I used to seek happiness outside of myself. “Just one more” was the promise I made. After receiving “just one more” possession or accolade, then I could be happy. Maybe you can relate?
From the outside looking in, I had it all. I was on my way to becoming a medical doctor, had just bought a nice townhouse in a NJ suburb, and was fortunate enough to afford all the latest designer fashions, jewelry, and cars my heart desired. Yet, the truth is while I was chasing these things my life was only getting more stressful and my happiness wasn’t increasing. I noticed that as I acquired things, I was happy for an instant but the happiness soon faded and almost immediately I was running after something else to make me feel happy again. And it eventually became apparent to me that something was wrong or missing.
I began to ask myself questions such as, “why wasn’t the happiness lasting?”; “Why weren’t all these things making my life less stressful?”; and “with all the stress I was putting myself under, to achieve what society said should make me happy, why was there still a void inside?”
Questions such as these sent me out on a deep soul-searching journey. What I discovered was nothing new but rather what ancient wisdom has taught for thousands of years. And that is, there is nothing outside ourselves which can bring us the lasting happiness we seek.
In fact, if happiness was found in an external object, then accumulating more and more of that object would increase our happiness. Yet, if we are truly mindful of the nature of things we realize that this is not the case at all. The truth is the very opposite.
Continually acquiring more of something, in the long run, often leads to only more suffering. For example, if you are a chocoholic like I am, and you think that the happiness derived from eating the chocolate is inherent in the chocolate itself, then eating more chocolate would make you even happier.
But, does it? No!
Eating more and more chocolate moves you from happiness to suffering by making you either sick of eating it, physically sick (stomach ache, obesity, etc…), and/or brings the misery and suffering of frequent visits to your dentist. This clearly demonstrates that the happiness found in eating a piece of chocolate is not in the chocolate itself.
And so, I decided to perform an experiment to see what would happen if I turned my search for happiness from the outer world to the inner one. I set my foot on the path of meditation and began to navigate and explore the terrain of my heart and mind. And thus began a 17 year (and still counting) love-affair, which has taken me around the world studying different meditative and contemplative practices in meditation centers, ashrams, and monasteries of the US, Nepal, and India.
So, when Wisdom 2.0 announced they would be hosting their first Mindfulness in America Summit in NYC last month, I was thrilled! Getting to listen and speak with mindfulness experts, teachers, and researchers about their personal experience, the latest scientific findings, and where the future of the practice was headed was most inspiring and encouraging. My only regret is the event wasn’t longer; as there were so many topics covered it would have been nice to have a couple extra days to expand on some of them.
My biggest surprise was the person who touched me the most was singer, songwriter, author, and poet Jewel. Probably, not the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of mindfulness. And to be honest, when I heard she was part of the summit, while knowing many of her songs, I didn’t know much about her life, and I ignorantly thought, “How could a 43 year old musician now be a mindfulness expert! Where did she study?” But, Jewel’s wisdom comes from the world’s greatest teacher – life experience. And her intimate knowledge and deep understanding of mindfulness came through clearly and powerfully in the personal stories she told us during the opening night concert, as well as, her next day interview with Arianna Huffington.
Something she said during that interview has remained with me all these weeks after the event:
“Happiness is a side effect and not a destination. Happiness isn’t like France. You don’t get there and say, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to stay here.'”
While this got a chuckle from the audience, to me truer words have never been spoken! Because if mindfulness teaches us anything, it’s that the only thing true is change. Through our practice we see that our moods are constantly changing; our emotions constantly changing; our thoughts are constantly changing; and the world around us is constantly changing. Therefore, this life is always going to have its’ ups & downs. Possessions and things are going to break, wear out, and get old; people are going to come and go from our lives; feelings are going to arise and pass away; people we love will get sick; etc… Eventually though, through our inner watching and awareness, we come to the direct realization that each minute we are completely different than we were the previous minute. And therefore, we see that while we’d love to, it’s impossible to stay in a perpetual state of happiness forever.
Yet, ironically, even with the constant change, through practice our happiness does increase because mindfulness enables us to ride the waves of life with more ease and balance. The practice empowers us to move through this journey of life with equanimity. If we realize that things are always changing, and through our practice have learned to be fully present with equanimity, then as Jewel wisely points out our happiness increases as a “side effect” because when pleasurable and happy moments arise, being fully present grants us the opportunity to experience the pleasure and happiness on a much deeper level.
If we are passing through a moment of happiness with a mind that is scattered, somewhere else, or worried about how to keep this enjoyable state, then we are not intimately connected to the moment and missing the true experience of that happiness. In the same manner, when unpleasant experiences come along the equanimity cultivated through our mindfulness give us the understanding that since things are constantly changing the unpleasantness of the situation cannot remain forever. This realization enables us to not be so overwhelmed during these times, keeps the thought “this too shall pass” in the back of our minds, and thereby also leads to greater happiness, as a “side effect”.
Additionally, happiness is increased through mindfulness practice because of its powerful ability to provide stress relief. So, please allow me to fall back on medical background for a moment. According to the American Medical Association, the number one underlying factor in 67% of all the world’s illness and disease is stress. And sadly, in today’s society we are bombarded by stressors from all directions. But, what’s even worse is our children now have to navigate through this difficult and stressful world and try to deal with stress from a very young age. This has led to a rise in anxiety, depression, and mental disorders among our children. According to an article published in Psychology Today, “By some estimates, five to eight times as many students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago.”
The good news for adults and children alike is that research on mindfulness meditation shows a profound impact to quell anxiety and reduce stress. This means these ancient holistic practices actually cut at the root cause of 67% of all disease and illness; something western medicine doesn’t always have the ability to do. And I give credit to the science and research, because it is their efforts which have opened the doors to many of our educational institutions and has seemed to create a “Mindfulness Movement” within our society.
We still have a long way to go and some hurdles to overcome. Especially since, mindfulness meditation is sometimes being touted as the be-all, end-all, cure-all for life’s problems. And I will be the first to say, even with my intense passion for the practice, that this is not the case. But, the powerful benefits for health and stress relief are reasons why everyone should be curious about the practice. The research does show increased levels of happiness and remarkable benefits for our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. And while I can say that my direct first-hand experience attests to this, I encourage you to not simply take my word for it, but instead I invite you to do your own experiment with mindfulness and see what kind of benefits it brings into your life.