Hilma af Klint, Evolution, Group VI, no. 12 (1908)
Most of us think we want to be happy, or at least free from suffering. But do we really? As Eckhart Tolle writes in The Power of Now, there is a ‘peculiar pleasure’ derived from being unhappy. Negative emotion can feel good. For example, anger produces a surge of energy that gives us the courage to take action. And then there is the quiet, pleasurable sadness we feel at the end of a sad movie or when parting from someone – the sense of things passing, known in Japanese as mono no aware (the poignancy of impermanence).
In Taking the Leap, Pema Chödrön writes that there is a limit to how happy we will allow ourselves to be. Even while we are having a good time, at some point we usually begin to wonder how long the feeling will last, or how it could be better. Like the woman in ‘Flesh and the Mirror’, a semi-autobiographical story by Angela Carter. Wandering the backstreets of Tokyo, she is aware of being cut off from what she is experiencing:
Living never lived up to the expectations I had of it – the Bovary syndrome. I was always imagining other things that could have been happening, instead, and so I always felt cheated, always dissatisfied. … I eyed the most marvelous adventures with the bored eye of the agent with the cigar watching another audition. I tapped out the ash and asked of events: ‘What else can you do?’
As Albert Buhr writes in his book on overcoming anxiety, Angel of Fear:
We are primed to ask the present moment questions like ‘Could this experience be better? Where’s the advantage? Am I winning or losing?’ We are constantly comparing our given reality with a better fantasy. Our experience of life becomes imbued with a sense of lack; a constant, low-level dissatisfaction.
The human brain is not designed for happiness, and for over two million years this has not been its natural state. Yet an increasing number of people believe we are entering a new phase in our evolution, coming closer to the answer that religions, philosophy and science have been seeking. As more of us progress through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs towards self-actualisation, becoming increasingly mindful and aware, we are beginning to see that we can choose not to be ruled by the reptilian brain which since prehistoric times has fought to protect us from dangers that are often imagined and self-created. In fact, science has shown that mindfulness activates the most recently developed part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, thus reducing limbic reactivity.
We don’t have to accept that life is an endless cycle of suffering, and we are waking up to the possibility that we can overcome feelings of anxiety and unworthiness. As psychologist Gay Hendricks writes in The Big Leap: ‘We need to overcome thousands of years of programming that adversity is a constant requirement of existence.’
The evolution Hendricks is talking about doesn’t require spending years in solitary retreat or experiencing enlightenment. First, it is just about becoming aware of the voice in your head. When you understand that this voice is not you, it begins to lose its hold. When you really pay attention to it, the negativity and constant denigration can be disturbing. An endless riff on the theme of why you are not good enough. But with practice, this voice can be retrained. You can recalibrate your brain, and forge new thought tracks, as many have done, such as Tibetan Buddhist teacher and writer Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.
As a young boy Mingyur Rinpoche suffered from panic attacks and debilitating anxiety, which he was able to overcome through meditation. As a consequence, he was curious to learn from a scientific point of view what had happened in his brain during this change – the physical reasons behind the changes that can occur with years of meditation. He spent over a decade studying and talking to scientists, biologists and psychologists in the west about the science of the brain. In his book The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness he writes that ‘there is nearly universal consensus in the scientific community that the brain is structured in a way that actually does make it possible to effect real changes in everyday experience.’ This is neuroplasticity, the capacity to replace old neuronal connections with new ones, known in Tibetan as le-su-rung-wa, or pliability.
On a strictly cellular level, repeated experience can change the way the brain works. This is the why behind the how of the Buddhist teachings that deals with eliminating mental habits conducive to unhappiness.
He talks about the sense of futility he felt during childhood, which he says he has observed again and again in his work with people around the world:
Without even consciously thinking about it, the idea that we can’t alter our minds blocks our every attempt to try.
Connections, Amanpreet Badhwar, acrylic (2014). Badhwar is a neuroscientist studying Alzheimer’s disease and the effect of therapeutics on memory and learning-associated neuroanatomical plasticity. She is also an artist who uses painting as a way to communicate ideas from her scientific work to the public. Connections was one of the winners in the Neuro Bureau’s 2014 Brain Art Competition.
Though baseline happiness may not be something that can be measured statistically, many, like Mingyur Rinpoche, believe that it can be raised. This has been confirmed for me from my own experiences over the past year. Through mindfulness practices such as meditation, an improved daily routine (for example getting more sleep and reducing time spent on social media), exercise and dietary changes and, most significantly, a daily writing practice, I have noticed a definite change. My energy levels have increased, my thoughts are less negative, I get more things done, and I’ve let go of some self-destructive habits.
Yet as my thoughts and state gradually change, there is an anxiety that sometimes arises at times when I am feeling particularly content. Sometimes it is a conscious thought like ‘How long is this feeling going to last?’ Or ‘what goes up must come down’. At first the coming down from this newfound sense of well-being was very uncomfortable. I would do what I could to reassure myself, reminding myself not to grasp onto or attach to any feeling, whether good or bad, because nothing lasts. I’d repeat mantras like ‘this too shall pass’ or the line from Rilke’s poem, ‘no feeling is final’.
