Buddhist philosophy states that we cause our own suffering, and it’s true. We have all sorts of assumptions, expectations and beliefs in place of how things are supposed to be, and when reality doesn’t live up to that, we decide that we are unhappy. That’s the basics of being happy, folks. It’s really that simple. Just stop forming opinions about things and you’ll be instantly blissful. So now that you know the secret, you can get out there and start being happy!
But it’s just not that simple, is it?
Now please don’t be silly and presume that this girl is 100 percent happy, 100 percent of the time. And don’t be even sillier and assume that I was always a mostly happy person. I’ve always had my demons, and over the years I have learned how to deal with them. Once in a while they get the best of me, and you can hear me screaming at them occasionally to take a hike and leave me be. I talk about the simple philosophy of not having expectations or opinions as a seeker, not a master.
I lose faith occasionally, and I make a lot of mistakes. Sure, I could joke and say that I never make the same mistake twice, but that’s the thing… I’m absolutely sure I have. My father always pointed out that my head was made out of a very hard material, and many can attest to that still. But that’s how life teaches us.
We learn the same lesson again and again, and once we finally get it down, we move on to the next lesson. At least if we are lucky, we do. If you aren’t learning, then you probably aren’t doing much of anything, much less reading this column. You’re probably six feet under.
Here’s an interesting way to see how close you are to being happy – consider not having an opinion about something. When I was in my 20s I was very idealistic. I had a lot of assumptions, expectations and opinions, but I never really thought about how that affected my happiness.
Then one day I read the Buddhist philosophy about what causes suffering, and it all made sense. But that was just the beginning. Knowing the secret to being happy doesn’t just make it happen. The universe wouldn’t make things quite that easy. What fun would that be?
Realizing this, and having always loved a challenge, I set about one day trying not to have an opinion. About anything. It’s a lot harder than you might think. You kind of have to “float” through your day and not grab on to any thought very tightly.
Every thought we have can be an opinion, if we let it. A judgement. A comment on the state of affairs. A statement of how things should be. But it’s not a good thing to “should” on ourselves. Our brains constantly sort all that comes along into the “Is it right?” or “Is it wrong?” slots. Can something just “be?” Can we be OK with that not labelling it as anything?
Just sitting in a waiting room seems simple enough, but try it. You will find yourself comparing everything and everyone in the room to everything and everyone else. Your brain will automatically sort things into categories, even if you aren’t really even trying.
Our brains actually want to do this. It’s a survival remnant from when we were cavemen. We assess everything in order to determine whether or not it is a threat. And while that may have worked very well for us as cavemen, it doesn’t always serve us as modern day homo sapiens.
We kind of have to out-think it, or rather, not think it. We have to stop what’s become a knee-jerk reaction, and that’s not an easy thing to do. Our brains have been doing it so well for so long that they are on autopilot. It takes awareness just to notice this process, and then it takes a fair amount of determination to rein it in once it gets rolling.
It’s tough – others tell us how things should be all the time, and all around us the media is constantly battering us with lies about what we need to be happy – radio, television, movies, magazines. It’s impossible to escape from.
You have to remove yourself from the cacophony and see it as an outsider might. In fact, you might have to imagine you’re from another planet in order to accomplish this feat, because the pressure is mighty, and relentless.
Any new habit is difficult in the beginning, no matter what we try to change. Things get easier with each attempt. Knowing this, it makes the bumpy start and early failures a little easier to take. I remember trying not to have an opinion for five minutes. It was very amusing.
Then I tried again for twenty. An hour… which eventually grew into longer spans of time, but there were constant setbacks. It would depend quite a bit on my energy level, the time of day, or week, who I was dealing with – family, friends, or strangers. But there would definitely be setbacks.
I still have to remind myself when I am extremely frustrated with a situation that it’s because I had other plans, and this reality is not really compatible with those plans. But it is reality, after all, and I can’t deny that. All I can really do is decide whether or not it’s worth being upset about, because after all, what can I do? It’s my reality at the moment.
It’s a daunting venture, and you end up learning much more about yourself than you might really want to know. The truth can be brutal, but it will set you free… after making you quite miserable, of course.
Be sure to keep your sense of humor at the ready, and be gentle with yourself. And always remember that once awareness is gained, you never lose it. So the reward is very well worth the effort.
Originally published March 15, 2013 in the Portage County Gazette