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Are You Happy Now?
10 Ways to Live a Happy Life
By Barbara Berger
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2006 Barbara Weitzen Berger
All rights reserved.
Accept what is
The number 1 cause of suffering and unhappiness is wanting life to be something it's not.
This basically is our main problem. We want life to be something it's not. We want the impossible.
Just think about it.
Don't you want the impossible? Like living forever in this body? Don't you want that? And don't you want to feel good all the time, and look great, and be in control too? And don't you want to be strong and healthy and never get sick or tired or be in pain? And wouldn't you like to succeed at everything you do? And have everyone love and respect you no matter what? And wouldn't you like to ... Well yes, the list is rather long when you think about it, isn't it?
But the reality is that life isn't like that. Do you know anyone who has lived forever and never died? Or someone who never got sick and never grew old? Probably not because the reality is that there is no one. The reality is that bodies come and go and that they break down, grow old and die. That's just the way it is.
And as for love and approval, the reality is people don't love and approve of us all the time no matter what we do, and we often don't succeed at what we're doing even if we try really hard. That's just the way it is.
In fact, in the life most of us are living, things just happen. Events and people just pop up, so to speak, in our experience. And that too is the way of it. Most of it is quite beyond our control. One day raining, the next day sunshine. What do we have to do with it? One day people come and the next day they go away. Always changing it seems, people and things. Always changing. There might be a lot of explanations as to why it's like this, but whatever the explanation, the reality is that life just seems to move along all by itself and things happen. The reality is that you're here now, a part of it, a part of this changing landscape. For whatever reason. In this particular body, which does all kinds of fascinating things, like take you on trips, wash dishes, make love, go to work, drive cars, and which also gets sick, breaks down, grows old, and finally dies.
It's a great mystery, but mystery or not, that is the way of it.
What a life!
So what's to worry?
Why can't we just let it move along at its own pace and enjoy the ride instead of mucking it up all the time? Which is what a lot of us do, or at least it's what I often do.
How do we muck it up? Mainly we muck it up by fighting the way of it.
In short, we muck it up by resisting what is.
We muck it up by telling ourselves stories about how things should be when the reality is that things just aren't the way we think they should be. Period. Full stop.
Resisting is stressful
So what does this have to do with happiness?
A lot. Because it's very stressful to resist what is. It's very stressful and tiring to fight reality all the time. And that's precisely what we're doing when we think that things should be different from what they are. We're resisting this moment. We're saying no to what is. We're basically saying the sun should be shining when it's raining. And you know how much that helps. What can you do about the rain? The only thing thinking it should be sunny when it's raining does is make you feel frustrated and unhappy. Better to deal with it and buy an umbrella! This is not difficult to see when it comes to the weather. But what about when it comes to all the other areas of our lives like our relationships, for example, or our bodies? What happens when something breaks down and you think it shouldn't? What happens then? You resist what is. And how does that make you feel?
Let's try a little experiment.
Just think how you would feel if you didn't resist what is, just for a few minutes. And I'm not joking when I make this suggestion. In fact it's a very interesting experiment. So let's try it and see how would it feel if we didn't resist what is, if we simply couldn't resist the way things are. If we could just for a moment allow things to be exactly the way they are, without fighting them. If you play around with this idea or mind shift, you will discover that it can be quite liberating.
So please give it a try.
You can start by putting this book down and letting yourself feel this thought, this shift in perspective, for the next couple of minutes. Just say to yourself, "For the next couple of minutes, I'm not going to fight what is. I'm just going to totally let whatever is happening, be. Whatever it is, I'm just going to accept it." If for example you have a headache or you're not feeling well, you could say to yourself, "I'm not going to fight the fact that I have a headache and am feeling lousy. I'm not going to resist my headache or what my body is doing at the moment. I'm not going to resist the discomfort I'm feeling and think that there is something wrong with me because I don't feel as good as I think I should feel. Nor am I going to tell myself a story about what this feeling of discomfort might mean. I'm not going to imagine that I'm coming down with the flu or have a brain tumor. No I'm just going to let it be and accept what's going on right now. Without having any opinion about it at all." Please give it a try right now.
When you do this for a couple of minutes, you will probably experience a huge sense of relief almost immediately. No matter how lousy you may be feeling, the moment you accept what is, you will feel everything in you relaxing and falling into place. You will feel peaceful. It's quite amazing what happens when you shift your focus.
Why? Because the way it is, is the way it is. And this is what is at this very moment. And when you accept what is, you find strangely enough, that all there is left is a feeling of peace, and then you feel happy despite your troubles!
Only a thought in your mind
So we discover that all our experiences are just thoughts in our minds. When we resist what is by telling ourselves that things shouldn't be the way they are, we make ourselves feel bad. That's really all there is to it. Events both inner and outer are just that – they are events. But it is our interpretations of these inner and outer events that make us feel good or bad, happy or sad.
