I am a firm believer in the concept that understanding an idea intellectually is not the same as internalizing it—that is, understanding it on the level of the soul. Time and again, I’ve read self-help books or engaged in long conversations about some topic or another that was important to my personal growth and felt that I understood the issues at hand, only to slap myself on the forehead a year or two later, thinking, “Oh! So this is really what that all meant!”
For example, throughout my twenties, I struggled with an eating disorder. All the while, I “knew” intellectually that I would be happier and healthier if I could change my eating habits. But it wasn’t until I started to truly feel that my life – and my relationship with the man who is now my fiancé – would always be unfulfilling if I didn’t change. When I started to feel in my heart and soul what my mind had known for years, I was finally able to leave my eating disorder behind.
The same phenomenon has been happening to me recently concerning the idea that, to be truly happy, I must relate to myself and my life in an emotionally balanced way. Real happiness – the kind that makes you a generally positive person through the ups and downs of life – is not circumstantial. It does not depend upon finding the perfect job, house, or lifestyle. Real happiness comes from within.
Though I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, I maintain a meditation practice and I feel I benefit a great deal from many Buddhist teachings. According to Buddhism (as I understand it), one of the purposes of meditation is to help us separate ourselves from our thoughts. We can then examine those thoughts, which might otherwise seem merely automatic, and consciously choose to react to situations in beneficial, constructive ways, rather than surrendering to potentially destructive knee-jerk reactions. By bringing a new awareness to our thoughts and reactions, we are able to navigate our lives such that we tend to be generally more balanced – our emotions aren’t thrown into chaos by the rough patches in the road. In my mind, this way of life – along with working towards self-acceptance – leads to a greater degree of genuine happiness.
These are concepts that I have ardently supported for years, but only in the last few weeks have they begun to really sink in. In recent years, there has been a lot of change in my life. I’ve switched jobs, moved several times, and overcome the turbulence of my eating disorder. As a result of all this change, I am starting to truly realize just how temporary many of the circumstances of our lives are. Therefore, if we depend on external conditions for our happiness, we will never enjoy lasting contentment.
Of course, it still is not easy for me to put these concepts into practice. I am at a bit of a crossroads with my career and my fiancé and I are contemplating another cross-country move, so I find myself wanting to plan the details of the future to reassure myself that I will, indeed, achieve those external conditions that will supposedly bring me happiness. But I’m starting to feel – somewhere deep in my gut – that I must be happy with the person I am, if I am to lead a truly happy life. This is both scary and encouraging: scary because a part of me wants to cling to the concept of conditional happiness. That part is afraid that if I let go of the concept of conditional happiness, I will never achieve the external circumstances I dream about. But it is encouraging because it means that everything I need to be happy is already in my possession. I don’t have to wait until I’ve achieved a certain level of career success, or until I’m living in the perfect house. I can be happy right now.