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How to Sustain Happiness

“If you let go a little, you will have a little happiness. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of happiness. And if you let go completely, you will be completely happy.”  ~Ajahn Chah

After accomplishing three lists of tasks from three different buckets—professional, personal, and entrepreneurial—I felt accomplished and content.

And then I felt bored. And then a little irritated. So, I decided to explore and check in with myself:

I practice gratitude throughout my day. I acknowledge the abundance in my life. I am surrounded by genuine love and relationships.

I have every reason to not wander away from happiness so easily, but I do. Why?

Perhaps you have experienced something similar: a moment of complete happiness, bliss, peace, and then it dissipates without notice.

I began by writing a series of questions in my journal to explore what was going on inside:

Is it because I can’t focus that I experience a deflation in my mood?  Do I become bored too easily?  Or maybe I have lack of patience that often leads to dissatisfaction?

Several pages later, I arrived at:

I can focus; but I am impatient, so I involve myself in multiple projects and events to even out the pace.  When one project or event ends, I fully dive into the next to prevent boredom. During this gap of engagement, my mood shifts.

Further, I found comfort in moving around, connecting, accomplishing, engaging, clinging.

Clinging

This last word, clinging, reached out from the journal page and grabbed my attention.

After pages of self-inquiry and hours spent peeling back layers, I realized: my mood dip, this occasional creeping feeling of dissatisfaction did not result from anything I mentioned above.

Instead—this perceived lack of focus, the boredom, the impatience—were byproducts of my constant clinging. I was clinging to accomplishment, the next stimulating thing, the next anything in the future.I suspect that many of us, at some point in our day, can find ourselves clinging:

  • We cling to old habits.
  • We cling to daily comforts.
  • We cling to pleasing others.
  • We cling to the next vacation.
  • We cling to a stubborn attitude.
  • We cling to the love in a relationship.
  • We cling to a perfection of how we should be.
  • We cling to the security of a paycheck.
  • We cling to memories of the past.
  • We cling to the someday: the someday of when we reach retirement, or when we get that awesome job, or when something uncomfortable in our life passes.

We cling.

Often our clinging is to satisfy our ego—an attachment to prove to ourselves and the world that we are good enough. To prove that we are worthy. To prove that we are somebody special.

We each want to be heard, loved, and appreciated. So we attach ourselves to the needs of those feelings and, in turn, we seek out fulfillment by clinging to external outcomes.

It’s natural. It’s innate human behavior. We can choose otherwise, though.

Each day we are faced with a multitude of decisions, both large and small, as to whether we will choose to cling or choose to let go.

Each day we have the decision to choose the constant of peace or the erratic peaks and valleys of satisfaction and dissatisfaction.

Happiness

Realizing my clinging, I began to reflect on memories of when I experienced true happiness.

I found, in each these moments, there was no attachment. I was, simply, fully engulfed in the present.

My happiest memories included:

  • When my husband and I brought home our first puppy. We took him to the park, flew a kite, and ran around for hours during a spring afternoon.
  • The time I made colorful sunhats with a group of children, during a free fair at a low-income school.
  • Exploring the rainforest for the first time, and feeling connected to the serenity of nature.
  • Jogging at sunset, replenishing my body with energy.
  • Giggling uncontrollably on the plane with girlfriends.
  • Sitting at a cafe, writing, lost in the flow of creativity.
  • Driving to yoga in the early morning, captivated by peace.
  • Sharing a playful moment with my baby sister.
  • Having a “BFF day” filled with fun, conversation and laughter.
  • Simply, sitting in our backyard with a good book and the sun beaming down.

These memories had one common theme: a complete surrender to the present.

Clinging disconnects us from being here. When our mind clings to replaying the stories of the past or worrying about the future, we wander, and wander, and wander further away from the present, further away from happiness.

Choosing Happiness instead of Clinging

Gil Fronsdal is a teacher at Insight Meditation Center who has practiced Zen in the US since 1975. I often listen to his podcasts about finding peace through letting go. I’ve extracted a few main points to share with you.

