Your happiness does not depend on how you feel

29 Comments

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Recently I’ve been feeling, on and off, kind of crappy. A lot of the time I’m fine, but then heavy, despondent feelings arrive. Mostly this is to do with chronically “scraping by” financially, and the extra stress that causes: having to calculate how little gas I can get away with putting in the car, trying to juggle spending less in the supermarket with eating a diet that will keep me healthy, and so on.

I’m not complaining: at least I have a car, and I’m not going to go hungry. I often count my blessings. And mostly I’m optimistic and that keeps me going. But in the long term it gets a bit wearing.

When this happens I try to practice what I teach, and one of the things I teach is mindful acceptance.

Some years ago my friend Padraig O’Morain contributed an article here in which he shared how he uses the mantra “My happiness does not depend on this.” So he’ll be stuck in a traffic jam, for example, and he’ll remind himself, “My happiness does not depend on this.”

And this is a brilliant phrase to use, because often we do assume that our happiness does in fact depend on not being stuck in a traffic jam. And those assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies: we fume in the traffic jam. Undo that assumption, and we have an opportunity to experience peace, balance, and calmness in the face of things not going the way we want.

The principle that Padraig illustrates here applies to feelings as well. So when I find myself experiencing despondency, I remind myself, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel.”

This might seem counter-intuitive, because we so often assume that happiness depends on feelings, and that in fact happiness is a feeling. But that assumption, it turns out, is as false as assuming that you can’t be happy in a traffic jam.

Our experience is layered. We have feelings, and we also have responses to our feelings. Often we resist painful feelings. And when we resist painful feelings, we make them stronger. Resistance is such an automatic response that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. And so we just assume that the unpleasant feelings that result from resisting primary unpleasant feelings are just part of the primary unpleasant feelings.

Acceptance is another response to our feelings. It’s one we practice much less often. Most people, I’d say, don’t really know how to accept painful feelings. And so it takes practice. we can practice by treating a feeling not as something that we are inside, but as something we’re observing. So we can observe where the feeling is. We can name it. We can observe its size and position, and how it changes. We can remind ourselves, “This is not me. This is not mine. This is not who I am.” We can even remind ourselves, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel.”

The more we accept an initial unpleasant feeling, the more our secondary unpleasant feelings dissolve. And we’re left just with that initial feeling. We can recognize that there’s nothing wrong with that unpleasant feeling. We don’t need to get rid of it. In fact wanting to get rid of it brings us back to having resistance, and so we kick of another wave of secondary suffering. When you’re trying to accept a painful feeling and you get the thought, “This isn’t working!” this is just unacknowledged resistance. Just keep going. Let the unpleasant feeling be.

And it’s perfectly possible to be happy while having an unpleasant feeling present. This happiness isn’t in the form of a pleasant feeling. Happiness can take that form, but it can also be a deeper sense of calm, peace, and wellbeing. That deeper level of happiness can coexist with an unpleasant feeling, and it arises from acceptance.

This saying, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel,” or even, more specifically, “My happiness does not depend on this feeling,” is a tool I’m finding very useful in finding peace alongside feelings of crappiness.

Just one more word: acceptance doesn’t mean not changing things in our lives. So I’m not advocating that you accept circumstances that aren’t conducive to your wellbeing. I have things I’m working on changing so that I don’t have to deal with the extra stresses I mentioned above. But in the meantime, I can keep coming back to an experience of peace.

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29 Comments. Leave new

  • Cynthia Henderson
    October 15, 2018 1:59 pm

    Thank you! Just what I needed to hear/read today.

    Reply
  • Margaret Simpson
    October 15, 2018 3:00 pm

    Thank you Bodhi. This email arrived at a particularly painful time in my life, and I know the difficulty of living on the edge of poverty. Someone with your gifts should not have to live hand to mouth. I hope your words are as helpful to you as they are to me. I am a subscriber. I send you lovingkindness.

    Reply
  • I want to find a mentor/teacher in buddahism. I live in New York. Are you available via internet?

    Reply
    • Hi, Theresa.

      Sorry for the delayed reply. I have done online mentoring, although at the moment I’m finding myself rather overcommitted and I have to be careful about what I take on. We could discuss this, though. You can contact me through the contact page on this site, or learn more about my online mentoring at bodhipaksa.com.

