Happiness is a Choice? Lessons From My Silent Meditation Retreat

You’ve probably heard it before…

“Happiness is a choice.”

And you’ve probably thought…

“Bullshit.”

What does that even mean anyway? I just think my way to happiness?

In this article, I break down what this actually means. Then I show you how to actually become happy and fulfilled based on my personal experience.

First, let’s start with what makes you unhappy. Usually two things make us unhappy: disappointment and hopelessness. When we are disappointed, we have the expectation of things going a certain way, and reality fails to live up to our expectations. When this happens for an extended period of time and we get bored of the monotony of life, we become hopeless.

After a duration of time, this hopeless state affects us biologically and our body adapts. We become hormonally and chemically imbalanced. This leads to clinical depression.

But what is the cause of the disappointment?

One word: entitlement.

We think that we are entitled to certain things happening in our lives, like getting married, having children, making a certain income, and living a long life.

But the truth is, we aren’t.

In fact, we aren’t entitled to anything.

Last February, I went on a meditation retreat in Thailand.

During the retreat, we weren’t allowed to use our cell phones, exercise, or read. We weren’t even allowed to talk. We were only allowed to wear plain white clothing, eat a strictly vegetarian diet, and meditate for a few hours per day.

I quickly realized how poorly rested I was. I slept about 16 hours the first day. I slept another 12 hours the second day. Then I eased into a more regular 8 hour sleeping pattern, going to bed at 9pm and waking up at 5am.

By the third and fourth day, the retreat feels surreal. Your mind wanders, and you feel like an ant wandering throughout its day. You wake up, go to the morning dhamma talk, meditate, eat breakfast, meditate, eat lunch, meditate, sit outside for a few hours, meditate, then go to bed. Then you do that again. And again. And again. And again. And again…

During the course of the retreat, your layers of identity are stripped away. Back home, I was a nightclub promoter, a dating coach, a college graduate, a former high school athlete, an ultimate frisbee player, a friend, and a son.

But at the retreat, I was nothing. I just was. I was just an entity, living in the world without any purpose. I just existed.

No one there knew anything about me other than I was another entity that they would see in the meditation room.

But there was no reason for them to get to know me. It’s not good or bad–it just is.

We lived like animals in the wild. Animals don’t talk to one another or cogitate about philosophical ideas and discuss their hopes and plans for the future. They just eat, sleep, and live.

When you’re put into this state of being, you start to question the significance of who you actually are. Why is it important that I used to work at the #1 nightclub in the world or that I was admitted to a prestigious grad school? Why does it matter that I have plans for the future of becoming successful and having a family? And why does it even matter that I have a reputation among my friends and family for being a great person?

The answer? It doesn’t.

Those are just our psychological and social constructs that we impose upon the world. Animals don’t think this way. They simply just exist and carry on.

So what does this all mean and what does it have to do with happiness?

When you start to see that the things we identify with aren’t actually that important and that we are ultimately insignificant creatures in the universe that just eat, sleep, and die, we start to see that we aren’t entitled to anything.

A dog doesn’t think to itself that it is entitled to a long, happy life consisting of working, raising a family, having hobbies, and enjoying the company of friends. A dog enjoys the company of people, but it doesn’t get mad because you missed a playdate.

Basically, there is no expectation or obligation. A dog enjoys the moment for what it is.

So the first step to happiness is acceptance. Accept that we aren’t entitled to anything. It’s very possible that you could die later this afternoon. And it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad or a good thing. It just is.

Humans are the ones who impose value judgments on things. We always have the tendency to interpret events and evaluate them based on how “bad” or “good” they are. What does that even mean anyway? What metric are we using to make such claims?

In actuality, there is no way to measure it. Value judgments are purely subjective constructs.

And these value judgments can be empowering or discouraging.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you got a flat tire on the way to work. Most people would think, “This is terrible! Now I’m going to be late! Bah humbug!”

That’s a discouraging value judgment. You’re viewing the event as bad.

But as soon as you catch yourself going down that path, you can also think, “Wow, I’m complaining about my $12,000 car breaking down on my way to a six-figure job in Los Angeles, a city most people would sacrifice so much to live in.” From this perspective, you see that you aren’t entitled to anything in your life situation; you’re just lucky to have any of it.

It’s ironic that many people who have a difficult life tend to complain less than those who have faced little adversity in their lives.

But it’s not coincidental.

People who have endured adversity have been repeatedly confronted by this idea that they aren’t entitled to anything. Even things they’ve earned can be taken away at any time.

Some people might say, “That’s unfair.” But what is fairness anyway? What does that even mean? What is so unfair about having all of your things taken away?

Most people would argue, “Because I earned everything I have. I deserve it.”

Who says so? Society? Once again, you’re placing the value judgment of fairness onto your life situation. Maybe you earned your title of “doctor” by societal standards but that doesn’t mean anything from a universal perspective.

In other words, in society, when we think of “doctor,” we think of someone who is rich, successful, and well-educated. But when you’re at the meditation retreat without anyone to talk to and just existing, your earned title of “doctor” doesn’t mean anything.

You don’t deserve anything. In the grand scheme of things, four years of med school doesn’t mean anything. That was just an experience you went through because you chose to go through it.

The universe isn’t fair because fairness doesn’t exist. Things just happen, and we impose our own meaning onto the events that transpire.

So what is the opposite of entitlement?

Gratitude.

People who come from this perspective, where they see that the world is capricious and everything could be taken away in an instant, are the ones who enjoy life.

They appreciate the moment for what it is, fully knowing that our time on this earth doesn’t entirely belong to us. At some point, our bodies are going into the ground along with our memories, titles, and accomplishments.

But once we realize this, we become liberated. We realize that there is no meaning except for our own subjective meaning that we impose onto things. Meaning is a human invention.

However, when you realize this, you become liberated. We get to choose our own meaning. We get to choose what game we want to play and what the rules of the game are.

If we want to end world hunger, we can aspire to do so. If we want to become the world’s best League of Legends player, there’s no one stopping you, except for yourself.

You’re the only person preventing you from doing anything because you are the one deciding whether things that happen in your life and what people say to you are empowering or discouraging.

When people doubt you and tell you that you’ll never become a millionaire or you could never start a successful business, you can either use that as an excuse to not go through with it or as a reason to prove them wrong. Or you can simply think that what others say is irrelevant to your life because you know yourself best. You choose.

People respond to different motivators in different ways, so it’s up to you to choose how you want to interpret what people say or what happens to you.

Overall, here are the steps to becoming fulfilled:

  1. Strip away your layers of identity. Tragedies tend to do this, but if you want to do it consciously, then isolation and fasting help. Isolation and fasting put you in a state of merely existing.
  2. Accept your existence. Realize that your identities are just identities. Identities are just ways for categorizing yourself and assimilating into various social groups in your life.
  3. Accept mortality. Realize that we’re all going to die, which makes your identities irrelevant.
  4. Move away from entitlement and towards gratitude. Realize that we aren’t entitled to anything. Not even relationships, jobs, food, and water. We’re lucky to even be alive.
  5. Continually practice gratitude in your life. Whenever you’re triggered or feel yourself being overwhelmed by obligations or expectations, realize that those are all human constructs. They don’t exist. Be grateful that you are even in a situation to have an obligation.Even if it seems like the end of the world, where maybe you’re late to work and you get fired, you’re lucky to even be alive and to have had those experiences at the job in the first place. Quit placing so much importance on things that are socially or psychologically imposed pressures. They’re not even real.

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Mawakuni

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