Monthly Archives: April 2015

  • Holding Happiness Lightly

    happiness

    Savouring happy moments is important. In the same way repeated exercise makes our muscles stronger, paying attention to what makes us feel good helps our brains become better at noticing positive things. You can read more about this in our blog post Being Open To The Good Things In Life. However, that savouring of happiness can all too easily turn into clinging, and clinging to any experience, even a lovely one, will inevitably cause suffering as all experiences are transitory.

    Wanting More

    Sometimes happiness can sneak up on us and take us completely by surprise: an unexpected present or compliment, the chance discovery of a great book or café, falling in love, being outside during a beautiful sunset, etc. In those moments, we feel a kind of deep and pure happiness; we weren’t necessarily looking for those things, and so our minds are free of expectations. We just enjoy the joy. But then, after the moment has passed, we may start to feel that our happiness is dependent on those things happening again, or in different, better ways. The compliment made us feel good, and so we want more of them. The sunset was awe-inspiring, but perhaps if we were to watch the sunset on a beautiful island rather than in the middle of the city it would be even better. Rather than simply savouring the pleasant feelings and then moving on, we start forming criteria for our future happiness based on what has made us happy in the past.

    Conditional Happiness

    From a young age, we start collecting these ideas and beliefs about what must happen in our lives in order for us to feel happy. For example, when we are small we feel happy and safe when our parents approve of us, and so we carry that idea with us, perhaps for our whole lives: “If I can just win my parents approval, then I’ll be happy.” Or maybe we picked up the belief somewhere along the way that we can’t be truly happy unless we’re in a relationship, but then when we’re in one it may seem that being in a relationship isn’t quite as joyful as being married, and then we think we’ll perhaps find an even greater sense of happiness if we have children, and so on.

    The problem with conditional happiness is twofold. We suffer in the lead up to achieving it, because we are filled with a desire for something we don’t yet have, and so therefore feel a terrible sense of lack. Then once we do have it, rather than finding that place of eternal happiness that we had been hoping for, the emotion naturally passes and we have to set our sights on the next goal that will make us happy. If we’re not mindful, we could get stuck on this treadmill for the rest of our lives.

    Cultivating a Sense of ‘Enough’

    Some of the happiest people are not those who have everything they ever wanted, but are those who find contentment in what they have. It’s an unconditional happiness; a steady peace of mind that doesn’t fluctuate so wildly depending on whether life goes our way or not. We can cultivate this sense of ‘enough’ by becoming more accepting of the way things presently are, and by becoming more appreciative of the little things in life.

    Mindfulness helps us see that reality is not our idea of how things ought to be, but that it is simply what is. When we believe that ‘what is’ is incorrect somehow, this can cause us tremendous amounts of suffering. For example, if we don’t get a job we really wanted, or if the person we are in love with doesn’t love us back, we can get totally lost, not just in sadness and despair (which are understandable reactions to painful events), but also a sense of things not being the way they should be. We are at odds with reality, and that really hurts. Yet by learning to accept that things don’t always go our own way, and by learning to compassionately accept painful feelings, we can become more steady and more in the driving seat of our own peace of mind.

    Appreciating the little things in life is also important, and nice to do! While we may believe that to be happy we must have wealth, our dream job, our dream partner, etc, we can actually find happiness in the very act of being appreciative. Try noticing something right now that you can appreciate, no matter how small. Maybe it’s your cup of coffee, the fact that you have the ability to hear traffic on the street, or simply that you are breathing. They may seem like mini-happy-moments compared to “important” ones like getting married or winning the lottery, but while we are in these little moments, while they fill us with contentment, don’t they seem almost as big?

    Learning to hold happiness lightly is a work in progress for us all. We’re bound to get stuck, to find ourselves projecting our happiness onto future events, or to think that we would be happy now if only it wasn’t for X, Y or Z. But by practicing, by noticing our expectations and conditions for happiness a little more each time they arise, we can eventually loosen our grip, and make way for a more unconditional kind of joy.

    In the following meditation, we will bring to mind somebody and something we are grateful for, and will be guided to not only ‘think’ gratitude but to also feel it in our body. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxKU4scnoUA&t=281s

    Our Gratitude Workshop with Dr. Cinzia Pezzolesi next month is perfect to learn how to cultivate gratitude, happiness and a sense of enough. Check it out here.

  • The Importance of Rest

    rest

    It’s easy to tell when a baby or small child is tired. They might cry, get super grouchy or throw an almighty tantrum. As we get older, we learn to regulate our behaviour more, and we become better at hiding our tiredness. We may still feel grouchy, but we can function. If we weren’t able to do this, commuting home at the end of the day would reach a whole new level of unpleasantness!

    However, just like when we’re small, our mood changes when we get tired. Whilst we’re able to hold back from crying and screaming, we might express our discomfort in other ways. For example, how many arguments with our partner/children/colleagues started because one of us was tired? Tiredness can result in poor judgement, mental fogginess, lowered capacity for compassion (for ourselves and others), and when it gets really bad we become more likely to have accidents. And yet, despite all of this, sometimes we are just as oblivious to our need to rest as a tantruming toddler. We have become so skilled at hiding our tiredness that even we can’t tell when we need to rest.

