How The Pursuit Of Happiness Inevitably Backfires

Happiness, say the sages, is intrinsic to our being, native to our heart, the very stuff, in fact, that we are most essentially made of.

There’s nothing, they tell us, that we need to “do” in order to be happy. It’s simply what we feel when we are being ourselves.

Far from residing in the light at the end of an ever-lengthening tunnel, happiness is closer than our own breath, they assert. It is absolutely not something to be attained through activity.

“Just relax into the experience of your own true nature—which is fathomless bliss.”

Ah! Of course.

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I like this teaching. I believe the sages. I’ve even, on occasion, experienced what they say to be true within the pulsing temple of my own heart.

And yet, strangely, relaxing into the experience of our own true nature is an intensely complex process; while adopting this experience as a permanent way of being is nearly impossible. I know. I’ve tried. I’m still trying. But I’ve almost given up.

As time goes on I realise with increasing clarity that ‘trying’ is only getting in the way.

It’s a central paradox of spirituality that striving to become ‘enlightened’ or ‘self-realised’ or whatever can easily become simply another version of striving to make ourselves happy by doing or gaining or achieving this or that golden carrot.

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As if there’s not already so much to do!

Work, partners, kids, socialising, yoga, cooking, eating, entertaining, good causes, crisis management, gym, voting, car to the garage, bills to pay, a trip to the mountains, romance, shopping, maybe light a few candles, write a book, post on Instagram, paint a picture, learn Sanskrit, sign a petition, research the palaeolithic cave paintings of central France, visit the dentist, start an eco-business, make a superfood smoothy, chant a mantra, adopt a panda, hug a tree, run naked surrounded by ascended masters through luminous dreamscapes, dance elaborately clothed in a ceremonial kimono on top of a holy mountain as the world below burns with violet flames tinged with silver and gold…

Unless we’re very careful, we can make our spiritual journey just another item on the ever-expanding list of things we need to do before we can simply relax and feel the divine presence within our hearts.

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It’s really helpful to see clearly that the root impulse behind all kinds of achievement-oriented activity is to make things better, to improve things in some way, to increase happiness and decrease misery—either for “me” or “us” or for “everyone.”

If for one person that involves sitting in meditation and for another it’s feeding the hungry and for another it’s drilling for oil, at the core the motivation is the same: to feel good. At this essential level there is virtually no difference between most spiritual aspirants, environmental activists, humanitarian workers and industrial tycoons. All are simply striving for happiness in whatever way they deem best.

Recognising this is very helpful, for it allows us to drop our judgements and feel more compassion for our fellows, who, whatever it looks like on the surface, are only trying to feel good.

But even more helpful is to recognise that the attempt to become happy through external activity of any kind is fundamentally flawed.

We can come to this understanding through intuitive wisdom; or we can understand it through the teachings given by enlightened beings throughout the ages; or we can realise it through the empirical evidence mounting up in front of our eyes, growing exponentially with each year’s increasingly frenetic activity: ecological disaster, economic crisis, terrorism, escapism and depression…

Again, as the sages never tire of telling us, happiness is intrinsic to our being, as  natural to us as fragrance is to flowers. This is the solid ground upon which to live beautifully on this beautiful Earth. To overlook this and then search for happiness outside through action is at best fruitless, at worst madness. 

The craving to make things better is the fundamental compulsion, the taproot of all forms of addiction, succumbing to which will only lead further away from that which we seek and that which we are, which in truth are always one and the same thing.

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Look around at the world we human beings have created in our efforts to make ourselves happier. Where, I ask you, in this crazy labyrinth we’ve constructed, are all the happy people? I don’t see many of them.

I see many stressed-out people. I see homeless, uprooted, hopeless people. I see angry people. I see sharp-eyed people carrying deep trauma masked by thick layers of make-up, fashionable clothes and shiny cars. I see frightened people afraid to look each other in the face. I see an epidemic of addiction. I see people exploiting other people and calling it ‘business’, people being exploited and calling it ‘work’. I see people at war and people fleeing from war.

