How to Meet Yourself
(and find true happiness)
By Dennis Waite
Bliss – perfect happiness – is it something attainable in this life or merely an imagined state in the next? The fact that we spend most of our time striving to be happy suggests that we know exactly what this would be like. The fact that we never seem to achieve it for any significant length of time implies that there is a fundamental obstacle. There is – it is called the ego. We are fixated on the idea that we are lacking something. We believe that we are continually being limited by people and events outside of our control. We seem to be driven to overcome these limitations, satisfy the perceived lack and thereby obtain fulfilment. Unfortunately, we are mistaken as to our real nature – there is no lack and we are already ‘full-filled’. What we need to do is to question these deeply held beliefs - bliss will never be found ‘out there’.
Pleasure, Meaning and Purpose
These are the three aspects describing what people traditionally look for in their lives.
Pleasure is almost certainly genetically programmed: those activities that provide it are usually the ones that help to ensure survival of the species – comfort, security, sleep, eating, exercise, sex. For example, food that is good for us tastes pleasant, whilst unwholesome food seems bitter or rancid etc. This is not because God has made it so but because the genes that predispose us to eat food that ‘tastes good’ are the ones that have naturally survived. This theory also explains why pleasure does not last, since our attention would be diverted from other necessary functions. This is illustrated by the experiment in which monkeys who had the pleasure centre of their brain wired up to a switch repeatedly activated it until they were exhausted. When repeated with humans, it was found that the pleasurable feelings do not last. Pleasure is also not normally regarded as being an end in itself. We can enjoy something yet still claim that we are fundamentally unhappy as, indeed, is the case with the alcoholic or drug user. Pleasure is not the way to bliss.
Meaning might be thought of as ‘filling the hole in our lives’, providing justification for our day to day living. We do not want to feel that we are frittering away the brief time that we have on this planet. Activities that merely pass the time such as watching TV or going out for a drink do not, in themselves, legitimize the spending of that time. A mundane job can also be seen in this light – it may provide an income but lack any physical or intellectual challenge. Most people perform such jobs automatically and spend the duration day-dreaming. This might be contrasted with an artistic hobby such as painting, sculpture or writing. Irrespective of the perceived worth of the product, there is the sense that something is being created, requiring attention, skill and thought. We become involved in the activity and unaware of the passing of time. Even so, if there is no concrete result from the activity or, as in the case of the unskilled or uninspired work of art, it is perceived as worthless, then the value of the ‘meaning’ is called into question, too.
We also feel that we need a sense of purpose in life. If meaning is the tactical element, purpose might be thought of as the strategic aim. Our long-term ambitions should be perceived as productive and valuable; not just personally profitable but ideally of use to others as well. But few people achieve their lifetime’s ambition and, when they do, the outcome is not always what was wished for. One example is the actor Leonard Nimoy, who grew to fame as Spock in the series ‘Star Trek’. He went on to direct his own films, far surpassing his original ambitions. But then he realized that he still felt discontented, turned to alcohol and even contemplated suicide. Another is the musician David Gilmore, of the band Pink Floyd. He had always wanted to be rich and famous and then, one day, realized that he was. He was now forced to ask himself “What next?” and recognize that there was no satisfactory answer.
What makes us happy?
What is it, then, that makes one happy? Let’s examine some of the typical examples.
Perhaps the most trivial, yet common example is the obtaining of a particular material possession that I have desperately wanted for a long time. When the desired object becomes ours, we are truly happy. But soon the object is forgotten or we become used to having it. The state passes and we wonder what we need to do in order to be really happy. What makes one person happy may make another sad; if we want a particular item and we are given ten of them, we will not be ten times happier than if we were just given one. Happiness, it seems, is also relative. If I am given a pay rise, I am happy but, if my colleague is given an even bigger rise, I am not.
How can we explain all of this? A clue can be found in the fact that we are never happy while we are thinking about all of these things. If we are worrying about something, be it our health, the gas bill or what the girl next door thinks about me, we are not happy. If we are afraid of X or desperately want Y, we cannot be happy. The tendency is to think that it is simply that those feelings are one thing and feeling happy is another, so that happiness is naturally excluded. But it is possible to be very ill, disabled or even dying and still be happy. People in conditions of extreme poverty may be much happier than a millionaire. There is clearly more to it than this.
