Do you believe that pleasure and happiness come from things outside of yourself? If so, you are not alone. Many, perhaps most, people believe this, and so we search the world for experiences that will give us pleasure and happiness. Our whole life can be filled with this quest.
Yet our belief is mistaken, because nothing outside of us gives us pleasure nor happiness.
Let me explain.
If you think scientifically, it’s obvious.
First, let’s look at pleasure, and start with how you see something. When you see something, what happens is that the lenses in your eyes focus light on receptor cells, and those cells code the light into impulses that are sent along the nerves to the brain, and the brain constructs what is “seen”. So what you see is a construct of your brain rather than the thing itself. This is why sometimes you see “optical illusions.”
It’s the same with all of our senses. Everything we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, is a construct of our brain.
There is no direct connection between an external object and your experience of it; the brain constructs all of your experience.
Not only does the brain construct your experience, it also interprets those experiences to produce pleasure in circumstances deemed appropriate by your brain.
Have you thought of this?
Although there are pain receptors in your nervous system, cells that when stimulated send a signal to the brain that elicits an experience of pain, there are no pleasure receptors.
Pleasure is totally a product of your brain, and comes from how the brain perceives and interprets the nerve signals it receives.
This means that when we sense something beautiful and feel pleasure, the pleasure is completely a brain function and is not caused by the thing itself.
So the pleasure we feel when looking at a Rembrandt, hearing a Mozart piano concerto, or receiving a soft luscious kiss, is pleasure caused by the brain.
This is even true with sex. There are no sexual pleasure receptors. There are lots of nerve receptors in the sexual organs, which send signals to the brain when stimulated, and under conditions interpreted as favorable the brain perceives pleasure. But in other conditions, the same stimulation may be perceived as uncomfortable or painful.
So 100% of the pleasure we feel comes not from “out there”, but from “in here.” If you had sufficient control of your brain you might be able to give yourself all the pleasure you could ever want, unrelated to the external environment.
Taking it a step further, let’s look at happiness. First, it's clear that happiness is not related to nerve-receptor stimulation, and is completely an internal process.
The sort of happiness being discussed here might be called joy, an open-hearted feeling of wellbeing and pleasantness, of love and contentment that is not related to nervous excitation.
Where does this joy come from?
On one level it seems to be related to our beliefs and perceptions. If we believe something is beneficial to us, if we perceive we are doing well, then our brain perhaps allows us a sense of happiness.
The opposite is certainly true: Our thoughts and beliefs can block our experience of happiness.
According to yoga, there is something deeper about happiness.
I’ve had the good fortune to spend time with some very advanced yogis, and found them to be incredibly happy. One time, I was with my meditation teacher in a house in the Santa Cruz mountains. He was there to lead a retreat. I walked into his room and found him bouncing on a trampoline he’d found there. He was in his late sixties, smiling and gleefully bouncing like a child, and his joy was palpable; he was happy for no reason whatsoever. This seems to be true: The more advanced a yoga-meditation practitioner gets, the happier he/she is.
This leads to the key point: According to yoga philosophy, our essential nature is not body, nor mind, but being, and being is inherently joyful.
This is why some people, even in the most terrible of circumstances, feel joy, because they’re connecting with the natural joy of being.
This being, our source of happiness, is inside of us, is us. Because of this, looking outside of ourselves for happiness is like the sun looking into space for light.
Because happiness comes from inside, if we look for it outside, we don’t find it.
"That's not true", you might be thinking. "I felt happy when I hugged my daughter." Yes, true, and that happiness came from inside of you.
Our brains allow us bits and scraps of happiness here and there in certain conditions, and there is a vast ocean of joy within us that we normally do not sense in relation to experiences in the world.
The whole spiritual science of yoga is aimed at achieving an ongoing direct experience of being, and of accessing that ocean of joy.
The joy is within us, like a buried treasure, hidden under personality, beliefs, habits, and emotions. If somehow we can clear all the stuff that's covering the treasure, we can experience it.
My father was a master worrier, and didn't seem happy. But then he had a stroke that took away most of his short term memory and his tendency to worry. Now he is happy, and his face shines with joy.
His stroke removed the blockages to joy by force. We can do this ourselves gently and lovingly, over time, through practice.
Meditation is a key to open the locked door. It will show you how are blocking happiness, and you can begin letting go of the obstacles. It will also take you deep into the mind, beneath the obstacles, like one would dig for treasure, where you may begin to sense the joy of being.
Will you take that dip? If you would begin a regular meditation practice, you can begin learning how to find happiness inside.
Then when you hug your daughter, she'll feel your joy, and the joy will multiply.
When you find the inner-source of happiness, you'll still be able to enjoy the world although you'll be less caught up in it. You'll be less desperate for things to work out because you'll know where joy comes from. As this happens, your life will become softer, gentler, and happier.