In the last 4 parts on our Happiness discussion we looked at how our conscious mind was like a rider (conscious mind) on the back of an elephant (the rest of mind/body). The thing is the rider has very little authority to direct the elephant to do something that it does not want to do. We went on to show there could be some very fundamental reasons for this, including our very survival. It comes down to that even though the rider often thinks it is in control, it doesn’t always make the best decisions and can often lead us in the wrong direction in life. That is all right, because the elephant usually has our back, plodding along on its path of the tried and true way. The elephant only goes down the proven path and if we want to evolve emotionally, mentally or spiritually we need to retrain the elephant on how to move onto a new path.
Now don’t get me wrong, you don’t need a new path to be happy. Look around the world, who are the happy people? Surprisingly they are not necessarily the wealthy or the successful people. They are not the people living in a great climate. They are most often the people that even though they might appear poor, have a great connections to their family, work, community and religion. They have built a network of things around them that works for them. What are these things and how do we get them?
In part 3 of the Happiness blogs we saw that the largest controllable part of happiness is how a person thinks and acts. For a plant to thrive and be happy, it needs sunlight, water and good soil. In humans we can say (and this has been proven in research) that our sunshine is Love, our water is Work (or what we do, play, work, parenting, study) and the soil is the society we are cultivated in. We can more easily develop the first two (love and work) and then transplant ourselves into a culture that helps us grow.
No man, woman, or child is an island onto himself or herself. We are ultra-social creatures and happiness is often equated to our connection to friends and loved ones. If you are a parent of kids, or even remembering back when you where a kid, it didn’t really matter what you were doing with your friends, just being with them is what made you happy. There was a kind of flow of agreement there; you were tuned into the same station. You had similar like and dislikes. This often meant you felt a higher level of happiness with your friend than your family, as your family didn’t really understand you, but your friend did. They were on the same page as you. We could say that you had a flow of ideas and feelings.
Work, or better stated what we ‘Do’ is also important here. This could be playing as a kid, your occupation, parenting, study or even sports and exercise. We also get glimpses of happiness when any one of these is in the flow. Do you remember playing make-believe with your friends as a kid? It could have been capture the flag, dolls, building the ultimate Lego castle or a play fort. When you were in a group being in the same make-believe world, happiness flowed. Most primates have been shown to want to do, to create and figure things out. Even zoo monkeys, orangutans and gorillas want to solve problems. We have a drive to make things happen. You can see this with infants and play centers, when their flailing arm movements start ringing bells and making things spin. We have a drive to develop competence through interacting with and controlling our environment. It is almost as basic a need as food and water. It has been shown that this problem solving gives us great pleasure and joy. In fact we get more pleasure from making progress towards our goals than we do from achieving them. Or as Shakespeare said, “Joy’s soul lies in the doing.” I know with gardening, I get even more pleasure being outside working the soil, weeding, cultivating the plants and preserving them for winter than even eating them. But I must admit eating nice crispy beans in the middle of winter (that I know grew last summer less than a hundred feet away), brings me lots of joy too. Was that work or play, sometimes the boundaries between these get a little fuzzy.
It has been shown that most people approach work in one of three ways: as a job, a career, or a calling. Work ultimately is what you deem it. It won’t come as a big surprise to most that people get more joy and happiness out of work as a calling than if it is just a job for a pay check to spend on the weekend. Both careers and callings are focused on a higher purpose, not just a paycheck. Most people can get satisfaction from their work, if they apply their strengths. By finding out your strengths (Link here) and choosing work that uses your strengths you can obtain more flow in your life, and thus more moments of joy and happiness. If you can’t find this in your “day job”, engage those strengths in some other aspect of your life such as a hobby, sports, arts, or volunteer work. Ultimately more happiness will come into your life if you can spend time on a regular basis in this zone of flow.
You know this zone; you have felt it before. It might have been way back when you were a child playing games, or it might have been that eureka moment of an insight, that perfect movement in a sport, or during or right after great sex. We all have a few of these moments. The goal is to cultivate more of these into our lives. Possibly you can cultivate this in your work (not necessarily the sex, unless you work in the sex trade). As the poet, Kahlil Gibran said in The Prophet “Work is love made visible.”
This flow is more important to our happiness than money or material goods. Positive Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called this flow “Vital Engagement”. After interviewing hundreds of successful people, Mihali and his team found that once a person found a moment of flow in their selected field, and by cultivating relationships with like-minded people who also had found the flow, their practice and values deepened over time and it enabled them to have even longer periods of flow. They defined this vital engagement as “a relationship to the world that is characterized both by experience of flow (enjoyed absorption) and by meaning (subjective significance).” Or to put it another way ‘”love made visible.” These people got swept away by their projects to create a calling.
