Sigmund Freud famously wrote that the goal of psychoanalysis was to deliver a suffering patient from the condition of “neurotic misery” to “normal unhappiness.”
This may seem like an honest admission of the limits of traditional therapy, but it also raises the question of why unhappiness is, in fact, a relatively normal condition. I think this kind of “normal” derives from confusing happiness with feeling better.
Wanting to feel better may seem like the most natural thing in the world, and in fact all of medicine and psychotherapy is devoted to that goal. It’s also not unusual for people to turn to religion or spirituality in a quest to feel better, although God is often seen as a last resort.
For instance, in the 12 Step mode of recovery, people are encouraged to turn to a “higher power” or “God of their understanding” after their own attempts to feel better have led them into addiction. Many folks enter recovery only after some kind of “bottoming out” experience in which all their attempts to feel better have left them feeling just awful.
So, both therapy and recovery are focused on helping us feel better and function more effectively in the world. If we attain normal unhappiness, that’s at least better than gutter-level misery. But that’s not the aim of a genuine spiritual discipline, which is to challenge our whole notion of who it is that needs to feel better.
Obviously, somebody who wants to feel better is somebody who feels bad. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call that somebody the “ego.” If we devote our lives to making the ego feel better, we’ll be undertaking a never-ending and fruitless task. That’s because the normal ego is a part of our mind that’s actually devoted to feeling alone, doubtful, and unfairly treated, all the while telling you that there’s nothing more important than making it feel better.
By contrast, a spiritual discipline takes aim at our identification with the ego, and suggests that our real “Self” is something quite different. For one thing, it’s not encased in a body, and it’s not subject to the laws of time and space. And it doesn’t ever need to feel better — because its perpetual state of feeling is joy.
My own discipline, A Course in Miracles, says this about joy:
“Joy is eternal. You can be sure indeed that any seeming happiness that does not last is really fear.”
If this is true, it means that the happiness that comes from falling in love, or getting a great job, or having a wonderful dinner, or going to a mind-blowing spiritual conference—well, if all those kinds of happiness do not continue, unchanging, forever, then they are just mood swings of the ego and as such, amount to different kinds of fear.
This is unwelcome news, because in fact the kinds of happiness that do not last are about all that most of us have experienced. And many folks have gone through periods of depression in which every shred of happiness has disappeared, seemingly forever. But every once in a while, you may have gotten a whiff or a glimpse of that eternal joy, the kind of happiness that never goes away.
It first happened for me many years ago, not long after I had begun studying the Course. I was very sick and, at the ego level, quite unhappy. I was spending most of my time by myself, I was broke and couldn’t work, I had eleven of the fourteen identifying symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome going on simultaneously, and I didn’t really see much purpose in hanging around any longer on the earthly plane. I wouldn’t say I was suicidal; I just wasn’t making any plans.
And yet, every once in a while during that extremely down period, I would slip into a state of unreasonable and seemingly infinite happiness. It was as if none of my present circumstances mattered because they were not the determinants of this happiness. In fact, this happiness wasn’t determined by anything—it just was, and it far surpassed any good mood I could remember, any kind of feeling good that came from my life going well.
It seemed that the key to this great, unreasonable happiness was absolute surrender.
When I had given up all struggle and pride and attachment to ideas about who I was or what life was supposed to be about, then that happiness was just there. Oddly enough, that happiness did not wipe out all my suffering. I still felt quite ill and uncomfortable, but all that just didn’t seem to matter.
This illogical happiness existed by itself, independent of what my body and normal sense of self were going through. This was my first real clue to the existence of the Self, as a level of awareness that transcends the normal.
There was another odd thing about this happiness. While the intensity of it definitely faded as I would slip back into worrying about my condition and my fate, it never really went away entirely. I think that’s because it’s unconditional; by that I mean that it didn’t derive from anything I was doing at the time, although it seems reasonable to conclude that I became aware of that happiness because of my spiritual discipline.
Bit by bit, I became more open to remembering a completely different state of being than what I was used to. Then, at random moments, I’d get a full-bore revelation of that other life—which the Course says is my real life, the life of eternal and unchanging Spirit. Once you touch that life, it becomes an undying presence, a backdrop or foundation for everything else that is going on.
In fact that happiness is with me now, but that doesn’t mean I’m always in a good mood, or that I’m necessarily looking happy. In spiritual circles of all kinds, people sometimes trick themselves into acting happy because they think they’re supposed to be happy, and the result is a kind of giddiness that doesn’t have much depth or endurance to it. That’s where the time-honored term “bliss ninny” comes from, I believe.
When I say that an unconditional happiness is always with me, it means that I no longer have an existential despair, like I did before the spiritual crisis of my illness.
Before my illness, I was secretly angry about everything; that’s what I mean by existential despair. Underneath it all, I was just pissed off. And in a very real sense, I went through seven years of illness and recovery in order to face and release that deep anger.
And that’s the irony of this process. The way that I got to this experience of unconditional happiness—and the way that many people seem to get to it—was through a whole lot of not “feeling better.” Any effective spiritual discipline is not a ticket for going straight to the joy and wholeness of Spirit from the neurotic misery of a normal ego. Instead it instructs you in a process of facing all the obstacles you have imposed between yourself and true happiness.
When you’re facing any particular obstacle, like a long-held grievance, or an illness, or simple grief, you might not be feeling so good. But the point of a discipline is to help you distinguish between all your obstacles and reality itself. Love, as an eternal and limitless resource always available somewhere in your mind, is always your ultimate reality. Anything less is an obstacle which can, and eventually will be, forgiven.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: D. Patrick Miller
Editor: Renee Picard
Photo: bbyrd009 at Flickr