The Source of Well-Being (#865)

A quick note from Michael: I’m sitting on a plane somewhere over Ontario, flying home after two wonderful weeks in England talking about coaching, the three principles, and my new book, The Inside-Out Revolution. In going through my computer files, I came across a copy of a novel I wrote but never published about marriage and relationships. While much of it is now (to my mind) outdated, I still really liked chapter 4, which is reprinted below. Enjoy!

By the time Benjamin came back to his seat, I was ready to continue our conversation.  He began, as usual, with a question.

“Imagine someone came to your door and offered you a freshly baked pizza -; all your favorite toppings and fresh out of the oven.  When you asked them how much it would cost, they said it was free providing you allowed them to come into your house for an hour and abuse you mentally and emotionally.”

Benjamin looked directly into my eyes.

“Would you agree to their bargain?”

I looked incredulously back at him.

“With respect, Benjamin, that’s a pretty stupid question. Of course I wouldn’t.”

“Ok then, think about this -; what if you hadn’t eaten for a week, or even two weeks? What if you felt like you were going to die of starvation at the very moment the pizza turned up at your door?”

I could feel my mouth watering as we spoke. Maybe the stewardess would be back with more pretzels soon.

“Well, I suppose if I was starving, I might be willing to agree to it for an hour or two -; but no more than that.”

“Very sensible of you. But what would happen to your resolve if you couldn’t find a way to get more food for another few weeks and your pizza delivery person returned with another pizza but this time demanded two hours of abuse?

Eventually, after a few more rounds of near starvation and ‘rescuing’, you might even get to the point where if they offered you a lifetime of pizza for a lifetime of abuse, you’d feel yourself lucky to get it.”

“OK, I can see how that could happen. But how do you get out of it? What if you really are starving?”

Benjamin smiled, pleased that I was engaging with the story enough to really think about it.

“You get out of it by realizing that you have a kitchen in your home and that it’s stocked with all the most wonderful foods you can imagine.  The minute you realize you already have all the food you will ever need, you will never again allow yourself to be abused, manipulated or controlled by someone else in order to get the food they are offering to provide.”

I reflected on Benjamin’s metaphor for a few moments.

“OK, so I can see how that works with food -; but what does it have to do with relationships? Are you suggesting that only fat people get into abusive relationships?”

I wasn’t really serious and I could see that Benjamin was once again beginning to question whether or not I was worth spending time with, so I tried again.

“What I mean is, what’s the analogy?  What are people starving for that they could provide for themselves?”

“An excellent question,” replied Benjamin. “Why don’t you sit with it for a few minutes and let me know when you get an insight?”

Before I could respond, Benjamin closed his eyes and absented himself from our conversation. He looked so peaceful I couldn’t bring myself to ask him how in the hell I was supposed to just “get an insight”, so I decided to close my eyes as well and see if I could get some rest instead.

As I was drifting off, I remembered one of the most curious experiences from my childhood -; one I hadn’t thought about in years and years.

I had been sitting watching a television show when I became aware of a profound sense of comfort and well-being in my body. It didn’t have anything to do with the show -; I can’t even remember what I was watching -; but the feeling was so wonderful (and so different from my normal day to day experience) that I was captivated by it.

A reflection of sunlight in the window caught my eye, and I got up and walked over to it. When I reached out to touch it I gasped. My sense of touch was so heightened that the window itself felt as though it were covered in cool, mossy velvet.

I got up and began walking around the house, enjoying the good feeling in my body and touching everything I could. It was though every cell in my body had woken up simultaneously, and I could have wandered around happily for hours.

I suppose if I’d been a bit older I would have compared it to being a bit stoned, but the strongest drug I had taken at that point in my life was children’s aspirin, and this was definitely nothing like that.

My favorite bit of the experience was when I noticed the back of my throat was feeling a bit dry and decided to pour myself a glass of juice. I reached into the fridge and pulled out a bottle made of smooth, cool glass. As I shut the refrigerator door, it felt as though the breeze from the refrigerator door gently caressed my face.

In that moment, I felt totally connected to every single thing in the world. While I couldn’t have articulated it then (and am struggling with it now), it was as though there was no boundary marking the place where I ended and the world began.

Suddenly, I opened my eyes with a start and looked over at Benjamin who was quietly watching me, the serenity in his face so remarkable it seemed like he was glowing.

“I’ve got it, Benjamin!”

“Got what?”

“What people are starving for -; and I see this in my practice all the time -; is a deep and profound sense of connection and well-being.”

“Say more,” said Benjamin, making himself more comfortable by wrapping a blanket around his pillow and using it to prop his head up against the window.

“I remember watching a documentary once about an orphanage in China where the babies were never held. Even though they received adequate food and water, many of the babies died because they lacked simple human touch.