    Running on Empty

    We can stumble through our daily duties without noticing much about what’s happening around us, or what’s going on within. Before we know it, we can end up totally exhausted, without having noticed how we got there. Our bodies might be tired enough for rest, but our minds are still racing away, thinking and worrying about all the things we need to do.

    When we aren’t mindful, we can easily strain ourselves. For example, we might drink caffeine to stay awake, until we crash. If we’re self-critical, we can put too much pressure on ourselves to work long hours and not give ourselves adequate time to relax. We might forfeit sleep in order to get more done, and then wonder why we can’t switch off when we do eventually go to bed.

    Over time, this way of being will deplete us. Despite everything we might achieve through pushing ourselves, we will inevitably lose our sense of joy and our peace of mind. When we’re tired, the world can seem so grey. But by slowing down and paying attention, we can start to notice the beauty of life again.

    Listening to the Body and Mind

    Being mindful helps us tune into ourselves so that we can hear those subtle signals from our bodies and minds that tell us it’s time to rest. Whether it’s through meditating daily, or setting reminders throughout the day to prompt us to take a moment to check in with ourselves, the important thing is to make the time to listen.

    Are our muscles tight? Do parts of our bodies ache or hurt? Do we feel lethargic? When did we last eat something or drink some water? And how do we feel emotionally? Are we feeling stressed, depressed, angry, overwhelmed? If we receive a ton of yes answers, it might be time to get some rest! By paying more attention to how our bodies feel, we become less likely to get snappy or irritable when we’re tired, and more able to take positive action.

    Give Yourself Permission to Do Nothing!

    Doing ‘nothing’ may seem in total opposition to society’s obsession with ‘achieving’, and so for some of us it can be really hard to do. But it’s important. Apart from food and water, rest is our next most basic and essential need. So why do we feel so bad about giving ourselves time for it?

    In the same way that we set aside time to exercise, we need to deliberately take time to rest, both physically and mentally. Developing a mindful bedtime routine is a good way to wind down at the end of each day. For example, switching off our phones at least an hour before we go to sleep can help us mentally switch off from work and life stresses. Setting aside a regular time to meditate is also useful, and gives us a chance to check in with how we’re feeling.

    Just remember that any thoughts about being lazy, not deserving the time out, needing to do other things first, whatever, are all just thoughts. We do deserve to enjoy life from a rested mind!

    Our online workshop with Dr. Cinzia Pezzolesi next month is perfect for those who would like to learn more about how mindfulness can improve sleep. Check it out here.

  • Values, Rather Than Goals, Help Us Live a Rich and Meaningful Life

    In his book “The Happiness Trap”, Russ Harris, one of the founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), suggests that the word happiness has two different meanings.

    One of them is ‘feeling good’. We feel good when we feel a sense of pleasure, gladness or gratification. Say we have finally been given that long longed-for promotion or we’ve just been on a great first date with someone amazing. In those moments, we feel a great sense of pleasure. They are life’s ‘happy moments’. And because these moments feel so good, we naturally want more of them.

    Society reinforces this tendency to strive for a constant state of happiness: Hollywood and fairy tales lead us to believe that happy endings are the ultimate goal, and advertisements tell us that if we only buy this specific product it will make us feel good. Our society drives us so much towards happiness, that when we spot someone in a state of unhappiness it makes us shrug – maybe not if it’s a loved one, but most definitely if it’s a stranger. For example, if we see an adult sobbing on a train, our nervous system immediately tenses up; we potentially feel shame, look away and most often don’t know what to do.

    True Happiness

    grapesLuckily, there’s a second meaning to happiness which encompasses more than just ‘feeling good’ – after all, we not only experience pleasurable emotions such as Love, Joy and Curiosity, but also unpleasant ones such as Fear, Anger, Shock, Disgust, Sadness and Guilt. Russ Harris believes that true happiness does not come from wanting to feel good all the time, but from ‘living a rich and meaningful life’ which is directed by our values. He defines these as ‘your heart’s deepest desires for the sort of person you want to be, and the things you want to do in your time on this planet’.  Examples of values are ‘being caring’, ‘independence’, ‘creativity’ and ‘mindfulness’.

    Unlike goals, values can’t be completed or ticked off a list. They are a direction we desire to keep moving in, an ongoing process that never reaches an end. A good example of a value is ‘being loving and caring’ as opposed to the goal of ‘getting married’. You can have the intention to be loving and caring every day for the rest of your life, but once you’re married you are married. Goal achieved. You may even end up being married and at the same time being hard-hearted and uncaring. Of course that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever set goals for ourselves. But rather than seeing their achievement as our ultimate aim in life, we should look upon them as lucky by-products that may or may not happen while living a life according to our deepest values.

    Getting Better at Feeling

    ACT is a good abbreviation because it stands for committing to take action towards creating a rich and meaningful life, guided by our deepest values while accepting the pain that inevitably goes with it. Because when we head towards what really matters to us, we will not only experience feelings like Love, Joy and Curiosity, but along this path we will also experience the more unpleasant feelings of the spectrum of human emotion. ACT, as a mindfulness-based approach, teaches us how to mindfully explore those feelings, open up to them and accept them as a natural part of life instead of having to constantly push them away. In that sense, ACT is not about simply ‘feeling better’. It’s about opening up to life in all its shades, thus ‘getting better at feeling’ so that we can follow our hearts truest values and live a rich and meaningful life.