We often tell ourselves that we can’t be content until our circumstances change. But we can find joy and gratitude even when life isn’t cooperating.
Earlier this week I had a good bit of writing I needed to do. But first I had other things to take care of: Putting the laundry in. A scheduled Zoom meeting. Responding to emails. Finally I had cleared out the obstacles to working on my book, and then … the grocery delivery arrived, and needed to be put away.
That was the last straw. I was so mad that I kept being blocked from getting to my writing as the hours ticked by. I silently swore to myself as I wiped down the groceries (a COVID precaution) and made room for them in the refrigerator.
I knew it made no sense to be mad about having to put away food—poor me, with plenty to eat—much less to complain when they had been delivered to my doorstep during the pandemic.
But I had such a clear idea in mind of what should be happening, and the day was totally getting it wrong. I’m supposed to be writing, I thought to myself. What are all these stupid obstacles doing in my way?
I was telling myself a story not only about how my day was supposed to go, but about my ability to be content when things turned out differently. Implicit in my frustration was the belief that I couldn’t be okay until my circumstances changed.
In my practice as a clinical psychologist I call this belief Outsourcing Happiness. It’s a type of thinking error in which we believe that something outside of ourselves is responsible for our well-being. But as the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote nearly two thousand years ago, “Disturbance comes only from within—from our own perceptions.”
Treasuring Our Peace of Mind
I’m often amazed at how willingly I give up my ease and contentment. I know that embracing the moment is always an option, but sometimes like this week I say, “Nope. I’m not going to do it.”
I knew at the time that I was outsourcing my happiness and that I had some choice in the matter. I knew the quotes from the Stoics and the value of mindful presence, of releasing resistance to what is. And still I persisted.
Why don’t we value our peace of mind in these moments, when it’s right there for the taking? When we burn our hand on a stove, we reflexively withdraw from the physical pain.
And yet it’s often so different in our emotional lives. It’s almost like we seek out an emotional “hot stove,” place our hand on it, and then leave it there in spite of the pain.
A friend of mine once said to me, “Being miserable is easy. It’s hard work being happy.” He is someone who has survived major traumas as well as a midlife career loss, and yet he manages to bring light into the world.
Each of us has the power to do the same. We can decide to stop resisting the life that we have, as if it’s an obstacle to our “real life.” No matter how many times we’ve surrendered our joy, we can make a different choice.
We can choose to smile slightly, open to the moment before us, and realize that this is what’s happening. And in that moment we can discover gratitude.
Gratitude as Presence
I don’t mean gratitude as an emotion. We might feel grateful, but it’s more than a feeling. Gratitude is receiving whatever the universe puts before us. It’s like being a dinner guest at someone’s house. When they serve us, we don’t say, “Seriously, chicken? I was really expecting salmon.” We eat what’s put before us.
Speaking of eating, I did have to admit that the groceries were lovely. The heavy head of cauliflower. The dark green dandelion greens. The red and yellow nectarines. It felt like a voice within me was saying, “See—it’s not that bad, is it? What’s the real problem here?”
In truth there was nothing the matter. It was a perfectly fine moment. I had no real complaint with life as it presented itself. Only with my insistence that it should be otherwise. I felt my resistance begin to soften.
Giving up our resistance to reality is more than a feel-good hack. It’s the simplest way to find spiritual connection, to our own spirit and to the ultimate spirit. That’s not to say it’s easy, as I know from so many experiences. But being receptive to life as it unfolds is the biggest step we can take to guard our hearts and minds.
When you notice you’re leaving a place of contentment today, ask yourself if it’s unavoidable. You almost certainly will have some choice in the matter. Notice the story the mind is telling. Can you open to what’s before you and guard your peace of mind?