The First (and Last) Step Toward Happiness: A Journey Into the Unknown

“This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.” Jorge Luis Borges

Georgia O’Keefe’s ‘Ladder to the Moon’ (1958)

In my experience, the first step toward leading a happier life is counterintuitive. At first glance, it’s even nonsensical. Perhaps this is why the first step to being happier is hard to take, or even to see. Sometimes a long path of life experiences, contemplation, and self-discovery occurs before the first step. In this essay, I want to explore this path toward happiness not as an authority telling the reader what to do, but as someone interested in well-being and spiritual philosophy, who thinks that some of you might be interested as well. There is not one path to any destination, and someone else’s discovery is not your own, so make sure that you search your own experiences and intuitions. As Joni Mitchell wrote in the song ‘Amelia’, “People will tell you where they’ve gone / they’ll tell you where to go / but till you’ve get there yourself you never really know.”

First, allow me to say a few things on why I think the first step is hard to see, and then we’ll get onto what it actually is. Recently I visited my parents in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was pleased to find that during the entirety of my vacation, just by coincidence, the television channel AMC was airing a Breaking Bad marathon, a show that actually took place in Albuquerque. I’d watched when it came out and enjoyed it, and it felt fortuitous that a marathon would coincide with extra time to kill. Late at night, the TV beckoned my family and me to witness the exploits of protagonist Walter White, meek high school chemistry teacher turned notorious meth maker.

It was fun to rewatch some of the show, but a few episodes in I became aware that now, only a few years later, I see it in a different light. There was something I missed the first time around: the whole show is a control fantasy. A middle-aged man, frustrated by his job, stricken with worry about his family’s future, and faced with his own mortality, transforms his mundane world into a high stakes drug empire. As an audience, we follow on the edge of our seats, living vicariously through Walt as he grows confident, gains power, and learns how to be a badass. Leaving aside the moral deplorability, how much we would all love to experience these same triumphs?

Bryan Cranston as the ominous Mr. White

(Mild spoilers for Breaking Bad in this paragraph.) In the final episode Walt admits that he did it all for himself. “I was good at it,” he says. As viewers we recognize that Walt lost his moral compass along his journey, that his actions were unforgivable, and yet, deep down, we wish to reclaim our lives like Walt did. We want to show everyone that we too have unfulfilled, unlimited potential.

One doesn’t need to be a murderous drug dealer to feel like Walter White. When someone questions our judgment, our thoughts might immediately turn to revenge, before we even realize it. “You don’t think I’ll succeed?” Our thoughts take on a Walt-like quality. “I’ll show you.” This kind of thinking can actually be a tremendous motivating force for us. We strive for years to become wealthy enough to gloat to our doubting friends, while someone with different values and social pressures is driven to meditate for twelve hours a day, to prove his or her “spiritual progress” to the community.

While that kind of intense motivation may bring worldly achievements in droves, happiness, unfortunately, doesn’t necessarily follow. We may, like Walt, explode in the supernova of our ambitions, but if we were to stop and look back on the journey itself, we see one of anxiety, paranoia, and self-righteous pride alternating with shameful defeat. And this is only considering our own happiness, let alone that of those around us.

One day we may stop to wonder if our adolescent dreams of dying in a hail of gunfire, or drinking ourselves to death in artistic abandon, or winning the competition of life at all costs, is really what’s best for ourselves, our loved ones, or anyone else. Is life best spent taking what’s rightfully yours? Or is there more to it?

Sometimes, we get glimpses, brief moments of awe that make us think that maybe there is more to it. Sometimes, we’re struck with the feeling that it’s incredibly weird that anything exists at all. In the words of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.” We are momentarily pulled out of our self-centered existences and into the world of philosophical wonder. Here is the feeling as described by theoretical physicist Erwin Schrodinger from his fantastic book My View of the World (1961):

“…this whole world is something we encounter only once. We have nothing with which to compare it, and it is impossible to see how we can approach it with any particular expectation. And yet we are astonished; we are puzzled by what we find, yet are unable to say what we should have to have found in order not to be surprised, or how the world would have to be constructed in order not to constitute a riddle!”