I see multitudes upon multitudes of people treading water and desperately trying to keep afloat while simultaneously reaching out for yet another sparkly stone to add to their increasingly weighty collection, and yet another, and yet another…

…“If only you achieve this”, “If only you acquire that”, “If only you make friends with these people”, “If only you have this or that experience”, “If only you believe this”, “If only you become that”, “if only you feel more, think better, smell more spicy, taste more delicious… then you’ll be happy, then, at last, you’ll be able to swim like a dolphin. Here, buy this stone—it’s a new model—an upgrade.”

Nor is this confined to ‘the mainstream’. ‘Alternative’ and ‘spiritual’ folk are buying the same stones, only in different packaging. “Become a new-aged super-dolphin – here, special sparkly stones – quartz, amethyst, selenite, carved with OM symbols – they’ll make you fly…”

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Lies. Fabrications. Artefacts of deception. Marketing.

We have been force-fed indigestible nuggets of falsehood since birth, each carrying the malignant subliminal message that we are insufficient in ourselves and need to have and do all sorts of things in order to be happy or even basically acceptable. This sense of radical inadequacy and the belief that some form of action can remedy it is a systemic disease from which no-one in our world is exempt—certainly not the wealthy and powerful—and of which only a very rare few have managed to cure themselves.

The vast edifice of industrial ‘civilisation’ that has spread like a cancer over the beautiful face of the Earth is nothing but the accumulated manifestation of this hereditary disease. Every part of it, every brick in the towering wall, is a relic of someone’s attempt to alter things in some way in order to make themselves feel better.

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Now, it may be argued here that it’s not the attempt to improve things in general that’s the problem, but only the selfish pursuit of individual personal happiness over and above the happiness of the whole.

This does sound reasonable. But what the sages want to communicate to us is that all action aimed at improvement only reinforces the belief that there is something basically wrong with us and/or our world. This reinforced belief then expands the distance between ourselves and the true source of happiness which lies in our own essential nature.

It seems to be a fundamental law of the universe that like generates like. Bearing this in mind we can see that acting from the belief that something is wrong and needs improving infuses the action with the energy of things not being OK. This can only generate more not-ok-ness.

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What I’m talking about here is not inaction, however. I’m pointing at a radical shift in motivation. I’m suggesting that we stop acting from the belief that something or anything or everything is wrong and begin to allow actions to arise from a different place.

If the sages are correct, we need to recognise the sad irony of the fact that the whole misguided project of trying to make things better through action is at the very core of our current global crisis. And we need to accept that this crisis will not be resolved through more action, however well-meaning.

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The solution to the multiple crises we are facing as a species is not any kind of activity aimed at saving the world. It’s not grassroots activism. It’s not recycling. It’s not buying organic food or other ‘green’ products. It’s not any kind of political revolution. It isn’t even selfless service and more acts of loving kindness. It’s not permaculture, or yoga, or anything else that involves any kind of doing. Nor is it spirituality undertaken as a way to become a ‘better’ person.

I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with any of these things. On an everyday level most of that stuff is clearly preferable to a lot of what humans are getting up to at the moment. It’s just that they or a combination of them and other worthy activities are not the deep solution.

The solution—if you can call it that, for from its perspective the problem doesn’t really even exist—is simply to remember that we are divine beings living in a divine creation whose fundamental nature, underlying and comprising everything that exists including ourselves and our currently ravaged industrialised planet, is supreme bliss.

Everything is always already perfect.

Far from being a gentle platitude, this is the most radically subversive attitude available to us, challenging at it’s very root the underlying cause of our present planetary peril. Adopting this attitude involves accepting everything as it is right now, including ourselves, to be completely perfect just as it is. 

This is not easy. But wonderfully, though somewhat confusingly at the beginning, it also involves accepting whatever state of non-acceptance we are currently in.

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Just stop trying. Stop trying to improve yourself or your world in any way.

Give up the notion of progress, the teleological project of development in time and space from an inferior condition to a superior one. Give in to the supreme state that you already are at your core. This state is very softly spoken, but even now, just as you are, it is there, quietly singing.