Most of us are unaware that we are doing this when things happen. We don't realize that something happens and then we immediately click into our interpretations of events or our stories, which are often dire predictions based on past conditioning and beliefs about life that we've never questioned. And that's where the fight with reality begins – and all the anguish that goes with it.
Either we scare ourselves to death or we drive ourselves crazy with all our 'shoulds'. 'I should be feeling better.' 'I should have more energy.' 'I should be able to do this.' We're very good at beating ourselves up with all our 'shoulds'. But reality is what it is and the rest is all just thoughts in our minds. And our thoughts are nothing more than our interpretation of what is happening. They are not the direct experience itself, but only our interpretation. And it's our interpretation that we are living. How often are we living an experience directly, without the filter of our thoughts and opinions?
When I understood this, I suddenly saw life and everything that is going on in a new light.
I saw how much my own resistance to what is was causing me pain and anguish. I saw how my own interpretation and stories were preventing me from experiencing life directly and from seeing events for what they are. This new awareness has helped me to begin to see things more directly, without my old stories.
Nothing external ...
That was when I understood that external events and things cannot disturb us. This may be a very difficult concept to understand and accept when we first hear it, but it is true nevertheless. Nothing external can disturb us because the truth is we are only experiencing our own thoughts and stories – and almost never the reality that is before us. We think and tell ourselves stories about what events, people, and things mean and then we get to live our stories. This is our only experience.
We tell ourselves that this event means this or that and that this is something bad, dangerous, or life threatening and then we experience it. But the event is just the event – with no opinion or intrinsic value one way or the other. And this holds true for all events, including death.
If this is the first time you've met this concept, you will probably find it shocking and extremely challenging. I know because I still find it shocking and extremely challenging even though I've been contemplating this for quite a while now. It's difficult to understand and accept because it's such a radical shift in perspective from everything we've learned and were taught to believe about life. But that doesn't make it any less true.
And if it is true, the consequences are very far-reaching and, fortunately for us, very liberating.
If it is true, and my experience demonstrates for me that it is, it means for example that if you or I have a serious illness like cancer or multiple sclerosis or any other so-called 'serious' problem or handicap we can be just as happy as someone who doesn't have these so-called problems. Because it is only our interpretation of what is happening that can make us unhappy. Only the story we are telling ourselves about what our situations mean can make us unhappy. Because the truth is that at this very moment, no matter what our problem, we are still breathing, we're still here, and life still is. Our unhappiness arises the minute we compare ourselves to other people or to what we think we should be doing and feeling at this particular moment. But if we stop comparing, what's left?
If we drop our thoughts about the meaning of what's going on, what do we have? And I'm not talking about right or wrong here, but just about what is actually going on.
The first thing I always notice – when I let go of my thoughts about the meaning of what's going on – is that suddenly it gets very peaceful. The second thing I notice is there's only me here now. And that's about it. This moment with whatever is. The sun on my face for example. Or this moment, doing the dishes. This moment, gazing at the flowers in the vase next to me. Or this moment, sitting in front of my computer.
That's about it.
Plain and simple.
The truth is you and I can lead happy lives regardless of our situation. Because when we drop our interpretation of events, we find that happiness is our nature. Our natural state. It's what we are. We may have been brought up to think otherwise, to think that our happiness depends on our health, on outside circumstances, on our good looks, or on the amount of money we have in the bank, but it's just not true.
We can live happy lives regardless because happiness is our innermost nature. It has nothing to do with health, money or success. In fact, it has nothing to do with anything outside of us because we can only experience our own thoughts, which means nothing external can influence our happiness one way or the other unless we allow it to. Only our interpretations of what's going on can influence our experience. That in fact is what your life is. Your life is your interpretation of what's going on. My life (or we could say my experience) is my interpretation of what's going on. And that means we have nothing to deal with but our own thoughts – and that nothing but our own thoughts can prevent us from living a happy life right this very moment.
It's a mind-boggling discovery isn't it? That we have nothing to deal with but our own thoughts? And even though I have been saying this for years in all my books, the ramifications of this discovery just keep expanding for me as my understanding of this simple statement – we have nothing to deal with but our own thoughts – continues to grow.
Unhappiness is only a thought in your mind.
Once I got over the shock of discovering that unhappiness was just a thought in my mind, I realized that without the thought, without my interpretation of events, where was the unhappiness?
What about pain?
So I tried to take this discovery one step further. To the worst we can imagine, like pain. And I asked myself what is pain? And I realized that pain too must be a thought because without the thought of pain, where's the pain? For example, if we're in pain and we fall asleep, what happens to the pain? Think about it. If you have a headache and you fall asleep, where's the pain? Where does it go while you are sleeping and not thinking about the headache? And then you wake up and the headache is back. Or what about when you're at work and have a headache and then you get so involved in what you're doing that you forget the headache for a while, but as soon as you think about it, it's back. So the question is what happens to the pain when we don't think about it? Which again made me see that without thought, what is there? Where's the pain without the thought?
