Learning to Be Happy (Even When You Don’t Get What You Want)

True Contentment: In Simplicity — SECOND CITY CHURCH

The other day, while listening to a talk given by the American spiritual teacher and guru, Ram Dass, he said something along the lines of: Learn how to be happy even when you don’t get what you want. For some reason, the way he said these words really struck me. There is something about listening to the gentle, slow, thoughtful voice of a spiritual leader that allows simple ideas to penetrate directly to your soul. Since then I have kept that idea close to my heart.

It’s so easy to forget that external circumstances don’t dictate our internal state. Finding contentment where we are now, doesn’t mean that we won’t want things anymore. However, we won’t allow the outcome of these wants to decide how we feel. Certain desires are easier to let go of than others, but it’s important to remind ourselves that we always have the power to let go and reside in happiness.

All of us already know how to do this to a certain extent. We have varying levels of wanting. We may want to have a certain fruit for breakfast only to realize that it has spoiled and we must find something else to eat. Depending on who you are, this usually isn’t enough to ruin your day or mood. We simply think, “oh, rats” and prepare another food. On the other hand, we may be planning to get married only to have our
fiancée leave us at the alter. That’s not going to be as easy to let go of as a rotten mango.

I wonder, though. How much the variation in reaction has to do with our preconceived ideas about the “appropriate” reaction in each scenario. When I used to get upset, it genuinely felt like I had no choice. Then in addition to not getting what I wanted, I felt an added level of suffering due to a feeling of powerlessness. There is a certain freedom in simply knowing we have the ability to choose.

When my ex left me the last time, I remember feeling frustrated that now I’d have to go back to being sad and miserable. The idea of doing that seemed so repulsive to me that I decided I didn’t care if that’s what I was supposed to feel. I decided to discard my ideas of what I thought society expected of me in that scenario. I didn’t want to be sad anymore, and for the first time in such a situation, I realized I had the choice not to be.

Sometimes just remembering that we have that choice is enough. This doesn’t mean that you’ll never experience sadness, anger, frustration, or suffering again. There are some times in life that we actually want to feel sad, and that’s okay. There is a difference between holding space for a genuine emotion and feeling trapped by one.

The next time I find myself not getting what I want, rather than getting upset and ruminating, I’m going to use it as an opportunity. Each time something doesn’t go the way you planned, it’s an opportunity to practice being happy anyway. One of my favorite questions to ask myself is: Can I love myself even though…? Fill in the blank. Now I’d like to add another question: Can I be happy even though….? Sometimes phrasing the issue in this way allows us to see the choice we have. When I’m getting down on myself because of some small flaw, asking the question, “can I still love myself,” brings things back into perspective and reminds me what really matters. If I can still love myself anyway, why bother being upset about whatever it may be? The same goes for “can I be happy anyway.”

Asking these types of questions also helps me be more lighthearted about the problem. Sometimes the answer isn’t clear in that moment. Then I become curious. Can I? Let’s find out. It can be fun to explore our own hearts and minds and find a path back to happiness. And just like paths in the forest, these paths become more worn and easier to follow the more we use them. So don’t worry if your mind seems like particularly dense woodlands right now. You can still make those paths. Even if it’s hard at first, know that it only gets easier.

Ram Dass talks about 'Becoming Nobody,' the documentary on his spiritual  journey | Datebook

Be Your Own Sanctuary

Do not look for sanctuary in anyone except your self.

Buddha

We’ve all heard this sentiment before. We must love ourselves before anyone else can love us. Or no one can save us but ourselves. How we love ourselves is how we teach others to love us, etc, etc. Just from the sheer number of quotes with this type of message, we can assume that there must be at least some truth to them. When I was younger I used to roll my eyes at the many cliches and generic sounding phrases and quotes people would use so often. But as I’ve gotten older, it has become obvious why these words have created such a lasting impression upon humanity. Time and time again we find ourselves faced with the inherent truth of quotes such as the one above, quotes that have weathered the ages and remained for centuries in the mouths of humanity. They have spanned the vast oceans and appeared in one form or another in every human culture.

I find it interesting the way I’ve seen some people interpret this message. I’ve known several people who felt attacked by these innocuous words of guidance. I myself used to feel somewhat crestfallen upon being reminded of them. For some people, the idea of loving themselves, especially without first having the love of another, seems unimaginable, impossible even. A lot of us seek that validation from outside ourselves before we will even consider ourselves worthy of our own love. Therefore being told we must love ourselves first or all other love will fall apart seems like a life sentence of solitude, a quite cruel thing to say.

Now I see that these words are actually some of the most uplifting and hopeful that I’ve heard. Another way to interpret this message is that we already have all the love we need inside of ourselves. Even if it’s hard, even if it takes years of practice, we will always have ourselves at the end of the day. If we are able to love ourselves, the rest of life will come easily. With this inner love, this inner sanctuary we can create for ourselves, we never have to be alone. Other people in our lives will come and go, they may even harm us or reject our love, but as long as we have loving kindness towards ourselves, we will never truly suffer. No one can take us from our sanctuary, because our sanctuary lies within ourselves.

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