This is an amazing description of philosophical wonder. We might feel it when confronted by the beauty of nature, or when we’ve fallen hopelessly in love, or when we look back on the person we used to be and exclaim, “how on earth did I wind up here?” These are intense moments, packed with meaning, and they make us reconsider our beliefs and opinions. I think they are, or have a lot in common with, mystical experiences. In this way we are not so far from an ascetic monk meditating in a cave, because we too have occasional experiences beyond our everyday concerns and problems. In other words, some of us have had mystical experiences.

What exactly is a mystical experience? In his expansive work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), psychologist and philosopher William James describes the “mystical state of consciousness,” which consists of these four qualities:

  1. Ineffability: Mystical experiences are too immense or extreme to be accurately described in words. Anyone who has tried to explain a drug trip or dream to a friend knows what James is talking about.
  2. Noetic Quality: James considered mystical states not only to be emotional, but also to be experiences of knowing or understanding something profound, with a kind of experiential authority.
  3. Transiency: Somewhat notoriously, mystical experiences don’t last very long. This one we’ll return to later. And finally,
  4. Passivity: James noted that mystical states include the feeling of submission of the personal will to a larger power. You may do something physical or mental to enter a mystical state or trance, but once you’re in it, the mystic has the feeling of thankfulness, support, fitting in, or belonging. Under this heading I think we can place the unpredictability of these kind of experiences. As anyone knows who’s tried to manufacture a mystical revelation, it doesn’t always work. There are perhaps some things you can do to induce trances (like meditating for a long time), but, in my experience, mystical states are always rare and fleeting.
William James (1842–1910)

To sum up James’s categories, a mystical state is something like a short, indescribable, unpredictable experience of knowing that you are a part of something bigger than yourself. I bet you’ve felt something like that, and that it was a very unique experience. For me, random ‘mystical states’ have emerged out of nowhere while reading a book, or thinking about something very intensely, or on a crowded street in Manhattan for no apparent reason. I don’t think that there’s a pathway to a mystical experience that works for everyone; it’s not a reward for all your hard spiritual work, but something more mysterious and interesting. So I urge you to look at your experiences simply as your experiences; they won’t necessarily conform to anyone else’s.

This last point brings up an interesting problem of mysticism. When something really great happens to us, like suddenly feeling at “one” with the universe, when it’s over, we want to get back there as soon as possible. Sometimes people even describe these states of oneness as more real than real life. But as we said before, we don’t usually find mystical states when we’re looking for them. Looking for a mystical revelation is kind of like forcing ourselves to feel anger or love when we just don’t feel it. It doesn’t work.

Furthermore, I wonder: if a mystical state really could be induced anytime we want, wouldn’t it lose one of its inherent attributes? Remember that William James includes ‘passivity’ in his definition, meaning that surprise or surrender are inextricable elements, and part of what makes mystical states so desirable in the first place. If what we’re yearning for is the momentary realization that we’re not in control, then it doesn’t make much sense to try to get there using our own control.

Daniel Wegner, who was a social psychologist, professor and writer, wrote something interesting in his book The Illusion of Conscious Will (from 2002), which has to do with trying to do something that, by definition, cannot be tried. Here it is: “Religious traditions such as Zen Buddhism teach a philosophy of relinquishing the pretense of control and view a break with the illusion of conscious will as the ultimate form of enlightenment… One wonders, however, whether it is possible purposefully to renounce the illusion of purpose or whether one must only sit back and wait for the loss of the illusion to happen.” Without getting into matters of free will or consciousness, we can simply note that it is more accurate to say that mystical states are not something we do, but rather something that happens to us.

