The odd and counterintuitive way to get unstuck and be happy
Our ego has played a trick on us. It would have us believe that happiness comes from avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure.
If that were true, then every one of should logically be on drugs (and in truth we all are). Drugs, in whatever form, are the fastest, most efficient way to escape pain.
As we all know, this doesn’t actually work — we numb out the pain temporarily, but when the drug has worn off, the pain still remains (as well as the destructive effects of the drug).
Then why do we still do it on a routine basis?
Why, when we feel bored, do we escape into Facebook or smartphone games? Why, when we feel rejected, do we numb ourselves with food, TV, or pornography? Why, when we feel shamed, do we shrink into the cocoon of depression?
It’s because, despite seeing that it doesn’t work, we still believe that running away from negative emotions is how to become happy. We don’t know any other way.
Most of our pursuit of happiness is not a pursuit at all, but rather an escape — an escape from any pain in the present moment.
We escape in three primary ways, all of which are forms of absentmindedness — the opposite of presence:
- Resistance/Avoidance: This is an “anything but this experience” attitude. It can manifest as fear, anxiety, worry, procrastination, avoidance, frustration, irritation, complaining, arguing, judging, even hostility or hatred. It boils down to an argument with reality — the belief that something shouldn’t be as it is.
- Clinging/Idealization: This is the thought of “I’ll be happy when…”, or “When x happens, then I’ll be happy.” It’s a dissatisfaction with the present moment and looking forward to something changing or improving. This creates an endless quest for the ideal experience (which advertisers thrive on, by the way).
- Delusion/Numbing: This is zoning out, becoming numb, deadening ourselves. This can take a mild form like daydreaming, or a more aggressive form like numbing ourselves out with drugs.
In every case, we’re trying to escape painful feelings. This is what psychologists refer to as “distress intolerance,” which is defined as the “perceived inability to fully experience unpleasant, aversive or uncomfortable emotions, and is accompanied by a desperate need to escape the uncomfortable emotions.”
“None of us like experiencing unpleasant emotions. But there’s a difference between disliking them while accepting they are an inevitable part of life, and experiencing them as unbearable and desperately trying to avoid and rid ourselves of them.
“If we can’t stick with the distress, breathing through it and into it, we have no chance of developing a deeper level of mindfulness and ease in our lives. The journey to mental and emotional strength, healing and wholeness is through embracing our whole lives and our whole selves, warts and all…
“We cannot heal until we learn to sit with our sadness, pain and insecurity…Our ability to feel true bliss is proportionate to our willingness to face difficult feelings.”
The most self-destructive and unhappy people are those with the least amount of distress tolerance.
Thus, the magic word that gets us unstuck and helps us to become truly happy is this: STAY.
When we feel angry, afraid, embarrassed, or any other negative emotion, the key to working through it is to stay with the raw, direct experience. Don’t react, don’t flip into absentmindedness to escape — just sit with the emotions and look at them mindfully.
This is the only way to gain the self-awareness of the deeper issues triggering the emotions so we can solve the root problems rather than numbing out the symptoms with our various forms of absentmindedness. As Colin Tipping explains,
“If you can’t feel it, you can’t heal it.”
This is why consistent mindful meditation — the science and practice of staying in the present moment — is so critical; it is the single best way to build distress tolerance.
Someone cuts you off on the freeway. Your instant reaction is to want to yell at them and flip them the bird. You desperately want to get rid of the anger and fear that exploded in you; reacting in anger is a drug, an escape.
Stay. Don’t react in anger, but stay with the boiling, frothing emotion. Don’t make it bad or undesirable; it simply is. Be with it. Observe it and see what you find.
Your wife says something that makes you feel rejected and unloved. The temptation arises to escape into pornography.
Stay. Stay with the deep ache in your heart. Just look at it with objective curiosity. Where is it coming from? Why do you feel the temptation? What are you running away from? What are you wanting to numb? What need are you trying to meet? Just STAY.
Your boss yells at you and embarrasses you in front of your peers. You go home, plop yourself down on the couch, and want nothing more than to numb out your feelings with TV.
Leave the TV off. Stay with the emotions. Let the shame and embarrassment wash over you in waves.
Stay. Stay. Stay.
It’s precisely by running away from painful emotions that we miss the key insights and major breakthroughs they can offer us.
As mindfulness teacher Pema Chödrön explains,
“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
To get unstuck and learn to be happy in spite of circumstances, the single greatest strength we can cultivate is distress tolerance — learning to stay with painful emotions.
Happiness is not an escape from reality, but rather seeing reality as it is and being with it wholeheartedly.
To learn more and cultivate your ability to stay, listen to Pema Chödrön’s life-changing audio program “Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality.”