“Happiness is something that is not made, it comes from your own actions.” Dalai lama.
Three years ago, as part of my training in The Institute of The Work of Byron Katie, I took Katie’s “No Body Intensive.” This is a five-day, guided exploration of our belief systems, which brings to awareness all aspects of identity: how we create it; what it feels like to us; and how we can un-create it.
It is an unwrapping of your true nature, or who you really are without your “story.” It was during this five-day intensive I asked one of Katie’s long-time facilitators to work with me on thoughts and beliefs around my younger brother Byron’s murder. The session, and the results of the session were nothing short of mind-blowing.
I learned that I was “murdering Byron over and over again” each time I saw images in my mind of Byron’s blood in the trunk of his car or imagined how he might have died. I had been recreating the possibilities in my mind. His car had been found across the state line with his blood in the trunk, yet his body was missing for three years before it was found. These horrifying mind-movies that I played over and over had caused me immense anxiety and trauma.
What I have learned is my body is innocent. It simply does not know if I am experiencing this trauma the first time or the hundredth time.
So I suffered afresh each and every time. I also realized that as long as I continued to work with the Investigator of Violent Crimes and the police department to keep Byron’s cold case alive and to solve it, I was imprisoning myself.
I got free that day. I realized I was the cause of my suffering. It was not caused by the actual circumstance of my brother’s murder. It was how I thought about the circumstances that caused my suffering.
Grief and prolonged suffering are two different things. When I realized I, alone, was creating my continued suffering over my brother’s death, that very day was the day I found compassion for myself and for the journey of my whole life.
You hold the keys to your own happiness; it is your responsibility. Please get this into your head right now. It matters not what age you are now, this fact holds true for your entire life. You can’t make anyone else happy and no one can make you happy. Happiness comes from within you, not from any outside possession or person.
If you live your life waiting for the perfect partner, your weight to be what it was back in high school, or for a job that pays you more than you make now, forget it. You may never find happiness if it’s dependent on external sources. We tend to believe that situations, people or things cause our unhappiness. We suffer because these are all external to us, and we have no control.
We often confuse who we are with the trappings of the external world: jobs; how we look physically; comparing our accomplishments to those of others; how much money we make or have; what cars we drive; and where we live. True happiness is hard to find in our society if we continue to focus on acquiring more, more and more. All of this constitutes a huge black hole – there is never enough to feed the hungry ghost of the ego.
Sure, each one of us has a version of our own “hell and back” story in our life. No one escapes life’s tragedies and heartaches. But we can choose not to live our lives with stories that cause our suffering. What I do know for sure is this: It is how we use these experiences that is key.
Stop and Question Your Negative Thoughts
You get to choose at any moment to take your life experience – the adversity you’ve faced — and use it to become stronger. Or not. If you believe your thoughts without questioning them for the truth, you are at their mercy. If you want to get free, you must question those thoughts that cause you emotional pain.
There is a huge up-side to even the most challenging and painful life experiences we live. They break us open to whom we are supposed to be. I would not be doing what I do today had my brother not been killed. My life and career paths were headed in a different direction.
Stopping to question our negative thoughts, and thereby stopping them in their tracks, will lead you to your inner self. Each of us was born with our own true nature of joy and love. Love is at our core, as well as truth and peace.
So, you ask, do I manage to achieve this questioning all the time? Truth be told, no, but this is my intent; this is the place I want to live from. I intend to live from love and compassion, for others and myself. I am doing the best I can in each moment and when I realize I am off course, am too caught up in my mind traps and stories, I question them to find my truth.
Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together
Our brains are wired to remember the negative things in life. This served a purpose in our evolution, when fear helped keep our ancestors alive. Scientific research has named this the negativity bias; the brain preferentially scans for threats and negative information, stores that information and retrieves it preferentially.
But today, our vulnerability to fear has crippling effects, if not managed appropriately. Sure, we need to look both ways before we cross the road, and a healthy respect, even fear, can assist in that habit. But the level of fear we carry daily can paralyze us into the inability to reach our true, peaceful nature.
Why is it easier to remember negative experiences than positive ones? Positive experiences that are rewarding get embedded in our brains into our “implicit memory.” This refers to memories of previous experiences we call on unconsciously to assist in the performance of a task, such as riding a bike, or tying your shoes. You remember how to do it, with no memory of learning how to do it.
Negative experiences are handled differently. Our brain helps us to survive and pass on our genes, by holding on to negative experiences in order to keep us safe – they remind us of danger. We humans overestimate threats in the world, and we pay a lot of attention to perceived threats and the way we believe we are mistreated by others. Our brain catalogs and stores resentments, disappointments, fears and any negative issue we’ve experienced with someone.
We also focus on our own mistakes, perceived flaws, shameful experiences, feelings of guilt, and inadequacies. Our inner critic or inner judge (the voice in the head) is often on overdrive. Our bodies react more intensely to these negative experiences than to positive experiences.
How to Become Happier and More Joyful
So how do we focus on the good in our lives? My friend Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Love, Happiness and Wisdom, believes we must compensate for how quickly we remember the negative things in life, by focusing on the good that is around us.
By increasing the intensity, the duration and the felt sense of happiness in your body each time you are in a positive experience, you are essentially creating new neural circuits to build in your brain. Neuroscientists at leading institutions like Harvard Medical School, The University of California Los Angeles, The University of Toronto, and The University of California San Diego, are researching in a new area called “neuroplasticity.” They are showing that the brain, through self-directed focus, can actually change its neural patterns as a result of the thoughts we think – we can even dial up the “happiness set point!” By the practice of focused thought and feeling, it is possible to “rewire” ourselves to experience our world any way we choose. In other words – you are using your mind to change your brain.
Focusing on the Good
True happiness is found in states of being, in simple things. Let’s start by having you focus on the things you are grateful for in your life.
- A good daily practice is to start the day with a gratitude list.For example, “I am happy the sun is out today, and I can hear the birds.” Pick one thing on your list to focus on. Think about how grateful you are about this thing.
- Next Feel the feeling of happiness. Breathe deeply and dwell on this feeling for at least 30 seconds. Notice how this shifts the feelings of your body.
- Bring the feelings into your body — this is your felt sense — and let it flow into your heart and heal the wounds and then flow out your body like honey.
- If you notice you drift into thinking other thoughts, gently return to the grateful thought, which will bring back the sense of happiness.
- Make an effort to share your happiness with others. Smile more often. Savor it.
- Before you go to sleep at night, think about three things for which you are grateful, then bring in the feelings to your body. Stay with them as long as possible.
This will build new pathways in your brain and if you do this on a consistent basis, you will feel happier and more at peace. You will find you are more open and available to other people in your life. And you will build a new reality of peace and joy for you and all around you.