A few days ago, a dear friend of mine, who is going through some “stuff”, asked me how I got myself out of unhappiness. It’s hard to remember unhappiness when you are firmly grounded in happiness. I mean, true happiness, the one that lives inside and is not subject to circumstances. I sat on her question for a bit and tried to recall the exact steps that first led me to where I am. There is a myriad of small changes that happens when switching from unhappy-world-view to happy-world-view – entire libraries worth- but these were my first steps, in order:
0. Be miserable
I think that was my true first step. As long as life was hum-drum, comfortable or pleasant, I had no impetus for change. Because I had the strange ability to pep-talk myself with positive affirmations, I had to get pretty damn unhappy before real alchemy could occur. But, I did get there. A set of events and a relationship knocked me off my comfy ways. In the throes of a self-inflicted tragedy, I realized that the only element in the situation I could change was me. I then had to admit that I had no clue how. Smarts, strength or will power cannot clear misery. I had to become vulnerable and surrender to the misery rather then fight it with gimmicks, distractions or “composure”. I let my known world crumble away. Tabula raza. Back to knowing nothing. That’s where true change started. That part was the worst, and it felt endless, even though it really only lasted a few months.
1. Spy the monkey brain
Next, I identified the source of my misery. It wasn’t any situation or person or lacking in anything. No, it was my own thoughts. We have what Buddhists call a “monkey brain”: Incessant thoughts run through our minds every waking moment of the day, and with each an associated set of emotions. My next step was to notice my monkey brain. If I could notice it from an observer perspective, then clearly “I” was an entity outside of those thoughts. For a while, I just practiced watching my thoughts and the emotional reactions they triggered. I still felt victimized, miserable, sad, angry, outraged, etc. but I also saw the direct correlation between my thoughts and my emotions. If somebody did something “to me” when I was 7 and I was still feeling anger, resentment or hurt, the source of the pain I felt as a grown woman must have been in me, because that person, event and situation were since long gone. Realizing it’s all an inside job helped me stay focused on myself rather than dissipate my energy in pointless blaming.
2. Drop the baggage, it’s not yours
The more I observed my thoughts, the more I began questioning them. “You’re difficult.”, “You don’t deserve it.”, “You can’t.”, “Your nose is too long.”, “You have to work hard to pay your bills.” Who was saying all this in my head??? What voice did those thoughts have? Where had I heard them before? As an observer, I discovered that most of my thoughts were actually not mine. They were thoughts I had borrowed from others – usually influential people like parents, teachers, partners, friends. Some were “common knowledge” in the society in which I grew up. This wasn’t about blaming others for my thoughts, but simply realizing they were not mine, and dropping them. This was a very unsettling part of the process for me. If I couldn’t trust anything in my own head, what could I trust? I was in limbo between worlds for a few months. But, whenever I wasn’t freaking out with thoughts that I couldn’t trust my thoughts, I actually began to feel lighter.
3. Catch snowballs
Once I had my monkey brain under scrutiny for a while, I was able to zoom out from the individual internal dialogues/thoughts to the overarching themes/stories of my life. There are recurring themes in our thoughts. Any thought that start with “I am …”, ” I always …”, “I never …” are keys to the story we believe and tell about ourselves. I realized the story was composed of thoughts, and the thoughts were not to be trusted, so the story was just that – a story, not reality. The tricky part – and I learned this later, not when I was in the midst of getting my world dismantled – is that life has a feedback mechanism built in that validates whatever story we believe about ourselves, thereby making it look like reality. If I say “I always have bad luck.”, whether through selective perception, the law of attraction, manifestation or the will of a higher-power(the mechanism is the same regardless of our story for it) I will have bad luck, and therefore continue saying I have bad luck, which will bring more bad luck. So the trick is to see the snowball effect and stop feeding it.
4. Write your own definition
Getting out of my old story felt very freeing. I didn’t have to be any way I thought I was anymore, which really opened up opportunities. But, although I felt happier, I also felt rudderless. After everything I knew had been dismantled, I had no idea who I was, what I was doing, or if there was any point to anything. Rather than panicking, I wrote a new definition for myself. At the time, I was nowhere near feeling like I was that person, but that is who I really wished I could be. This is what I wrote:
I am grateful to have chosen to be a free-spirited woman,
a whole, complex, beautiful free-spirited woman,
driven by passions,
grounded in self-awareness and love of the Earth,
committed to the protection of said Earth,
its systems and wild places and creatures.
That’s it. I wrote it carefully, but I wrote it only once. I didn’t have to repeat it everyday like a positive affirmation. I just planted the seed and continued observing and questioning my thoughts, like pulling weeds in a garden.
Another aspect of scripting my own story was how I related to events in my life. I realized that events are just events. They are never personal. We weave stories and attach emotions to them. I began scripting stories with positive or at least compassionate twists for events in my daily life. In painful interpersonal interactions, I tried to imagine the other party’s story. It didn’t matter if their story didn’t match mine. Their reality was as real to them as mine was to me. If somebody was mean, I’d see their pain. If events were happy, I harnessed gratitude. If they weren’t, I still harnessed gratitude for the lessons given and the opportunity to grow.
This part of the process required a lot of mental discipline, and I remember being exhausted all the time. I felt there was no way I could keep it up indefinitely. But, eventually, it became second nature. Now I find silver linings before the negative emotions kick in, or very shortly after.
5. Keep at it
At some point, I realized that there was no end to this process. When I started, I figured I was “going through something”. I figured once I reached happiness on the other side, I’d be home free. And in a way, I am: I am free to continue growing. Whenever I feel like I’ve reached that buzz of happiness and all is well in the world, I find a way to trip myself and uncover a whole new layer of the growth onion. At first I was frustrated by this – I created stories about how I had come so far and learned so much and yet still wallowed in the same old painful places. Then I started over. I watched the thoughts, I found he source, I saw the story, I changed the story.
And so forth …
I’ve been at it for four years now, and it really only gets more fascinating with time. Now, I’m almost more interested in the process itself than in using the process to get out of sad/depressed/angry feelings. I understand that happiness IS our natural state. The goal is not to acquire happiness, but to clear the mud that hides it. Then eventually, the goal is not to clear the mud, but enjoy it for the experience it is, knowing that the happiness is still there, at the core, forever.
So, that’s how I started. I had lots of help on the way. I met teachers when I needed them, read books that influenced my thoughts (for the better), met others on similar paths. I pondered and questioned until my head hurt. I started down paths that just died out. I had to simplify my life, sort out friends, learn to trust my heart, follow my joy, surrender my fears, etc. Although on the outside it might seem that I have been traveling, playing, working and writing. The adventure of awakening/growing has actually been my primary activity since the first step. Everything else has been accessory – like the stage for the play, not the play itself.
I am sure there are as many paths as there are people. I really enjoy mine, but I don’t claim it is better in any way. I can only tell my own story. If it helps others, that’s wonderful; If it doesn’t, well, I still like it.
May you find your own happiness.
XO – Roaming Bobcat.
P.S: There is a good book coming out soon on the topic. You should read it: Crazyfreebook.com 🙂