There is a common belief circulating in the spiritual scene… and on Facebook. That is the idea that we can ‘choose to be happy’. One look at my Facebook newsfeed and I am confronted with at least one of the following quotes floating by: ‘Happiness is a choice. Choose happiness’, ‘I am in charge of how I feel and today I am choosing happiness’, or ‘Most people are about as happy as they make up their mind to be’.
Mm… really? Usually one of two things happens to me when I read this. Whenever I feel happy, mentally I reply: ‘Yes, yes, yes, that is right!!’. I feel on top of the world and I take ownership of that feeling, I feel like ‘I did’ this. I feel that I took all the steps necessary to feel happy. I feel great and I feel proud. However, when I feel down and read such a quote I try to ‘feel happy’, which usually doesn’t work. As a result I can feel worse. Sometimes I don’t necessarily feel worse, but just still down-ish and think the whole quote is bullcrap after all.
The belief in working hard
Those quotes are distillations of teachers and ‘spiritual’ philosophies sharing meditations or other techniques that dictate that we can change our thoughts. The common denominator and backbone of those teachings and (meditation) techniques is first of all that some feelings, thoughts, emotions are bad (undesirable), while others are good (desirable). From that follows that these ‘bad’ feelings, thoughts, emotions should be changed. Another common belief is that these techniques should be practiced, preferably very very frequently.
Well… it all sounds nice and it fits the belief system of many of us. I mean… didn’t most of us grow up with the belief that we should change that which we don’t like, chase after what we want and that we are ought to work hard for that!
Human beings name and label
I would like to address the underlying assumption that gives rise to the spiritual practices to change our thoughts and the adage that we can choose happiness.
Lets start to look at the belief that certain feelings, thoughts, emotions are bad (undesirable), while others are good (desirable). A feeling, thought or emotion in itself is not bad or good. As a human being we name and categorise our perceptions. A sensation arises and is named as anger. Then as a human being we categorise it as good or bad. Depending on what category it falls into we try to change it, or not.
Crucial here is to acknowledge that this is what we do as a human being. We name sensations and categorise them good or bad. However we can see that sensations or perceptions (and things, events, etc.) are not good or bad inherently, they are not good or bad by themselves. This explains why I like Brussels sprouts and my boyfriend doesn’t. This explains why in some cultures polygamy is absolutely normal (good) and in others this is something to be despised (bad). So again, feelings, thoughts, emotions, and of course also behavior is not good or bad inherently. The label good or bad only exists by our categorising of it, it is illusory. The illusory label good or bad is created by us human beings, created by each of us, created by you.
The labels good and bad are illusory
Any (meditation) technique that prompts to change thoughts reinforces the categorising process, the categorising into good and bad. Let me explain that further. If I tell you to change your feeling of anger into love a few things happen. First of all you would disapprove of your own feeling, you would basically not approve of a part of yourself. The meditation in a way keeps the ‘fight’ alive; the fight between good and bad, the fight between anger and love.
Secondly, the meditation reinforces the illusory split between good and bad, the split that does not really exist, but that is only being created by yourself (like all other human beings do).
Thirdly, by changing your feeling of anger actively you would have to make effort to generate ‘loving thoughts’. This even slight effort undoubtedly results in some kind of stress, which you might notice through bodily sensations or certain thoughts appearing. Thoughts like: ’Oh no! Now again I am feeling angry! I should not be angry!’. ‘I should do my meditation at least once a day. If I don’t do my meditation I feel bad.’ The meditation keeps you in its grip, rather than that you live in freedom. The idea that you have to do a (certain) meditation at least once a day prevents you to move spontaneously with whatever you feel like doing. Certainly, if you enjoy and genuinely feel like doing a meditation you should do it! However, if it becomes an obligation, you are missing the point of meditation. You can read more about our view on meditation here.
What to do when you feel bad??
I don’t want to suggest another technique to replace the (meditation) technique to change your thoughts. That would be another trick after all! By reading this you might become aware of how certain meditations can keep conflicts alive, even very subtly. You might want to reflect on meditation practices that you have been practicing or teaching and see which illusions they keep alive. Does a certain meditation aim at getting somewhere? For example, enlightenment, compassion, loving kindness, mindfulness? Than you can be sure that an illusory split is being reinforced: whatever you are feeling right now is apparently not good!
From my personal experience I can say that it is not always easy to look critically at the spiritual practices that you have been practicing and maybe have been teaching for a long time. However, now I see clearly that the subtlest hint or suggestion that something should be different from ‘what is’ can have great impacts in your life.
What I ‘do’ now when I feel bad is nothing. With nothing I mean I don’t try to change how I feel, I don’t try to change how I respond. I don’t run to my yoga mat or meditation cushion to meditate or breathe it away! I acknowledge that I feel bad and that it is my feeling. Sometimes I realize that I have labeled my feeling as bad, which is my creation. Often I don’t really realize that :) What I do usually, is share whatever I feel with the person that might be involved in some way in that situation. That often brings some movement. The feeling does not necessary change but I generates an opportunity to reflect on my underlying beliefs and assumptions and categorising of good and bad. But most importantly I don’t do anything in order to get somewhere else. I don’t do anything in order to feel something else. I just let happen what happens.