When I think about it for myself, I don’t think I know anybody who doesn’t want to feel good in themselves and connected with something beyond themselves -; either a higher purpose, a higher power, or another person.”

Benjamin looked pleased, and I couldn’t help but smile at my own insight. I was about to tell him about my experience of connection from childhood, but decided to ask him a question instead.

“So how do we get that sense of connection and well-being without compromising our lives to the pizza man -; or in my case, the pizza Jen?”

“By seeing,” said Benjamin, “that you already have it.”

Before I even had time to get confused, he grabbed one of the little napkins that had accompanied his tea and began to sketch.

 

Misery ------------- Joy

“The way most people think about it,” began Benjamin, “is that their experience of life is a continuum ranging from misery to joy. The game of life is figuring out which things take you towards joy and away from misery.

At one level of consciousness, it seems as though the way to move to the right is by having the right stuff -; plenty of money, a good job, a great relationship and a nice home.

But if you look deeper, you recognize that there are plenty of people who have all those things on paper but are still pretty miserable in themselves. So you begin to look deeper and you see that it’s not your stuff but your actions that make you happy or unhappy. Do the right thing and you feel good about yourself; do the wrong thing and your conscience will haunt you until the end of time.”

I flinched in recognition, hoping Benjamin wouldn’t notice. He had just outlined the entire premise of my “Making Relationships Work” book

“The problem with this theory is that we all know that as often as not, good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people and much as we may think “doing the right thing” should be its own reward, life viewed from this level doesn’t seem remotely fair. It’s thoughts like this that lead many people into a more internal-direction, and they often quickly see that it’s not what happens but what they think about what happens that determines their experience.

At this point, they begin experimenting with things like affirmations and positive thinking, sure that if they could just control the flow of thoughts through their own brain, they would have the key to life-long happiness.”

This made a lot of sense to me, and I was about to ask Benjamin about my own lack of success with affirmations when he continued.

“A lot of people get stuck at this level of understanding because of one simple, innocent mistake -; they attribute their inability to think only positive thoughts to a lack of skill or effort on their part instead of recognizing that the theory itself is based on an incorrect premise -; the idea that you can actually control which thoughts come into your head.

When you really stop to think about it, you realize that you can only choose which thoughts to empower with your consciousness -; not which ones pop into your brain. If we go back to our tea analogy from earlier, you can’t choose which tea bags the stewardess will offer you but you do get to choose which ones you’ll pour hot water on and steep in your consciousness.”

“So hang on, Benjamin -; if happiness doesn’t come from what I have or what I do, and I can’t choose my thoughts, doesn’t that leave me kind of screwed?”

“That’s certainly the conclusion some people come to,” agreed Benjamin. “They decide that happiness is completely outside of their control, and they give up on the pursuit. Often times, they actually begin to feel better when they stop trying so hard to be happy, leading them to another false conclusion -; that happiness can only be pursued indirectly.”

I had come across this idea many times in my studies, and it had always made sense to me.  I considered asking Benjamin why he called it a “false conclusion” but as always he gave me his answer before I asked the question.

“The reason that’s a false conclusion is because it still makes happiness into a “thing” -; something which we can have or not have, pursue directly or indirectly, successfully get or if we’re not careful, lose.”

“But if happiness isn’t a thing, what is it?”

“We’re almost there,” smiled Benjamin. “Are you still willing to listen to understand instead of argue?”

I checked myself and nodded for him to continue. Actually, I was fascinated. While what he was saying went against a lot of my therapeutic training, it actually matched my experience of working with clients more than anything I had studied up to this point.

“Some people take their pursuit of connection and well-being, or as we’re calling it “happiness”, and they decide that since we can’t control which thoughts come into our heads, the thing to do is to stop thinking altogether.

For reasons you’ll see in a few minutes, this seems to work, leading people into a complex set of routines, prayer, meditation practices, and a variety of other disciplines all designed to at least temporarily stop thought.

Since peace and well-being often follow these practices, the practices themselves appear to be the means to a happy end. But again, the problem with all of these practices is that they take practice -; and while that may seem a small price to pay for such a precious jewel, there is still another level of understanding beyond this one.”

Despite my own lack of success with maintaining any sort of a spiritual practice over time, I still felt this was probably the best path to true and lasting happiness and I told Benjamin what I thought.

“Are you willing to take things one step further?”

“Absolutely.” Benjamin flipped the cocktail napkin over and drew another line, this one going from the bottom of the page to the top.

Misery ---------- Well-Being
I watched as he sketched out the drawing, wondering where he was going with it and why the arrow only went one way.

“What I am about to propose to you may sound outlandish, or it may sound like the most obvious thing in the world.  But I can guarantee you, the moment you actually SEE it for yourself, your relationship with Jen and everyone else in your life will change forever.”

