What is the single thing you want more than anything else?
Your first answer might be a big house or a nice car, but it won’t take much reflection to look a little deeper: maybe it’s less stress at work; more time with your family; being appreciated more by your boss. If you think a little longer you will likely come to the conclusion that at their root, these all come from your desire to be happy.
Each of us has different language and structure around it, but what we value above all else is our own happiness. We often think of happiness as a state of mind, but true happiness comes from the heart. The superficial answers to the question – the big house and the nice car – are ways our mind tries to engineer a path to happiness, but try as it might, this is a path the mind can’t create. If we allow our mind to rule our lives and our behaviors, happiness will elude us.
If, instead, you smile at your mind, put it aside, and allow yourself to respond from your heart, life will be calmer, more peaceful, and a lot happier.
You can train yourself to respond from the heart rather than the mind and to move into a happier way of being, a way of being that does not set you up to be taken advantage of or to sacrifice your comfort and health.
Modern society trains us to confuse happiness with pleasure and gratification. The short term, material pleasures of a wish fulfilled, a possession to cherish, an expensive meal or a massage to enjoy, can never deliver happiness. Happiness is not the rush you feel when you install your new big screen TV and sit back to watch, or when your team wins a game. It is not what you feel when you slake your thirst or sate your hunger. It is something altogether more gentle and more peaceful.
Happiness is altogether more grounded. It is the feeling you have when you are holding your infant child. It’s taking a break after a morning digging the garden and sitting in the midst of your work, dirty and sweaty, to have a glass of water and a PBJ sandwich. It’s visiting a retirement home or an orphanage and reading to the residents, feeding them a meal, being a loving and caring presence.
Happiness isn’t about what we have and what we want. It comes from a sense of being, from a sense of belonging, from feeling deeply connected.
The Mind Creates Separation
The mind is a wonderful thing that can accomplish miracles. The human mind develops cures for diseases; it designs devices and technologies that improve our quality of life. Human minds developed the technology I used to write and propagate this blog post and that you are using to read it. Your own mind is reading, understanding and interpreting what I have written. The mind is a wonderful thing.
But the mind has a dark side.
The wonderful work done by the mind arises from its ability to analyze and categorize. The creativity of the mind comes from combining and recombining, from synthesizing. But this “bringing together” comes from the root ability to see differences and distinctions, from regarding “this” as separate from “that”. The tendency of the mind to separate is a force that draws us away from happiness.
Mind Creates the Abyss
The mind is the place where our stories arise.
Stories can be wonderful: myth and metaphor are a repository of wisdom, and stories of hope can be a beacon for us in dark times. We use stories to create and reinforce identity, and the stories of your youth and your culture of upbringing are likely a source of deep personal truths.
But the other side of these stories of identity is that they cause separation. This can be at the level of a family or a village, or even at a national level – for example the US story of a form of government we hold up and revere above all others can – and often does – separate us from those nations. We have spun a story out of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that differs radically from the stories other spin from the same concepts, and in doing so have created a chasm, an abyss.
On a more personal level the stories you tell yourself can cause deep pain and suffering.
At a trivial level, when a driver cuts you off on the highway, your natural instinct may be to get mad. You subconsciously and instantaneously craft a story in which you are a victim and the other driver is selfish, rude or just plain stupid; he or she places themselves above others and acts without regard; this person disrespects you. Though you don’t know the driver and will probably never see them again, in an instant an entire personality explodes in your mind out of this single action.
We hurt ourselves and our loved ones deeply by the stories that our minds spin up. When your partner comes home from work in a bad mood and doesn’t notice the meal you’ve cooked or the floral centerpiece you’ve prepared, doesn’t respond to your warm welcoming hug, you feel rejected and hurt…just as you do when you come home after a really bad day at work and your partner doesn’t seem to notice, when all you want to do is be alone and they insist on talking and touching and engaging in some complicated and ornate evening ritual.
The mind naturally sees your own hurt and not that of others. It automatically tells stories that protect and justify you and to do so blames everyone else. It spin up webs of intricacies that embellish and complicate the situation until eventually the whole thing is so entangled it’s impossible to unravel it and get to the truth. To protect you, the mind creates an abyss.
Responding With The Heart
But you could just as easily tell yourself different stories.
Let’s return to the person who cut you off on the highway. One possible story is that this person is in a rush to visit a sick or dying relative, that their partner is in hospital or that they had really awful news earlier in the day and are not themselves.
But you don’t have to go there; there is a simpler story. This person is frustrated by their inability to travel at the speed they like, frustrated by the constant stops and starts in the traffic. They have succumbed to the trap of the automobile and slid towards feeling isolation and power. They have become numb to the feelings of the other drivers around them. The driver who cut you off is not on their best behavior and did something really rude, something for which, if they were to pause and think about it sensitively, they would feel remorse. And if you look at the driver this way, from the heart, you would see that they are much like you.
The Heart Crosses The Abyss
As for the difficulty you had with your partner: each mind creates its own version of what happened, and left to its own devices, each mind will spin up a private world. And as famously memorialized in the movie, “Rashomon”, these stories can be completely different. Responding from the heart creates a completely different dynamic.
Responding from the heart doesn’t mean self-sacrificing or submitting to another’s desires; actually it is quite the opposite, for this would simply be spinning up a different story, one based perhaps on lack of self-esteem or childhood conditioning, but either way one that would cause its own problems of separation. No, responding from the heart is creating room for yourself and for the other to listen and create a place of connection. And this, in turn, requires living in a place where your automatic first reaction is to open up and see the other person in their fullness.
Imagine a conversation like this when your partner comes home and ignores your efforts:
“Honey, you seem a little distracted. Is everything okay?”
“Actually it’s not.”
“I had a really bad day. I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
“Well I’m sorry that you’re feeling miserable. Let me know if I can do anything. I love you. I cooked up something special for us tonight and wanted to spend time together, but we can do that later.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I see you put out flowers too: that’s really sweet. Thank you. I love you too. And I’m so glad you’re part of my life.”
Or one like this when you come home after a tough day:
“The place looks lovely, honey, and dinner smells great. I can see you’ve gone to a lot of trouble, and it means a huge amount. Thank you. But I’ve had a really bad day at the office and I’d be awful company right now. I’m sorry; do you think I could go and chill? Maybe we can spend a little time together later?”
“Of course. Do you want to talk about it?”
“Thank you, but not now. Maybe later?”
Putting It Into Practice
Responding from the heart doesn’t require checking your common sense at the door or forsaking your worldly goods. It requires cultivating a level of awareness that will cut off our mind when it spirals into story-telling and judgment. It requires being able to put intellection aside and see the other person as a human being who is a mother or father, son or daughter, a lover; as someone who has hopes and desires, one who suffers and often responds out of a place of pain and ignorance. Responding from the heart requires you being able to slow things down and be willing to see that the behavior of others has more to do with their internal world than with you.
We all have the innate ability to respond from the heart, but like so many things, it’s something we need to practice if we are to be any good at it. And like all practices, when we begin we’re not very good at it. But that’s okay! If you apply a generous heart to yourself and make room for you to be clumsy, to fail, to be hurt, you’ll be fine.
At times this practice will be difficult, but surely it’s worth it, for the reward is nothing other than your own happiness. Responding from the heart is the only way to truly connect, to cross the abyss that can so easily be created by our minds.