Another clue is that the times when we are most unhappy are when we are depressed. This might seem to be a truism but what is going on when we are deeply miserable? The reason might be that I have lost something or someone to whom I was much attached or that I have realized the desired object is unattainable. I might have failed in a project that was very dear to my heart or discovered that others did not respect my position in some way. (Being made redundant and being divorced are classic causes of depression.) What is the principal concern in all of these cases? Is it not my ‘self-image’ or ‘self-esteem’ that is of concern; how life is adversely impacting on ‘me’? Why is the extravert happier than the introvert? Could it be because she is not constantly thinking about herself? Is it a coincidence that the depressed frequently mope around, doing nothing (except thinking about themselves and their situation)? Why is it that those who are always busy with one activity or another (and not thinking about themselves) are rarely depressed?
As already noted it seems that, at the moment that the desired object is acquired or the desired state attained then happiness ‘arrives’. But another way of looking at this is that the desire ‘departs’. The entire situation would be explained equally well by saying that our natural state is happiness but that this is obscured by desire. As soon as the desire goes (because satisfied), the already existing happiness is revealed. Then, along comes another desire and the happiness is covered over again or, as it seems, we become unhappy.
It seems that the times when we are happiest (and note that this is reported after the event) are when we are deeply involved in some activity, forgetting not only where we are and how the time is passing but also forgetting ourselves. Of course, we do this when watching the TV, reading a book or even day dreaming but these are ultimately unsatisfying because we are completely passive in these actions. Of far more significance are those moments when we are totally awake and giving our full attention. This is the attraction of dangerous sports, for example. Taking risks, especially life-threatening ones, focuses the mind wonderfully and all else is relegated to insignificance.
We are very likely to say that being ‘free’ to choose what to do is a factor in whether or not we are happy but this idealistic state is likely only to lead to our not knowing what to do. Paradoxically, it is when our options are reduced drastically and we are able to focus on just one or two clear goals that we can direct our attention cleanly, forgetting this ego that is forever looking around for something to satisfy it. This explains how it is, for example, that someone who loses a limb in an accident is able to refer to it subsequently as having had a positive effect on their life.
Briefly then, it appears that it is concern about ourselves that somehow gets in the way and prevents us from being happy. It is as though happiness is not something that is reached through action but something which is revealed when the obscuring effect of the ego is removed. Before we can move forward, we need to find out what this ego is exactly. And this entails a much more rigorous investigation into our actual nature. Who exactly are we?
Who we are not
You think you know who you are. After all, don’t you see yourself in the mirror every day? Well, actually, no. What you see in the mirror is a body that is constantly changing, losing and renewing cells, growing in the case of a child, possibly diminishing in the case of a senior citizen, varying in health and fitness for everyone and ultimately dying. If this is who you are, when precisely did you come into existence? Were you ‘you’ in the womb? If so, then why not earlier: perhaps you were ‘half-you’ in your father’s sperm and half in your mother’s egg?
The body is only the food you have eaten, remoulded by proteins, hormones etc. into something more directly useful, such as skin and brain cells. If the brain is damaged, peculiar behaviour may result. This is distressingly apparent in dementia for example. This no doubt causes changes in our own perception of ‘ourselves’ as well as other’s perception. But all of this is at the level of the brain, which is also only food.
What about thoughts, memory, experience? Well, for one thing, just as you have a body whilst not being the body, so you have these things too. When your memory begins to diminish, there is frustration that you cannot remember something that you know you once knew but the one who is failing to remember is the same as the one who once could. It is the memory that changes or fails, not ‘you’. What psychologists might term your personality has been determined partly by your genetic makeup and partly by all of the influences to which you have been subjected throughout your life. Major beliefs such as religion are principally determined by parents and teachers, with books and other media playing an increasingly important role these days. Your particular scheme of morality is largely the result of the society in which you grew up. All of these factors are external to who you really are yet impact so significantly on the way that you act. The very thoughts that occur to you in a given situation will be largely determined by the net result of all of those influences.
