Being gloriously joyful is invariably a matter of choice. It is ours to have where we are, who we are, and in this very moment, says Ayesha Chopra
Happiness is a matter of choice!” Fifteen years ago, I would have dismissed this claim as mere platitude. But now, after having struggled and successfully come out of years of depression and unhappiness, I feel qualified enough to assert that if I can make it, so can you and anyone else who is seeking inner peace and happiness.
I now have sufficient reason to believe that happiness is not the prerogative of a few enlightened souls. It is available to all who are willing to make that choice. I hasten to explain that choosing to be happy doesn’t mean that we never feel sad or pained, or struggle with difficult emotions, or face conflicts from time to time. Nor does it mean that we deny or suppress painful emotions. As humans we are bound to feel all the emotions from time to time, both positive and negative. We are enriched by the range and depth of our emotional realm. In our world of opposites where there are negative influences of hatred and anger, there are also the positive aspects of love, compassion and generosity. Each of us is capable of choosing and manifesting both in our personal reality.
Happiness is a matter of consciously choosing the positive over the negative—peace over violence, compassion over hatred, forgiveness over anger, generosity over greed and faith over fear. Of cultivating a state of mind that remains strong and stable, content and peaceful in the face of fleeting emotions and changing circumstances. The beauty of it all is that it is within the reach of each one of us if we so choose.
But if happiness is a matter of choice why would anyone choose to be unhappy? Firstly, because we don’t know any better! For years I remained miserable and unhappy, blaming fate, shedding helpless tears. I believed that it was my destiny to suffer and so I just did. Secondly, we sometimes don’t want to break a pattern that we are comfortably enmeshed in. Misery becomes a familiar state and therefore hard to let go. I had invested so much energy holding on to anger and hurt that the thought of giving it up was threatening and unwelcome. Thirdly, often there is an unconscious emotional payoff in staying unhappy. I had an aunt who seemed to thrive on the attention she got from others when she was unhappy and unwell, and so subconsciously avoided taking charge of her life. Fourthly, the drama attached to a ‘tragic life’ becomes, in a perverse way, more attractive and exciting than the tranquillity of a happy and peaceful state causing us to exaggerate the negative and downplay the positive.
And finally, it is because we have never really learnt how to consciously choose happiness. We learn all sorts of things to become ‘successful’ members of society: education, social and communication skills, establishing a network of ‘right’ contacts, livelihoods that help us make good money and lead a materially comfortable life. What we do not learn is how to be emotionally and psychologically independent and self-reliant. On the contrary, some beliefs and habits we acquire foster dependence and unhappiness instead. Like the belief that our happiness lies in something external— person, job, profession, company, bank balance, material gains—something we can depend upon as an emotional and psychological anchor. But the more we depend on it the more of our own power and strength we compromise. If, for any reason we lose it, we become fearful, restless and unhappy. We then spend a lifetime seeking the lost security in another similar anchor – a person, place or thing that we erroneously but firmly believe can make us happy and content.
I once heard a wise man ask: How can a person who is himself seeking anchor become one to another? How can someone who is himself fearful provide steady support to another? How can something that gives joy today and pain tomorrow – become a source of lasting peace and happiness? It was then I began to see how the same thing that was a source of joy today could become a source of pain tomorrow. The same person who brought happiness today could cause pain tomorrow. I understood the simple truth that if we depend for our well-being on someone else or something external then our emotions will always be like a yo-yo, up one minute and down the next. If they behave as we want them to, we feel good, loving and happy and if they don’t, we become frustrated, angry and unhappy. And then we hold on to the emotional burden of anger, resentment, grief, pain and guilt and wonder why we are not at peace! It is like carrying 100 kgs of weight 24/7 on our back and then wondering why our body aches all over!
The belief that someone else is responsible for our happiness inevitably creates the habit of blaming others when things don’t go right. Blaming our parents, our spouse, our friends, our children, our boss, our colleagues, our neighbours, the government, the conditions of our birth, our fate, our kismet – when something undesirable happens abdicate our responsibility in the situation. We grumble, sulk, hold back favours, feel resentful and carry grudges – all the while frittering away precious energy which could otherwise be spent in resolving the situation and changing the undesirable.
The truth is that our emotional and mental state is in our control. Unless we first assume total responsibility for it we cannot create the peaceful and happy life-experience we desire. Life by its very nature is uncertain and unreliable. There are always ups and downs as it continues its dance. If we seek a steady mind which does not sink into abysmal depression with the ‘downs’ or become euphoric with the ‘highs’ it is up to us to create it. Not blaming others but by taking unconditional responsibility for our own words, thoughts and actions.
Being open to change
My process of transformation began when I started to understand certain natural principles, laws and truths that operate in the universe and govern our passage through life. The romantic notion of “forever” encouraged by books, movies and legends that eternalised love and romance was challenged when life dealt a cruel blow and a significant relationship ended in pain. It was then I first heard J Krishnamurti say that the old had to die for the new to begin. I understood the concept philosophically but in my day-to-day reality I did not want the old to die. Happiness had come my way for a while and I wanted it to be forever!
