Audio: Practice Making Happiness
Transcript: Practice Making Happiness
So, what do we need to do? Stop avoiding our feelings! We must actually approach our feelings and be present with them. Every credible approach to psychotherapy and every major spiritual path says the same thing.
There is one main tool for making happiness; presence. Also called consciousness or mindfulness, presence involves how you relate to yourself, to others, and to the world. It means that we are noticing whatever is going on inside for us from a place that is probably best described as calm compassion. It means that we are similarly present with others’ in their experience from that same place of calm compassion. While it’s a simple principle, and wise people have been speaking about it for thousands of years, you now understand why it is so difficult for us to simply be present. We inevitably come up against distressing intrusive feelings, and far from wanting to be present with them, our compelling urge is to avoid them. Fortunately, there are lots of tools and skills we can use to overcome those difficulties, and I’ll introduce them now.
Realize that distressing feelings are intrusive
As I’ve been pointing at, the place we must begin is coming to realize that the distress we are feeling involves intrusive feelings. Much of psychotherapy aims to do this, to help you see that your fear is perhaps out of proportion to any actual danger, that you are perhaps not as bad or inadequate as you feel, or that your pain over what you have lost is perhaps blinding you to what you still have.
It would be most fruitful, though also most difficult, to recognize that virtually all of our distressing feelings are intrusive. Pretty much whenever you are feeling upset, distressed, afraid, guilty, or hurt, most of what you are feeling is intrusive. So, we are best off assuming that our distress is mainly due to intrusive feelings and that the situation is not as serious as it feels. It’s like presuming innocence until our guilt is convincingly proven. Many wise teachers have tried to encourage their students to get this. And what an amazing relief, to recognize that all of this distress, all of this tension, is unnecessary, that now you can utterly relax, settle, soften, open. When they speak about your distress being an illusion, of heaven being here now, of waking up from a dream, they have been encouraging you to realize that your distress is a phantom. There is nothing I would wish for you more than to know this bliss.
As good as this sounds, as I said earlier we’ll usually fight tooth and nail to defend the validity of our feelings, that we are right to be suffering as we are, that I should be feeling scared over what might happen to me, that I have every right to feel deeply hurt over what he did. So, we usually have to take more of a piecemeal, step-by-step approach. We can, for example, take a logical, rational approach, such as reflecting on whether someone else in this situation would likely feel the same way. Or we can try to look objectively at the facts, such as surveying all of the horrible things you’ve done to see if your conclusion that you are a failure is actually justified by your perceived transgressions. There are many different approaches that can be useful. We can start with one aspect of our distress, and one by one come to realize that they don’t actually hold up. The more light we shine on these distressing feelings, the more clearly we come to see them for the intrusive phantoms that they are.
Practice being present with our feelings
The next skill we need to cultivate is being present with our feelings. This may seem like a simple suggestion, until you realize that much of your effort has been aimed at actively avoiding your feelings. To actually be present requires turning the whole ship around 180 degrees, and now listening to the very things we were trying to ignore. We must actively focus on what we are feeling in our bodies from a place of calm, compassionate curiosity. Get to know this feeling so that it becomes something warranting your attention rather than avoidance. Even once we have become fairly convinced that a feeling is merely intrusive, we still need to cultivate our capacity for presence with the feeling. We must not be dismissive towards our feelings, or tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be feeling it. We may realize that we are safe, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to listen to our fear. In my own listening I have felt abject terror, have felt condemned as utterly bad, and felt pain so intense it obliterated everything else. But I felt each of these with a calmness or equanimity, because I knew the feelings were intrusive.
In meeting your demons, these intrusive phantoms, you will learn that:
-Being present with our fear is helped by developing our courage.
-Being present with our shame is helped by developing self-compassion.
-Being present with our pain requires that we don’t fight it, that we allow ourselves to grieve.
To the extent that we are able to be calmly present with our feelings, we actually come to experience them positively, as being sweet. Imagine, pain feeling sweet, shame feeling warm, anxiety feeling exciting.
Replace self-torment with a realistic, compassionate perspective
Hand in hand with realizing that our feelings are intrusive, is learning to stop tormenting ourselves. We will need to pay attention in order to discover the habitual ways that we fan the flames of our intrusive feelings, telling ourselves things that are not true, and to stop. Stopping is made easier if we actively replace this mistreatment with a wise, realistic, compassionate attitude towards ourselves. I can tenderly acknowledge that I am indeed feeling scared, that this is uncomfortable, and to remember that I am in fact safe.
To put all of this together, we tend to react to intrusive feelings by mistreating ourselves, by tormenting ourselves in ways that fan the flames and leave us feeling even more distressed. Making happiness requires that instead we respond to intrusive feelings with compassionate presence. This compassionate presence won’t make the intrusive feelings stop, but we will feel dramatically less distressed that we do when we fan the flames. Beyond that, if we keep responding to intrusive feelings with this wise, compassionate presence, the intrusive feelings will indeed become less and less intense over time.
Consider, for example, if I’m feeling guilty for having forgotten about a meeting with a friend. Wise compassionate presence might involve me saying to myself, “Oh man! I screwed up, and I’m feeling sooo guilty, like I’m a major loser. This sucks. Let’s get real here though. It was a minor screw-up, John wasn’t too bent out of shape about it, and I’m usually reliable. I’m not bad for making a mistake. I am going to apologize to him again though, and put all meetings into my calendar.” If I consistently respond to my intrusive shame and guilt this way, over time it will become less and less intense.
Identify and refrain from patterns of avoidance
Also through a process of paying attention, we need to notice the myriad things that we do to avoid intrusive feelings, things that do not really not serve us. From addictions to avoiding situations we feel anxious in, from seeking status to avoiding vulnerability in relationships. If we want happiness we must stop indulging in these patterns of avoidance that offer minor relief at the cost of greater suffering. The point is simply to choose to do the things that actually make us happier overall. The choice is entirely ours, and the temptation to avoid will be seductive. It is obviously much easier to stop these patterns of avoidance if we are able to be present with the intrusive feelings we will face. The intrusive feelings will inevitably intensify when we stop the avoidance behaviors, and if we can’t be present with them then we’ll be quite compelled to return to our ways of avoiding them.
Perhaps the most common way that we avoid intrusive feelings is by conforming to what we imagine others would value, and by playing it safe. But you can’t be happy if you are living someone else’s life. We therefore must express who we are, what we like and don’t like, what we want and don’t want, what we believe, and how we feel. This will feel frighteningly vulnerable for most of us. We must also move towards following our real desires, what we most deeply value, the path of our heart. It will feel very frightening to let go of illusions of security to embark on this path. I must caution that this is not a call to reckless impulsiveness, or to in any way be insensitive to the feelings and desires of others. It is simply an invitation to be true to yourself.