So you cannot be the thoughts. You are not your personality because you are not a person. The literal meaning of the word refers to the mask worn by actors in ancient Greece. All of the external ideas, opinions and beliefs impact on the mind of the child and mould this mask, which is the interface through which we interact with the rest of the world. We often feel that others never truly see the ‘real us’ but the truth is that we do not either! Similarly, we are not the various roles that we play in life – teacher, banker, father, sister, son etc. We switch roles as the situation requires and forget them all when we go to sleep.
What is the ego but identification with a particular set of ideas and thoughts? Can you choose to have a particular thought or does it simply arise from you-know-not-where? Is it not the case that a thought arises and then we say ‘I think that…’? Is it not the case that the body does something and then we say ‘I did that’? These are radical thoughts and immediately call into question the notion of free-will. This explanation is the one offered by scientists for the finding that electrical impulses in the brain to trigger movements of the body occur prior to our presumed decision to make such movement!
So I do not choose and ‘I’ do not even ‘do’ anything. Doing happens, certainly, including apparent choosing, but all of this takes place without an entity being in any sense in control. After the event, the thought may arise that ‘I chose’ or ‘I did’ but this is simply a thought arising – and I have no control over that either! But unquestionably there is attachment to the thought that there is an entity – me – who is in control. This attachment and its associated thoughts make up the ego and it, irrevocably, is what most of think we are. But it does not exist.
The ego is not always there. One of the most common times when it is absent occurs for all of us at least once every day –when we are in deep sleep. What is it that is so attractive about sleep? Why do we look forward to it and resent leaving it so much? Irrespective of our present condition of pain or misery, we can enter deep sleep and forget it completely, waking refreshed and ready to begin again. The common responses to this question will probably revolve around rest and replenishing energy etc. but it is worth considering that deep sleep is the one certain time when we can guarantee the absence of the ego. Since, unquestionably, who I really am is nevertheless still present in sleep, I cannot be the ego.
Who am I?
So who am I? The one thing that I can be sure of is that I exist. There is awareness (of all of the things that I am not). This awareness is unchanging – ‘I’ look out upon the world now just as I did when a child. The body is substantially different and the mind radically so but the ‘I’ who observes these remains the same. Moreover, this means that it has been unaffected by either the pains (physical or emotional, from the failing of an exam to the death of a parent) or the pleasures (sensual or intellectual, achievements or gratification).
I am the subject. I can sense the body and thoughts, change roles and go on ‘self-improvement’ courses. Since I am aware of all these things, I cannot be them. One way of putting this is that everything appears in (my) consciousness. Note that the ‘my’ is superfluous and misleading here, since the claim that it is mine is itself only a concept. Modern science has, for many years, been attempting to argue that consciousness is something that magically appears in organisms, once they have reached a certain level of complexity. Rather than say that consciousness arises in the mind, however, it makes far more sense to say that the mind arises in consciousness because this is exactly what is found in our experience, although we do not normally view it in this way. In the suggested exercise of successively rejecting all of the things that we are not, what we are left with – which cannot be rejected – is our awareness or consciousness. That has to be what we are.
The person does not exist – it is the mask that we wear as we go about the world. The ego is a set of thoughts and learned patterns of behaviour with which we mistakenly identify. We are continually looking for purpose and meaning in our lives, not realizing that this perpetual search is forever taking us away from that happiness for which we are looking. There is no purpose and the meaning is in the moment to moment being, accepting this just as it is, simply because it could not possibly be otherwise.
You are not the body or mind, not the thinker, doer or even enjoyer. These are all aspects of the appearance and you are not the appearance. You are That in which all of these appear; they change while you do not.
We often ask ourselves: what do I have to do in order to be happy? The bad news is that there is nothing you can do. The good news is that there is nothing you need to do – who you really are is happiness! Reject all of the preconceptions, all of the mistaken ideals of modern western society. All are irrelevant. Material possessions, status and fame are all mistaken aims, looking in entirely the wrong direction. Turn back now and look to your essential nature, already perfect and complete – and find true bliss.
The above article is based upon the ideas presented in the book, How to Meet Yourself (and find true happiness), published by O Books in January 2007, and appears here with permission from the author. See - Meet Yourself.
Check out his Web site: Advaita.org.uk -- a great collection of resources on non-duality from the perspective of Advaita.