Guide: Do you want to come and inspect this wall that needs painting?
Meditator: Actually, no. I would prefer to keep shoveling this dirt. Painting walls is not my forte!
Guide (laughing): Well, God forbid you should do something you’re not good at.
Meditator drops the shovel and follows the Guide.
This exchange occurred during a recent working meditation period. The Guide was issuing an invitation to participate; like most conditioned humans, the meditator’s response arose from preference. Of course, there is nothing wrong with doing what I want (what lights me up, what gives me pleasure, what feels good) or avoiding what I don’t want (it’s uncomfortable, I’m not good at it, it’s not who I am, I can’t afford it), it’s just not a recipe for happiness. But then, happiness may not be what “I” wants.
This is the first insight on being happy: getting clear about what we’re seeking. If attaining “what I want” is what our lives are about, we are on a trajectory to being unhappy most of the time. Whether the content is inconsequential (the store doesn’t carry the brand of cereal I want) or personally meaningful (my partner doesn’t understand me) or fundamental (I don’t want to live in a country that regulates my personal freedom) or existential (I don’t want to get sick or get old), there is always something that is not how we want it to be. This does not mean we can’t go to therapy to repair our relationships or move to a country more in alignment with our values, but how many of us do? When “my” preference is not the way things are, most of us choose to stay in a conversation about “something wrong.” Most of us choose to be unhappy. Therein lies several insights into being happy.
- Happiness is choosing not to be unhappy.
- Unhappiness is always a conversation in conditioned mind about what’s wrong.
If we’re paying any attention at all, it’s obvious that sometimes we don’t get what we want. That’s simply how it is. If we’re willing to concede that the pursuit of what we want oscillates between fulfillment and disappointment, and there is nothing wrong with that, would we be unhappy? Unhappiness, as voiced by ego, is failure to get what we want. But through examining the process, we see that unhappiness is a conversation that there is something wrong with not getting what we want. This is a subtle distinction but a crucial one because it dispels the myth that happiness and getting what we want are related. Despite not getting what we want, we can still choose not to be unhappy, or in the parlance of practice, we can choose not to indulge a conversation about “something wrong, not enough.”
Is it not clear, therefore, that happiness is a state of being, and unhappiness is a state of doing? So long as our mind is active or doing something, thinking one thought or another, we experience only a mixture of happiness and unhappiness, and whatever happiness we do experience in the midst of that mixture is imperfect, limited and relative. We experience perfect, unlimited and absolute happiness only when our mind becomes perfectly still.
— Michael James
This clarity that unhappiness or dissatisfaction is always mental, and a result of what we are attending to, demystifies our beliefs around freedom of choice. Periodically, we all must contend with situations we would never choose. Our conditioned reaction to being constrained by circumstances is to get unhappy (indulge in a something wrong conversation). Since we’re deeply conditioned to believe that happiness is correlated to things going our way, we buy the story that if the circumstances were different, we would be happy. And if we buy that story, we may also get stuck in the miserable duality of what the good/right person thing to do would be to change the situation. For example: I find the perfect job and then the company hires someone new, whom I don’t get along with. Should I look for another job? But will I find one? But I have a mortgage and need health insurance. But I feel so criticized and undervalued by my boss. We feel trapped by the wrongness of the circumstance, that it’s not what we would choose, and we conclude that we have no freedom to pursue our preference; we’re victims of Life or fate. The only “choice” is to make the effort to be all right with how things are, which, in the tangled world of conditioned thinking, is to maintain the premise of wrongness but attempt to be ok with the wrongness of it all. That might look like resigning ourselves to living with the suboptimal, suppressing our emotions of disappointment, but simmering in the resentment of whomever or whatever we project is responsible for our situation, indulging a self-hating conversation about our ineptitude for not doing/being enough to attain our goal/desire/preference.
But staying stuck inside conditioned mind is not our only choice.
It is true that we don’t have control over how things are, but we do have the freedom to choose not to be unhappy. This does not mean moving to the other side of the right/wrong duality and trying to convince ourselves of the rightness of the circumstances (my boss is great; the job is perfect; spiritually, it’s all for me). It does mean consciously choosing to drop out of the conditioned, dualistic right/wrong orientation, thereby exercising the only freedom of choice that is available: accepting how things are and choosing not to be unhappy.
Within conditioned mind, acceptance of circumstances is code for giving up what I want. It’s identification with the victim. There is no freedom in being an ego compelled (suppression) or an ego thwarted (resentful)! But the choice not to be unhappy is not giving up the freedom to do what I want, as ego would like us to believe. Yes, ego would argue by giving examples of the many places where we are not free to act out our preferences. You can’t walk away from an obligation to a child or be irresponsible in your job or be insensitive to a puppy dog. But the fact is that we are always free to do what we want, even if we don’t act from that freedom. We don’t act from that freedom, perhaps because we’re constantly, if unconsciously, making trade-offs between consequences we are willing to face and consequences we would rather avoid. (It doesn’t really matter whether the consequence is an internal berating or an external admonition.) Our inability to choose what we prefer in a situation only means that we are not free of our conditioning; it doesn’t mean we are not free to choose what we want. Another subtle and important distinction.
In our example, we could quit the job, refinance the house, and use the boss as a spiritual workshop if that’s what we want to do. Yes, ego will argue for the weight of the karma and conditioning that makes it impossible to exercise any choice for freedom from it. Which is why spiritual freedom is freedom from the constraints of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate—freedom from who “I” am, my predispositions, and my survival mechanisms.
Like Edison and his 10,000 ways that did not work to deliver an electric light to a home, we too have to arrive, through trial and error, at this conclusion: Freedom in the conditioned world is choice over how things are; it’s the illusion of the power and agency to control circumstances to suit our preferences. Freedom in actuality comes in two flavors—freedom from being controlled by conditioning in our choice of action and, more important, freedom to choose not to be unhappy. Whatever the flavor of freedom, the practice comes down to ignoring a conversation in conditioned mind about “something wrong, not enough.”
Getting back to the meditator...
Practice, like Life, never imposes anything. It always invites. Saying yes to what is on offer, whether or not what’s on offer is “what I want,” assists us to see how we choose to remain unhappy. By saying yes to Life, we train to let Life whittle away the “I” that operates from preferences, and in that whittling “my” preference ceases to exist since “I” no longer operates. In this context, Happiness simply is, and the issues of freedom of choice and unhappiness simply cease to be existential questions.
Nothing can make you happier than you are. All search for happiness is misery and leads to more misery. The only happiness worth the name is the natural happiness of conscious being.
— Nisargadutta Maharaj