Here are 4 ways to move away from clinging:

1. Know that clinging is a choice.

We have the ability to detach ourselves from what we believe should or should not happen. Clinging rarely helps any situation. Know that attaching yourself to a result or a person or a material item is always a choice—it is not required of any situation.

2. Ask yourself: What am I clinging to, and why?

Explore why you’re so pegged to a certain outcome. Or why you cling to a job, or a relationship, or a compulsion. Unpeel the layers behind the clinging to explore what is truly going on beneath them.

Maybe you cling to the comfort of an unhealthy relationship because of some false belief that you do not deserve better. Or you cling to over-committing at the office because you don’t fully enjoy your life outside your career. Or you cling to other people’s opinion or approval because you have not tuned into what you truly want. Or you cling to old habits because you fear the unknown of change.

We can explore what we are holding onto by probing within ourselves. Inquire by asking yourself questions: What am I clinging to, and why?

3. Understand the drawbacks of clinging.

Clinging detaches us from our ability to live freely. It removes us from the flow of creativity and flexibility. When we box ourselves in with expectations of a plan, we distract ourselves from seeing a grander picture. When we cling to expectations of people, desires, and situations, we become shortsighted.

4. Begin a mindfulness practice.

The best place to begin exploring your inner world and realize what you’re clinging to is to start a mindfulness meditation practice. A daily practice will help you develop self-awareness so you can acknowledge the clinging, inquire further, and let it go.

A wonderful result of letting go is to experience each moment as being enough, just as it is. It allows us to be present for our experience here and now with such clarity and freedom that this very moment stands out as something profound and significant.” ~Gil Fronsdal

Parting Words

As I evolve into a deeper mindfulness practice, I become more aware that I cannot sustain happiness by clinging to externals.

Happiness is an ongoing practice. I’m learning to spend more time here, while reminding myself that happiness is a choice: I can choose to cling less to the past. I can choose to wander less to the future. I can choose to marvel more in the present.

What are your happiest moments? Do they also involve a complete surrender to the moment?

Photo by Camdiluv

About Cat Li Stevenson

Cat is an explorer of the human journey and a lover of well-being. She is living and practicing at an urban Zen Center in San Francisco, and working for Wisdom 2.0, an organization that strives to bring wisdom and awareness into the digital age. You can add her as a friend on FB or find her writing on Medium.

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  • Excellent article. “Clinging disconnects us from being here. When our mind clings to
    replaying the stories of the past or worrying about the future, we
    wander, and wander, and wander further away from the present, further
    away from happiness.” << Well said. Wandering away from the present is the one thing that takes us away from happiness.

    We always cling on to some memory of the past or some anticipation of the future. The object of clinging can never be real, for if it's real why cling to it? We'd just be be enjoying it. Clinging is always to some memory, some impression in the mind, to something that doesn't exist. When I remind myself this way that the object of clinging doesn't exist outside of the mind and that the present moment is the only reality, there is complete surrender to the present and there is peace.

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  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for this article. I saw so much of myself and am beginning to understand why I feel discontent, even though things in my life are on track and going well.

    It is true that I am impatient. I am happiest when I’m highly engaged and when I am not I often feel this impatient, waiting for the next inspiration.

  • Hi Cat, I find myself clinging to a failed relationship these days, and the quality of my life has suffered accordingly. As you say, “happiness is a choice”, and being the clown that I all too often am, I have chosen to suffer. Life is full of mistakes, and opportunities to learn. To steal a few words from Gil Fronsdal, “if each moment is enough, it is something profound and significant”. We take so much from life by not recognizing that each moment is indeed enough. It’s time to let go of the past, and choose to be happy. Thank you for reminding me.

  • The most important and elusive step is looking at that which we desire and hold as an attachment. We probably don’t like admitting it and certainly don’t want to let it or or we would.

    The important and hard part is looking at and acknowledging the attachment and desire. You can’t let it go until you see it and its effects.