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

      Reply
  • I really love this mantra Bodhipaksa! That’s going to come in handy in the current difficult times. I think it can be a very helpful reminder for sensitive and emotional temperaments like mine!

    Reply
  • Thank you for this text. It helped me today as I am in a worrying mood. Best wishes, E

    Reply
  • This article is incredible for me. Thank you for this

    Reply
  • Thanks for that Bodhipaksa, it’s a helpful reflection to give space and objectivity to one current experience. But what does happiness depend on?
    Thanks, Pete

    Reply
    • I think that happiness (or, better, peace or wellbeing) are dependent on not doing things that destroy happiness, peace, and wellbeing. In other words those things are our natural state of being, but out of ignorance—and often, ironically, in the pursuit of happiness—we create suffering for ourselves. When you sit and observe your breathing in meditation, you are no longer spending as much time and energy destroying or repressing happiness, and so you feel better at the end.

      Reply
  • Very timely Bodhi. Been feeling under the weather for a while and surprised at my ability to just get on with it without getting down in the dumps. Despite feeling tired and low on energy I haven’t gotten depressed or bad tempered and I actually resolved this morning to congratulate myself on my resilience rather than beat myself up about my inability to “snap out of it”. It does seem that meditation is helping me handle the actual physical fatigue and preventing me from piling on resistance and self loathing.

    Reply
    • I’m sorry to hear you’re still under the weather, Ed. Sounds like a great idea to rejoice in your resilience. Mudita rocks!

      Reply
  • Happiness is feelings. The man is so confused. Perhaps that’s because he does not know the difference between the Buddhist religion of the Millions and the Noble Buddha Dhamma for the few. Dependent origination (Paticca Samupada) teachs that feelings are the key, unwise feeling are ignorant feelings. Feeling crappy is crappy, it is not happiness, knowing crappy feelings as they arise allows for swift removal of crappy. That the author does not know this is what leads to this artificial of pure crappy, low class non-liberating dhamma. you might want to read Bhikkhu Buddhadasa and give this student a miss.

    Reply
    • I have to disagree with you, Dhammarato. Pleasant vedanas may be sukha, but the term sukha refers to more than pleasant feelings, and there are forms of sukha in which pleasant feelings (in fact any form of feelings) do not exist. This is something we can know experientially (e.g. the calm of 4th jhana is deeply satisfying), but is also confirmed in the suttas:

      At one time Venerable Sāriputta was staying near Rājagaha, in the Bamboo Grove, the squirrels’ feeding ground. There he addressed the mendicants: “Reverends, extinguishment is bliss! Extinguishment is bliss!” When he said this, Venerable Udāyī said to him: “But Reverend Sāriputta, what’s blissful about it, since nothing is felt?” “The fact that nothing is felt is precisely what’s blissful about it…” [AN 9.34]

      Reply
      • First off, an apology is offered for the harshness seen in the original, It seems that dhamma teachers will be more effective in bringing the dhamma to the west if the teachers are friends and in harmony with each other. It is not necessary for two dhamma teachers to agree on every point so long as the expressions of the dhamma do not misrepresent the Buddha’s Dhamma. But even when a teacher for whatever reason is not correct and teaches things that lead astray, still we can be friends. No need to point out the silly things that another dhamma teacher says, we all say silly things. The Buddhism that is now called western Buddhism is in a mess, it came to the west in drips and drabs. a Koan here a tonka there, an insight here an precept or two there. Not coming as a unit, a whole thing, but only peaces, incomplete pieces, things are in a mess now. And the Dhamma teachers are making it worse, competing with each other, “my teaching is better than yours” is a common theme. It is wide spread, and it is harmful to the students. If the teachers can not get along, let alone agree on the dhamma, then there is little possibility for the dhamma to take deep wholesome roots into the western mind. The students already see these conflicts. Joseph publicly turns his back on Dan. Who fights with Culadasa. Jack fights with the monks, and on it goes, while Glen is trashing the whole show adding more confusion While there is some cooperation, it is the teachers, even the well known teachers who are harming the various traditions by pointing figures at one another. Let us be friends even when we don’t understand the teachings of the others. So I open the arms to bare the chest in apology and a big happy smile of friendship and hope that will brings a response of happy joy from you Bodhipaksa, may you be well and happy and open to new friends in the hall of dhamma teachers.

