How Do We Discover Happiness and Peace of Mind?

Still from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1969), dir. Stanley Kubrick

When we were kids and life loomed large, when every shadow hid a monster, and heaven and hell seemed to threaten us at every turn, we were fortunate if a loved one comforted us with the words: everything will be alright. Later in life, our anxieties were perhaps more rational but equally scary, and we were again fortunate if someone said to us (something like): I will always love you.

These phrases reveal our innate striving for eternity — to declare our love for someone else beyond the limits of time and space, or to reach peace of mind so fully that no turmoil can ever disturb us. Deep within, we want to transcend — to attain a kind of unshakeable happiness.

And sometimes, remarkable as it is, we do feel transcendently happy. Love happens. Beautiful, profound insights occur. Meaningful connections are made, or the ego drops away suddenly to reveal a vast ocean of exciting potential. These “spiritual” experiences delight and reinvigorate us, even as they are swallowed back into the normal flow of life with all its ups and downs.

Moments of pure joy exist — but they are fleeting. We want them to stay. We continue to search for happiness once and for all.

Who are you?

Our journey is littered with profound questions. The riddle of spirituality and happiness overtakes us: how do we control that which we cannot seem to control? How do we achieve transcendence of our own volition? Is it possible to manifest a state of lasting peace of mind?

But as we mature, our questions change. Our experiences indicate to us that we have to do a conceptual 180. Instead of trying to achieve something, we start to wonder about the nature of the thing we’re trying to achieve. What is transcendence, anyway? What is happiness? For that matter, who or what do we think will transcend?

This is the beginning of lasting spiritual insight — when we turn toward ourselves. The more we think about it, the more profound and compelling our investigation of the self becomes. We start to consider, deeply and in our own unique way, the age-old question: who am I?

Why is this question important? Because it is so often overlooked. Our usual is to attain something meaningful — to achieve, grow, and collect. But what if we aren’t who we thought we were? To use a common metaphor, what if we think we are the protagonist of a movie, when really we are the screen itself. What if we are the something more than the personal, limited self we normally take ourselves to be? The philosopher known as Wei Wu Wei challenges us:

Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself — and there isn’t one.

If we take this question “Who am I?” seriously we realize that what we’re truly seeking is not some thing. It is not an object, experience, or temporary fulfillment. Rather, we are looking for the unchanging truth. We are seeking to find ourselves as we really are (and always were). Our main allegiance is to the truth of our experience, which we seek to understand, not to conquer or control.

In other words, we don’t have to change ourselves to become happy. Rather, we have to understand ourselves. This shift in perspective brings about a kind of happiness we’ve never experienced, as we shift from doing everything for our imagined, limited selves, to realizing that everything is ourselves.

Still from ‘Solaris’ (1972), dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

The movie screen

All of this may sound mystical and fantastic, but perhaps it is not. As we mature we notice the sacred within the mundane; we start to look at life from the level of wholeness, rather than division. The movie screen, for example, cannot reject. It is its nature to accept. When we feel deeply, beyond understanding, that we are the “screen,” we are acceptance itself. All limits are seen to be temporary: a story unfolding on the screen. Life is as inexplicable, unexpected, and absorbing as an elaborate dream.

We run the risk here of falling into nihilism. We may feel cold or distant to view life as a movie, with ourselves as the background (or that which assumes the temporary shape of the story). But even this nihilism is temporary. It flows through us and dissipates in the warmth of an embrace, or the silent inner meaning of a poignant poem.

On the other hand, we run the risk of egotism. We may feel as if we can change the world with our minds — that we should be able to manifest whatever “we” want. But, again, who are “we”? The protagonist’s actions, thoughts, desires, and volition all appear within the movie (or dream, if you prefer). Understanding the larger perspective of wholeness is not a tactic or theory of control, but rather a flowering of sacrifice, wonder, and freedom.

It is a terrible burden to live a lie. When we see life from the small level of personal attainment, we never feel fulfilled for long. But this lie can be dropped as we investigate who we really are. We cannot forget our true identity once we’ve discovered it; this would be like losing track of our breath — it’s there whether we notice it or not, and always was.

When we comfort others, perhaps we are tapping into the larger level. We are stepping outside our limited view to say: everything is it as it should be. You are accepted as you are. We are wholeness recognizing wholeness.

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