Beating ourselves into happiness

Mindsprings blog post Beating ourselves into submission

This is a transcript from a recent lesson at The Mindsprings Practice Space

There’s a lovely teaching, by Pema Chodron about not mistaking control for love. If you want to control somebody or something or control your experience, we might think of that as being meditation or- even worse – we might think of it as being love. 
We think: “I want you to be happy, I want you to lose some weight and be happy. I want you to stop eating all my cakes and lose some weight and be happy. I want you to stop knocking on my door and eating all my cakes and lose some weight and be happy.“ It’s actually nothing to do with them being happy. It’s about them not annoying you anymore with their problems. 

It’s like I want to be happy. So I’m going to beat myself up with a brick until I’m happy. 

And we just do the same thing with our own experiences. So, for example, I want to be happy. And no less than the Dalai Lama says we all want to be happy, but we go about it in this really weird, perverted way. It’s like I want to be happy. So I’m going to beat myself up with a brick until I’m happy. 
And, one of the crassest examples of this is “I’m not going to accept the way I am. I’m not going to. This experience is the wrong experience. It’s not me, it shouldn’t be there. I’m going to be beating myself up until it’s gone”.

And we can do this our whole life and – in some sense – that is what the Buddhists call samsara. Constantly trying, desperately trying to get all our ducks in a row: “If only I could be this if only I could have that. And if I didn’t feel this and I wasn’t anxious and didn’t have this injury and I wasn’t on this medication, if the ceiling wasn’t dripping and there wasn’t all this traffic and if I didn’t have this pain.“

Our thoughts are slightly less jagged or the emotion is slightly less intense. 

It’s exhausting, exhausting. And there’s no stillness, there’s no peace, there’s no release in that. But the minute we go, “Okay, this is what I’ve got.” And we start to turn towards it and we start to give it some space and just be curious about it and interested in it and then have these other options. We can go to the breath, or we can go to the sounds, or we can go to the floor and then come back and oh, it’s slightly changed. It’s got a different tint to it.
Our thoughts are slightly less jagged or the emotion is slightly less intense.
Then we can work with what we are and this is the beginning of love or respect. And until we do that, it’s just exhausting and it’s very difficult to enjoy life. Because we’re so preoccupied with ourselves and getting ourselves perfect. But we can experiment with this spacious quality that happens by just having these other objects. 

When we start with where we’re at, then there’s nothing to fall off

Yeah, we’ve got this feeling, we’ve got this jumpy mind, we’ve got this anxiety. But then there’s also the sound of the traffic, there’s also the sound of the drip, drip, drip, there’s also the feeling of my fingers stroking my thighs. There’s also the breath coming in, breath going out. It’s not that that first object is being erased in any way. 
It’s just being contextualised in a more spacious, more option-rich context. And pretty quickly, this brings a great sense of groundedness. Because we’re not on this tightrope.  Francesca was saying when she first started practising that she’d get into the state of happiness or wellbeing and then: she’d open her eyes and bam! It’s gone. 
Sometimes when we ‘fall’ out of meditation like that it feels like we’ve fallen off a tightrope walk. And there’s this sort of precariousness to our mediation. But when we start with where we’re at, then there’s nothing to fall off. You’re not on any high wire. You discover that the high wire is actually on the floor. So it takes all the effort out of meditation. There’s nothing to ‘fall out’ of. 

So you don’t have to strive to be something different to enjoy your life. As Pema says, you just start where you are. It’s got a lovely, lovely feel to it.

I’d love to know your thoughts about meditation. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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  • Hexagon Sun says:

    Alistair, this is immensely helpful when I am stressed and when the mind is so worn out from trying to achieve that is going around in perpetual loops. Your work on the 5th field is a timely reminder to pause and notice the stance. However, after the stress subsides and I find equanimity in meditation and teachings, I have to become dissatisfied again.

    Today I came across the following quote: “Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation”. It is true, isn’t it? Discontent leads to change and invention. If we become completely happy and fulfilled, we stop striving – this is why I defend the ego.

