There is a book titled “10% happier”, which the author describes how he became slightly happier with meditation. I don’t believe in making happiness as a goal in life, and I have learned that unhappiness and happiness are actually on two separate spectrums. I have been happy, but my unhappiness did not decrease due to my increased happiness, and vice versa. So for me, it is more meaningful to work on decreasing my unhappiness, because what I want in life is to feel at ease, and happiness is a long way from feeling easeful.
I am not sure if I’ve written about my views on happiness before, but for the context of this post I’ll reiterate it again. I don’t believe pursuing happiness as society defines it is a sustainable way of living. If we think being happy should be the default, then we are set up for persistent failure because as it stands, the design of society makes life suffer. It is possible to demonstrate our supposedly indomitable human spirit and be radically optimistic and happy despite all the shackles that bind us, but I think for most people that means psychological repression, and that comes out in other ways.
There is also a philosophical question of “why”. Why do we pride and cherish happiness above all? My theory is most of us are wired to want to avoid pain, and the feelings of pleasure makes us forget about the pain of being alive, albeit temporarily. What about the sort of happiness that is not hedonistic, but it is more like the joy of seeing a child grow, or when we immerse ourselves in nature? I think those feelings are a very precious part of being human, but still yet not more important than other human experiences. It is ironically the desire to expose ourselves only to feelings of happiness and joy that creates suffering, in my opinion. Because the reality is, life is multi-faceted and complex, it will always inevitably hold the potential of the full spectrum of human experiences, so when we restrict ourselves to chasing a narrow spectrum, we miss out, we become smaller, we forego a huge chunk of our own human potential.
So why is decreasing my unhappiness more meaningful to me, compared to increasing my happiness? Like I mentioned above, increasing my happiness does not decrease my unhappiness, my unhappiness is in the way of appreciating my happiness fully. It isn’t happiness that makes me aware of the fragile beauty of a flower, in fact to me, it obscures it. I could be so immersed in the feelings of joy that I forget to appreciate what is right before me. What I cherish is aliveness, because that is the meaning of life to me. To be alive. To be alive is to be everything: happy, sad, joyful, grieving, laughing, crying, accomplished, fragile, vulnerable, lost, etc. To be capable of embracing pain, that is being alive. To acknowledge that everything is impermanent and that people will die, things will disintegrate, that enables me to hold the full dimensionality what is in front of me, in this very moment.
But my unhappiness, just like my happiness, obscures all of that. It is so heavy, so oppressive, that I am unable to experience much of anything else. There is a well-known buddhist parable of suffering: that when we are shot by an arrow, we actually experience the suffering of being shot by twice. The first is the actual arrow, the pain of suffering a physical wound. The second is our reaction to the first arrow.
The reaction, is ultimately a repetitive narrative in our heads. We get shot by an arrow, but it becomes a story that we are shot because we are weak or unworthy. That it is unfair, that we don’t deserve it, that we are deliberately targeted, that somehow it always happens to us, that we’re destined to be jinxed, that we’re dealt with an unfair hand while everyone else has a good hand.
I have a bunch of arrows shot at me decades ago, and multiple decades later I am still hurting over them.
And I slowly learned that healing from them is not to simply tell myself that everyone gets shot by arrows, that life is random and unfair, so I should just grow up and move on. I learned that intellectual knowledge does nothing to heal emotional wounds. I learned to truly heal, I have to learn how to become a parent to myself. I have to learn how to pick myself up gently, to treat myself like how I would treat a child who is crying right in front of me.
I have to first of all, stop being so angry with myself.
And you know, if you’re used to people always being angry at you and also always being angry at yourself, you have no other mode of operating.
It is like I no longer just have two arrows, the actual arrow and my reaction, but a third arrow that I kept jabbing into myself so I relive the pain over and over again. I have no conscious control over this. I didn’t know how to be, otherwise.
So I run. Meditate. Cry. I let my partner soothe me when I cry like a baby. I learned to grieve for myself. I let myself collapse into a heap and I slowly learned to judge myself less for always being so sad. I make less violent remarks at myself. I forgive a little bit of myself, even if only a little. I forgive a little bit more of people, even if only a little. I know intellectual knowledge doesn’t directly heal, but it equips me with better understanding and management over myself, so I read voraciously. I develop more empathy towards myself and others because I now know how much of this is unconscious and not within the typical locus of self-control. I become more accepting of my fragility. I stop demanding of myself to be “better”, whatever better means. I stop comparing. I stop focusing on what I cannot do and instead I concentrate on what I can do. I let myself be angry and grateful at life at the same time. I no longer live in a binary world. I no longer see myself as a on/off switch but a complex system of feelings. I increase my boundaries with people and accept my desire to be a hermit. I stop forcing myself to be anybody I don’t wish to. I try to discern what I truly want versus what has been conditioned to me. I try to feed myself better food but also stop berating myself for eating too much sugar. So I try to eat a little bit better and a little less sugar. Again, no extreme ons and offs anymore.
There is so much in the little. My entire life, I have been searching for the huge. I searched for saviours, for life-changing events. But the profound changes in me were only sustainable with small daily acts of grace and generosity towards myself.
I don’t know how and when, but recently I started to notice glimpses of what I call a non-narrative driven awareness. It could be a moment when I am reading, and I notice I am reading. That is all. I notice that there is no longer a background anxiety, and I am not stuck in reliving the past or imagining the worst. I am simply reading, running, or eating. There is no added narrative to those moments, no second or third arrows. I am just me in those moments, I no longer come with attached labels or descriptors. My mind is free from the stories I tell myself, even for just a moment.
I read “The Power of Now” many years ago and I was like WTF is he talking about. In recent months I read a ton of buddhist literature and because I am always holding so many intellectual opinions in my head and I prided the mental activity, it was difficult for me to grasp why they kept harping on the now.
For me the breakthrough isn’t so much the now, but the capacity to see reality for that it is, rather than the narrative layers we heap upon it. I am not saying I have developed that capacity, but it is fascinating to see glimpses of it.
So, I think I am 10% less unhappy. When profound changes take place so incrementally over a long period of time, it is difficult to notice them. But once in a while I remember the psychological state I was in say three years ago, I know I am a different person. I can just flip into my journal entries from then and there is a discernible difference (this is why I keep both a public and private journal, it is like version control for humans).
I am 10% less unhappy because I stopped believing in a story about who I should be or become. I accept who I am and where I am at the moment. The cynical voice in me says, obviously I am more at peace at a time in my life when I have not many commitments to fulfil, and I’m not oppressed by the demands of a full-time job. But that wasn’t a given. For myself (and many others I know), free time is a nightmare. I was that workaholic who asked to start new jobs ahead of time because I could not tolerate the idleness of having no work to do, nobody to report to.
I am not sure when I’ll be forced to be encumbered by commitments again, but I hope when the time comes I will be a person who is unafraid of facing them: to stoically walk down a difficult path simply by walking, not by imagining and being afraid of monsters ahead.
I do not know what the future holds, whether this is temporary and perhaps I’ll be back to my frenzied state tomorrow. But I know I have become aware of an anticipation towards more of what is to come, because this is the first time in my life I am trying to lead a self-directed life as much as possible, away from the safety of the mainstream. I have never known what it is like to live without worrying of what people will think or a life that is not fully dictated by the desire to escape oppressive circumstances. What will it be like, to lead a life without the weight of the invisible chains around me?