In The Way To Love, Anthony de Mello offered this advice for dealing with those who annoy us:
“Every time you find yourself irritated or angry with someone, the one to look at is not that person but yourself. The question to ask is not, “What’s wrong with this person?” but “What does this irritation tell me about myself?”
In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer suggests taking the same approach to all our problems:
“When a problem is disturbing you, don’t ask, “What should I do about it?” Ask, “What part of me is being disturbed by this?” If you ask, “What should I do about it?” you’ve already fallen into believing that there really is a problem outside that must be dealt with… If you want to achieve peace in the face of your problems, you must understand why you perceive a particular situation as a problem.”
Perhaps we can fix one problem. But then another comes along, and we must fix that too. Then another. And another. External changes are not a long-term solution because they don’t address the root of the problem.
“For example, if you feel loneliness and insufficiency within your heart, it’s not because you haven’t found a special relationship. That did not cause the problem. That relationship is your attempt to solve the problem…
If you try to find the perfect person to love and adore you, and you manage to succeed, then you have actually failed. You did not solve your problem. All you did was involve that person in your problem. That is why people have so much trouble with relationships. You began with a problem inside yourself, and you tried to solve it by getting involved with somebody else. That relationship will have problems because your problems are what caused the relationship.”
Instead of spending our lives battling one problem after another, Singer advocates learning to not see them as problems at all.
Singer argues that we perceive a situation as a problem when it violates some expectation we have. This explains why one person may consider something a problem and another may not: the two have different expectations about what should be.
Expectations are simply conditions we have decided must be met for us to be happy. We have a model of reality and become angry and frustrated when life doesn’t conform to it. Instead, we should adjust our model, just as a scientist would adjust a theory that was contradicted by a new observation. This may not be easy: some of our assumptions are deeply programmed into us by our life experiences and may be difficult to change. But because they are not inherent in the situations we find ourselves in, letting go of them is not impossible.
We can identify our expectations by watching for the times we feel anxious. Instead of fearing these situations, Singer argues we should welcome them as opportunities to practice letting go of our expectations. Singer likens it to a dog approaching an invisible fence:
“An invisible limit was there, and when the dog approached that limit, it gave him a little shock. It hurt. It was uncomfortable enough so that now the dog feels fear whenever he approaches the boundaries…
Since that particular dog was used to roaming free, it’s a sad day when he stops trying to get out of the yard. The only reason he would stop trying to go beyond his little space is that he’s afraid of the edges. But what if we’re dealing with a very brave dog that’s determined to be free? Imagine that the dog has not given up. You find him sitting there, right at the place where the collar starts vibrating, and he is not backing off. Every minute he’s stepping forward a little bit more in order to get used to the force field. If he continues, he will eventually get out. There’s not a chance in the world that he won’t. Since it’s just an artificial edge, he can get through if he can learn to withstand the discomfort. He just has to be ready, willing, and able to handle the discomfort.”
Singer argues that we just need to make one decision: do we want to be happy or not? Happiness is in our control, provided we refuse to place any preconditions on it.
“When everything is going well, it’s easy to be happy. But the moment something difficult happens, it’s not so easy. You tend to find yourself saying, “But I didn’t know this was going to happen. I didn’t think I’d miss my flight. I didn’t think Sally would show up at the party wearing the same dress that I had on. I didn’t think that somebody would dent my brand-new car one hour after I got it.” Are you really willing to break your vow of happiness because these events took place?
Billions of things could happen that you haven’t even thought of yet. The question is not whether they will happen. Things are going to happen. The real question is whether you want to be happy regardless of what happens. The purpose of your life is to enjoy and learn from your experiences. You were not put on Earth to suffer. You’re not helping anybody by being miserable. Regardless of your philosophical beliefs, the fact remains that you were born and you are going to die. During the time in between, you get to choose whether or not you want to enjoy the experience. Events don’t determine whether or not you’re going to be happy. They’re just events. You determine whether or not you’re going to be happy. You can be happy just to be alive.”
Choosing happiness will not always be easy, says Singer, but it is always a choice.