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Excerpt from "Beyond Happiness"


by Ezra Bayda

Learning to live from genuine happiness requires first seeing what blocks it. One of the major blocks is our deeply rooted sense of entitlement. In fact, this is a big part of the “problem” of happiness: we firmly believe that we should be happy. We think it’s our right, and consequently, we feel entitled to it, even if we’re not clear what happiness is, except to feel good. This expectation can have many faces. For example, we often feel entitled to good health, expecting that we can and should be able to stay youthful and physically fit. When life comes along to greet us with illness or injury we can easily sink into a stupor of frustration and even despair. Sometimes just get­ting a cold will trigger our anxieties over losing control and feeling powerless. This sense of entitlement—which basically says that life should go the way we want and expect it to go—even tells us we shouldn’t have to experience discomfort. Then, when we do experience discomfort, we feel that some­thing is wrong; we might get angry and feel it’s unfair, or we may feel sorry for ourselves.

Having a sense of entitlement also guarantees that we will eventually feel like a victim. When we don’t get what we firmly believe is rightfully ours, namely happiness, we’ll ex­perience the emotional discord of discouragement. And in

feeding the negative feelings of being slighted or wronged, we actually increase our unhappiness. Still, it isn’t easy to give up the entitled belief that we should be happy; the belief that we deserve all of the good stuff is deeply ingrained in our think­ing. Unfortunately we can’t be happy just because we want to be. Nor can we just act happy—say, by smiling—and expect to be happy, except in the most superficial way. If we want to be happy we have to acknowledge that, yes, we want to be happy but that, no, most of the time, we’re not; and in fact, all of the things that are supposed to make us happy—such as accomplishments, respect, love, sex, money, and praise—only give us happiness in ephemeral doses, not in the deep or last­ing way that we truly desire.

If Only

Along with our sense of entitlement, we have many specific ideas and expectations about what will make us feel happy. “If only I had the right partner I’d be happy.” “If only I had a bet­ter job, or more money, I’d no longer be anxious.” “If only I had a better body I’d be content.” The one thing all of our “if onlies” have in common is an underlying unwillingness to ac­tually be with the present-moment circumstances of our life. Instead, we choose to live in endorphin-producing fantasies about the future. From one point of view this is understand­able, in that it’s certainly more comfortable to hold onto our expectations of a different and better reality than it is to be with what is. Yet, where does this leave us? It leaves us living a life that is neither real nor satisfying.

But remember, the path to genuine happiness entails first recognizing what blocks it. We have to clearly acknowledge our many “if onlies,” our subtle demands that life be different from what it is. Recognizing our “if only” attitude toward life is the first step in diminishing our sense of entitlement. Then we can begin to face the reality that is right in front of us. We may not want to face this reality, and we may not like it when we do, but as we’ll learn later, being fully present with what is can open doorways into a reality that we perhaps didn’t even know was possible—the reality of genuine happiness. But first we have to do the work of objectively observing and recognizing where we’re stuck holding on to entitlement and demands toward life.

It’s also very common to take our “if only” mind directly into our spiritual practice. For example, “If only I had an enlightenment experience, then I would be happy and at peace.” Or, “If only I could go on more meditation retreats, I would really make some progress.” Or how many of us still have the assumption that meditation is supposed to make us feel good? If this is our entitlement, what will happen when we don’t feel good? Aren’t we bound to fall into disappoint­ment or self-judgment—or even believe that practice is de­fective?

The underlying assumption here is that if we practice long enough and hard enough, our suffering will go away. But even after years of sincere efforts, our discomforts may certainly re-main—and this is where we get stuck, because our sense of en­titlement tells us that all the bad stuff should go away. This deeply held belief, that practice will take away our suffering, can take many forms—the longing for comfort, calmness, freedom from fear, or some vague notion of enlightenment. These longings may motivate us for many years; after all, don’t all of us want to be free of the anxious quiver of being at our core? But ironically, it’s only as we see what practice is not that we can begin to see what practice actually is. And if we’re fortunate, we may begin to see through our illusions of entitlement.

Our Illusions

So what is the source of this entitlement? It comes from the ego, the small mind that is trying to control its world, trying to have

life on its own terms. We all know the top hit of the ego’s silent soundtrack—“If I do this I’ll feel better.” Seeing through our own particular version of this is part of the process of waking up. Again, the essence of this entitlement is the assumption that we can make ourselves, and life, be the way we want them to be. But this can only bring disappointment. Why? Because no matter what we do, there’s no way that we can guarantee a life that is free of problems.

Along with our sense of entitlement, we often live with many illusions about ourselves and about how life is supposed to be. For example, we may like to read and talk about spiritual practice, and we may see ourselves as altruistic, just wanting to live a good life and help others. But our ability to deceive ourselves is sometimes quite remarkable. In wanting to see ourselves as caring about the welfare of others, we may totally ignore our self-centeredness. However, sooner or later we’ll come to the place where real ef­forts are required—beyond reading and talking—and we may see how unwilling we are to pay the price of practice.

There was a man who thought he wanted to better humanity. When he would read the newspapers or listen to the news he would get depressed about the suffering in the world, but he didn’t know where to start. Nonetheless, he firmly believed it was his calling to serve. One day when he was out shopping, he walked into a store and was surprised to find the Buddha standing behind the counter. He was certain it was the Buddha, but just to be sure he asked him, “Excuse me, are you the Buddha?” The Buddha answered, “Yes, this is my store. We sell anything you want. What do you want?” The man answered, “I don’t know.” The Buddha then said, “Feel free to look around, make a list of whatever you see that you want, and then come back and let me know.”