This was a pretty grandiose statement, but I had followed him this far so I figured I could stay with him for at least a little while longer.

“We are born at peace -; in tune with the infinite, in touch with our bliss, resting in the well of our being. But even as babies, our very human needs from time to time interfere with our connection with this innate well-being. We experience physical discomfort. Because we do  not yet understand the source of our discomfort, we do the best we know how to do -; we scream bloody murder!

Then, to our delight and amazement, someone comes (this is in a functional household) and ‘makes it better’ -; they feed our hunger, dry our bottom, entertain our nascent brains with funny noises and rollercoaster type movements, and before we know it, we are back in touch with our innate well-being.

Over time, it is the most natural thing in the world for us to connect/attribute that return to well-being to the people or activities that seem to be causing it -; we are OK because Mommy loves us, we are OK because Daddy protects us, we are OK because the people around us, for the most part, appear to have our well-being at heart.

And then one day we do something in our joy that mommy or daddy doesn’t like -; we splash colors on a wall, or cry when daddy’s tired, and suddenly the ocean of love we are used to swimming in is filled with sharks and other monsters.

Before long, we have bought in to the myth of love and well-being outside us.

“But well-being -; happiness, connection, love, peace, spirit -; is your nature. The reason you can never consistently hang on to it when you pursue it from the outside in is that it’s already inside you. It would be like looking for your keys in the street when you had left them in the house -; no matter how long and hard you look, you can never find what’s not there.”

“That,” I said, “sounds like the biggest load of new-age crap I’ve ever heard.”

Benjamin looked a bit startled, and then roared with laughter.

“I can certainly see how you might think that,” he agreed. “But let me ask you a question. How would you teach a child about air?”

“Air?”

“Sure. Imagine you were talking to a small child who didn’t yet have a lot of concepts about the world.; How would you explain the reality of air to them?”

I thought about it for a few moments before answering.

“I guess I would just tell them that everywhere they went, they were surrounded by an invisible entity which we call ‘air’. And that even though they can’t really see it or feel it, it’s always there and sustains them. In fact, without it, they wouldn’t even be able to breathe.”

Benjamin just stared blankly at me in such a good approximation of a five year old child that it was my turn to burst out laughing.

“OK, I guess that does sound just as nuts as your concept of well-being being natural. But the difference is, I could prove my point scientifically!”

I must have sounded a bit triumphant, because I could see Benjamin stifling a grin as he continued to play the part of my five year old sceptic.

“Blah, blah, blah! Forget science for a moment,” said Benjamin. “How do you, Jack, aged 40-something sitting on a plane with me, know that air exists? Don’t tell me, show me. Demonstrate it to me in some way.”

Feeling like the gauntlet had been thrown down, I racked my brain for some sort of experiment that would prove the existence of air, not to a scientist but to a five year old child’s satisfaction.

“Ok -; try this. Take your hand and wave it back and forth really quickly.”

Benjamin did as I asked.

“What do you feel?”

“I feel a breeze,” said Benjamin. “Like the wind.”

“That’s air!” I exclaimed. “It’s all around you and even inside you.

“It is?” asked Benjamin. “So we’re all full of wind?”

I could feel myself beginning to get frustrated.

He knows what I mean -; why is he being so difficult about it? Why do I have to prove anything to him anyways? I know there’s air all around us, and even inside us. This is just stupid!

Benjamin waited until I emerged from my latest thought storm before speaking again.

“The thing is, Jack, that when something is self-evident to us, we simply know it to be true. But until we have seen and understood it for ourselves, it sounds like nonsense. The trick is to listen for something deeper than the words -; listen for the feeling behind the words.

Is it possible that well-being is as omnipresent as the air? That it is not only inside you but all around you? That it is such an essential part of your nature that you couldn’t possibly find the words to explain it?”

I tried to do as he had suggested and listen for the feeling behind the words. At first I wasn’t sure that I felt anything at all, but as my thoughts grew quiet I could feel a gentle tingling throughout my body. It was the same feeling I remembered from my childhood -; the feeling of calm well-being that had allowed me to touch the sky and feel the breeze from the refrigerator door.

My body began to shake, and the vibration grew so intense that I thought I was going to explode. A white light filled the very center of my head and seemed to radiate out in every direction. I couldn’t tell you how long I sat there, and save for a few thoughts about how strange this must look to anyone watching, I just allowed myself to sit back and enjoy the ride.

After a time, the vibration subsided and the light faded, although as I looked around the plane, the colors seemed somehow brighter and  everything was still surrounded with a slight glow.

“What,” I asked Benjamin, “the hell was that?”

Benjamin just smiled at me.

“At a guess,” he said, “it was your true nature.”

 

With all my love, Michael Tweet This! Share

 

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