In most cases, we all desire happiness, but because of what we are taught and what we are not taught, it can often feel impermanent and ephemeral. Sadly, depression and anxiety are at an all-time high. In this podcast, we will explore why happiness is a birthright and an inside job.
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[The following is the full transcript of this episode of “Dare to Awaken Podcast.”]
Welcome to Discovering Happiness, of the Dare to Awaken podcast. We all seek happiness, yet the majority of people are unhappy. In most cases, people are actually the opposite. They’re depressed. They’re miserable. And it seems like the more stuff that we acquire and the more rich that people are and the more complicated life becomes, the more that our happiness often decreases.
But that’s not what we’re taught, and that’s certainly not what we’re marketed when we watch television and we see commercials and see ads. We’re taught that we will be happy when we get that product, when we engage within that service. See, for most of us, we’ve been programmed to believe that we will only be happy when we get more stuff and better stuff as our status in our communities begins to increase because people will put us up on a pedestal.
We’re taught that we need a better home, that we need a better car, that we need better shoes, a better wardrobe, and that if we get that promotion at work, then we will be happy. But you know how that goes. You’ve been there before. Because you get the thing, you get hit with that spike of happiness, and before you know it, it’s gone and there’s that empty feeling again. There’s that feeling of unhappiness and often, depression. We get caught in this whirlpool of desire only to repeat the same cycle over and over and over again.
The Buddhists, Pema Chödrön, says, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” So that same experience of emptiness and unhappiness continues over and over until we learn that true happiness can’t be achieved through just fulfilling our desires – desires that are often compared to the hungry ghost – because it doesn’t matter how much you feed the ghost. Its hunger will never, ever be satiated. Same thing is true for our desires. We will never quench our thirst of happiness just by fulfilling those desires, yet again, that’s not what we’re taught.
Naturally, the question becomes, all right, how do we find true happiness? Well, one way is the realization that we live in this world of constant change. We live in this world of polar opposites. In fact, when we signed up for this human experience, this is what we signed up for. This is the world of duality. We cannot have gain without loss. We cannot have health without sickness. We can’t have victory without defeat. We can’t have praise without blame. We can’t have happiness without sadness.
Ironically, part of the path of discovering happiness is the understanding and the wisdom that happiness comes and goes. But underneath that, we begin to tap into an unending joy because we begin to relax into the way things are, and then we yield to the way that things are instead of fighting that current and therefore decreasing our happiness. So to deny that we live in this world of polarity is to deny our very human existence, to deny our humanity.
There was a Sufi king who struggled because he was on this roller coaster of emotion. One day he would be elated and full of joy and feel really, really happy, and then the next day, it was the exact opposite. He was sad. He was depressed. Sometimes he was even suicidal. He heard of a wise Sufi master that lived in the forest, so he summoned the Sufi master to come see him. And when this master, this teacher arrived, he pleaded and he begged that this master help him to find unending joy and happiness and offered as much gold as this master would want and desire. But the master being a wise one said, “I will teach you something, but there’s no amount of gold that is worth the wisdom that I’m about to share with you. But I don’t want your gold. It will be my honor to teach this to you. Give me two weeks and then I will come back and I will share with you how you can transcend unhappiness.” Two weeks passed. The Sufi master came back, this time carrying a small little box. He handed the box to the king and he asked the king to open it. The king did as he was instructed, and inside, he found a ring. And he asked the master, what is this? What does this have to do with transcending unhappiness? And the Sufi king said, “Look on the bottom of the ring.” So he turned it upside down, held it up to the light, and there, inscribed underneath, were the words, “This, too, shall pass.” The Sufi master instructed the king to put the ring on his finger, and he said, “From here on out, the next time you notice your happiness spiking and then the next time you notice yourself feeling depressed and feeling down, I want you to recite that mantra, that affirmation three times. And this will give you unending joy.”
So emotional states are temporary. They come and they go. But anything that comes and goes isn’t really who you are because who you are is boundless awareness. Who you truly are is spirit or soul. And when you tap into that, then you begin to tap into a type of happiness or what I like to call mudita or joy that knows no limits. Zen master Suzuki Roshi said, “When you realize the truth that everything changes and you find your composure in it, then you find yourself in Nirvana.” And Nirvana is that recognition, is that wisdom and that understanding of who you are on a deep level. Nirvana is the ultimate happiness that we can discover because it’s a freedom. It’s a liberation from what we call duhka or suffering. Happiness is a birthright, and you see this within kids, right? You see these kids just so full of happiness. They exude so much joy. But the older we get and as we start to stack on shame and guilt and remorse, as things become complicated– we have bills to pay. We have responsibilities. We have credit cards. We have a mortgage. As they say in Bali, “The people that are closest to God are infants and people that are dying. The people that are furthest from God are middle-aged people that have a mortgage to pay,” right? And when we’re living in a state of stress and we’re inundated with stress hormones and we’re living in survival mode, we’re not connecting to our true nature of mudita.
