We all want to be happy, but this happiness is elusive. We chase after experiences, things, people, relationships, pleasure, titles, money, power and an infinite number of other things, and we never seem to get but a taste of the happiness we seek and then it's gone. Encouraged by the tiny bits of happiness we obtain, we keep running, keep seeking, faster and faster, like rats on a treadmill. Yet we never find true satisfaction. Why? Because are looking in the wrong place.
If you look for something where it doesn't exist, you won't find it, and happiness doesn't exist outside of us.
You may be thinking that you do experience happiness when you reach a goal or experience pleasure, and this is true. But this happiness only lasts a moment and, despite the appearance of coming from outside of yourself, it actually comes from inside. If you watch carefully, you'll see this is true. All happiness comes from inside of ourselves; it's the only place it can come from. Happiness is natural to our being. It comes from our essence.
According to the great Himalayan Sages, an infinite stream of joy exists within us. The reason we don't experience this happiness all the time is because the flow has been cut off. The stream is dammed, and so we don't experience the happiness. *
So rather than enjoying our innate happiness, we chase after things in the world, trying to squeeze happiness out of them, but all they can give is a little relief from the pain of our desires and fleeting pleasure.
To know the true happiness that is our birthright, we need to pull down the dam that is blocking the flow.
This is what Yoga is about, uncovering the happiness that's inside of us. Our intellectual, emotional, behavioral, and muscular habits comprise the dam that blocks the flow of joy within us. When we practice Yoga, we begin dismantling the dam.
Let's take a brief look at Yoga's view of where happiness comes from. According to the Yoga Tradition, the Ultimate Source of everything is the core of who we are. In yoga this Ultimate Source is called purusha or atman. We can call it our True Self, and it is said to have the nature of "existence, consciousness, and bliss. " Note the bliss aspect: Our True Self is composed of bliss, of absolute joy.
But we are not aware of this. Instead, we mistake our material selves, our body, breath, and mind, for our True Self, and identify with these material things. This is the foundation of the dam that blocks our experience of joy. We might call this our original error, our original sin. In yoga, it is called avidya, which means nescience or ignorance, and consists of mistaking the non-eternal for the eternal. All that blocks our experience of joy is built on top of this avidya, such as thinking we are the body, imagining we are separate from others and from the universe, questing for power over others and over the environment, and so on, all of which block our experience of our innate bliss.
The goal of Yoga is to replace the avidya with wisdom so that we can experience our True Self. The methods and philosophy of the great spiritual science of Yoga take you, step by step, to this experience.
Rather than trying to describe the vastness of Yoga in this brief article, I am going to describe a simple method that you can begin using today to begin removing the blocks to the flow of joy within you: The method is composed of three simple steps:
Mindfulness: The first step is to cultivate a habit of mindfulness, which means consciously and neutrally observing your thoughts, motivations, speech, and actions while in the flow of life. Sometimes this is called developing a "witness" consciousness, because you become a witness to the workings of your own mind and personality.
It's important to note that mindfulness does not mean distancing yourself from life. Rather, you go about your life, witnessing it as you go.
The words "observing neutrally" deserve special attention. They mean that you observe without being judgmental, that is, you do not judge yourself as good or bad for what you witness. So if you observe yourself acting in anger, you simply witness that you acted in anger, observe the effects, and don't judge yourself for acting that way. You simply observe everything and let your mind record it all like a video camera would do. Although you are non-judgmental toward yourself, you still make judgments as to whether a certain tendency in yourself is helpful or harmful. This is called discernment.
Discernment: As you develop the ability to be mindful, you'll notice that certain thoughts, emotions and behaviors lead you toward greater freedom, happiness, generosity, strength, calmness, confidence, peace and ability to serve others; that is, toward all the great virtues of which humans are capable. We can call these tendencies "self-creative. "
Other thoughts, emotions and behaviors take you in the opposite direction, toward self-deprecation, weakness, agitation, self-involvement, stinginess, harming others. Let's call these "self-destructive. "
Self-creative tendencies move us to experience our innate joy. Self-destructive actions, on the other hand, lead us toward misery. When mindful, we will be able to discern, moment by moment, whether our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and actions are self-creative or self-destructive. This discernment will enable us to take the third step of this process, and act on volition.
Volition: Human beings have the power to act volitionally, that is, we can act in a way that is different from our habits. When we discern a certain thought, emotion or action of ours to be self-creative, we can exercise our volition to strengthen that tendency. Similarly, when we discern a self-destructive tendency, we can act to attenuate that tendency.
We strengthen a tendency by focusing on it and repeating it. We weaken a tendency by focusing our attention away from it, onto something neutral or self-creative. Here is an example to help clarify this:
Let's say that I have a habit of fearfulness when around other people. If I'm mindful, I'll notice this fear and see that it causes me to avoid people. I'll may also notice that I spend all my time alone, and that I have a subtle feeling of loneliness all the time. With discernment, I may realize that this fear of people is self-destructive: It's keeping me from enjoying others, from expressing my desires to love and be loved, and is keeping me from feeling whole.
Once this discernment is made, then when the fear comes up, I can (1) witness it (which means noticing it and feeling it), and (2) exercise my volition to turn my attention away from the fear and the attendant impulses to run away, and instead put my attention on really seeing and hearing the other people.
Notice that I do not try to push the fear away. That would be suppression and wouldn't work. Instead, I accept the fear and simply turn my attention onto actions that are self-creative.
Over time and with practice, it will likely become more comfortable for me to be in social situations and I'll form a new habit that is self-creative.
In this way, we can remove the self-destructive weeds from our personality and cultivate self-creative seedlings that bloom into beautiful loving flowers. Every time we attenuate a self-destructive tendency and create a self-creative one, we remove a stone from the dam that blocks the stream of joy patiently abiding within us.
This process of mindfulness-discernment-volition can take us very far toward constant experience of our innate happiness.
* Talks, recent and old, by Swami Veda Bharati, are loosely paraphrased in parts of this article and served as inspiration for this article. In addition, the author's wishes to acknowledge the understanding he gained on the process of letting go of self-destructive thoughts from the writings of psychologist Richard D. Carson, author of the brilliant book Taming Your Gremlin.