It's easy to forget that we are all perfect in our own design. Sometimes we muck it up with habits and choices that do not serve us.
Because everyone has self-awareness, human beings know what it means to be happy or unhappy. This feeling is so basic that seeking happiness comes naturally. Yet for some reason happiness proves elusive, and feeling that you can find permanent happiness can seem futile.
If we look closely, however, there are three ways to be happy. The first two arise in everyone’s life; the third is rare. But the third way is the only one, after centuries of seeking, that has stood the test of time. Every age is challenged to rediscover the third way, including our own time.
The first way to be happy is to follow your impulses without judging them, taking life as it comes from moment to moment. This is the way of babies and small children. They are motivated by the next thing that occurs to them, and they have little ability to predict what will turn out to be a sad or glad experience. Impulsiveness lingers in many people after they become adults, but the vast majority of people move on to the second way of being happy.
The second way is to select the experiences that bring pleasure and reject those that bring pain. As an outline this sounds simple. It isn’t hard to know what you like and dislike, yet life is unpredictable. No matter how carefully you assess every situation, you can wind up in a relationship that has soured; old satisfactions can become boring; without knowing why, you can find less satisfaction in your life over the years. The second way falls prey not just to these problems or to the randomness of illness and accidents. At bottom, psychologists have discovered that people are bad at knowing what will make them happy.
This is especially true if you try to conform to social norms, which assign happiness to repeating what past generations have done. Getting married, having a baby, winning a promotion at work, and accumulating more money and possessions all conform to the social template for happiness. Each is undermined by problems that society doesn’t show us how to cope with, such as high stress, anxiety, and depression. But the second way remains the dominant way everywhere you look. The fortunate make it work for a while, even a long time; the unfortunate are casualties left beside the road.
There is a third way to be happy, however, that is outside the conformity of social norms and has nothing to do with pleasure and pain. This is the way of Vidya, the Sanskrit word for self-knowledge. On this path you choose experiences for their value in helping you to wake up, evolve, and become more conscious. Calling it spiritual doesn’t correctly describe what the third way is, but it is closely identified with spirituality, because God and religion have been the focus of higher consciousness for so long.
In a modern secular society, choices are made outside the confines of God and religious belief, which makes the third way open to everyone. Unlike the unpredictable nature of pleasure and pain, the experiences that lead to Vidya are known and proven. They include the choice of
Peacefulness over violence and anger
Acceptance and tolerance of others
Acting out of love, kindness, and generosity
Devoting time to creative endeavors
Being of service to those in need
Being altruistic instead of being selfish
Not contributing to your own stress or the stress around you
Speaking and living your own truth
Not being dependent on the good or bad opinions of others
Refusing to accept second-hand beliefs and prejudices.
More important than any of these choices, however, is the state of awareness that supports them. It will increase your happiness to make right choices from an evolutionary standpoint, certainly. But happiness doesn’t follow a blueprint or ground plan. You need to be in a state of awareness that is self-sufficient, that spontaneously puts you on the correct path in every situation.
Ironically, the third way closes the circle, because you follow your impulses as they arise, just like a young child, and take life as it comes. The difference is that you are conscious of being in a state of awareness that isn’t unformed or disorganized like a child’s. The poet William Blake called this state “organized innocence.” In Buddhism and other Eastern traditions it is called “choiceless awareness.”
I realize that both terms can sound confusing, because our lives are totally intertwined with choices being made every day. Yet you can shift from the ego level, where choices are made (not very well) by predicting what will increase pleasure and decrease pain. Instead, if you live from a deeper level of awareness, there is no either/or dilemma. The situation is met by the response that vidya knows is right for you.
There are many routes to the third way, beginning with meditation, yoga, and various techniques to become more mindful, self-reflective, and awake. Without them, according to the world’s wisdom traditions, permanent happiness is a dream. The important thing to know is that you are not forced to choose between the first and second ways. Knowing that they will not work, no matter how hard you try, is the opening that allows the third way to emerge. Intention sets the path in motion and unfolds every step along the way. I can’t think of a more important lesson that life has to give.
Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission
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