This fact is unfortunate for the would-be mystic. If all your efforts to do something are in direct opposition to that thing happening, naturally frustration arises. The mystical state becomes the white whale of the spiritual seeker. If only we could meditate a few hours more, admit a few more of our faults, or understand an opaque koan (and then another, and then another), then, surely, we would find our ‘enlightenment,’ and feel at home in the universe forever. But just when we think we found everlasting happiness, our spouse comes home early in a bad mood, or we get an ambiguous email from our boss, and pretty soon all our “spiritual progress” is buried under a heap of everyday anxiety and stress. Damn.

There’s two ways to go from here. We could give up. We could pack it in, move home from the ashram, and tell our families that we didn’t want to feel great all the time anyway. Or we could double down, assuming that victory is somewhere on the horizon, and turn ourselves into a Walter White of spirituality, because the reason it hasn’t happened yet is that we haven’t tried hard enough, or been clever enough.

If we’re completely convinced of our own power and possibility, we don’t notice anything wrong at all with this train of thought. But if we’ve gone through this inner battle a number of times, we might start to think, “there’s something wrong here.” Eventually, and at different times for each of us, we feel like Prince, who wrote in the song ‘Forever In My Life,’ “There comes a time in every man’s life / when he gets tired of fooling around / juggling hearts in a three ring circus / someday it will drive a body down to the ground.” In other words, we grow up a bit. Maturity, in part, is the willingness to examine where we’ve been and how we got there.

So let’s examine, and don’t forget that this article is a proposal, an experiment for you to do yourself, rather than a statement of fact. First, we walked in the shoes of Walter White, and thought, “If I’m clever enough, no matter what life throws at me, I’ll be able to get what I want.” But we saw that this approach has the unfortunate tendency to make us all miserable. If only we could watch our life play out on a TV screen, instead of actually living it.

Feeling trapped and scared, we turned to the unknown. “Maybe our happiness lies in the realm of the spiritual,” we thought. Along the road we glimpsed glory and freedom in the form of mystical experiences. Surely these were signs of hope? “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” we think; in fact, we won’t need anything, or anyone! We’ll be perfectly enlightened, free from the pesky nuisances of pain and suffering, with the bonus of never having to ask for help ever again. But, a little further down the road, our progress doesn’t seem to be… progressing anything. With our eyes on the prize of enlightenment, we wonder why we still feel anger or sadness, or why we can’t make these darn mystical experiences last longer than a few minutes here or there.

Edvard Munch’s ‘Anxiety’ (1894)

We’ve come a long way, and yet still feel ourselves to be failures. This is, no doubt about it, a bummer. There is hope, however, because failure, though unpleasant, provides a wonderful opportunity for reflection. We have a chance to ask, what have we been doing wrong? Up to this point, why has nothing we’ve tried brought us the happiness we’ve been searching for?

Let’s take this opportunity to be creative, and ask what our two attempts at happiness have in common. First we tried the material, to get everything from life that we want, and it didn’t make us very happy. Then we tried the spiritual, to become enlightened, and it didn’t make us very happy. What do these two attempts have in common? They’re both things that you do. In every act we’ve done so far, we’re convinced that we are responsible for it. But is that the whole truth? Or could it be a limited and inaccurate way of looking at ourselves?

We do lots of things. We make decisions, and we, occasionally, follow through on those decisions. At every moment of our waking life we are choosing and acting; even not choosing, as many know, is not really “not choosing.” Choosing to do nothing is a choice, as we can easily see when, for example, a powerful country chooses to ignore a humanitarian crisis elsewhere in the world. When we’ve failed to get what we want for a long time, we start to wonder, why do we choose the things we choose? What role do we have in our own values and abilities — the things that determine what we do? How did we become who we are?

Here’s another way to look at this: when you go back and look at the things you’ve done in your life, the great accomplishments and the most embarrassing blunders, how do you explain your actions? Can you say that one moment you were thinking perfectly clearly and made the right choice, and at another you were clouded by deception and made the wrong one? This might be true, of course, but the point is: why do we think clearly at some moments and not at others? If we weren’t aware that we were being deceived, then how do we know we’re not under some deception right now?