The thing is that vital engagement does not reside in the person or the environment; it exists in the relationship between the two. It is the interface between the two. This brings us back to our old friend that I have blogged about often – coherence. Coherence literally means holding or sticking together. We usually think of this as part of a system, or an idea or a worldview whose parts fit together in a consistent and efficient way. The more levels that are coherent, the more joy and happiness flows. If your ideals, job and lifestyle do not point in the same direction, you cannot have coherence. If you have a certain philosophy about life and your job acts in the opposite direction, you will have a harder time having the same amount of joy and happiness as there is a conflict. The more levels of coherence (or Cross-Level Coherence) you can create in your life, the stronger it feels like enlightenment. People gain a great sense of meaning when there lives cohere across the three or more levels of their existence – physical, psychological sociocultural and spiritual. The feeling created is much bigger than the sum of the parts. Again it is important to note that this cross-level coherence is created by the space between the levels, not by cultivating or residing in one level or another. If a person spends too much time in their mind, they can’t create this cross-level coherence. If a person spends too much time in spiritual pursuits, or even in the physical world, they too will not have the cross-level coherence.
Now when you look around you can see how many religions and spiritual practices have employed parts of this to help their practitioners obtain a suitable level of happiness. Unfortunately many religions around the world have suffered scandals; as with any power over people, it can easily create the temptation for some in their ranks to succumb to corruption. Many disenfranchised people are out there looking for another solution, as the older forms of religion don’t serve them anymore.
As in the 1999 film the Matrix, once you take the red pill (the painful truth), it is hard to go back to the blue pill (blissful ignorance of illusion). Once the truth is revealed, it doesn’t create happiness; in fact quite the opposite, with lots of pain and confusion persisting after this point. This has driven many people into states of depression. Now the rider and the elephant are working in different directions. There is a lack of coherence. The elephant has been trained in the old system; it needs to be re-trained to see a new way. To create cross-level coherence we can’t just talk about recycling, we have to do it. If you have spiritual practice on the weekend, but work at fracking for oil during your 'day-job'; you will ultimately have a hard time finding coherence. We can’t just talk about living within harmony with our planet – we have to achieve it. We have been plodding along on this consumer treadmill for so long, our elephant knows no other way. Again it lives on a Like-O-Meter level. We have to train it to have better tastes. Maybe not so much sugar and an appreciation for the deeper spices of life.
In part 4 we discussed five processes that have been shown to create more happiness for a person. If we figure out what they have in common, maybe it can help us customize activities that work for each and every one of us. As you might have guessed by now, four out of the five solutions create cross-level coherence – meditation, cognitive therapy, medicinal mushrooms and flower essence. This is not to sell short the Prozac; it has its place. It is not a long-term solution. It only gives us the chemical (hormonal, body based) feeling of coherence. It does not have this cross-level function, thus isn’t a long term solution. It has proven to be great for a holding pattern for a person to be able to gain the personal power to start re-training the elephant. Metaphorically we can say it is a weaker blue pill that can sedate the flood of information and feelings that come after taking the red pill. It can curb the depression while we work on deeper issues.
The other four methods help us build a deeper level of communication between the rider and the elephant. Meditation both calms the mind and develops a sense of spiritual well being. Cognitive Therapy slows down the negative chatter in the brain and gives us a chance to live deeper. The Medicinal Mushrooms grow from great communities of mycelium, bathed in the earth vibration of Gaia; this also helps calm the mind and body, and creates a greater level of coherence on more than one level. Flower Essences are made from the subtle vibration of the flowers, calming our emotions and mind, helping us reach deeper into coherence. Of course using more than one of these therapies at the same time can help us create a deeper cross-level coherence.
Ultimately we have to find our personal form of cross-level coherence. It is hard to follow a religion that preaches love, compassion and virtue yet supports war or terrorism. It is hard to support a government that speaks of freedom for all, but creates racial, financial and cultural inequalities. Atrocities committed in the name of a religion or government don’t increase a person’s feelings of cross-level coherence.
Many have reached into higher realms to create coherence from mysticism. This is a concept about transcending the self and merging with something larger than self. Many religions and sects around the world have employed this and created states of “cosmic consciousness”. This creates extended periods of bliss, supreme peace, and illumination. One of the ways to do this is by using rituals that involve repetitive movement, such as dancing, drumming, chanting and the likes. This too can create high levels of coherence. For it to create cross-level coherence, the feeling and insights achieved in these states have to be incorporated into other areas of a person’s life.
We have to engage these different levels for the rider and the elephant to move in coherence. As we are both the rider and the elephant, again happiness comes from the flow in the space between the levels. You can’t find it, buy it, or obtain it. It is in the very existence of the flow itself. Some call this the Tao.