  • A1schendel

    I read this and exhaled..thank you <3

  • Tinarose29

    How ironic, but wonderful. today I feel so complete and happy its unexplainable. I wondered why I felt so happy and realised that I have ‘let go’ of all the non sense and negativity in my life and I am loving being me and where I am. Tomorrow is another day and I am sure I will be just as happy, cos I will find that inner voice that tells me that everything is OK and it is as it should be. Awespme article, Im printing this one for my file xx

  • Yesterday, I found myself clinging: to a few worries, to an agenda, to a bit of pain. Driving to a friend’s soccer match, I noticed the blue late afternoon sky welling up with the most beautiful thunderheads — all around me. Just then, a beautiful piece of music came on the station I’d been listening to, and the music put me in touch with that beauty, completely releasing the cling of all those little preoccupations. They dropped off of me and left me in a spell of pure wonder and gratitude.

  • Libby72

    Thank you for the reminder. Beautiful!

  • Some of my favourite moments have been sat on a beach, watching the go down. No amount of clinging can stop it from dipping below the horizon and that I think, is what makes it so special.

  • …and the missing word of course is, ‘sun’ 🙂

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  • Ghwinthrop

    What if clinging is actually enjoying the potential of a mutually satisfying relationship?

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  • Thank you for sharing your gratitude!

  • Srini~ Very well said. There’s so much truth & goodness packed into your last few sentences that it makes me smile :). 

    Yes, reality only exists now. 
    This moment is all that we truly have. 
    When we can embody this, our lives flow with much more ease and inner peace.
    ~Cat

  • Hi Cary~  With your consciousness of knowing that life can be messy and we always have the opportunity to grow, I imagine things will only become brighter for you. 

    Gil Fronsdal’s talks are enlightening and have personally navigated me through some of life’s challenges.

    Perhaps you’ll find some guidance and perspective on one of his many talks: http://www.audiodharma.org/teacher/1/

    Best to you,~Cat

  • Tinarose29~ That’s so wonderful to hear! It sounds like you’re on a sustaining happiness path with an inner voice that is happy, wise and present 🙂
    Warmly,~Cat

  • BigZen~ I love that memory. I’m familiar with the same beach side sunset feeling: time slows down and you can’t help but feel fascinated by the power of nature. 

    Thank you for sharing with us 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing your gratitude, Libby72!

  • Anonymous

    beautiful. the mental and emotional freedom that comes from un-clinging is worth every second of discomfort that the un-clinging process (temporarily) causes.

  • Chystabairre~ Pehaps you’re a fellow choleric too :)?

    I do believe that we can have accomplishment as a part of our purpose. The art of seeking inspriation, or engagement through acheivement, is not attaching ourselves to it. And to be mindful that the striving we do serves our inner, true happiness.

    Best to you,

    ~Cat

  • Hi Braden~ Yes, it’s true we must have awareness first before we can inquire.

    Often times, life experiences facilitate a transformation or self-discovery towards this awareness.

    I feel strongly that a consistent mindfulness practice — meditation, yoga — can be helpful in self-awareness of what we attach ourselves to.
    ~Cat 

  • Jeffrey~ Simply beautiful. It’s interesting how the mind can allow the “little things” to seem so overwhelming when we allow  fear to creep in. How wonderful that the presence of music and nature could bring you back to the serenity of the moment.

    Grateful 🙂

    ~Cat

  • faith

    In reading this, I was struck by the concept of boredom.  So many people consider boredom to be a negative thing.  I love boredom!  It’s an opportunity to just sit, and Be, and not run around and Do.  I wish I could have more boredom in my life these days.  However, I’m married to one who considers boredom an extreme negative, who feels the need to always be Doing, and who feels that, if I’m just sitting and Being, I’m wasting time better spent Doing.  So my moments of boredom are few and far between…

  • Hi Lisastef~ Yes, so very true. To inverse what you said: clinging can be a long-winded road to dissatisfaction, yet many people unconsciously still choose it. Letting go usually isn’t the easiest path to choose, but often it can be the most liberating.Hope all is wonderful with you :)!~Cat   

  • Faith — I love the way you put this: “I love boredom!” It’s hard getting around the negative implications of the word, isn’t it?
    The way this most often manifests for me is through time. I figure that if every moment of my day is scheduled, or if I rush to find a task to fill every idle stretch, there’s no room for something wonderfully spontaneous to happen.
    I hope your husband will come around and see the wisdom of your way!

