By Ayesha Chopra
Being gloriously joyful is invariably a matter of choice. It is ours to have, where we are, to who we are, and in this very moment.
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.
Granted, when we are grappling with life’s struggles and hardships, happiness can certainly feel like an elusive quality. It took me personally almost a lifetime of struggle with intense emotional disturbances to realise that real happiness is a self-existent, unconditional state. It doesn’t depend on external conditions or extrinsic factors but is an internal state of peace and calmness, harmony and intrinsic well-being. It lies at the very core of our being, available to each one of us but lost perhaps under layers of negativity – of violence, anger, hatred, greed and fear. What a liberating discovery it is to find that happiness could really be just a simple matter of 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. Being human we are bound to feel all the emotions from time to time, both positive and negative. Indeed, we are enriched by the range and depth of our emotional realm.
In our world of opposites where there are negative influences of violence, 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.
|Ayesha Chopra: Choosing happiness consciously|
Happiness is a matter of choosing the positive over the negative. It is a matter of consciously choosing 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, much like the deep ocean bed that remains tranquil and undisturbed by the stormy winds blowing on its surface. The beauty of it all is that it is within the reach of each one of us if we so choose.
The question one might well ask is:
If happiness is a matter of choice why would anyone choose to be unhappy?
First of all, because we don’t know any better! I certainly didn’t. For years I remained miserable and unhappy, blaming fate, shedding helpless tears and questioning why ‘God’ should have piled such misery on me! I truly had no idea of my own power or ability to change my experience. I believed that it was my destiny to suffer and so I just did!
Secondly, unbelievable as it may sound, we sometimes don’t want to break a pattern that we are comfortably enmeshed in. When we spend a considerable time nursing a certain feeling it becomes familiar and comfortable. We then resist change.
The long years I spent in a depressed state kept me from experiencing the joys of life but it had become a familiar state and therefore hard to let go. Besides, I had invested so much energy holding on to anger and hurt that the pain of it seemed to sustain me and the thought of just giving it up was threatening and unwelcome. What else would I hold on to if I just gave it up?
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. She thus cleverly – albeit unconsciously – avoided taking charge of herself and her life.
Fourthly, there is the drama that unhappiness creates. For some, a ‘tragic life’ becomes in a perverse way more attractive and exciting than the tranquillity of a happy and peaceful state. And so we create a drama out of an ordinary event, exaggerating the negative and playing down the positive.
And finally, it is because we have never really learned how to consciously choose happiness.
|CARL JUNG |
‘Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.’
Living in a society where discontentment, dissatisfaction and disharmony are more the norm than the exception, we learn all sorts of things to make us ‘successful’ members of society: excelling in studies and sports, gaining social and communication skills, establishing a network of ‘right’ contacts, choosing livelihoods that help us make good money and lead a materially comfortable life. All “useful” things aimed at attaining social and financial independence. 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. For example: The belief that our happiness lies in something external such as a person, a job, a profession, a company, a product, a dwelling, bank balance, jewels, gems, precious metals, etc; something that we can identify with and depend upon as an emotional and psychological anchor.
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, helpless, depressed or in some other way 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 stopped seeking an external anchor when I started thinking about the questions 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 is essentially transient – that gives joy today and pain tomorrow – become a source of lasting peace and happiness?
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, depending on how the person behaves or the situation turns out. 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. If things go the way we want we feel good, if not we become sad and depressed. 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.
In the process of growing up, we observe people blaming others when they are angry or unhappy and we fall right in line.
When something undesirable happens we look for someone to assign blame: 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 – indeed anyone or anything that is available and convenient for us to abdicate our responsibility in the situation.
We grumble, complain, sulk, withdraw, 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 experience. Not only do we create a distance with the person we blame for our discontent, but we also transfer to them the power over our emotions.
The truth is that our emotional and mental state is in our control. Unless we first assume total responsibility for it we are unable to 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.
‘It doesn’t matter how long we may have been stuck in a sense of our limitations. If we go into a darkened room and turn on the light, it doesn’t matter if the room has been dark for a day, a week, or ten thousand years – we turn on the light and
it is illuminated. Once we control our capacity for love and happiness, the light has been turned on…’
Being open to change
My personal 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. One of the first principles that I could no longer avoid was that there is no such thing as “forever!” A lifelong romantic notion was sadly laid to rest when I finally acknowledged the fact that FOREVER does not exist!
Being a diehard romantic encouraged by the books, movies and legends that eternalised love and romance, I deeply wanted to believe that love (as I knew it then) is forever.
When life dealt a cruel blow and a significant relationship ended in pain, the only conclusion I could latch on to was that I must not be good or deserving enough; that I must have done something really bad for which I was being karmically ‘punished!’
