For as long as I can remember I have been seeking happiness. Back in high school when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up—I said “happy.” I convinced myself that the pursuit of happiness was not only our self-evident right, but that it was equal to the unalienable rights of life and liberty. (Remember the constitution?) I think I’ve read every book with the words happy and happiness in them ever written. And while I am mostly always happy, there are days when it isn’t easy. Then recently I’ve read a couple of books that have me questioning that pursuit on a much deeper level. Is it possible I’ve been seeking the wrong thing? And is it possible that what most of us want when we say we want happiness isn’t located where we’ve been looking?
Okay I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. The books I’m referring to are the untethered soul (yes, the same one I wrote about a couple of blog posts ago) and his new book living untethered. The author, Michael A Singer is a man who synthesized several teachings to calm the angst he was feeling inside. As he took them to heart and began to practice them, he adapted them in a way that is somewhat unique. Not only is his approach related to mindfulness, it is also very practical and doable for anyone anywhere. At its core, it is accepting reality exactly as it occurs without taking any of it personally and then staying completely relaxed, clear and open-hearted in every moment.
I realize that that description doesn’t sound like any big deal—and certainly not a good trade-off for the idea of happiness. But as I’ve read and contemplated his books and listened to a number of freely-available podcast interviews, I’ve been feeling a shift in my awareness. And like many of you, I’ve read dozens of books about mindfulness, meditation and a variety of spiritual teachings with all sorts of ideas about achieving enlightenment AND happiness. Yet even though much of what I’ve heard from Singer is familiar, something seems different—or maybe I’m the one who is different.
I didn’t immediately start grasping the idea while reading his books that my ongoing search for happiness might be a ladder leaning against the wrong wall. After all, according to Singer, we all want to improve our experience of life. We want to feel happiness or at least contentment. We want to feel okay about ourselves and life. I believe all of us could quickly come up with a list of things we think would help us achieve those states. But like so many other teachers, Singer believes that it isn’t those things on our list that will answer our cravings. What we really want are the feelings and thoughts we will have inside of us if or when we achieve or get those things. Unfortunately, as long as the majority of us are running around looking for things, people and/or circumstances in the world outside ourselves, we’ll never create the lasting feelings we hope to attain. A new car? A new house? A new relationship? A million dollars? Reaching those things might make us smile for a while—but it doesn’t last and there are always distractions and trade-offs. And if we are waiting until the big stuff like solving climate change or achieving world peace happen before we are happy—we will be waiting forever.
The bottom line is what we are really after are the thoughts and feelings and energy of wellbeing inside ourselves. We just don’t realize it or remember that’s where it is. Instead of learning to accept and work with those thoughts and feelings first, and remove any blockages, we run around searching for them in people, things, and experiences outside of us. Therein lies our unhappiness. Singer repeatedly states, “In essence, you are causing yourself to be unhappy, then you’re going outside demanding that the world somehow makes you happy.” In other words, if we are trying or expecting that the world and other people do what we think they should do so we can be happy (or at least okay)—we are setting ourselves up for failure.
Examples are everywhere. Ever had an experience with a child, parent, sister, neighbor when they wanted to do something you were convinced was bad for them (or you)? But they did it anyway? What was the thoughts and the feeling you had about it? Probably not good. Or what about the last school shooting? There is a tendency that if those politicians did their job right and passed laws that we think are necessary, there will never be another problem. Not necessarily. And if we are making ourselves miserable because people or circumstances won’t match our righteous beliefs, then we righteously claim unhappiness. And that may or may not be our experience for the rest of our lives.
But let me be clear. Michael Singer does NOT say that we never act when we see something that is dangerous or hurtful in the world. He just says we learn to never take it personally. Now if you’re like me, you know that taking things personally isn’t good. But until I read Singer’s solution, I never really grasped what I needed to do. What he suggests is to accept the reality of the situation (remember nothing in the past can be changed because you didn’t like it or didn’t want it to happen). And most everything happening in the world is completely out of our control (think of the weather.) He also says that most of our personal pain and suffering comes because we have a personal attachment to why it should be happening one way or not be happening the other. Again, eliminating the personal attachment doesn’t mean you don’t take action, it just means you accept and release any personal judgements, thoughts and emotions that you’ve been carrying around.
Let me give you another example. Say another child at school hits your child and calls her names. What do you do? Do you instantly remember when you were bullied in school and then you let the voices in your head begin shouting and demanding that such a thing should NEVER happen to your child or any child ever? Do those voices in your head scream and cry while your emotions careen out of control? At that point, who or what is in charge of your life in that moment? And how effective will you be if you storm down to the school or start calling people and yelling at them on the phone?
Would it be better to breathe, accept that it happened, acknowledge the painful emotions that might arise, and then let them pass through you? Could you also then monitor any thoughts you have that carry anger and retribution and witness that they are there, but not in charge? Are you able to fall back and witness the parts that feel personal and then detach so that the experience doesn’t become a blockage within you? Only then, could you sit back and decide the very best course of action to make sure that your child is okay and what can be done so that it doesn’t happen again.
Another way of looking at the Michael Singer’s approach is that he is getting down to the root cause of unhappiness in ourselves. According to him, that root cause is that we are all trying to get reality to match up with our personal beliefs and preferences about how life, people and events should be to be, in order to feel okay with ourselves. Obviously a huge problem with that is we all have a different version of our personal beliefs and preferences.
So, what do we do? We do the inner work to clear our inner blocks and preferences so that we can rest in witness consciousness. In simple words, identifying the you sitting inside yourself that witnesses everything you think and do and believe as much as possible. That inner work also requires that we relax and let go of all blockages and allow our hearts to stay open. Once there, no matter what is happening in the world outside of us—we can choose to not make it personal and accept it for just reality happening. It isn’t trying to make you disturbed or unhappy—your thoughts about it are making you unhappy.
What’s the payoff? Singer is convinced that as we learn to relax, allow our hearts to stay open and accept reality, we will access greater and greater feelings of joy, love and peace. What then? He says, “Once you learn to let go of the reactionary noise of personal thoughts and emotions, things will become clear. You will know how to work with the situation in front of you.” He goes on to say, “The highest life you can live is when every single moment that passes before you is better off because it did. Serve the present moment with all your heart and soul.”
Of course Michael Singer does say is that it is difficult to grasp these ideas with words alone. Fortunately, there are things we can do to anchor them in ourselves and make them more accessible. But, it is a process that takes time, practice and intention. As for me, I’m still not certain that it is a solution to my life-long search for happiness, but it intrigues me enough to stick with a deep-dive to see where it leads. That is why my WOTY (Word of The Year) for 2023 is “accept.” I’ve always been fairly sure that happiness originates deep inside. So perhaps the SMART approach is to accept that there might be a better way to find the happiness I seek and take that all the way in to see where I end up.