So a simple life equals a happy life. And although it’s inevitable that as adults, things are going to get more complicated than when they were when they’re kids– you see this right now where there’s a whole minimalist movement that’s happening. You see TV shows where experts are going in and they’re cleaning out closets in homes and people are breaking down and crying because they feel so relieved. You see this within people living in tiny homes now, people getting rid of all the stuff. So there is that awakening and that understanding that less can often be more, that when we simplify, we multiply.
And I think about when I started teaching yoga in Thailand on this remote island called Ko Lanta. It was one of the happiest periods of my life because it was so simple. I lived on this beachfront bungalow, and I was often in flip-flops. I didn’t have a lot of stuff other than what was in my suitcase. My bungalow didn’t have air condition, didn’t even have legit running water. We used to fill it up, the toilet, with this bucket of water to get our stuff to go down the toilet. Sorry about that. A little too much information. But it was a simple, simple life. And we were able to walk to go get food, and we were able to walk to go get coconuts. I was able to walk two minutes to go teach yoga, and I was so, so happy. Didn’t have as much money in my bank account as I do now. Didn’t have nearly as much stuff as I do now, but yet I was so, so incredibly happy. But even though I have a lot of stuff, I don’t let that stuff define me. I don’t allow my possessions to possess me.
So, often, we can discover happiness by letting go, letting go of the stuff, letting go of clutter, letting go of what’s unnecessary in our life so that we create space and we create room for happiness. It’s already there, percolating underneath the surface to be experienced.
We can also discover happiness by letting go of past pains, sorrows, traumas. Some people are actually unhappy because unconsciously, they’re actually loyal to their suffering because their suffering gives them an identity. It defines who they are. It also gives them a story. And maybe you’ve encountered some of these people where you’re at a party or you’re meeting somebody and they go into a whole tirade about how this thing happened to them that then caused this situation that they’re now in, and they’re in that victim mindset. They are loyal to their suffering.
Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle often calls this the pain-body. The pain-body is that bundle of trauma and pain and sorrow that we hold onto. And if we want to be happy, we have to begin to dissolve and peel the pain-body away because in reality, it’s a major obstacle to our happiness. Now, this may involve you having to do deep work such as journaling, reflection, therapy, but when we’re no longer imprisoned by this pain-body, we become free to know and to experience the true nature of happiness.
Abe Lincoln said, “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. And that’s my religion.” In yoga, we call this karma. Happiness has so much to do with our karma because we reap what we sow. This is why we have the Ten Commandments in the Christian religion. This is why in Buddhism, we renounce and we make a vow, a commitment to not causing harm to others. In yoga philosophy, we call this the yamas and the niyamas where we refrain from harming, from killing, from stealing, from causing harm and violence to others. We will never be truly happy when we break these moral laws and codes. We all have free will to create our own heaven and hell right now within our mind state.
There was a ruthless samurai that climbed to the top of a very tall mountain, and when he arrived to the top of the mountain, there was a temple. And as he entered, he saw a monk all the way in the corner just sitting in meditation. This samurai stampeded all the way across the wooden floor, just making these thundering sounds as his boots hit the floor. And when he towered over this monk, he yelled out, “Monk, teach me about heaven and hell.” The monk looked up at the samurai and he said, “Who are you to wake me out of my meditation? You are a disgrace to the samurai class.” The samurai just flew into a fit of rage, grabbed his sword, unsheathed it, held it up into the air about to behead the monk. And the monk pointed at him and he said, “This is hell.” And the samurai realized in that moment, that monk had put his very life on the line to teach him about what he had asked for, about heaven and hell. The samurai put the sword back to its sheath, he dropped his knee to the ground, and he bowed down in a state of reverence to the monk for what he had given to him. And the monk said, “That is heaven.”
We create heaven and hell. We create our own unhappiness and misery based off of these karmic events. And it turns out that happiness is closer to us than we could ever imagine. As the poet Rumi writes, “You wander from room to room hunting for the diamond necklace that is already around your neck,” we, too, go searching, looking for happiness all around us. I’m going to get it over there. I’m going to get it here. I’m going to get it there. I’m going to get it when I get this thing. Meanwhile, it’s closer than we think. We also see this in nature where the muster smells a scent from the day that it’s born, a scent that it’s highly attracted to. And it goes spending its whole entire life going through the forest, roaming across the mountains, looking endlessly and endlessly for the source of this scent. And one day, it passes away. And little did it know that that scent, the whole entire time of its life, was arising from right underneath its nose. Happiness is right underneath your nose.
