When we interact with other people, it really feels as if what they do, say (and don’t do or say) has a direct effect on our life experience. It seems like their actions cause certain feelings and thoughts, and that unless they change those actions, we will continue to have those same inner experiences.
And if those inner experiences are the things we call ‘anger’, ‘stress’, ‘pain’ or ‘sadness’, then it makes perfect sense that we would put all our energy into trying to make those people change their ways, because there is no other obvious path to happiness.
This puts us in a bind. If we are at the mercy of others, unable to be happy without them changing, then our only method of finding pace is an indirect one. By that I mean that we need something out there to change in order for happiness to arise in here. So we have a cause (the other), leading to an effect (our experience), and we are powerless to change either.
Our only course of action then is to either work on the people we are with, be they friends, colleagues at work, family members or life partners, or to find new people to be in our lives. Sometimes, of course, this is a good idea, and I’m not suggesting that you stay with the same group of friends forever. What I suggest is that we seperate the two concepts – happiness and relationships – and see what insights we uncover.
Let’s start there. What if we split the search for happiness from the actions of others? How much freedom would arise if the two did not affect each other at all? The truth is they don’t.
Happiness is only affected by one thing – where your attention is focused right now. Here’s how it works;
- Within you right now (and you can verify this by closing your eyes and taking your attention within), there is empty space, in which various stuff arises. Some of this stuff we call ‘physical feelings’, some of it we call ‘thoughts’, some of it we call ’emotion’, you know the stuff I’m talking about right?
- When you see or hear something happen in the world out there, thoughts arise in response to what happens. If your attention is totally absorbed in those thoughts, the stories they tell seem real. The body reacts to those stories as if they were real, and emotions arise in response to these stories.
- When attention is focused on what is happening now, these emotions don’t arise and the stories simply float past in the background. This is what people call ‘happiness’.
So it turns out that the suffering we experience results from believing mental stories about events, not from the events themselves. This is easy to verify because you can easily suffer just by thinking about an event that hasn’t even occurred yet, like a test you have tomorrow or a trip to the dentist. In these cases, the event can’t be causing your distress, as it hasn’t happened yet. Similarly, it is possible to experience distress when reliving the memory of something that happened decades ago, even tough the event is finished and cannot be the cause of your suffering now.
It’s as simple as this – when I believe my thoughts I suffer, and when I don’t, I’m happy.
Now let’s pause a moment, this is important. Believing thoughts is not a choice you make in the moment, it is a habitual way of living. You’re not doing anything wrong, and you can’t undo this habit simply by deciding to ‘live in the moment from now on’, it’s a conditioned way of living, and it may take some practice to start undoing it. There’s no failure in getting lost in thought, just another opportunity to see the effects of being taken down this path.
Let’s come back to those relationships now. If you’re attention stays with what is, and you don’t get lost in those stories about what happened before and what may happen next, then other people have no power over your happiness anymore. All the work becomes inner work, and those outer relationships become fuel for this practice, helping us to discover where the next belief is hiding and to keep going deeper within.
Every conflict then, every problem, and every seemingly rude person that you meet becomes a mirror, reflecting your attention back within to see what needs to unravel next. The alternative to this is a life of trying to change the world, and if that’s your path, then I wish you good luck, because things will never be exactly as you wish.
If you’re tired of all that struggle though, you might just be ready to look within, to turn the energy you aimed at changing others into the spotlight you use to look inside yourself. It may seem scary at first, but I promise that you will love what you discover.
And if you love the sound of all this, but don’t know where to start, my book Mindful Relationships gives you step by step details on how to use the frustrations of daily relationships as fuel for a life of happiness and self discovery. I hope it serves.