I suppose the notion of happiness is a bit out of place in a blog that some have referred to as nihilist, and others might see as a place of last resort once all the positive affirmations have proved useless. Despite this I want to describe how, in my life at least, I have found happiness in the midst of despair, ill fortune, shabby human behavior, confusion, and a hundred other factors that serve to diminish us. Please note that I am not for one minute going to suggest that any of these things go away. The key to the whole thing is whether life has beaten you up enough for you to find a place of calm in the eye of the storm – because you had to
Many traditions consider bad fortune to be good fortune, provided you are fortunate enough to use it in that way. I outlined four practices in a previous blog entry, and they have proved crucial for me in finding the calm at the eye of the storm. The storm continues, but to a large extent we can be observers instead of victims of its violence. It is absolutely crucial to become sensitive to emotional states. Not just the extremes such as rabid anger or inconsolable grief, but the subtle moods that ebb and flow throughout the day. To ask the question “how am I feeling right now?”, is the most important question you can ask, and is the key to real self-knowledge. Oddly enough most people will not be able to sense how they are feeling, since without a keen awareness of how the body is feeling they will not have the necessary sensitivity. So body sensing is the starting point, then self-observation. But we also need to know when we are getting lost in our own personal hell – or imagination. This is all outlined in the article on practice.
So, what happens when a person acquires some level of skill at sensing and observing their emotional states, with no inner judgement or desire to change anything? Over time such a person establishes an observer within them that is not wholly consumed in the emotional highs and lows that occur every day. Of course, if there is an extreme event then it may well be that a person does become engulfed. But they will at least have the inner resource that allows them to extract themselves from it more rapidly. And if they have developed the ability to snap out of imagination on a regular basis, then they will be freed from endless hopes and fears (and hopes are always accompanied by fears) and the emotional states they bring about.
If you are thinking that this all seems to be aimed at creating something within us that sits outside our normal biological functioning, you would be totally correct. Life does not give us the skills to view our own lives as impartially as we might view anyone else’s. It isn’t that generous. This is something we have to do for ourselves, and various traditions going back millennia, as well as more recent Western philosophers, all point to the path that must be taken. The alternative is simply to be a leaf in the wind. Like a dog with a bone when things go well, or a picture of misery when they don’t.
Eventually one’s inner state can become food to strengthen the inner observer. This is referred to as eating the emotions – the deliberate act of observing, sensing and bearing an emotional state (positive or negative) with absolutely no desire to change it. Placing all one’s attention on it, until finally every ounce of juice has been sucked from it.
I have been fortunate to meet people who helped me in all of this. There are many pitfalls, the most dangerous of all the temptation to deny the emotions. Eventually one is able to be happy even when we are unhappy. Not always of course, but Ronaldo doesn’t score a goal every time he gets the ball either. But he is much more likely to do that than you or I.