shame. I couldn’t see any good coming from this tendency, which motivated me to make a significant change. I imagine I’m not alone in the degree to which criticism and judgment were taking up my mental space.
It was a long process that took several years, but gradually the critical thoughts subsided. At the same time, I noticed that I was naturally more open and available to people and the world around me. It became a joy for me to frequently verbalize my appreciation and to openly express my love and caring for people.
Eventually, I felt moved to study forgiveness and to recognize all the ways that I was still closed down and holding a grudge. Person by person, situation by situation, I forgave myself and others, not to condone or dismiss anyone’s actions, but to free myself from being a victim of stories I clung to that perpetuated hurt and blame.
Happiness doesn’t even begin to describe my current experience. Moving from the mental activities of criticism and judgment to the heart-based expression of love in all its forms is nothing short of transformative.
So how to experience happiness? It takes an inner revolution. Make a commitment to be conscious in your life. Look inward to become aware of the patterns you play out that disturb your well-being. Live in the present; be awake to life as it is actually unfolding. Let go of the critical mind, and allow your heart to sing. Happiness is right here, right now, in this very moment.
Please feel free to comment with your reactions, insights, etc. I’d love to hear from you!
Image credit: Pink Sherbet