Meditation, Purpose and the Happiness Police

(photo credit: ShotHotspot.com on flickr)

When they first enter my office, many of my clients express the desire for “happiness.” This is understandable, given the tremendous recent emphasis on happiness in our society, but it is a mistake. Through my years of practice, I have come to appreciate that the endless pursuit of happiness results in chasing your tail, for happiness is not all its cracked up to be.

People who spend their lives in the dogged pursuit of happiness can be assured of one and only one truth: the vast majority of their time will be squandered in various states of unhappiness — anger, anxiety, depression, loneliness or some combination of these. Happiness, like most things in this world, is fleeting. Aiming your efforts towards happiness will leave you feeling depressed because even if you “achieve” happiness your mind will soon adapt to the new feeling and you will be left craving more.

Aiming at happiness is a trap. It is no different than people who are struggling with addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex. It is a brief high followed by a let down followed by the search for the next fix. As Gary Marcus, Ph.D., notes in his bookKluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind, “Happiness, or more properly, the opportunity to pursue it, is little more than a motor that moves us. The happiness treadmill keeps us going… ”

When we step off the wheel of happiness we can step into the truth: None of us is lacking. We all have within us what we need at all times, even if we don’t know it yet. When we are living lives of purpose we are never in doubt of this fact. I have found that those who are devoted to the mantra of happiness end up endlessly comparing themselves with those around them, and always — yes, always, find themselves lacking.

If you don’t aim your sights towards happiness where should you aim them? Towards purpose.

Purpose is not a new idea. It has literally been around for millennia. The idea of purpose is embedded in the fabric of nearly every religion and spiritual tradition in the known world. It can be found among the writings of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist sages. Purpose is a common point of the ancient spiritual teachings. There is tremendous beauty and incomparable wisdom in these traditions, and I believe that, just as with most people, the fundamental similarities that exist within them far outweigh the differences that exist between them.

Having purpose means to connecting with and working for something larger than yourself. It is about seeing and merging with the sacred that exists in the mundane — exploring and knowing our individual consciousness to understand what truly matters to us.

So how does one get to purpose? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall, my friend: practice.

Experiencing personal purpose is not an achievement but a state of being that can be carefully cultivated by concentrating the mind via meditation.

What is Meditation?

The word “meditation” has many meanings. Broadly speaking, it is a practice in which a person trains or focuses the mind to yield a state of consciousness, peace and/or wisdom. Meditation can refer to a practice of single-pointed concentration for the purpose of achieving transcendence, deep introspection and calm. It is often used to clear the mind and ease emotional distress. There is abundant research indicating a connection between meditation and reduced blood pressure and improvements in mood state and goal-directed behavior. In short, the process of meditation has a calming and opening effect on the wisdom of the soul. It is the gateway to your purpose.

Without making this article a detailed guide on meditation, consider this exercise (adapted from Dr. Herbert Benson’s “Relaxation Response”) a primer — your introduction to meditation.

A Meditation Primer

1. Sit in a comfortable place where no one will bother you and close your eyes.
2. Breathe deeply. When you exhale say the word “purpose.” (Or another word that relaxes you).
3. Repeat for 10 minutes.
4. When other thoughts intrude, do not fight them, let them come and return to your chosen word.
5. After 10 minutes sit quietly, open your eyes. Observe how you feel and emerge slowly back into your day.

See if this helps you to get off the wheel of happiness and brings you closer to your center. Oh, and, let me know how it goes. As for now, I’m off to meditate…

References:

Schneider RH et al. A randomized controlled trial of stress reduction for hypertension in older African Americans. Hypertension 1995 26:820-827.

Schneider RH et al. A randomized controlled trial of stress reduction in African Americans treated for hypertension for over one year. American Journal of Hypertension 2005 18:88-98.

Alexander CN et al. Randomized controlled trial of stress reduction on cardiovascular and all cause mortality in the elderly: results of 8-year and 15-year follow-ups. Circulation 1996 93:629.

Rainforth MV et al. Stress reduction programs in patients with elevated blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Current Hypertension Reports2007 9:520-528.

Walton KG et al. Review of controlled research on the Transcendental Meditation program and cardiovascular disease-risk factors, morbidity and mortality. Cardiology in Review 2004 12:262-266.

Walton KG et al. Psychosocial stress and cardiovascular disease part 2: effectiveness of the Transcendental Meditation program in treatment and prevention. Behavioral Medicine 2002 28:106-123.

This article was originally published on Huffington Post

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