“Staying connected to the present is all you ever care about.”
Whenever you’re not lost in thought- positive or negative, you witness this.
Whenever you’re not looking over the shoulders of the present moment- anticipating what’s coming next, you witness this.
Whenever you’re not taken over by memories- whether good or bad, you witness this.
Whenever you’re simply one with the present moment, you witness this.
There’s indeed something sacred about life, consciousness, and just the raw experience of being ‘you’, in the present. And I’m not talking about presence of mind here. I’m talking about mindfulness. The raw quality of just paying close attention to the present without being lost in thought. Whether you’re meditating or not is secondary. In fact, more often you achieve this while doing some day-to-day activity which includes practically everything, such as reading, writing, running, playing sports or video games etc. There’s a psychological term for this. It’s called ‘flow’. Flow is when you’re so absorbed into whatever you’re doing that everything else, especially time and thought, fly out of the window.
Now, Eckhart Tolle explores how time and mind are the two greatest enemies of enlightenment itself- which is always accessible in the present. He identifies resistance to what is as the reason behind the lack of fulfillment in the present. Or as I shall say, if you’re suffering, you’re necessarily lost in thought.
Now, before we can proceed further, I think I need to explain those terms. So, let me break them down for you. By mind, I think he refers to not just the thought process but the entirety of what I shall better call ‘contents of consciousness’. But for our purposes here, we can only include thought in our definition of the mind for now. And what does resistance mean? By default, the mind (this time as understood in the wider sense) has the tendency to grasp at what’s pleasant and push away what’s unpleasant. And we’re all guilty of doing this. Resistance refers to the latter, where we want our present reality to be something other than what it is. We do this during the bad times, and even in the course of our everyday lives when something sucks.
So, what implication does this have for happiness? No matter what your definition of happiness is, I bet it is something necessarily characterized by ’not being lost in thought’. It is the absence of compulsive thought that makes this happiness possible. And by compulsive thought, I mean ‘thinking without knowing that you’re thinking’, as Sam Harris likes to call it. It is this type of thinking that, in the contemplative traditions of the East such as those of Buddhism, is understood to be the primary source of human suffering. And it is the default state of the mind. It is something you habitually identify yourself with doing.
Now if you remember the title of this essay, it said, “The ONE Sacred Secret To Happiness With Or Without Anything”. Now the ‘with’ part is something I already talked about when I referred to flow. In this context, the activity which gives rise to flow is the ‘anything’ which you find happiness ‘with’. But what about the ‘without’ part?
The ‘without’ is even more fascinating than the ‘with’. And the common denominator across the two is the absence of thought as we shall see. In ‘without anything’, the source of happiness is the practice of mindfulness. As I defined earlier, mindfulness is the practice of paying close attention to the raw quality of experience itself, in the present. (This time I’m referring to mindfulness as a form of meditation.) Now experience here characterizes all the sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, and thoughts themselves, that are a part of your consciousness in the present. Mindfulness as a practice involves observing thought itself as just another object in consciousness, pretty much like anything else that characterizes experience. Now without further ado, I must say that you need not become an expert meditator to realize the benefits of mindfulness, since according to most data, mindfulness appears to improve every aspect of your health and happiness as soon as you start doing it, although this is not the way of mindfulness bringing happiness that I’m talking about.
The way I’m talking about is that of the sages, who spend their lives in a voluntary solitude that is apparently no better than solitary confinement. I mean, just think about it. Even when you’re sentenced to the jail, you at least get to see faces and live with other humans even though they are bad people (but then you in this case are bad, too). But if a prisoner were to prefer solitary confinement instead, especially over the long haul, we would likely deem it insane. Yet this is precisely what these sages do, actually worse, because they sometimes renunciate food as well, and definitely all the other good stuff we take in civilization for granted. So, in a situation where all the material sources of happiness have been removed, how come a person can be happy? And the answer lies in just the kind of meditation practices I’ve described.
Notice that when you’re removing all the material sources of happiness, you’re also simultaneously removing the principal source of human suffering, which is compulsive thought, or thinking without knowing that you’re thinking. And the absence of suffering implies happiness. And this is the reason why these sages tick. This I believe is also the reason, at least in part, why people claim to have gotten enlightened having done these kinds of practices over a sustained period of time. But as we can see, there’s nothing mysterious or spooky about it at the end of the day. It is something that can be empirically tested in first person (although I must admit that I haven’t done it myself).
So, common across the ‘with’ and ‘without’ is the absence of habitual thought, and staying connected to the present. And in fact, this is all you ever care about. For instance, confirming this I ask you to recall the happiest moment of your life. I bet you weren’t thinking at the time. For instance, you could have been holding your cute little daughter in your hands, to whom you smiled and who smiled back at you for the first time. Notice how you didn’t stop to ask “Well, what does this mean…?”, in the sense of trying to figure out the grand purpose of the cosmos or even the arc of your future. Away from being someone or something in that moment, you just were.
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