Too Close for Happiness –
Where were you sitting?
I’d be willing to bet you weren’t sitting on the platform the fireworks were launched from. Probably you weren’t even within a thousand feet of their takeoff point. You could even have been miles away as you enjoyed them.
When you get too close to even the best show, there are obstacles that prevent its enjoyment. Distance is actually an essential ingredient of happiness. Yet that’s a truth that culturally we’re not conditioned to recognize or honor.
- We’re too close to food, resulting in chronic national health concerns.
- We’re too close to work, resulting in rising levels of stress, overwhelm and anxiety.
- We’re too close to money, our concern for which is actually diminishing quality of life rather than enhancing it.
Happiness is something we often grasp at and cling to. Our search for happiness is often driven by the desire for possession and acquisition. We want to own and secure what we believe are the sources of happiness—and it’s making us miserable.
Happiness just doesn’t work the way we’ve been trained to think it does. Like fireworks, we need a little space from the objects that produce it.
Mindfulness of Our Mental Show
Similarly, thoughts are just the fireworks of our mind. If we get too close to those thoughts, they’re not going to feel pleasant. They’re going to feel jarring and volatile, randomly firing without notice and dominating our attention in a way that prevents us from fully experiencing many other parts of our lives.
Sitting too close to the thought-display of our mind is called “identification.”
The process of identification is where we lose track of the opportunity to watch our thought-show from a happy distance.
When we forget that we are the one who is witnessing the thoughts, we unconsciously become indistinguishable from the mental eruptions. We experience the explosive, changing and volatile nature of our mind-chatter as though it were us. As thoughts launch and fire in varied shows of light, or some of them as duds, we’re either momentarily wowed or disappointed until the next thought goes off and we once again identify with its trajectory, completely caught up in the arc of its current emotion.
The standard reaction is that we want to make it stop. We take medications and sedatives, use alcohol, spend money, binge on junk food, indulge in entertainment, overwork, and shop—all in the attempt to stop what’s happening in our minds.
Yet the root of our suffering isn’t actually coming from what is happening in the mind, but from how close we’re sitting to the process.”
Myths of Meditation Practice
One of the biggest and most unfortunate myths I hear about meditation and mindfulness practice is the expectation that the mind is supposed to stop, or at least calm down if we’re doing meditation “right.”
The hope and expectation that we’re going to reach a mythic peace, relaxation and calm can often become its own source of anxiety. Especially when we expect to get it as fast as a drive-thru cheeseburger.
I personally have a 35-year meditation practice. My experience is that relaxing fast is just not how the mind operates. It doesn’t take vacations, even when you want it to. It keeps doing the job of cogitating over anything it can lay its grubby little neurons on.
What most people who start a meditation practice don’t realize is that this is okay. That’s just what the mind does. It sends up fireworks.
Mindfulness or meditation practice is the process of backing up a little bit, pulling out your blanket, and sitting down where you can get a clear view of the fireworks show and then enjoying it from a distance, knowing that any given explosion is not going to mean much of anything to your quality of life twenty minutes from now.
Meditation practice allows us to develop what we might call “field attention,” where we hold a bigger picture in our view that keeps us anchored to the simple realities of the present moment, even when our thoughts and feelings are center stage trying to command our attention.
It’s not about eliminating the fireworks!
“Stopping” the mind just stops the show that you could be enjoying.
Are You Desperate for Froot Loops or Cultivating a Happy Distance?
Let’s use another example demonstrating how identification is our problem, not the thoughts that arise in our mind.
Many of you are probably parents. Imagine that you’re in the grocery store and someone’s child starts whining and begging for Froot Loops to get added to the family shopping cart. The kid wants them SO badly and is writhing around, now on the floor, desperate with desire. “Pluhhhheeaaassss can we get Froot Loops!?”
You find it comical and give the parent an understanding nod of sympathy as you pass.
Now imagine that it’s your child who is engaging the same behavior. Not so funny any more. In fact, you’re mortified just thinking about it. This is the power that identification has to derail our happiness.
When we’re identified with our thoughts, the belief systems that are behind them become a matter of exaggerated importance to us. Things have to go a certain way, because if they don’t, our belief system is threatened, which means our thoughts are threatened. In our identification with those thoughts, we feel threatened—fearful, anxious, out of control.
Other people have to be a certain way around us, treat us in a certain way, respond to us in a certain way for us to feel “happy.” Circumstances have to meet our approval, avoid our fears, align with our hopes and needs, or things get ugly inside.
The way we search for happiness—trying to get the world to line up with the passing show of fleeting mental requirements we mistake as being us—does not make us happy at all.
It’s just the opposite, of course.
Mindfulness Is Free Forever
What if there was a way to cut through this illusory process of falsely identifying with the impermanent and changing nature of the mind?
Well, of course there is. It’s what all the saints and sages throughout human history have been telling us and inviting us to practice.
Meditation. Mindfulness. Self-observation. Know thyself.
Simple, but not easy, as the saying goes. It just takes practice. Like it does to become skilled at anything else.
Cultivating the art of presence is to apply the generosity of distance between who we essentially are and how anything turns out, including our thoughts.
Happiness is the distance between you and the need for things to be a certain way.”
The closer you sit to a conditioned list of requirements, the more unhappy you’re going to be when the requirements are not met. The better you are at observing the natural activity of what goes on inside your mind, and outside in your surroundings—without being identified with outcomes—the happier you’ll become.
If you’ve been wondering about this mindfulness thing that’s become so popular, if you’ve been thinking you might like to experiment with beginning a meditation practice, or if you’ve already been trying to establish one but would like to get reinspired to apply yourself with more commitment, you can take our free mindfulness course.
Perhaps, however, you just don’t have the time to practice. Not to worry, we’ve got you covered too. We have a fast path course for those of you who want to get right to the goal of looking really spiritual, without all the annoying self-observation and introspection. Why go to all the effort of making a new habit when you can just fake the results?
Both courses are available for free with your membership and always will be. They are there for you to use or revisit whenever you like, or to share with a friend, family member or colleague who might benefit from the practice as well.
Enjoy your fireworks.