The Pursuit of Happiness: Is It Simply a Case of Training Our Mind?

Toby Hazlewood

The role of meditation in shifting our minds and altering our perspective

Photo by Erik Brolin on Unsplash

I’ve been practicing meditation for a few years now. I’m certainly no expert, but I recognise it’s mastered over a lifetime. Meditation was the first ‘success-habit’ that I incorporated into my daily ritual after first opening my mind to the world of personal development.

I doubt it’s entirely coincidental that this era began during my early forties. After 20 years as a working adult and with my first child approaching adulthood, I had a strong feeling that life was running away from me. I also found it somewhat lacking in meaning and significance. I was looking for ideas, tactics and tools that might bring these to my life and ultimately boost my feelings of happiness and worth. Meditation was one of the first things I tried.

It has featured consistently in my morning routine ever since, alongside an earlier-than-average alarm-call, journaling, exercise and many other habits. Each is intended to kick-start my day in as productive and healthy a way possible.

My practice has always involved use of the Headspace app, which tells me today that I’ve meditated for a total of 171 hours over 754 sessions.

Not bad. Could be better.

Trusting in the process

I wish I could pinpoint what I’ve achieved as a result of this time. I yearn for some reassurance that I’m progressing towards the serenity and inner-peace that I originally sought.

As unquantifiable as they might be, I know that the benefits of meditation are not to be underestimated. It’s impossible to know how I might feel had I not spent those hours as I have, focusing on my breath and mindfully recognising my thoughts as they come and go.

Of late though, I’ve felt like I’m getting somehow worse at meditating, not better.

Many of my sessions seem to pass in a reverie of daydreams, oblivious to the guidance from the app. I follow the instructions, which are well-practiced by now and feel like I’m running on auto-pilot. My focus drifts away from my breath and I find myself pulling back from one tangential thought after another. I return to my breathing but seconds later, I’m off again on another random train of thought.

I suppose it’s progress that I can notice myself getting distracted. I thought though that it would get easier as time went on.

To try and address my perceived failings, and with the attitude of a workman blaming his tools for poor craftsmanship, I decided to sample another app to see if that might help to shake things up a little.

Having encountered Sam Harris, creator of the Waking Up App, through podcast interviews with Tim Ferriss, Joe Rogan and Peter Attia MD, I decided that his course was as good an option as any.

Photo by Keegan Houser on Unsplash

Meditation as a route to a better and happier life?

This piece isn’t about the app, or solely about meditation. Instead, it’s about me trying to understand with greater clarity how the things I read, practice and apply might lead to a happier and more fulfilled life.

Am I misguided in what I hope to achieve?

During the introductory audio track on the Waking Up app, Sam Harris introduces the idea of meditation and why we practice it; to train the mind.

As he puts it:

“The untrained mind… is what allows us all to be less than happy when things are about as good as they can get. Even when everything is fine, many of us are still consumed by stress. We spend most of our time thinking about all the things we need to do, or want to do, or wish we hadn’t done, and we spend very little time truly content and focused in the present.”
-Sam Harris

What immediately struck me was just how true that statement is. What struck me seconds later was just how saddening that this should be the case.

It's hard to see the bright side

In my most objective and optimistic moments of reflection, I see that things in my life are about as good as they can get.

I have an interesting and rewarding job and the freedom to pursue creative fulfillment through my writing. I make decent money, enough at least to support me and my family and to live in a comfortable home in a safe neighbourhood. I am in good health, have the time and opportunity to exercise and access to free healthcare should I need it. I have the love of my wife, kids, family and friends.

Life is good.

I’m not gloating, and it’s not without its challenges either. There are things that I’d like to change, but on all meaningful levels it should feel stress-free.

And yet I struggle like so many others do, to see and appreciate this reality and to feel the basic sense of peace and contentedness that should be a natural by-product of my life.

I’ve long-struggled to understand why that should be.

It would be nice to think that Sam Harris is correct in his analysis and that it’s simply a case of training (or re-training) my mind to understand and appreciate how good I’ve really got it.

I cannot help but wonder though, why is it that so many of us live in this state of mind, and default to this world view?
Photo by Victor on Unsplash

Evolution has equipped us with many fine and useful traits and characteristics, but it seems that the ability to recognise and appreciate the many blessings of our situation doesn’t comes naturally to many of us.

The consequences of living with our minds maladapted for the challenges of modern life compared to life millions of years ago, are saddening to say the least.

Sam Harris outlines these as follows:

“Because of this, we often fail to really connect with the people around us, even the people we love most in this world. We all know what it’s like to be with our child, or our spouse, or best friend and to not really be present because we’re lost in thought about the past or future. We squander most of our time this way.”
-Sam Harris

I think he’s right. It’s not so much that we have an inability to recognise and appreciate our present circumstances, our here and now. Instead, we’re simply distracted from seeing our reality. We don’t even notice it.

Stuck in the past

We’re totally consumed by analyzing and interpreting events of our past. When not stuck in the past, we’re projecting ourselves into the future, anxiously anticipating the worst-case possibilities, or outcomes which don’t measure up to our expectations. If we could just manage our minds to quieten this noise, and focus on the present then we might just notice how good we actually have it.

That’s my interpretation at least.

“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
-Lao Tzu

In the last few years, I’ve read and listened to many personal development books and podcasts. I’ve attended seminars and worked with mentors. I’ve studied, analyzed and absorbed the words of far-greater minds than mine who seem to have a better handle on life than I do. I’m seeking (and occasionally finding) answers, and quite often I’m asking new questions of myself too.

I’ve learned a lot, built new habits and practices into my life and I feel like a better version of myself than I was at the start of the journey. I’m committed to doing ever more as I work towards becoming the best version of myself that I can be. At times though, I still question what I’m doing, and why. The introduction to Waking Up was a useful and timely reminder of why I should meditate.

No hacks, no shortcuts

It seems to me that personal development isn’t about miracle fixes or silver bullet solutions. There isn’t a get-rich-quick system, any more than there’s a get-fit-quick, get-mindful-quick or get-happy-quick system either. Instead, so much of it, including meditation is about small, incremental steps that gradually compound into bigger shifts.

I believe that happiness and fulfillment can be attained by looking at life through a different lens. Part of this is in becoming blinkered to the distractions of future and past, focusing on the here and now and appreciating what we have.

It all starts with training the mind to gratefully appreciate what we have, that we couldn’t previously see.

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