    In reality, many of us operate in competitive environments where we would literally be eaten alive if we didn’t improve continuously and to the detriment of our competitors. This system is not completely evil or is it? Breakthrough innovations in medicine for example are funded by the self-focused and competing Samsaric businesses. Even Bodhicittas strive for the benefit of others – they want for Samsara to stop and for all sentient beings to be happy. It is their personal ambition. They are discontented (and I am so confused).

    Alistair, if I had the answer to this question, I would be content and I would fully accept the teachings 😉

    • alistairappleton says:

      Hi Alina, a wonderful meaty comment as always from you!

      Firstly, I would counsel against ‘fully accepting the teachings’. I’m pretty certain all Buddhist teachers would agree that fully accepting teaching is a dead end. Teachings are merely pointing to the energetic question marks that galvanise life. To reduce a mystery to an answer is to miss the point of mystery. This is why Zen loves paradoxes, I imagine.

      Secondly, I’m not sure that you would LITERALLY be eaten alive if you didn’t continuously improve at work. (Unless you work for a secretive cabal of cannibals down there in Hampshire?) You might lose your job which might or might not be a good thing. But I certainly would question a system where workers were even metaphorically ‘eaten alive’ if they didn’t compete mercilessly with each other. That sort of alienating workplace should not be the norm in my book.

      However, your point about the generative quality of dissatisfaction is much more interesting. You are right that ‘samsara’ is driven by discontent. It is – from a strictly Buddhist perspective – driven by discontent of the “I want more” and “I want less” varieties as well as the much more voluminous “I don’t care” variety.

      As I’ve mentioned in a couple of the teachings, preference (positive, negative, indifferent) seems to be hard-baked into our nervous system as humans, so it is a fruitless task to want a different nervous system. (That just leads to a big preference “I don’t want to be human” which soon leads to despair and self-absorption.) What the fifth field work uncovers is the presence of all those hidden preferences and a growing awareness of how much they occupy our existential bandwidth and how they might be unconsciously creating a lot of unnecessary suffering.

      What the fifth work does not / cannot do is REMOVE the preferences. However, as we step back into the Big Open Field (which is beyond the fifth field of preference) we can see the phenomena AND the preferences all laid out clearly. We can see how they work together, how they arise and how they interlock and how the co-create. It can be shameful / disappointing / humbling to see all this playing out but it is reassuringly honest. And that honest vision is what the Buddhists call wisdom.

      Likewise, from the Big Open Space we can see how the workings of samsara create all sorts of things – suffering and progress – but that clear seeing prevents us from getting helplessly lost in those workings. Being able to see the cogs turning might enable us to discern what is progressive machinery and which is detrimental machinery. Which workplace stress generates brilliant ideas and world-improving solutions and which workplace stress just perpetuates what David Graeber called ‘Bullshit Jobs’ and global misery.

      This, I feel, is what the Mahayana Buddhists mean when they say the nirvana IS samsara and samsara IS nirvana. It’s the same universe but the point of view changes it utterly.

  • Jane Davis says:

    I think R.D. Laing might have something to say about some of the ideas you raise, since some of them are knotty. My freestyle of one (or more) of the knots (or maybe only part of some knot)s:

    ‘I want to be happy/I’ll be unhappy until I get what I want/And when I get to be who I want/I should be unhappy/I am unhappy because I did not get what I want/I am not who I want to be/I want you to be happy so I can be happy/But you are not exactly who I want you to be/You know this and so you are unhappy /Which makes me unhappy./ I was happy for a moment/until I remembered all of this/I don’t deserve to be happy/But I must be/You don’t deserve to be happy/We must both be happy/Knowing this makes us both more and more unhappy/Which is what we deserve/Until we are perfect…’

    Don’t blame me if I’m not very good at freestyling R.D. Laing! Anyway, for some reason the topics you raise reminded me of an old commercial with a family on vacation and Dad saying in a very grouchy and annoyed voice, “Are we having fun yet?” (Uh…no!)

    In any case, much food for thought…

  • James says:

    This is a really helpful blog post for me. I sometimes feel that fall out from a meditation or comedown after a good experience or feel like I’ve relived something unpleasant and often the answer seems to be trying to stay on the high wire whatever the cost in trying to balance and not get too tired in the process. I’m not sure if I could be happier more of the time as my ground point seems to shift; I think a lot of people buy in to the idea of a happier experience as a solution or having more.

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