The man walked up and down the aisles, looking at what was available in this unusual store: clean air, an end to war, peace­ful cooperation between countries, the eradication of racial and gender prejudice, loving-kindness, forgiveness, and on and on. He made a long list of everything he wanted and then came back to give the Buddha his list. The Buddha looked at it and smiled, and then went below the counter and picked out a bunch of lit­tle packets. The man asked, “What are these?” The Buddha replied, “These are seed packets.” The man said, “But what about all the things I really want?” The Buddha smiled again and said, “These are the things you asked for, in seed form. You can plant them. You cultivate them and nurture their growth, and some­one else reaps the benefits.” “Oh in that case I’ll pass,” the man said and left the store without buying anything.

Part of the path toward genuine happiness is recognizing where we live out of illusions, especially about ourselves. Being honest with ourselves means acknowledging where we hold onto false pictures of who we are. Just like our sense of entitle­ment, which demands that life be other than it is, our false self-images also deny reality. But facing what is, as it is, is a direct step toward the deeper reality that we aspire to. The man in this story had the opportunity to look right in the mirror of reality, and in clearly seeing his unwillingness to pay the price of a life of ser­vice, he would no longer be stuck in having to maintain a false ideal of who he was supposed to be. The possibility for a more genuine life, a life of increasing happiness, opens as we look hon­estly at our deeply embedded beliefs, especially our entitlement and our illusions.

Our beliefs and illusions about life are many and varied. Here are a few of the more common ones:

“Life should be fair.” Almost everyone sustains this belief on a fundamental level.

“People should be reasonable.” In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we still hang on to this expectation.

“Governments (and politicians) should be honest.” We may think we don’t believe this, but if we get self-righteously angry when political dishonesty becomes evident, it means we still hold to that belief.

“Spiritual leaders should never cause harm.” Even after the many instances of transgressions on the part of spiritual leaders and teachers, this is a hard one to give up, because we want so much for it to be true. Spiritual leaders do have a mandate to be trustworthy; however, whenever we have a strong emotional reaction to something a teacher does, it is a red flag that there is a belief on board, whether we’re aware of it or not.

One way to become aware of our specific beliefs and fan­tasies about life is to ask ourselves the following question whenever we’re feeling low:“ How do I think it’s supposed to be?” This question will usually point us directly to our spe­cific expectation or entitlement.

The point in seeing through these entitled beliefs about how things should be is not to become cynical. After all, cyni­cal beliefs like “life is cruel” or “people can’t be trusted” are also just beliefs, arising from disappointments that remain un­healed. The point is to cease living out of any sense of entitle­ment, because every entitlement we hold to, every mental picture we have of how life is supposed to be, blocks our ability to be truly present with what is.

Perhaps the most basic belief underlying all of our feelings of entitlement, our “if onlies,” and even our illusions, is the belief that life should please us, that life should be comfort-able. All of our resistance to life is rooted in our wanting life to be pleasing, comfortable, and safe. When life doesn’t give us what we want—the job that isn’t satisfying, the relationship that isn’t quite working, the body that ages or breaks down— we resist. Our resistance can manifest as anger, or fear, or self-pity, or depression, but whatever form it takes, it blocks our ability to experience true contentment. We see our discom­fort as the problem: yet it’s the belief that we can’t be happy if we’re uncomfortable that is much more of a problem than the discomfort itself. One of the most freeing discoveries of an awareness practice is when we realize firsthand that we can, in fact, experience equanimity even in the midst of discomfort.

Recently my wife, Elizabeth, and I went to Paris, and on our first day there I started feeling pretty flu-ish, with a bad sore throat. When we went out for a walk, it started raining, and by the time we sat down to rest in Notre Dame Cathedral, I was feeling pretty crummy, and it had all the makings of A Miser­able Moment.

So I asked myself: What’s blocking happiness right now? And the answer was obvious. It was the story of the future— about how I wouldn’t be able to enjoy our time in Paris if I was sick, about how it might rain for four days, and so forth. But dropping the story of the future, just staying with the actual physical experience of the present moment, the poten­tially miserable moment became an experience of just mildly unpleasant physical sensations. But more than that, I realized that the present moment included sitting next to Elizabeth in one of the most beautiful churches in the world. As I surren­dered to the experience—sore throat and all—the experience was one of a deep and quiet joy, despite not feeling well.

What was required was two things: first, seeing that I was caught in my mental picture of how life was supposed to be; and second, being able to surrender into the very specific phys­ical experience of the present moment. This is a key point that will be emphasized over and over—getting out of the head and into the body. Awareness, and the appreciation and happiness that can come with awareness, doesn’t often happen without the intention to be more awake. Awareness allows us to see where we’re stuck, where we’re holding onto beliefs or feelings of entitlement. Seeing these blockages is the first step in finding the way to true contentment, of moving beyond the smaller, ephemeral experience of personal happiness.

Ezra Bayda teaches at Zen Center San Diego. He is also the author of Being Zen, At Home in the Muddy Water, Saying Yes to Life (Even the Hard Parts), and Zen Heart.

Buy now: http://www.shambhala.com/html/catalog/items/isbn/978-1-59030-825-7.cfm

"Excerpted from BEYOND HAPPINESS by Ezra Bayda, (c)

2010. Published by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston. www.Shambhala.com."

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