“To experience peace does not mean that your life is always blissful. It means that you are capable of tapping into a blissful state of mind amidst the normal chaos of a hectic life.” ~Jill Bolte Taylor
I was fifteen when I first noticed that I was depressed. That was also when I became seriously interested in happiness.
How can I get my hands on it? Where does it come from? Why does it seem so natural to some people?
I wrestled with those questions for quite a while.
Fast forward to ten years later and things look a lot different for me. Happiness is now a default instead of a rare state. What a relief.
A few key lessons have made a world of difference. I’d like to share the most important one today.
Two Kinds of Happiness
One kind of happiness comes with positive experiences. It’s conditional. It comes when good things happen and leaves when bad things happen.
The other kind doesn’t depend on the occurrence of any particular event. It is sustainable and unconditional. It exists underneath both desirable and undesirable experience. It is the canvas on which other emotions are painted.
It’s also the kind with which most of us are unfamiliar. Why is that?
My theory is that most self-help, personal development, and psychology resources focus on the first kind of happiness.
They tell us how to make changes to our habits and routines that improve our lives. They talk about the role of thought and point out that if we change our thoughts we have a different experience.
There’s nothing wrong with these strategies. I feel fortunate I found them when I did; they got me out of my initial funk and gave me some breathing room.
And yet, my current experience shows me that there’s something even more satisfying on offer:
Happiness that doesn’t require work or practice. Happiness that doesn’t have to be learned or earned. Happiness that emanates from a part of us that is untouched by negative thinking, bad habits, or traumatic events. The kind that is synonymous with peace and follows us around wherever we go.
So…How Do We Get There?
The difference between conditional and unconditional happiness is how we get there.
The path to conditional happiness is self-explanatory: certain conditions must be met. It depends on completing your morning routine. On having situations break in your favor. On achieving success. On thinking positively.
Thinking positive is great, but trying to make it an ongoing habit can be incredibly taxing and neuroticism-inducing. Sometimes positive thinking is as stressful as the negative thinking you’re trying to escape! Controlling thoughts is hard.
Thankfully, in the second approach, we don’t have to.
That’s because unconditional happiness is independent of the type of thoughts you’re having. Tapping into this state involves seeing the way our minds and thoughts work together to create our experience. Positive change comes naturally with insight into this system.
Understanding The System
Here are a few basic observations about the mind:
- It constantly produces thoughts.
- Thoughts come to leave, not to stay.
- We bring thoughts to life with our consciousness. When we believe and latch onto thoughts, they look real, and we live out the experience of those thoughts.
Have you ever been walking on a trail, seen a shape that looks like a snake, and freaked out… until you realized it was a stick? It was a stick the whole time. But your experience changed drastically as your thoughts changed drastically.
The principle in this example is true all the time: We’re living in the feeling of our thinking, not the feeling of the outside world.
That alone could be (and is) the subject of a book.
But it becomes most profound when the goal is change.
When we think negative thoughts, conventional wisdom says we must change or get rid of them. It’s the strategy most of us adopt.
However, if the mind is constantly producing new thoughts, that means thoughts will change on their own. It isn’t our job to change our thoughts.
We often obstruct thoughts from naturally passing in and out of our consciousness. One of the ways we do this is by resisting them; it’s a way of holding on to them. When we allow them to, they pass through on their own, like clouds in the sky.
We don’t have to reprogram old thought patterns or adopt new beliefs.
When consciousness shifts away from the content of what we think and to the fact that we think, we stop being mesmerized by thoughts. We see that they’re arbitrary and meaningless until we believe them.
This allows healthier thought patterns to implant themselves automatically.
With little annoyances and minor distresses, it can be easier to see the transient, arbitrary nature of thought.
It’s hardest to see, however, in the really problematic areas of our lives. Pain from childhood trauma, destructive psychological patterns, unhelpful habits we learned in dysfunctional families.
Although it’s harder to see in those areas, the principle is not any less true. These areas cause the most suffering because we thrash against our painful thoughts about those experiences. We drop out of the level of consciousness where thoughts don’t have inherent meaning, and into the level where they’re real and hellish.
In these areas, the river of our lives becomes whitewater and we fight madly to escape. But even here, the truth remains: Thoughts look real and scary, and cause suffering—until they pass. It will suck for a bit, until we end up in a calmer part of the river. Which we always do.
Remember the scary snake we encountered on the trail earlier? The fear and pain disappear when you see that it’s a stick. This transformation is possible with any of the pain that we experience over and over again.
As we stop latching onto painful thoughts by seeing that they come and go on their own, our consciousness around a certain problem rises. And over time, even the worst of experiences are seen differently, in a way that sets you free. We get through the hardest of times without getting stuck in them.
Back to Happiness
How does this all fit into being happy?
Here’s how it has helped me:
When I remember the way things work—the mind produces thoughts, I experience thoughts as consciousness, which brings them to life, and thoughts float in and out on their own—I get less scared of my experience.
I used to be seriously afraid of emotions like sadness, jealousy, and my personal demon, depression. I would not only feel those emotions, but I’d feel emotions about the emotions. I was nervous about being sad. Sad about being depressed. Judgmental about being angry.
Of course, emotions look scary when we decide there are some we’re not supposed to have.
That second layer of meaning is a way of fighting against myself. What a waste of energy.
When I saw that doing so kept me trapped in pain, I naturally started to do it less. Since I see that it’s coming from thinking—and that it’s not my job to fix my thinking—I can relax. I know that in ten minutes, or tomorrow morning, I might feel different.
The more you see the transient, thought-created nature of our experience, the more a simple happiness wakes up. And since it’s not in opposition to negative experience, it can remain there underneath any emotion on the surface.
This is available to all of us, all the time. It’s just a matter of looking in a new direction, and seeing how our experience is created.
About Jock Gilchrist
Jock Gilchrist is a transformative coach living in Northern California. His mission is to illuminate the illusion of insecurity. He recently released a free guide called "5 Mind Shifts to Move from Suffering Straight to Wellbeing," which you can get here. When he's not coaching or writing, he's out running the trails training for his first 50km race.