Happiness is one of the most misunderstood words in our vocabulary yet we search for this intangible state our whole lives: if I only had this or that, if I met the right partner, have a big house, a new car, the job I’ve always wanted, then I would be happy. The ancient yoga and spiritual teachings stress that happiness is real only when we let go of seeking material and transient things and discover the lasting joy that is within.
Every time we see a giggling baby or young child we’re reminded that we are all born with a natural and innate sense of happiness, that it is our birthright. We learn about suffering or unhappiness as we grow older, more externalized, and as circumstances change.
We taught a workshop where a number of the participants had lost loved ones in the past years: one had lost her son to AIDS, another had lost her husband, son, and mother all within twelve months, another’s partner had drowned. Others were dealing with specific illnesses, or difficult issues in their lives. What really emerged for everyone was the awareness that their real happiness lies within themselves, that it’s not dependent on someone or something outside of them. They had lost what they had thought of as their source of happiness—a loved one or their health—and now had to look more deeply within themselves. It was a weekend of many ‘aha’ moments!
Here are some of the ways our workshop participants discovered how to feel happy again:
1. Not take yourself too seriously. At times of hardship, such as loss or illness, it’s easy to lose your humor, and even easier to get involved with the negative aspects of what is happening. Remembering not to take yourself too seriously brings a lightness and acceptance to the weight of circumstance around you. Don’t forget—angels can fly because they take themselves lightly!
2. Not identify with suffering, loss, or illness, as being who you are. Many of our participants realized how they’d been identifying themselves as a cancer survivor / widow / recovering addict, or whatever it may be, but had not asked who they were without that label or identity. When you don’t identify with the negative issues, then who you really are has a chance to shine.
3. It’s OK to be you, just as you are, warts and all. You may think you’re imperfect, a mess, falling apart, hopeless, or unable to cope. But true perfection is really accepting your imperfections. It is accepting yourself, complete with all the things you like as well as the things you don’t like. In this way you’re not struggling with or rejecting yourself. Each one of is unique, a one-time offer, but we can’t know this if we are facing away from ourselves.
4. Make friends with yourself. Your relationship with yourself is the only one you have that lasts for the whole of your life, and you can be the greatest friend or the worst enemy to yourself. So it’s very important not to emotionally put down or beat yourself up. Just be kind.
5. Feel everything, whatever it may be. When you are suffering, it’s easy to want to deny or repress your feelings, as they get huge and overwhelming. But if you can really honor whatever you are feeling then it’ll bring you closer to the inner happiness beneath the suffering or grief. Acknowledging and making friends with your real feelings is the greatest gift.
6. Forgive yourself. Love yourself. Treasure yourself. These are big steps, but each one liberates the heart and sets you free. You need to forgive yourself for feeling angry, for getting upset, for all things you think you’ve done wrong. They are in the past and who you are now is not who you were then. You can take any guilt or shame by the hand, invite it in for tea, and open yourself to self-forgiveness.
7. Meditate. There is an overwhelming amount of research showing how meditation changes the circuits in the part of the brain associated with contentment and happiness and stimulates the ‘feel-good’ factor. Meditating on love and kindness makes you much, much happier! And the only way to know this is to try it, so don’t hesitate.
Ed and Deb Shapiro are the co-founders of RevolutionaryMindfulness.com. They are the authors of BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You and the World, with forewords by the Dalai Lama and Prof. Robert Thurman, contributions from many known meditation teachers, winner of the 2010 Nautilus Gold Book Award; and Your Body Speaks Your Mind, winner of the Visionary Book Award. They are featured contributors on Oprah.com, HuffingtonPost.com, and Vividlife.me, where they host the acclaimed weekly LIVE radio show, Going Out Of Your Mind.
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