This week on Spiritual Growth Monthly, Kevin Schoeninger continues his series on happiness. We can feel happy because of happy events, when we feel the love of our family and friends, when we hug our pets, or in any quick moment when we see something beautiful that brings us joy. All of these causes for our happiness share one key attribute…they all shift our attention away from ourselves, with our worries, responsibilities, agendas, fears and opinions, to something we don’t have to analyze. When we are happy, we relax and just feel it. For even one moment we feel connected, and part of all the happiness of life.
While it is nice to be connected to those people and things we love, Kevin reminds us that our happiness does not depend on other people or circumstances. We can find happiness anywhere, he says, by letting go of a lot of the “mental chatter” that gets in our way.
We all know about mental chatter. It comes in many forms. In her book, A Unified Theory of Happiness: An East-Meets-West Approach to Fully Loving Your Life, (Sounds True, 2012) psychologist Andrea F. Polard, PsyD, describes how we cling to our thoughts, because our world view and our view of ourselves are what we use to define who we are and, we think, gives meaning to our lives.
Now not all mental chatter is bad. A lot of it is simply annoying but neutral, like static when a car radio can’t find a signal. But sometimes it gets in the way. As we move through our day we keep a running commentary going on, making judgments about ourselves and other people, so that we feel competent and worthy of the space we take up on the planet. Yet, this commentary can get in the way of our happiness.
We may have mental chatter about how we look, or how successful we are, and we have lots of mental chatter about how other people just don’t do things the way we expect them to. These people may not even know we exist. They may be someone who jaywalked in front of you, or cut you off in traffic, or maybe you only hear about them on the news and let your political or philosophical views upset you because other people seem to be screwing up the world.
Still, the last thing we need is to criticize ourselves for all this mental noise. Instead, Kevin reminds us, to attain a state of “supreme happiness,” what we have to do is let go.
The idea of “letting go” has a long history in many religions and philosophies. We may have heard the saying, “let go and let God,” but sometimes that sounds like a cop-out, doesn’t it? We may believe it means being totally passive, and depending on money to fall from heaven…or whatever else we need. We may even think (if the truth be told) that people use it to escape responsibility or because they are too lazy to take care of themselves.
But, as Kevin reminds us, part of our resistance to the idea of letting go may be because we fear that it means letting go of our identity, or how we understand the world and our place in it. We take all this mental chatter, he says, to construct stories we use to define our lives. Then he asks some very important questions…what if ”we substitute our stories for Life Itself? What if rigidly holding onto ways of thinking limits us from knowing the wonder and joy of the incomprehensible whole?”
So…what if letting go just means letting go of the noise? What if it means not hanging on to thoughts and views that get us nowhere? What if it means letting go of resentments and bitterness that we endlessly rehash in our minds?
Learning to Let Go
Kevin’s four ways to stop this mental chatter offer excellent tips to learn this letting go. When we let go, we can experience the feelings of joy that can happen when we reach the silence beyond the chatter, and seem to feel our consciousness reaching all the way to the stars.
The first two steps are “Observing Your Thinking” and “Question Your Thinking.” We need to observe our thoughts without judging them, or attaching too much importance to any of them. We just let them come and go. But after observing them, we can question whether or not we want to continue thinking that way.
Kevin offers some excellent questions to get us started: We can ask, “Is that really true?” “What am I gaining by thinking that?” “What am I losing by thinking that?” “Do I really want to look at life in that way?” And, “What other ways could I think about this situation?”
Those questions could help me. I am prone to overreact to the jaywalkers, bad drivers, and other generally clueless, annoying people of the world. Imagine what it would be like if I wasn’t annoyed. What could I gain by simply letting go more often and letting other people be who they are?
I’ve only touched on part of this week’s topic. Kevin has far more in his third and fourth steps…offering some specifics of how to use meditation and gratitude. In fact, a sense of gratitude may be the most important step of all. I recommend reading his entire post to learn why.
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