There is an obvious answer to these questions, but it’s not a simple one, nor one that we arrive at easily. The answer, which remains to be seen in your own experience, is that as human beings, we are a part of the world of causes and effects. We are not gods, reaching down from the heavens to fiddle with the lives of other humans, but rather we are a objects in a material world where everything is affected by everything else. When our boss tells us we didn’t get the raise we wanted, we might notice a tendency to snap at our loved ones when we get home. When you’ve had your coffee in the morning you might notice that you tend to be more lenient about your colleagues’ lateness. The specifics of your experience aren’t that important, for our purposes, but rather that we see that we have a constant, unbroken relationship with our environment. We already know these things about ourselves: whatever your situation is, and whether you realize it or not, you are both affecting and being affected by the real world.

The more you think about your relationship to your environment, the more you wonder where you end and where the world begins, the more confounding this mystery becomes. Our curiosity beckons to question things about ourselves we never thought to question before. Where did my values and beliefs come from? Did I choose them? If I did, can I choose other values right now? What about my thoughts and emotions: are they controllable? If they are, then why don’t I choose to think positively, or brilliantly, or to feel happiness and joy in every moment? How do I justify the fact that I don’t always act rationally, or in accordance with my own values? Is there any part of me that I can always control? Or do my circumstances actually provide the context from which my ability to control something arises?

Diego Velázquez painting the Royal Family in his own painting, ‘Las Meninas’ (1656)

Falling straight into the paradox of self is where we find the first step toward happiness, which is — brace yourselves! — surrender. Surrender to life as it actually is, not as we think or imagine it to be. How do we feel in this moment, without all our ideas about how we should feel? In the process of earnest inquiry, however it manifests for us, we let go of some of our fierce independence. The certainty that we are in charge of our own destiny gradually loosens a bit, and we start to see ourselves as part of the flow of nature, rather than as a bystander or outside force working against the world. The ghost in the machine is revealed to be part of the machine after all. The great and powerful Oz is revealed to be a middle-aged man.

The notion of surrender is somewhat controversial. You may be feeling this discomfort right now: it’s downright un-American to call personal power into question. Hence, it is so rare that we get a chance to take this first step. But if you do see it, if you start to ask these questions about who you are, I urge you to dive in, because, strange as it sounds, being aware of our potential limits actually makes us more powerful and productive, but in a different kind of way. Our mentality of the lone patriot conquering nature (or the middle-aged man reclaiming his life) is replaced by the view that we are nature itself, expressing ourselves effortlessly and spontaneously; sometimes we become raging rivers of furious accomplishment, while at other times we float with the delicacy of a hummingbird examining a flower. Spiritual surrender does not mean inaction. Far from it. Without our illusion of separateness we feel the inexhaustible flow of life even through ourselves, as expressed in the Tao Te Ching:

Yet Heaven and Earth
And all the space between
Are like a bellows:
Empty but inexhaustible,
Always producing more.

Recall the well known words from Mark 10:25, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” We may let this process of surrender make us poor, but also free. Is this really so un-American? Or, as shown by American writers like Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and many others, is this path available to all of us? In the words of T. S. Eliot, “Home is where one starts from.” Let us take Eliot seriously and reconsider who we are, where we came from, and perhaps negotiate the terms of our own surrender.

When leaving Albuquerque I spoke to a friend about my theory that Breaking Bad works as a show because it is a control fantasy, and my friend pointed out something insightful. He noted that the show isn’t interesting because we want to be Walter White, but because we’re so curious about his transformation. How does he go from one kind of person to a completely different kind? The sense of wonder we get from Breaking Bad is the same kind of wonder we get in the process of our own self-inquiry. The mystery of Walt’s metamorphosis shows us the possibility for change. I hope that this essay has provided not a template for living, nor a set of doctrines to believe in, but rather fertile ground to explore.

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