Thoughts. We have them all the time. When you remember you have to call your mom. When you feel guilty over not having called her for a while. When you make the decision to pick up the phone and dial her number… All these are conscious thoughts we have on a daily basis.
In addition to thoughts, our consciousness consists of feelings and emotions. These are not always as conscious as our thoughts. You might not be aware why you feel guilty. It can be a feeling that slowly emerges over a long time before you become aware of it. In those cases your emotions still affect your thoughts and actions, you are just not noticing it.
The mechanism is similar to a tea kettle. Imagine watching a tea kettle being heated on the stove. At some point, you start to see the biochemical reaction of the water being heated by the flames, causing the water to transform into vapor that continuously travels up to the surface. The hotter the kettle gets, the more bubbles show up on the surface. What we can see on the top of the kettle are bubbles coming up and bursting, giving space to other bubbles to come up and burst. If the kettle keeps being heated on the stove, these bubbles will keep coming and bursting.
Our mind works in a similar way. Your thoughts and emotions are similar to the bubbles on the surface of the water. They are what we can “see” on the surface of the mind. But they are also the results of the reaction to what happens underneath. So what causes the mind to react? What is “the heat underneath the kettle” that causes thoughts and emotions? And what is the connection between emerging thoughts and happiness?
Happiness is hard to define. But a common definition is that it is the absence of negative thoughts and emotions. And it is not hard to see how negative thoughts and emotions make us unhappy. E.g. when you think somebody said something hurtful about you, you feel offended. The person might not even have been talking about you, but the thought itself is enough to make you feel bad.
In this example, what makes you unhappy is not what happens in the external world, but your thoughts of what is happening. It is enough that you think something bad is happening for negative thoughts to fill your mind.
Moreover, the reverse is also true. If you expect something good is going to happen and it doesn’t, that is also a source of unhappiness. As human beings, we all have our personal preferences. We like certain colors. We like certain flavors of food. At first sight, we are attracted to some people by their look or personality while we get an icky feeling when we see others. Without even thinking, each of us knows exactly what we like. We are naturally attracted to certain things and repelled by others.
These personal preferences drive our reactions to all the things happening to us. We develop biases to certain things. We all want what we like to happen and what we don’t like to never happen.
Is liking something and disliking something else a problem?
Let’s say for the sake of this article, that your favorite color in the world is blue. You like to drive a blue car, paint your house blue, and even pick blue wallpaper for all the rooms. The problem is that not all the colors that show up in your life are going to be blue. There’s a good chance that your neighbor is not going to paint her house blue, your boss is not going to wear blue pants, and your colleagues are not going to put blue balloons on their desks either.
In other words, you cannot control other people or the world around you based on what you like. By expecting the world to be according to our preferences we stack the odds of unhappiness against us. The world is full of many other colors than blue. And there are many more events than the one outcome that we prefer to happen. However, in our mind, we are biased toward the one we like. Then we develop an expectation for this outcome to happen. And we get disappointed, angry or depressed when things don’t happen in the way we expected.
Of course you may not have strong thoughts and emotions about colors. But just think of people expressing incompatible political views with yours or if they criticize your favorite song. These certain preferences cause us to constantly react to the many events happening around us day to day. No wonder our mind becomes agitated.
So how do we prevent ourselves from falling into the mouse trap of having unhappiness stacking against us?
As you’ve read so far, you know that it’s our personal preferences that triggers a chained reaction of judgements and opinions, which cause negative thoughts and emotions. While looking at this chain, can we identify where to break it?
Unfortunately, we cannot just change all our personal preferences. You can’t force yourself to like yellow or purple cars. It’s like forcing yourself to love someone. But we can try to change our reaction to these preferences. How? You can use the part of the mind we in Vipassana Meditation call awareness.
Awareness is the ability to know when something is happening and plainly acknowledge that it is happening at the moment. Think of the tea kettle again: Being aware of the bubbles appearing reveals that they are the result of a chemical reaction as the water heats up. It also reveals that the bubbles will appear and burst by themselves once they reach the surface. The same is true for thoughts and feelings. By simply acknowledging them as facts of life, without reacting to them they will emerge and burst on their own.
The act of acknowledging your preference and that other outcomes are equally possible helps you avoid disappointment. We all want others to treat us nicely. But we must acknowledge that in reality, some people treat us nicer than others. If a stranger shouts at us in traffic, it might just be because they had a bad day. In any case, shaping a person’s behaviors to your own likings eventually leads you to disappointment.
Anything can happen both the way we like it and the way we don’t. Acknowledging that this is how life is, will give you a relief from unfulfilled expectations. Your life will no longer be restricted by your projection of what it should be. When you are truly just aware of what’s happening, you will be able to see life as it is and be liberated from the small world of possibilities that your mind creates.
In this way, you can enjoy the way of life and how it unfolds, instead of fighting against reality or trying to mold it according to your perspective. This is called equanimity — the non-reaction art of life. It opens us up to welcome life without letting our biases interfere with our experience of life. This is life’s ultimate happiness.
Through meditation, you can learn to master the non-reaction art of life leading to sustainable happiness. Negative thoughts can still be present without causing you to react and become agitated. If you are ready to acknowledge your thoughts, try Peach Mindfulness for free.