Don’t worry be happy goes the phrase. Why not, we covet bliss. Mindfulness, cleansings, wellness groups, groping ceremonies, psychedelics, sports and on it goes. Big question, how are we going to accomplish well-being in a world in crisis, rising crime, difficult relationships, health issues and childcare. The day-to-day grind, loss of loved ones, illness, malaise, and pathos around and within us. So, how does one find happiness in all of this? Even if you lived in an ashram on top of a mountain with no contact with human life, happiness would be daunting. Maybe happiness is more ephemeral and only appears briefly if at all. Here’s a realistic expectation, we can get to OK. OK is good, it’s achievable but also not easy.
We can describe OK as contentment, inner peace, being comfortable with ourselves, non-critical and non-judgmental. What we inevitably come to is getting to OK is in actuality an inside job.
We naturally look outward because that’s what our eyes do. It takes a conscious effort to look inside but that’s where the action is. It appears that a large part of how we respond to others is based on our life experience. So, what we see is only half the story. The other side of it happens in a layered inner universe where some of it is unknown. Experiences are compiled all our lives and the painful ones are usually stored in a safe place inside our brain. If we leave it there, it will show up in our relationships but will seem to be coming from the other person. At least half of it is, but that doesn’t let us off the hook.
People often say they are their own worst enemy. Everybody suffers at times. We all know we will die one day and that’s what we call (and Jean Paul Sartre) existential dread. We all have families, friends, lovers and others to contend with. No matter who we are or how much money or fame, life is still life, no one gets a free pass.
So, how do we balance the outside and the inside. First, we must acknowledge that we have an inside to contend with. Then we need to develop an emotional vocabulary for how we understand what our body is telling us. Most folks know very little about their internal life. We go to parties, get together with other people and vacations but rarely does anyone mention their private lives, or how they suffer. We all do, but so many people live in quiet desperation never speaking or even knowing about their inner lives.
A lot happens in the first years of life. But children can’t make sense of what is happening to them. They can only experience what is occurring to them. They have no ability to be objective, it’s all about them. Everything is self-blame. Then the fix comes in, be perfect and then love, acceptance and good things will come. When that doesn’t happen, the anger comes in and we move back to there being something wrong with me. The system that is set up early on operates automatically and works entirely on its own. This inner system pushes us toward achievement if love is not available or worse yet into isolation or drugs and alcohol.
How then, can we see what we cannot see? That’s when we need someone to bounce things off of. Parents, clergy, therapists, some trusted friends and others can be helpful. It’s hard to imagine that as smart creatures we can be so blind to ourselves, but we are, mostly as a defense against self-doubt and/or self-loathing. But what really happens is that coping skills, behaviors that save us then become liabilities later in life. What saved us then may be killing us now.
So, getting to OK is a bit daunting when we look at it this way. It does, I have to admit, take work. Not bad work, but concentration, some therapy and getting to know who we want to be, and who we don’t want to be. What we want and what we don’t want, as a more authentic way to be who we are. We have a certain temperament that we are born with. This may collide in a family setting. Maybe we are athletic in an intellectual household, perhaps we are academic in an athletic household and on and on those differences can go.
Big question. How do we work out our antagonism toward ourselves and others? Well, there is a method and it’s not quick. There is no quick way. We can’t erase our history, it’s a part of us, but we can change our relationship to our own history and learn how to disarm our antagonism. The result is that our future is in our hands, and we can make something out of it if we allow ourselves to be open to surprise.
The first step is tricky, it involves seeing, looking and understanding how we got here. As children we are innocent, yet we blame ourselves for whatever does or doesn’t happen to us. If we were lonely, we come to believe that we are undeserving of love and are worthless. If we were beaten, we believe that we are bad. If we were criticized, we believe that we are inadequate. If we were betrayed, we can’t trust or allow ourselves to be vulnerable. This is what all children do.
These childhood beliefs become stable and internal systems. They are built within the first eight years of our lives. They don’t change. We must build new neural pathways that neutralize the negative thinking and beliefs until they are small and do not cause us pain. What comes from these practices are anxiety, depression, personality disorders, anger, violence, isolation and painful relationships.
Once we can see these systems working and we fully understand that we didn’t put them there, then we can begin a process of distinguishing these beliefs systems and negative thinking from reality. Determining what is real and true is the next step. We need to bring these concepts from internal unconscious to external conscious reality. This requires another person to help us see who we actually are. Mostly, the goal is we get to decide who we want to be and what we want for our lives. This must include relationships with others and what the process of closeness is about. The difficult part is trust. It’s very hard to gain trust when we’ve never had it. That is why psychotherapy is important because it provides a safe space to begin that process.
This requires attention to the method that has now become conscious. We notice negative messages and feelings and turn them to what is real and true. We may have to study and learn what that is. It also can be determined in psychotherapy once trust is established.
This third step process is complex. Making peace with ourselves, becoming a good human being and learning empathy, compassion, understanding and self-respect is an essential process to allow ourselves to make a distinction between our past and who we want to become. Learning to be compassionate, empathic and deeply understanding toward ourselves and others is the path toward true self-realization.
You may be asking what about hopelessness? What about the intractable pain, sadness and misery in our lives? How come it never changes and is there any way to shift something that has never changed or been different? This is where we need a partner, someone to help us to see what we cannot. That there are possibilities that exist in a space we’ve never been in. We can see the sense of impossibility, our futility with efforts to alter the internal paradigm. There is only the idea that it can happen if we come to believe it can. We must put ourselves into a process with no direction home and there is no other way. There is only the way of internal reconciliation if we want a life.
There is something about being invested in the struggle for self-actualization that is life affirming. It’s the process that matters most. There is no actual goal. To be on the path toward consciousness, trust, connection and love is the way we can gain enough of it to make life worth living. In the end it’s about how many people we love and love us. Our legacy is inherent in our ability to end inner strife and establish an essential OK. And if do the work to discover the simple bliss of being OK, the door to true well-being will open. Then we can experience a fuller more peaceful inner life and find our way through the darkness of doubt and self-ridicule, and into light of being at the heart of OK.