I was meandering through this week feeling like nothing much was changing for me. I’ve been breathing and reflecting about emotions and being aware of judgements, and I’ve been reading a lot of blogs and books about happiness, but there were no lightning bolts or “aha” moments. Until Friday night.
For some undetermined reason (I have my suspicions, but no solid conclusions), I can’t seem to tolerate sugar or alcohol. At all. It’s not like a standard overindulgence scenario. It can happen even if I don’t drink any alcohol and just eat something sugary (i.e. meringues) before bed. I go to bed feeling fine and then I wake up about 3 hours later shaking and drenched in sweat. Panicked and irrational thoughts run through my mind along with things like, “What’s wrong with you? Why did you drink wine/eat meringues? You knew this was going to happen!” It can take me more than an hour before I feel well enough to go back to bed.
On Friday night I had two glasses of wine and an obscene number of bite-sized cocoa meringues.
Fortunately, before bed Friday night I also read Chapters 2 and 3 of The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler. The Dalai Lama describes the way we train our minds towards happiness by identifying those things that cause us suffering and avoiding those things, and identifying those things that bring us happiness and seeking out those things. Sounds simple, but he admits that it’s much more challenging to do than it is to say. He suggests that we begin each day with a “sincere, positive motivation.” At the end of each day, we reflect on what worked and what didn’t, identify the factors that contributed to negative or positive emotions, and decide how we will change our actions the next day. There’s no beating ourselves up for doing something “bad” or not doing something “good.” There’s just awareness and trying to change in the future. Once we’ve identified the things that lead to negative and positive emotions, it’s our choice whether we apply that awareness and choose the option that leads to happiness.
The Dalai Lama explains that it’s easy to confuse pleasure with happiness. Pleasure feels good in the short-term, but doesn’t necessarily lead to long-term happiness. Happiness is a condition of the mind and heart that transcends the moment. Actions that lead to happiness are not necessarily pleasurable in the moment. For me, running is like this. I don’t enjoy running while I’m doing it. But I feel emotionally positive and physically healthy afterwards. We can choose whether to go for pleasure or happiness. Once we’ve made our choice, it doesn’t really help to beat ourselves up for it. It is what it is.
When I woke up feeling miserable early Saturday morning, I counted my breaths and tried to clear my mind of all other thoughts. When the critical and blaming thoughts came up, I reminded myself that I had opted for the momentary pleasure of sipping wine in the backyard and devouring meringues while watching The Big Lebowski. Reacting to the situation in this frame of mind really seemed to help decrease my suffering. I not only wasn’t feeling guilty and stupid for doing something I knew would make me feel bad, I wasn’t feeling as bad physically. The shaking and sweating diminished with each breath, and within a few minutes, I was able to go back to bed. I still slept fitfully the rest of the night, but when I awoke, I just breathed and reminded myself of my choice, and then I would fall back to sleep.
Amazingly, when I woke up for the day I felt happy and hopeful. Instead of feeling bad about myself for being a victim of my impulses, I recognized my wine-drinking and meringue-eating as choices I had made. This gives me the power to make different choices in the future (or to make the same choices again with the knowledge that I’m also choosing to feel miserable).
I really get the sense that I’m flexing my mental muscles and doing the daily, repetitious practice necessary to change the wiring of my brain. I had no idea when I started out that my Happiness Project would be so intense, but I’m really pleased that it is. The challenge helps me feel more like I’m accomplishing something important.