Cy Twombley, Untitled, bronze painted with white oil-based paint (1987). Written onto a card at the base of the work are these lines from Rilke’s Duino Elegies: ‘And we who have always thought of happiness, climbing, would feel the emotion that almost startles when happiness falls’.
Then, as I was reading The Big Leap, I realised that this self-sabotaging doubt is a natural reaction to change. Hendricks explains that as a result of our childhood experiences and genetics, we all have an ‘inner thermostat’ set at a particular temperature that prevents us from going beyond a certain degree of happiness. He calls this our ‘Upper Limit Problem’, which is created by limiting beliefs and thoughts such as ‘I don’t deserve to feel this way.’ So when a belief like this clashes with a new positive feeling we’re enjoying, one of them has to win. Unconsciously, we try to bring ourselves back to a state we’re more familiar with.
As Hendricks writes:
Some part of me was afraid of enjoying positive energy for any extended period of time. When I reached my upper limit of how much positive feeling I could handle, I created a series of unpleasant thoughts to deflate me. The thoughts I manufactured were guaranteed to make me return to a state I was more familiar with, not feeling so good.
This was a key insight for me, the idea that we sometimes create unpleasant thoughts so that we can return to our normal state. What I like about Hendricks’s take is that the worrying thought may be concealing something positive. During or after an anxious thought, he advises:
Notice and wonder: what positive new thing is trying to come into being? Usually you get a body feeling (not a thought or idea) of where the positive new thing is trying to come through. Notice the worry thoughts and just drop them mid-thought like a tennis ball. Look beyond worry thoughts and you will find a new direction that is being laid out for you.
I started to look at what I had been thinking about before an anxious feeling or bad mood, and was surprised to find that in many instances what Hendricks suggests was true – before a dip in mood or an anxious thought, I saw that I had been feeling optimistic, having a positive thought, but then my old voice would come in saying things like, It’s all very well to feel this way now, but what’s going to happen when you have to face some kind of problem or challenge? You can’t expect to feel like this forever – it’s not realistic.
Which is true, but it is possible to get to a place where you can accept and be at peace with whatever is happening, internally and externally, pleasant or not. It’s the same thing suggested by Buddhist teachings and various other philosophies and psychologies – the idea of accepting what is, allowing the moment to be, not rejecting or resisting. The yin and yang of things.
So, once we have become aware of this problem of our upper limit and have begun to evolve the ability to let ourselves feel good and have things go well, how can we start to extend these periods of contentment? Hendricks suggests asking ourselves these questions:
Am I willing to increase the amount of time every day that I feel good inside? Am I willing to feel good and have my life go well all the time? How am I getting in my own way?
His answer to feeling good and having life go well most if not all of the time is to dwell in our ‘Zone of Genius’. He explains that there are two zones where most of us live – the zone of competence and the zone of excellence. In these zones, we are engaged in activities we are good at or even excel in. Yet the way to break through our upper limit is to move out of these zones and into our Zone of Genius, the place where we are doing something we truly love. The reason most of us don’t live here, he says, is because we have this idea that doing what we really love is not responsible.
The other reason is that we don’t know what it is we really love. Hendricks offers some helpful ideas for uncovering our unique abilities, which he says are often hidden within larger skills. I agree with popular author and entrepreneur Seth Godin who believes that we do not necessarily possess a single skill or passion that we should follow throughout our lives. Godin’s motto is ‘make something happen’. I think this is everyone’s ultimate purpose, to create and to express themselves, in whatever way; to share consciousness.
Some other exercises that might help to discover the things that light you up are to recall what you really enjoyed doing as a child, the thing you could do for hours without getting bored or noticing the time. Or you could ask yourself this question, as James Altucher suggests on his popular podcast: If you were stuck with someone in an elevator for four hours, what could you happily talk about the whole time? Or if you were in a bookshop and had to read an entire section, which section would you choose?
Whatever it is, we can choose to live a life doing what we love. As writer and champion of creativity Elizabeth Gilbert says in her podcast Magic Lessons:
You can live a long life, making and doing really cool things the entire time. You might make a living with your pursuits and you might not, but you can recognize that this is not really the point.
Doing what we love is freedom. D.H. Lawrence writes:
Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes. And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving.
This may all sound impossibly idealistic. But it is not about being delusional and denying our less positive thoughts. Rather we can recognise our thoughts and feelings as real but not true. We don’t have to believe our minds
Hendricks says we should keep in mind that our old programming won’t instantly disappear as we begin to overcome decades of conditioning. We should expect resistance and keep recommitting as we progress to spending more and more time in our zone of genius.
Hilma af Klint, The Dove, Group IX/UW, No. 33, oil on canvas (1915)
I believe we can all do this. Like poet Jack Gilbert, whom Elizabeth Gilbert describes as having ‘seemed to live in a state of uninterrupted marvel, encouraging his students to do the same’:
We must risk delight. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world.
[Note: This is a repost of a piece I wrote a few months back, before making this blog public.]