So I tried to experiment with pain too to see what happens. Instead of just going to sleep, I tried consciously changing my focus when I was in pain. And I found that the pain didn't disappear when I consciously changed my focus but that the quality of the pain did change. And I discovered something else: I found that when I think about a pain, I am mostly resisting the pain and that when I resist pain it definitely gets worse. Now what do I mean by resisting pain? By resisting pain I mean telling myself a story about the pain and what it might mean. For example, if I'm in pain and I get in a panic and think things like, "Oh this is awful. What's wrong with me? Is my condition dangerous? Will it last a long time? What if it gets worse! What will happen if it gets worse? Could it be something serious like cancer? If it's something serious I might die!" Or one of the many other scary thoughts we think when we are in pain. I found when I do this the pain definitely seems to intensify and get worse.
This discovery made me wonder how much of the suffering we associate with pain has to do with the physical pain itself and how much it has to do with the stories we are telling ourselves when we are in pain. So now when I experience pain, I try to be with myself without telling myself a story about what the pain could mean for my life and my future. I try to be with the sensation in the present moment and allow it, without going into a panic. When I am able to do this, I find the nature of the discomfort changes. The pain doesn't go away, but the intensity lessens.
If this rings a bell for you, I suggest you give it a try the next time you experience pain. See if you can just be with your discomfort in the present moment. Take your medicine and take whatever other practical steps are necessary to deal with the situation, but see if you can drop the story you are telling yourself about the consequences of the pain you are experiencing. Just forget all about it. Don't project anything into the future, but stay in the present moment. Because the truth is that you are in the present and you cannot know for sure what the pain means or what is going to happen. All you can know for sure is that you are here now and that there is discomfort. And then see what happens.
What a sage says
In my studies, I found this interesting analysis of the difference between pain and suffering in a talk by the famous Indian sage Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj,
"Pain is physical, suffering is mental. Beyond the mind there is no suffering. Pain is merely a signal that the body is in danger and requires attention ... Pain is essential for the survival of the body, but none compels you to suffer. Suffering is due entirely to clinging or resisting; it is a sign of our unwillingness to move on, to flow with life."
From the book, I Am That – Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.
Concepts don't help
Since this is a book about happiness, we're not looking at our concepts of right or wrong but simply at what makes us happy or unhappy. So it's not a question of whether or not you should be in pain, nor is it a question of whether it's fair that you are in pain. We're not talking about fair; we're talking about reality. We're talking about what is. And if you are feeling pain, well then that's your reality – whether or not it's fair. And if being in pain is your present reality, what is the best way to deal with this situation? It's definitely not by scaring yourself to death or by telling yourself it's not fair and that you don't deserve to feel this way. What good is a story like that going to do for you? How is a story like that going to improve the quality of your life when you are in pain? What is your day going to be like when you tell yourself things like this?
The truth of the matter is that if we want to be happy with the way our lives really are at this moment, we will probably have to question and go beyond some of our most cherished beliefs and concepts. Because what good are these beliefs and concepts doing if they are making us unhappy? What can we use them for?
Excerpted from Are You Happy Now? by Barbara Berger. Copyright © 2006 Barbara Weitzen Berger. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The 10 Ways 2
No. 1 Accept what is 3
The number 1 cause of suffering and unhappiness is wanting life to be something it's not.
No. 2 Want what you have 15
The number 2 cause of suffering and unhappiness is wanting what you don't have.
No. 3 Be honest with yourself 27
The number 3 cause of suffering and unhappiness is not communicating honestly with yourself.
No. 4 Investigate your stories 63
The number 4 cause of suffering and unhappiness are the scary stories you tell yourself about life and the world.
No. 5 Mind your own business 81
The number 5 cause of suffering and unhappiness is minding other people's business.
No. 6 Follow your passion and accept the consequences 91
The number 6 cause of suffering and unhappiness is not doing what you want because you think people will disapprove.
No. 7 Do the right thing and accept the consequences 105
The number 7 cause of suffering and unhappiness is not doing the right thing because you're afraid of the consequences.
No. 8 Deal with what is in front of you and forget the rest 125
The number 8 cause of suffering and unhappiness is shadowboxing with illusions instead of dealing with the reality in front of you.
No. 9 Know what is what 149
The number 9 cause of suffering and unhappiness is wanting absolute satisfaction from relative experiences.
No. 10 Learn to see beyond impermanence 155
The number 10 cause of suffering and unhappiness is believing we become nothing.
A Happy Life Worksheet 169
Epilogue: Don't Believe What You Think 183
Book List 185
About Barbara Berger 186