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Why You Can’t Choose for Happiness

Mathilda in Raleigh asks… “My meditation teacher says that in every moment we have a choice: we can choose peace and happiness or we can choose the opposite. It sounds good in theory, but so often, as hard as I try, I’m simply unable to choose for peace and happiness. What am I doing wrong?” Great question, Mathilda! Here’s the problem: While your meditation teacher has it partially right, he's also got things partially wrong too. And it's this that is throwing you off. You see, it’s true: in every moment we do have a choice, but that choice is not for or against happiness. It’s for or against the causes of happiness.

(and missing that distinction can keep lasting happiness forever out of our reach).

Here’s the thing we need to see clearly… The experience of happiness is not something that arises in a vacuum. Like so many other things in life, happiness is a caused phenomenon. That is to say, it is caused by something else.

To help us understand, it might be helpful to take a look at another caused phenomenon, like belly fat. (weird, I know, but stick with me here…)

When it comes to belly fat, we all know that you can’t simply choose against a flabby belly and expect anything to happen.

And, in fact, if I’ve spent the last 18 months throwing back pints of Ben & Jerry’s, I can choose against belly fat until I’m blue in the face, and I’ll get absolutely nowhere. However, if instead of choosing against the fat, I choose against the cause of the fat. If I choose against the Ben & Jerry’s and, instead, choose for the salad, everything changes. When I watch what I eat, the belly fat will take care of itself. And so it goes with happiness. The problem is that, too often, people try to choose for happiness while ignoring the causes of their unhappiness. And this will predictably end only in frustration.

- When I spend my evenings glued to the fear mongering cable news channel…

- When I let myself obsess over all the problems in my life while ignoring the blessings…

- When I wallow in that barrage of negative self-talk that’s been tormenting me for decades…

Even though I may be “choosing" for happiness, I remain mired in its opposite. That’s why instead, just like with the belly fat, we need to go to the cause. And with happiness too, we must watch what we eat. Only in the case of happiness, we watch what we eat not just with our mouths, but we also must watch what we eat with our ears and our eyes and our thoughts and our attention. The goal is to nourish ourselves with the perceptions and thoughts and feelings that naturally cause happiness.

So, it’s here that the invitation becomes to become progressively more interested in the sights and sounds and thoughts and ideas you keep company with... And to be curious about their effects on your happiness or unhappiness (something we call svadhyaya in yoga). It's then, using the insights you gain, you'll be able to artfully "watch what you eat" and finally find happiness ever after.

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