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  •  Faith — Regarding this idea of deliberate “boredom,” I just came across this quote: “One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach — waiting for a gift from the sea.” -Anne Morrow Lindbergh

  • Sasalool

    Hi Cat

    When I read your article I felt really happy to know that someone else is having the same feelings that I have. Whenever I have an achievement or finish a task, I feel happy temporarily only until boredom kicks in. I feel guilty for that, I feel ungrateful for being unsatisfied for what I have.

    I think it’s our need to be perfect, our everlasting battle with ourselves.To test our ability to achieve over and over and over again. To prove to ourselves that we are still capable of doing things, and this makes us jump from one achievement to another without enjoying them.

    I feel that I am running in a never ending race to meet my and other people’s expectations… and even if I do meet them, I feel happy for just a while and then unsatisfied again.

    Is it our need to please? Is it our need for approval? Is it our need to have sense of purpose? Is it our need to satisfy our thirsty ego? 
    I am just exhausted with all of this,,, I need some peace of mind

    thank you for reminding me to let go and live the moment, to be in the moment , 
    to enjoy it, to enjoy it, to enjoy it 

  • Hi Sasalool~ I ask all those questions too. I find self-inquiry is a powerful tool in discovering the answers of why we’re bored or striving or experiencing recurring dissatisfaction. 

    In my personal experience, boredom is a symptom — an addiction to ‘doing’ or a dissatisfaction with the present or some dis-ease with ourselves that’s buried deeper. Or, like you mentioned above, an ego-trip of proving we’re good enough. 

    Tiny Buddha is such a lovely community for reminders of the inner peace we can be experience moment to moment without all the clinging and unnecessary thinking.
    Here’s to enjoying,~Cat

  • Love this article. 🙂

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  • BUDDY

    How do you do cat,

    Happiness is not a destinanation that one reaches after accumilating material possetions, or achieving a sucsessfull career but rather a sense of being in the now and appreciating the moment and those close to you, acknowledging and learning from the past but then leaving it there, repecting the future with plans but taking your life and appreciating it day by day, hour by hour..  Embrace the unknown and run to it, what ever the moment may be!!

    Your article was great!, and well timed for me cat as you sure put things into perspective..
    much enjoyed reading,I will have to add you to face book now.lol.

    Hope you have a great one! take it easy.over and out, mark(buddy) HAPPY DAYS!!!  

  • Loved this post Cat!

    I’d like to add one more item to the “clingy” list: 🙂

    “We cling to to our blackberry, facebook, twitter, [insert social network or technology tool here].”

    Technology and social networking are fantastic tools, and extremely, beneficial in our personal and professional lives. But we sometimes forget that these tools are there for OUR benefit. For OUR convenience. 🙂

    So we don’t need to pickup the blackberry every time the red light blinks.
    We don’t need to check Facebook ever 5min to see who’s commented on our photos.
    We don’t need to check Twitter to see how many retweets or replies or new followers we have.

    Like you said, it’s a choice.

    Also love this bit here too:

    “I found, in each these moments, there was no attachment. I was, simply, fully engulfed in the present.”

    Couldn’t agree more with you. The most memorable and happy moments of my life are when I surrender to the present fully. There’s no “thinking” or “preparing” for “what ifs?”. It’s simply a matter of enjoying the moment! 🙂

    The same applies for success too. I’ve seen – from my experience and others – that  often your most successful moments are when you’re fully engaged in the present moment.

    For example, if we look at professional athletes. Some of the greatest players, and greatest moments, are when they’re “in the ZONE”. That zone is being fully engaged in the moment and just trusting your instincts! 

    Cheers!
    Parin

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  • Shellygirl

    This was so inspirational. It made me realise that it’s all within me to change and more so to realise that the present is what ultimately becomes the past and the future. I struggle with thoughts about sustained happiness because I know for sure I am clinging. Thank u for this. Thank u for ur insight. Life makes so much more sense when things are in perspective.