emotions

Your happiness does not depend on how you feel

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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Extract:

Simple mindfulness practices

1. Mindful walking. If sitting meditation isn’t your thing, you can try walking meditation. This is a common practice at meditation retreats, where you’ll often alternate between a period of sitting meditation and walking meditation. You can read this article for details on how to practice walking meditation.

When you get up from your desk to go to the bathroom, talk to a colleague or get a cup of coffee, rather than mindlessly walking, trapped in your thoughts, bring your attention to the physical movement of talking. Notice your feet on the floor, the weight of your body shifting from one leg to the other. Feel your arms swing. Notice the temperature in the room. Pay attention to whatever your senses can notice.

2. Mindful eating. How often do you sit down to eat, completely distracted? Perhaps you’re checking your email, Twitter or Facebook, or just spaced out.

Try this: when eating, simply eat. No digital device, book, newspaper, etc. Try eating alone. Pay attention to what you’re eating, the sensory experiences—taste, smell and texture. Notice the color of the food. You can even spend a moment being grateful for the food you’re consuming.

3. Mindful speaking & listening. One unexpected benefit of mindfulness is that I’ve become a better listener. Rather than thinking of my response (or rebuttal), simply listening, fully and noticing my own internal dialogue has been an interesting experiment. I find that I am much better able to see the other person’s perspective and be more thoughtful in my response. I can also create more spaciousness in the conversation because I’m not rushing or waiting to add my two cents.

Listening is perhaps one of the most valuable gifts we can offer to others. Offer it generously whenever possible and bring your best intentions. Especially in bitterly heated negotiations, or contentious situations, I’ve found that bringing a mindful attitude leaves everyone feeling heard and tends to deescalate charged emotions.

4. Mindful showering and washing. During my first mindfulness class at Stanford University, our instructor, Mark Abramson, D.D.S., assigned “mindful showering” as our first homework. We often miss moments of pleasure and enjoyable sensory experience due to constant distraction and busyness of the mind.

Rather than going through your day’s to-do list, worrying about that meeting you have later in the day, feeling angry after reliving some argument you had 10 years ago or whatever may be distracting your mind, simply pause and feel the shower. Notice the warm water, all the delightful scents, and give a moment of gratitude for the privilege of clean water.

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