There’s no preparation needed for accepting this, no long-term meditation practice is required, no yoga course necessary, no apprenticeship to an amazonian jungle-brew shaman…

Just as we are, at the core of us all, beneath all the agitations and cravings and compulsions and distortions, right now, there is supreme bliss. There is absolutely nothing that we need to do to become worthy or qualified to experience this—it’s what we are. 

We can simply accept what is there within us. Or not.

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Surrender the striving, the sense of lack, the fear of suffering, the attempt to gain credentials to justify your existence as a human being, the need to be heard, the hunger for achievement and recognition, the drive to improve your lot, the quest for ‘higher’ experiences, all forms and faces of the notion that the light is at the end of the tunnel instead of right here right now…

In that act of surrender the distance between ourselves and the true source of our happiness is closed, and we are reunited with our primordial ground, blissful and divine. 

When we stop buying into the belief that anything needs to be different either inside or outside in order for us to feel OK, we stop feeding the illusion that we are anything but divine beings at play in a miracle universe.

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The miracle sparkles in your eyes whenever you are fully present in the flowing moment. It can sparkle in the whole of your life.

I’m not at all advocating inertia. What I’m talking about here is holy wildness.

The kind of surrender I’m pointing at is re-wilding at Soul level. It is energy derailed, set free from the project of improvement, let loose from the pretensions of ‘progress’ and liberated from the false gravity of fear.

True gravity is love, holding together what belongs together. Everything else falls or flies away, to find its own place of belonging.

It is love that creates from a place of fullness not lack. It is love that acts wholly, without thought of loss or gain, arising from the wild and holy core of us, for no reason other than itself.

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Re-wilding a piece of land requires the willingness to cede control, to let nature do her own thing, have her own will, not to force her to serve our designs. In today’s world where so much of the Earth’s surface is heavily exploited to further our short-sighted human agendas, it takes great restraint and courage to give a piece of land back to itself. When we do so we tend to find that eventually, after a period of apparent chaos and various fluctuations, a healthy state of harmonious diversity develops and then stabilises. Equilibrium arises.

The same is true when we learn to meditate. We sit and give our awareness to the breath and to whatever thoughts arise, not doing anything, not occupying ourselves with anything, simply sitting and watching what passes through the mindscape. We re-wild our mind. At first we find that our mind seems to go crazy, as if we’ve never had so many restless, overlapping, competing thoughts, while our emotions are seen to be chaotic and often overpowering. But given time and relaxed awareness, these agitations subside. A more natural consciousness develops, where thoughts and emotions are no longer suppressed nor are they agitated and in conflict with each other. Less and less are we attached to our old headline stories, our clutch of insistent personal dramas. Diversity and spontaneity develop, and there is more harmony in the inner environment. Equilibrium arises.

Can we apply this same process of re-wilding to action in general? I believe so.

Just as nature looks after herself beautifully when she’s not being interfered with by our incessant attempts to improve things, own nature responds equally beautifully when we restrain our compulsion to interfere, to improve. We let ourselves be, free to play, to love what we love and move towards that—the people, places, activities and environments that we have a wild and holy “yes” to.

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The Sanskrit word ‘Dharma’, for which there is really no appropriate English translation, refers to those activities and ways of being that are most native to oneself, those things that we do for the pure love of it, without motive, without constraint, the natural expressions of our true nature.

“Let actions fall from you like fragrance from flowers”, advises one sage, speaking of the naturalness of actions not born of the urge to accomplish anything.

“Only do that which you cannot not do”, councils another, speaking of the restraint from compulsive goal-oriented activity.

Human Happiness and Paradise on Earth both flow from such restraint.

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You could start asking yourself before you do anything whether by doing that thing you are trying to make yourself feel better. If yes, stop. Practice this for one month and you will have begun to have a clear sense of just how much you don’t need to do.

Wonderfully, paradoxically, the more you refrain from trying to make yourself happy by doing stuff, the happier you’ll be.