I am short of breath. My brow is wet with sweat, and my fingertips are tingling. I can't seem to concentrate. I'm happy, but there's this idea nagging inside of me that I might lose that very happiness I'm feeling. That is indeed the cause of my anxiety. It's not the fault of the happiness per se, but rather that idea many people have that it can't last, and that life will be unbearable once it has forsaken us.
It's been 10 years since I've adopted Buddhism as my philosophy of life, before embracing it as my religion. It's deeply improved my well-being, more so than any other spiritual practice had done before.
One of my greatest reliefs was realizing that my suffering came from my desire that all that I enjoy must continue indefinitely. I suffered from not being able to accept every little thing in life just for what it was — swaying, temporary, free to stay or go, whether I liked it or not. Let's face it: A new television will at some point cease to function, that shiny new car will get its first scratch, your son will grow up, women will leave you, you will lose well-paid jobs, your reputation will be tarnished. In short, everything that brings you a certain joy is beyond your control and is bound to change, without forewarning or asking for your consent.
And yet, there's no shortage of occasions for lasting and sincere happiness. Offering a smile and receiving one in return, paying someone a real compliment, that feeling when you have someone's trust, seeing a flower that broke through stone to grow, listening to a child laughing, feeling the wind, the sun caressing your skin. All of those are out there for all of us now.
This full awareness, in vogue but very difficult to practice, indeed refers to the ability I might have to feel, with each of my senses, in my utmost focus on the present moment, these things in life I would normally pay almost no attention to.
Just as a magnifying glass can concentrate rays of light into a fire, I have that power to concentrate my rays of joy and set my soul ablaze for an intense moment of happiness. So, why can't we just all feel this joy in its purest form, without it being diluted by the anxiety, the fear it might slip away?
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Feeling the moment in Tokyo — Photo: Mrhayata
All cognitive behavioral therapies, as well as all forms of spiritual wisdom, insist on the importance of working on our thoughts. Of course, when someone close to us dies or is in an accident, it's hard not to attribute your emotion to the event. The feeling of disgust provoked by an abhorrent crime is a revealing example too. And yet, though it's difficult to admit, our emotions stem from our thoughts, our perceptions, rather than from the events we experience. When we tell ourselves that a friend's passing has relieved him or her from great suffering is a way to offer solace through the rationality of thought.
But in the case of the happiness-related anxiety, it has more to do with the anticipation of an event that hasn't happened yet. The discomfort and sense of insecurity that this idea can cause easily grows into anxiety from the moment you convince yourself you'll be unable to overcome the impediment, that you'll be powerless to free yourself from that threat.
Albert Ellis, the American psychologist and founder of the rational emotive behavior therapy, left us the 12 irrational ideas that poison our existence and which, vigorously maintained by our thoughts, efficiently kills the strongest of joys. Here they are:
The idea that it's absolutely necessary for adults to be loved by significant others for almost everything they do.
The idea that certain acts are awful or evil, and that the people who perform such acts must be severely condemned.
The idea that it is horrible when things don't go the way we long for them to.
The idea that human misery is invariably caused by external factors.
The idea that if something is or may be dangerous or fearsome, we should be upset by and endlessly obsessed about it.
The idea that it is easier to avoid than to face life difficulties and self-responsibilities.
The idea that we absolutely need something (or someone) stronger or greater than ourselves to rely on.
The idea that we should be extremely competent, intelligent, and achieving in all possible respects.
The idea that because something once strongly affected our life, it should affect it indefinitely.
The idea that we must have total and perfect control over things.
The idea that human happiness can be achieved by inertia and inaction.
The idea that we have virtually no control over our emotions and that we cannot help feeling disturbed about things.
This transformation from one type of thinking to another, simply admitting the real and genuinely reasonable source of our suffering that these ideas represent is, as far as I'm concern, a daily struggle, despite all my efforts to keep these 12 ideas away from my mind.
Still, it helps to be reminded of them. And it relieves me to admit that they're the backdrop of the emotional misery I create for myself and that I should just let go of them. It shows me there's a solution. I hope that you can find it too.
*Martin Comeau is a Québec-based programmer. This essay was originally published in French on Medium.
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