I had first heard J Krishnamurti, the renowned philosopher, say that the old had to die for the new to begin. I had 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 virtually kicked and screamed and fought the change that plunged me from a brief period of ‘high’ into the seemingly interminable ‘low’ of despair.
That, I later realised, was one of the main reasons for my unhappiness: I was swimming against the tide of time and struggling against the natural law of constant change.
We are a part of nature and everything in Nature, both in and around us, changes all the time. It is a natural law that we have no control over. The forces of life keep moving. 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. 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 when my personal transformation began, Arun, a dear friend, gave me a laminated poster of Gita-Saar (the essence of the teachings of The Bhagavad Gita, the holy book of the Hindus) in Hindi. The poster seemed to ‘talk’ directly to me and I hung it on a wall in my bedroom where I could see it, read it and mull over its message every day. I thank Arun from the bottom of my heart and reverentially reproduce a short version of its English translation 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.
The words hit home in the most poignant way. What I had believed to be mine was never mine. I had not lost anything because I never had anything to begin with. I then started thinking about the words “whatever happened, happened for good.” With an open mind I started searching for the possible good in the events that had befallen me.
Our brain is indeed amazing. As Tony Robbins notes in Awaken the Giant Within, it strives to answer the exact questions we ask ourselves. As long as I asked questions such as “What had I done to be punished with so much misery and pain?” my brain came up with several self-demeaning and critical possibilities to explain why! But when I started looking for the good in what had happened, my brain came up with all sorts of reasons for me to be thankful for the way my life was turning out.
We don’t always know why things happen the way they do. There is a bigger cosmic scheme – an intricate network of cosmic connections – which we do not always recognise or comprehend. The reason consciously desired things do not happen and undesired things do, may reveal itself to us years later – or perhaps never. But if we care to think about it we notice that everything ultimately falls in place in the larger design that Nature constantly weaves around us.
We often think of undesired change as something lost. But where there is a loss of something there is also a gain of something else. Night ends and a new day dawns; the sun sets and a period of rest and rejuvenation begins; the egg breaks and the possibility of making an omelette arises. Similarly, when one door closes on us another is bound to open. It is up to us to choose whether to continue to focus on the door that has closed or to explore what’s beyond the one that has opened. As someone wisely said, if we keep looking at the closed door we fail to even notice that something else has opened up for us.
Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy
today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day,today, and I’m going to be happy in it.
When I understand 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 swim against the tide, creating 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.
That understanding radically altered the way I was experiencing my circumstances and brought another truth directly into my field of awareness:
An experience is as good or as bad as we choose to think about it. In itself, an experience is neither good nor bad. We make it good or bad by the way we choose to think about it. (Remember Shakespeare’s famous line in Hamlet “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”?)
Come to think of it, an event by itself really means nothing. We lend it meaning by the way we perceive it. A rainy day means a good crop to a farmer, a welcome holiday to a school child, a sleepless night to a homeless person and a nuisance to a woman who has just had her hair done! Each of them reacts differently to it because each of them perceives it differently.
This is how it works: With our sense faculties we see, hear, taste, touch or smell something. Immediately, our brain registers and 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.
When we meet someone we immediately create an image of the person in our head with the limited information we take in about them. Then, we either like the image that we have created and feel good about them, or dislike it and feel bad. Our feelings toward them are directly connected to the pictures we choose to create in our head. 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.
Let the inner sun shine, when the heavens rain upon us.
Since our thoughts and feelings are intricately connected, if our thoughts are negative our feelings are bound to be negative. It was clear to me that if I wanted to change my state of depression and the feelings of hopelessness that I was enmeshed 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 other than me who had the power to change my thoughts and feelings. I had to do the work all by myself!
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. Not for nothing is it said that when we declare strong intentions to do something and when our entire being is aligned with it, then all the forces in the universe conjoin to help us realise it.
At first, 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 all negative thoughts, words, pictures and sounds – both internal and external – that were even remotely depressing.
There is an abundance of beauty, love and joy in the world that is lost to us when we are absorbed in struggling with negative emotions. To enrich my daily experience I deliberately and consciously started looking for beauty in simple things: the first rays of the morning sun, the sound of birds chirping outside my window, the wind rustling through the leaves on the trees, the sight and smell of flowers prettily arranged in the flower-pot or growing wild in the field, the glistening dew drops on a blade of grass, the engaging smile of a child on the street, the kind gesture of a colleague, the sight, smell and taste of my favourite food, the feel of cool refreshing water on the face and so on. 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.
|Gloriously content in the sunset of her life|
Soon the conscious practice of choosing and staying with the positive became an unconscious habit and a way of life. To this day, I continue to choose thoughts, words and actions that favour compassion, peace, tranquillity, unity and harmony, and to avoid those that reflect violence, enmity, hatred and divisiveness.
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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