Wake Up: The Not-So-Secret Key to Happiness

awake awareness happiness khaled allen warrior spirit

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”- Joseph Campbell

We spend so much time worrying about the future or reliving the past that we rarely if ever experience the present. Life is full of distractions and the result of that is we are never truly awake to the experiences that are happening to us. You can retreat to the virtual world of the internet through your smartphone at any moment. If you wanted to, you could be completely and totally insulated from any real experience, every minute of the day.

What We Really Want

The cover of this month's issue of Shambhala Sun features the headline, "The Real Problem with Distraction: It keeps you from enlightenment."

I saw the magazine in the rack at a supermarket and wondered what it meant that distraction keeps us from enlightenment. The headline implied that enlightenment was the opposite of distraction. To be enlightened then, was to be aware and engaged with whatever it is you are doing.

H.H. The Dalai Lama connected Buddhist practice and happiness in his book, The Art of Happiness, which helped me accept that I have a right to be happy, saving me from the very dark road I was on. There exists within the Buddhist community a notion that presence of mind, engagement, awake-ness, is the key to enlightenment and thus real, lasting happiness.

This makes sense, since Buddha means "awakened one".

In the psychological community as well, there seems to be a growing focus on this idea of being present as essential to happiness. Scientists have pinned down what they call the flow state, which occurs when you are deeply engaged in a stimulating task you find enjoyable. You lose a sense of yourself and your awareness shifts into a relaxed focus. People deep in a flow state forget to eat and don't notice discomfort because they are less concerned with themselves.

So, it seems human happiness has something to do with being very engaged.

My own life has also reinforced this connection. I have had two experiences in particular that reveal a connection between engagement and happiness.

Listen Up

After reading How to Win Friends and Influence People, taking Vanessa Van Edwards online course How to Become a Human Lie Detector, and participating in a listening skills workshop with a mentor, I began practicing a new kind of listening. Whenever I would have a conversation with someone, I would become extremely interested in them and their story.

Simply by holding this intention of being engaged, I automatically started to change my behavior. I asked more questions, I stopped interrupting, I leaned forward, and I paid intense attention to my partner's body language and facial expressions.

The social results were encouraging, but I also realized that I was getting out of my own head.

This allowed me to connect much more deeply with people and to learn about them, which in turn led to a sense of connection that helped me overcome some of the isolation I felt in Boulder.

If you want to learn how to really listen, check out the exercise I put together.

The Whole Colorful World

The other experience that demonstrated a connection between simple engagement and a sense of fulfillment was my regular hikes in the mountains above Boulder.

For several weeks last summer, I would go hiking first thing in the morning. Because of the mindset I was in at the time, I felt I owed the natural world the respect of not dragging my issues into the forests.

Instead of dwelling on my problems, I observed the trees and the rocks with a simple reverence, the way you might acknowledge friends you met around town. I allowed my world-view to expand beyond my petty problems.

The results were subtle but noticeable:

You can read more about my walking meditation here.

Applying Awareness

After contemplating the connection between the magazine cover, my knowledge of Buddhism and psychology, and my own experiences, I tried an experiment. I knew what it felt like to be totally engaged in a conversation, and I knew the feeling of total engagement on my hikes, so I tried to recreate that while simply walking down the street.

The results were uncanny.

I normally walk around town wrapped up in my own head, thinking about the things I need to do, want to do, failed to do, and should do. I don't really get fascinated by the traffic lights or the cars speeding by, or even the smells and sounds of the town. But I decided to try being as engaged in the city as I was when listening to people or hiking.

I set aside my concerns and opened my senses. I forced myself to be more alert and interested in what was going on around me. I found myself forgetting my troubles. I wasn't distracted by the street. I was fascinated by it.

And then, without warning, I started smiling.

I had been having a bad day until that point, but for some reason, life seemed infinitely amazing all of a sudden. There was so much possibility, so many stories and so much potential for connection, I just couldn't stay upset about my own little problems. Even the unfortunate things, while sad, were something I could accept as part of life.

I felt uplifted, seeing the beauty in something so simple as a city street in Boulder.

I think that lesson is the secret of meditation: being totally awake, not letting your mind drift off in a waking dream instead of experiencing the world right in front of your eyes.

Why does this make us happy?

I think it's because we know we are dying and we want to experience living.

We have this glorious ability to be conscious of our lives, but we spend so much of our mental existence in times that don't exist--the past and the future--with the result that we are always missing out on actually being here.

Each day slips past, never really felt, until we come to the end of our days and we wonder if we ever lived at all.

Some of us try to live by pursuing specific experiences. We imagine that if we had enough money, we could leave our job (which feels like happiness deferred) and do what we really want. Or that if we found the right person, we could have an  authentic relationship experience instead of wondering if there's something better or dwelling on past wrongs.

Perhaps we don't want money or love or adventure. We want the authentic, free experience of a fascinating NOW we think they will give us.

We can have that feeling right now, simply by choosing to let go of distractions.

It takes practice, certainly. The more you practice awareness (through meditation or some other form of awareness exercise) the deeper your focus becomes, the more vivid your experience of life is.

Enlightenment, then is the state of continuous and effortless awakening. It's that simple. Just experiencing life as it comes, in all its fascinating beauty.

Being present is simply being alive. And that is the key to happiness.

And why should that be so surprising? We are living things before anything else, so the root of our fulfillment ought to come simply from being alive and appreciating what that means.

Photo credit: Peasap on Flickr