One of the best pathways to discovering happiness is gratitude because when gratitude appears, negativity disappears. There’s a scientist at UCLA, a neuroscientist, who says, “We can’t focus on positive and negative feelings at the same time.” When we feel grateful, our brains release dopamine, the reward chemical, which makes us want to feel that way again and therefore make gratitude a habit. Once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain starts looking for more things to be grateful for. It’s a virtuous cycle. So gratitude is like a muscle and the more that we practice it and the more that we work it out and the more that we exercise, the more that we strengthen it and we create this momentum.
And we can do that through practice, and we could do it through meditation. In fact, you can find gratitude meditations available on my YouTube channel on the Dare to Awaken podcast and also on Inner Dimension TV. And you do that gratitude meditation every day, and then you’ll start to notice, “God, I just feel so much happier because today I’m focusing on the things that I’m blessed to have in my life instead of focusing on the things that are missing in my life.”
Because where the mind goes is where the energy flows. This is why happiness is a choice. Matthieu Ricard is known as the world’s happiest man. Wouldn’t you like to be famous for being the world’s most happiest person on the planet? Wouldn’t that be amazing? When they’ve studied Matthieu Ricard’s brain, what they found is that he has the highest levels of gamma brainwave activity ever recorded in science. Now, when we’re in a state of stress, we’re in what we call high beta, and this is like a disorganized, rapid brainwave state. So that’s a stress state. Gamma is very, very rapid, but it’s organized. It has elegance to it. There’s still coherence, a hyper sense of coherence in the brain and the nervous system. They also studied 21 other monks in this particular research project, and these months also showed higher and longer periods of gamma waves than non-meditators.
If you want to be happy, meditate. Meditation is a great way to shift those brain waves from that high beta state to other brain waves that are in alignment with feeling more joyful, more at peace, and more blissful.
Other ways to increase happiness are to focus on being of service to others. As the Dalai Lama says, “The only thing that brings joy in this life is service.” And he’s talking about a joy that is uninterrupted, a joy that is eternal. And I think about my work that I’ve done in the prison system and also sometimes when we go on retreats, and we go and we spend an afternoon or a day giving back to that culture, whether that’s Cambodia or India. You can’t help but feel your heart opening up. You can’t help but just feel yourself feeling elevated because you’re not dwelling on yourself. You’re focusing on giving back to another, and that naturally opens its heart. And as we open our heart, we also open up our levels of joy and happiness. Another way to increase happiness is to challenge yourself. Being stuck, being overly comfortable, complacent is not going to make you feel happy, and yet it’s so easy to get stuck in these traps. It’s so easy to want to take the path of least resistance. But the reality is that when you challenge yourself, you grow yourself. I see this all the time, whether it’s a yoga retreat or a yoga teacher training. People come, and it’s one of the best experiences in their life. Why is that? Because a lot of times, in the middle of the retreat, in the class and the training, they’re not smiling. In fact, they look miserable sometimes. It’s because they’re moving through the war. They’re moving through the battle. They’re moving through the discomfort. But at the end of the day, they can go to bed. At the end of the retreat, the teacher training, they feel victorious because they rose to the occasion and they grew. And they grew physically and mentally and emotionally and spiritually. And when you do that, you feel alive. You feel happy. You feel the joy.
Dr. David Viscott writes, “If you cannot risk, you cannot grow. You cannot be your best. If you cannot become your best, you cannot be happy. If you cannot be happy, what else matters?” We should make decisions– we should make choices based off of what is going to bring us fulfillment, what is going to make us feel happy. And again, not the temporary happiness but the permanent happiness and joy. If we focus on the stuff, then again, we’re going to stay in that constant cycle where we’re on the roller coaster of going up and down, which is exhausting and depleting and creates a state of hell inside of our mind. You will be in a peak state of happiness when you are expressing your fullest potential.
But remember, you don’t have to save happiness for a future event. You don’t have to keep kicking the can down the road. It’s available right here, right now in this very moment. It’s a choice, and it’s a birthright. And more important than adding happiness to you is letting go and relaxing into happiness already being a birthright within you. One Tibetan lama says, “Happiness cannot be found through great effort and willpower, but it’s already there in relaxation and letting go. Don’t strain yourself. There is nothing to do. Only our search for happiness prevents us from seeing it. Don’t believe in the reality of good and bad experiences. They’re like rainbows.” Wanting to grasp the ungraspable, you exhaust yourself and vain. As soon as you relax, this grasping, space is there. Open, inviting, and comfortable. So make use of it. All is yours already. Don’t search any further. Nothing to do. Nothing to force. Nothing to want. And everything happens by itself. All right, guys.
Thank you so much for tuning in. I hope you found this podcast enjoyable, enlightening, and at least thought-provoking. Much health. Much wealth. Much love. May we dare to awaken.