I was swimming against the tide of time and struggling against the natural law of constant change. Seasons change, people change, situations change, circumstances change, thoughts change, feelings change – there is nothing that remains the same from one moment to the next. We are a part of nature and everything in and around us changes all the time. Peace and contentment come from recognising, understanding, embracing and flowing with the immutable law of impermanence and the uncertainty that it brings in its wake.
Just around the time, a poster of Gita-Saar (the essence of the Gita) came to me. A short version of its English translation is presented below.
Whatever happened, happened for good.
Whatever is happening, is happening for good.
Whatever happens in the future will also be for good.
What have you lost for which you cry?
What did you bring with you which you have lost?
What did you produce which has been destroyed?
You did not bring anything.
Whatever you have, you have received from Him.
Whatever you will give, you will give to Him.
You came empty handed and you will go the same way.
Whatever is yours today was somebody else’s yesterday and will be somebody else’s tomorrow.
Change is the law of the universe.
When I understood the profound truth of the nature of impermanence and the inevitability of change, I started feeling the first stirrings of faith in divine guidance. I clearly realised that if we fight change which is a natural phenomenon, we create struggle, frustration and unhappiness in the process. As soon as we stop fighting change – whatever it may be – and embrace reality as is, we align ourselves with the flow of life and our inner struggle ends. We are then in a much better state to deal with whatever shows up.
“There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” - William Shakespeare (Hamlet)
In itself, an experience is neither good nor bad. We make it so by the way we choose to think about it. A rainy day means a good crop to a farmer, a welcome holiday to a school child, a sleepless night to a homeless, and a nuisance to a woman who has just had her hair done. We perceive something through our five senses and immediately evaluates it as being pleasant or unpleasant. Since it is humanly impossible for us to register everything in our external reality, the information we take in is selective, incomplete, filtered and distorted. The picture of reality in our head thus created with limited information is quite different from the reality “out there.” When we respond to a person or an event we react to what is in our head, and not to them as they really are.
Our feelings toward people are directly connected to the pictures we to create in our head with the limited information that we take in about them. This is why when someone acts in a way different from the image in our head we have a hard time accepting it. The cause of our unhappiness, therefore, is not what happens to us but how we carry the experience in our head – and the way we think about it.
Our thoughts and feelings are intricately connected, negative thoughts breed negative feelings. So if I wanted to change my state of depression and the feelings of hopelessness that I was stuck in, then I had to start by thinking differently. I had to change the critical self-talk and the negative pictures I had created in my head. I also realised that there was no one who had the power to change my thoughts and feelings, but me.
Once I firmly decided with all sincerity to change my self-destructive state of depression it seemed as though the Universe itself tuned in to my intention. I became aware of – and open to receive – the help that seemed to flow in from all directions making my efforts that much easier and fruitful. I felt like I was being invisibly guided by a higher force to make a new beginning. Truly, when we declare strong intentions to do something and our entire being is aligned with it, then all the forces in the universe conjoin to help us realise it.
Initially, I consciously created positive thought-patterns and refused to dwell on sensory inputs that are mentally and emotionally disturbing. I was determined to cleanse my energy system of all the toxicity that had accumulated in me. I developed a simple rule to avoid as far as possible the negative thoughts, words, pictures and sounds – both internal and external – that were even remotely depressing. I consciously replaced them by looking for beauty in simple things to enrich my daily experience: the first rays of the morning sun, the sound of birds chirping, the wind rustling through the leaves on trees, the sight and smell of flowers, the engaging smile of a child on the street, the kind gesture of a colleague, the taste of my favourite food, the feel of cool refreshing water on the face and more. Once I opened up to the beauty around me the sources were endless. I let the joy of it expand and fill my heart and mind as much as I could – and the negative feelings seemed to just melt away.
I began to formulate positive thoughts about myself in order to revive my sagging self-esteem. I adopted a ‘no-grudge, no-resentment’ policy and made sincere efforts to understand people’s actions and intentions especially if they were hurtful. If I could not understand them I just let them be, reminding myself that people must play out their karma in their own way. I started offering heartfelt thanks to the Higher Power for all my experiences, trusting that there was something good in what was unfolding for me whether I could immediately recognise it or not. I woke up every morning, welcoming the miraculously glorious day and laid down to rest at night with deep feelings of gratitude in my heart for being alive, well and happy. Soon the conscious practice of choosing and staying with the positive became an unconscious habit and a way of life.
Do I regress from time to time? Sure. But I am now better able to deal with it thanks in a large part to my daily meditation practice of Vipassana. When external negative stimuli get overwhelming I remain aware and just be with the sensations as they play around in me. The undercurrent of calmness helps me to be still until the turbulent sensations pass as they must, and leave me at peace again.
In our world, we are often taught to choose success but are seldom, if ever, taught to choose happiness. I now invite you to do just that: choose to be happy regardless of the circumstances. Unwanted things are bound to happen from time to time but we do not have to trade inner happiness for them. Regardless of who you are, what your cultural background is or whichever part of the world you reside in you can choose to be happy, not in the distant future somewhere, sometime, after you have achieved a coveted goal but now, in the present moment, because in the ultimate analysis isn’t that the true and fundamental measure of our success?
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