Everyone has different ideas of what brings one happiness and how to attain it in life, but generally, the media coupled with a consumerist society tends to feed us ideas such as: if we “buy this” or “look like that” then we will be happy. Happiness in this context is a goal to be sought after, a new measure of success even – if you aren’t a happy person, you aren’t good enough or something is “wrong” with you.
In my experience, happiness is not a constant state of being and I try not to be driven by the desire to be happy. What I have found to lead me toward greater life satisfaction and more moments of happiness in life is actually shifting my focus toward living authentically rather than focusing on living happily.
Happiness to me, more or less, seems to be one of the products of allowing ourselves to live authentically, connected to what truly moves us in life while also allowing ourselves to become aware of the things that hold us back or cause suffering.
If we are unhappy or unsatisfied in life, we must be honest with ourselves about it, we must allow ourselves to see the truth within us because this is what empowers us to change. When we continuously avoid the reality that we are unsatisfied or suffering in our lives, through denial and distractions that may even lead to addictions, we cause ourselves to suffer more. Avoiding and distracting ourselves from the truth of our dissatisfaction prevents us from being able to make real, lasting change from within. In my experience, much of the dissatisfaction or suffering in life is a product of being undernourished or malnourished in our physical, mental, and/or emotional lives.
The nature of Life itself is to grow and change. Us humans sometimes forget that we are part of Life. We must allow ourselves to grow if we want to feel alive, if we want to be alive. What encourages us in life as well as what discourages us in life may shift and change and we must also shift and change, like migratory birds or deciduous trees – when the seasons change, so do they, and if they stayed still, they would suffer and eventually die at the least from lack of nourishment. We must allow ourselves to see when we are not being properly nourished in our physical, mental, and emotional life, and we must have the courage to change. This will mean something different for everyone and there is not one path that suits all.
Becoming aware of the things that inspire us and what we connect with are the things that nourish the growth and stability of our mind, body, and spirit. A deep happiness/life satisfaction is the product of continuously allowing ourselves to grow toward the things that call to us, and sometimes the call may just be a whisper. Pay attention to what that grabs your interest and explore these things with curiosity and without expectation.
To grow is a courageous act – we don’t know where we are going or who we truly are entirely, we are always unfolding, blooming, opening ourselves up to judgement, criticism, rejection. It is extremely vulnerable and terrifying, but necessary and strengthening. When we open to growth, we open to the potential within ourselves, to newness and to the shedding of old. Life’s flow from dark to light, unknown to known, seemingly nothing to something. There will always be unknown, life will always be growing and changing and that is what makes life exciting. When we embrace this, we thrive; when we don’t, we suffer.
Let the old slough
Back into the black soil of the earth
Let the dead be taken
Back into the darkness,
Back into the realm of the Unknown
Where the broken down particles of past
Become the pieces of future potential
Let yourself be broken down
Let yourself be taken into the dense forest
Return to the womb of life
Let the confusion cloud you over
Let yourself feel it
Allow yourself to decay into that Unknown
But know that you will be reborn
Know that you will reorganize, restructure, rebuild
Time is what these broken down particles need,
To discover new structure,
Trust the darkness
To spring new life.
I was in college at the time when I experienced my first panic attack. On the outside, everything seemed great in my life and like I had no reason to be anything but happy. I was studying at a good college, I had a good group of friends, I was getting good grades, I was attractive and healthy, my parents and family love me, etcetera, etcetera. Yet, despite going over these factors in my mind, I continued to experience general anxiety throughout every day and night.
I had terrible difficulty sleeping and felt surrounded by enormous fear. I felt so off, like something was so wrong that I must be dying but, I felt ridiculous thinking that and refused to tell anyone about it. I was so afraid this was going to be how I felt every day for the rest of my life. I was in fear constantly and I had no idea what I was actually afraid of.
I felt lost, alone, confused, and very, very ashamed about it – ‘There must be something wrong with me because everything is great on the outside and my life is in order’ but, it felt like chaos on the inside.
I didn’t know who to talk to and I was too afraid of being looked at differently by the people I love most – I was afraid people wouldn’t take me seriously anymore, or would think I’m crazy or that something IS truly wrong with me. I was terrified to admit what I was feeling. I didn’t want it to be real so I acted like it wasn’t.
But the fear felt all encompassing and like a shadow I could never escape. All I wanted was for it to go away. School helped distract me with the constant studying and doing homework, stressing over papers and exams. But one day I had a panic attack during a lecture. I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
Fortunately, I came across the book “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, very soon after that panic attack. It was the courageously raw sharing of her story, that served as a beacon of light in the storm that I was experiencing. She lived it, the breaking down, falling apart, panic attacks, depression and was still able to look at it honestly and slowly to heal the pieces of herself. I didn’t feel so hopeless anymore. I didn’t feel so alone and I didn’t feel as ashamed. I still didn’t understand my anxiety and experience yet, but I was beginning to accept it’s reality. And that’s what I needed first.
I began a practice of journaling, inspired by Gilbert’s story. It was strange at first. I felt like someone could see my writing and I felt embarrassed about it – shame was creeping in, but I kept writing, I had to. My intention was to begin expressing my feelings, to get them to move outside of myself since I had been holding them in for so long. The built up emotional pressure inside was the cause for my panic attacks, like a volcano constantly on the brink of eruption and exploding with force from the slightest of tremors. Once I began journaling, my anxiety attacks subsided.
To this day, any time I feel a bubbling of emotion, I write it out. Usually I just start a stream of writing my immediate thoughts and feelings. Especially when fear or anxiety is involved, I write down all that I’m feeling afraid of while being mindful of whether or not I’m allowing shame to hide anything.
I can’t always define emotions easily, sometimes I scribble just because that’s what the emotion feels like. Sometimes when the emotion feels stuck I’ll work out to get the energy moving. Sometimes I’ll dance or sing to music that feels harmonious to the emotion. Sometimes I write poems describing the images, the color, the texture, the movement, even a story of the emotion. Sometimes it feels like a storm, with seas churning and spitting, wind howling and taunting. Other times it might feel like honey, smooth and glowing warm.
Nothing expressed has to be beautiful or has to make sense to anyone else, just as long as it feels true to what you’re feeling at that time. It just needs to move and to be seen. Connecting body with mind. The expression feels true to me when I feel a sense of harmony between my thoughts and emotions rather than discord and confusion. I also usually feel a sense of relief or peace in the conscience. My mind and body can rest.
I think it would do the world wonders if authentic expression and time for reflection were valued and facilitated more widely in society. Journaling became one of the most honest and rewarding practices for my mental health. Taking time to express and reflect on my experiences has lead me to a better understand of what my emotions are communicating to me, how to respond to them better, and what actions I may need to take. The better I understand myself, the easier it is for me to share my experiences and connect with others. It is rarely easy to vulnerably share ourselves, but I find this quote to serve as encouragement:
Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.
– Dr. Seuss
Today I rarely feel anxiety like I did while in college. It doesn’t have to scream as loud as it did before to get my attention. Now it can just give a small knock on my door and I’ll know there’s something I need to see.