What does it mean to look for happiness within?
It involves understanding how we sabotage our happiness and finding proactive ways to cultivate meaning, equanimity, and a broader perspective for a more satisfying and enduring happiness.
A critical aspect of this journey is recognizing our brain's propensity to focus on the negative, known as the negativity bias. This bias is like a magnet pulling us towards negative experiences and overshadowing the positives. Mindfulness helps us bring awareness to this unconscious habit. It empowers us with the choice to rewire our brains for healthier thought patterns (read more in my recent Negativity Bias post).
Another critical ingredient is learning how to find nourishment in our everyday life experiences. While it's true that our default mode is to focus on the negative, it's possible to consciously shift our attention to experiences that are largely ignored but worthy of appreciation.
Consider the simplicity and beauty of not having a toothache. Renowned mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh points out that when we have a toothache, we suddenly become aware of how glorious it is not to have a toothache. But when we don't have a toothache, we don't notice it at all. The absence of pain and the sensations of normally functioning teeth and gums blend into the background of neutrality.
Using the power of our conscious awareness and attunement to the present moment, we can train ourselves to recognize the many "non-toothache" conditions that are frequently present in our days.
We call this the practice of being NOURISHED BY THE NEUTRAL.
In this way, our neutral experiences (neither distinctly pleasant nor unpleasant), which the brain tends to ignore, can become deeply nourishing. We can practice mindfully unlocking a sense of contentment and satisfaction from conditions – as they are – and create an effective counter-balance to the negativity bias.
One of the ways I practice this regularly is to notice the flow of my breath and briefly recall how it feels to be completely congested. Not long ago, I got an awful head cold that prevented me from breathing through my nose for several days. I remember waking up in the middle of the night with the discomfort of my stifled breathing and the longing to breathe freely. As soon as I bring this memory alive and I connect with the feeling of breathing easily through my nose, I experience a subtle joy. What a gift to breathe so freely! It could be otherwise!
Keep in mind, choosing to focus attention on neutrality is not a technique to dismiss or ignore the discomfort you may be encountering in the moment. When suffering arises, it's natural to want to escape or somehow extinguish the difficulty, but that may not be an option. This is true for chronic pain, acute pain from loss, grief, disappointment, and a multitude of other painful conditions. In those moments, it's crucial to first honor the pain – to acknowledge and just be with it – even for a few moments. Paradoxically, this movement toward the pain can open up the space needed to find nourishment in the neutral.
Furthermore, when you do acknowledge the pain, it's important to pay attention to the language you use. Let's say, you do actually have a toothache. A wise community member astutely pointed out that, saying to yourself, "yeah I've got a toothache, BUT, it could be so much worse," subtly invalidates your experience and may actually exacerbate the pain. Instead, saying, "YES, I'm experiencing a painful toothache, AND... my knees are pain-free. I'm also grateful to have a roof over my head on this rainy day," is far more skillful. It's an important nuance to pay attention to.
Learning to cherish neutral moments is a powerful practice. But don't take my word for it! I invite you to experiment for yourself. Can you think of a negative or unpleasant experience that is no longer with you? What is it like to notice the neutrality of your experience in this moment?
You could pause throughout your day and tune into neutral moments. Allow yourself to soak in the experience for about 15-30 seconds and notice what happens. You may rediscover your capacity to find contentment in the ordinary and unlock a deeper appreciation for life.
The poet Jane Kenyan wrote "Otherwise," which speaks directly and poignantly to this notion. I've shared it with you below.
I also find it especially helpful to explore this concept experientially, so I’ve included a guided meditation here for you as well. Give it a listen!
by Jane Kenyan
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.