        Reply
        • I appreciate the apology, Dhammarato, and I apologize in turn for any harshness in my responses to you.

          Reply
    • Dhammarato, I have experienced pure bliss on a consciousness level, while simultaneously feeling an overwhelming sense of dread in my intellectual ego mind. This occurred for me a couple years ago, after having followed the 6 element practice outlined on this site for a period of 3 months during the daily meditation practice I adhered to at the time. I experienced a separation of consciousness from my ego during meditation on repeated occasions and had a similar separation while not meditating. I had been going through financial difficulties and felt very stressed out, not knowing how I was going to pay the rent. As I stood on my porch pondering my situation, feeling very crappy, I felt a separation from my intellectual, ego mind. Although my ego mind continued to feel crappy, I had a sense of bliss wash over my consciousness, all the while being aware of, acknowledging, and observing the crappy feelings in my ego mind. The best way I can describe it was that my intellectual, thinking mind felt crappy, while my separate consciousness was in a state of pure bliss, realizing that I was not, am not, the crappy feeling mind that I had. However, the crappy, rational feelings were still there. I did not try to force the crappy feelings away but understood that those feelings were not me, not my consciousness. This experience is hard to put into words but I felt the duality of the situation regularly for several weeks, until I became gainfully employed and eventually dropped off of my meditation practice for a prolonged period of time. I cannot point to specific Buddhist teachings to disagree with your statement, only my personal experience in feeling a separation of consciousness from my ego mind, with my consciousness being awash in pure blissful happiness while my ego mind was feeling dreadfully crappy. I witnessed, observed this to occur. Despite what any teachings or writings say, I know it is truly possible.

      Reply
      • “feeling a separation of consciousness from my ego mind, with my consciousness being awash in pure blissful happiness while my ego mind was feeling dreadfully crappy. ” This is from a few months back, it is hoped that you are more integrated now. Many students in the west practice wrongly and wind up quitting for some reason or another. May you find a way to practice anapanasati that brings integration and not duality.

        Reply
  • Wendy D Andrews
    October 16, 2018 11:54 am

    Thank you again.
    Acceptance and befriending difficulties when you are able to.

    Reply
  • I am not sure I follow?

    Reply
  • Thank you. That is so well put! You’ve taken a familiar concept and made it speak more clearly than I have ever read before. :)

    Reply
  • Hi, This is one of my favourite posts and I have been reading your posts for years. It seems I am one of those people who are always worrying and are never really happy. Even as a child I was like this, so waiting for those happy feelings would be utterly futile for me. Then last year, after years of struggle, I started practicing a form of meditation that was new to me: I would just let go of all expectations and even focus, and just become aware of awareness itself. And that was the first time I enjoyed a meditations session and could be at peace with myself and the world. I have not yet managed to get here in my everyday life though, which is quite stressful. Still, that silence and stillness comes through sometimes even of the cushion.

    All the best, Tamas

    Reply
  • I love this viewpoint. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  • Thank you. Whenever I visit, you always seem to be saying something I needed to hear. Either the Universe is nudging me in the right direction–or I just need to hear everything you have to say. :-) May you be happy. Namu amida butsu.

    Reply
  • Bodhipaksa you are my hero. I think I have every word of your mindfulness meditations for teens cd memorized, it got me through a rough junior year of high school. I watch your youtube videos probably twice a day, and I actually cannot express how much you help me lead a happier life. As soon as I get my paycheck I’m buying your book!! It’s incredible it is that you provide so many free resources when you also need money. Thank you from the bottom of my heart– I can’t tell you how much it means to me.

    Reply
    • I was just saying that I wished I had more time to record YouTube videos! Anyway, I’m glad to hear that the work I do has been helpful.

      Reply
  • I totally get and like this. As a mother of three I get so worked up and annoyed, I am simply exhausted. Yet I can be happy, because those 3 kids give me so much joy and blessings. Right now I am happy, but tired and exhausted. That’s okay, we can still have a good time. just slower and I know tomorrow can be different in any way. We forget this along the way. We tend to see “Gosh I am so exhausted, this day sucks and all of this is so annoying and how does the living room look like and why is everyone so loud and and and…” We need to remember that we always have the chance to stop and walk out of this cycle. Thank you for this!

    Reply

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