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Letter to an Unhappy One
By Bede Clifford [Bede is a friend and a disciple of Swamini Atmaprakasananda.]
My dear Unhappy One,
You are somebody I know a lot about. I am not an expert in many things, but I am an expert in unhappiness.
I wish to make something very clear to you which I have found to be so very helpful. I know reading may be not your favoured way of learning, so I will take every effort to make this as plain and clear as possible. We will be talking about an understanding which completely sets aside our usual emotional upsets with ourselves, others and the world. This understanding, though extremely simple, answers every situation that you find yourself in. To be frank, without understanding what I am going to be talking about, happiness is not possible.
In life there will always be some uncomfortable or unpleasant experiences (physical pain, old age, the actions of others, uncomfortable circumstances, mosquito bites, etc.). However, there is a way of living which is devoid of the emotional pain that goes along with them.
What I will talk to you about first, by way of introduction, is the nature of unhappiness. First of all, put your hand against the wall and push hard against it. You will notice that the more you push against it the more it pushes back.
Similarly, we can mentally push against our present experience. Our experience is made up of three main things: our experience of ourselves, our experience of others and our experience of our current circumstances. Nothing is outside our experience, and it should be noted that it is always OUR experience we are having.
We have no control over what thoughts and feelings come up in the mind, what other people do or what is happening in our environment. This is true, but that does not mean OUR experience of such things can’t be transformed. The important thing here is that we can effect a transformation of our experience so it is devoid of emotional pain.
So Unhappy One, let’s just look at emotional pain (whether it be loneliness, self-hatred and frustration, anxiety or all the many forms of sorrow that we human beings are prone to) in terms of ourselves. The first thing to notice is that in every experience of emotional pain is that it is happening to us and we want it to go away. So there is the pain and a “wanter” who wants it to go away. You never have any kind of mental suffering without this set-up. And because the wanter considers the emotional pain the problem, he or she can’t help but push against it in an effort to get rid of it.
It is the same when we have an emotional upset (annoyance, anger, frustration or irritation) with others who are acting in a way we don’t like. There is always the experience of their behaviour and the “wanter” who wants something different. And just like we BLAME our emotional pain on our emotions, we BLAME our anger and hatred on the actions of other people. If we think they are CAUSING our pain, we can’t help but be angry at them. So too, if we think our emotions, which we have no control over, are CAUSING our unhappiness, we can’t help but feel helpless.
Lastly, we have unhappiness in terms of the conditions and circumstances that we find ourselves in. We may feel we are stuck in a job we hate or that we don’t have enough money. When we have this kind of unhappiness, again there is what we are unhappy about and the “wanter” who needs to get rid of the unwanted circumstances.
So when we have emotional pain of any kind, we are always finding fault with our inner states, other people or circumstances. This is natural because if they are CAUSING our pain, we can’t help but find fault with them. We believe that if these things that are making us unhappy were not present we would be happy. That is why we struggle against them to get rid of them. This struggle with things that we believe make us unhappy ALWAYS brings us into friction with our experience. The make-up of this friction is the “wanter” wanting something else in opposition to what is. But even if we get rid of one thing, another thing will come into its place.
Unhappy One, how much chance do you think there is in getting rid of everything that you believe is making you unhappy? My Vedanta teacher has the view that people and events never cause our unhappiness, they simply reveal an unhappiness that is already within us. This means the problem lies with us. We are not to blame for it, but our way of living is to blame.
Normally, our lives are built around fault-finding, non-accommodation of ourselves, others and circumstances. What I mean by accommodation is “to make room for and to hold comfortably.” We often use this word in the sense of “the lounge room was big enough to accommodate twenty people.” In this sense I mean we don’t make room for and hold comfortably unpleasant or uncomfortable experiences (which will always come until the day we die). Instead, we are continually fault-finding and non-accommodating.
This is not just an attitude. This has become a way of living in this world. This way of living ALWAYS involves emotional suffering and disturbance. The important point is that our way of living is at fault, not ourselves, other people or circumstances. The blame lies with no one. It simply lies with a wrong understanding. It is so fortunate that our way of living is the problem because we have direct control over that.
Have you ever heard of the Beatles song All You Need Is Love? Well, it is true. Now just before you think the writer has gone soft in the head and become some sort of hippie, I had better explain what I mean by the term “love.”
Most people in our culture think that love is something you can DO, that it is sex, that it is a feeling or it has to do with romance, maybe even feelings about your favourite soap opera. There are all sorts of ideas associated with it. My Vedanta teacher has a different view on this.
To her love is “non-fault-finding accommodation.” This is not a mental attitude. It is a way of living in which emotional pain does not exist. Most of my life I have had a way of living based on fault-finding non-accommodation, and have suffered greatly as a result. When we are emotionally upset, we can’t see clearly and we always act in ways that are not in our best interests.
When you are “IN LOVE” (non-fault-finding accommodation) there is no emotional pain, because the “wanter” is not present, even if the want is. I may want a cup of coffee, but if there is only tea I don’t get upset. There is no friction or conflict. This does not mean you don’t do what you can to make things better, but that even when things are not to your liking you don’t suffer from unhappiness.
Something must be understood from the beginning. It is easy to read the words “love is non-fault-finding accommodation” and think you have understood. In the West there is a strong tendency to take the understanding to mean knowing what the words mean. In Vedanta understanding is not meant in this sense. Rather in the Vedantic sense when I understand what love is I am what I know and so can’t help but live what I know. Understanding in the former sense (thinking that I know what love is because I understand the meaning of the words) means that how I am living and what I understand are two different things.
To make it clearer, fault-finding non-accommodation is the normal mode of being in the world for human beings. It is a way of living which is based on my notions about myself, other people and the world. We know no other way of living, because another way of living is outside our understanding. Using our own understanding to try to go beyond our own understanding it is just not possible. That’s why we need a teaching which is not derived from our own psychology that can shed an objective light on the factors of our daily living.
Unhappy One, can you see that we are enclosed within our own understanding, even when we think we are expanding our understanding? We may read new books and have different experiences, but we are in fact SEEING all these new things from the same standpoint. Our ideas may change and our experiences may change, but we are still enclosed within in our own understanding.
In the way of living based on fault-finding non-accommodation, when we read the words “love is non-fault-finding accommodation” we can’t help but think about it as something to be done as opposed to something to be seen or understood, and hence lived. It is not possible to DO love, but it is quite possible to BE in love.
However, this being in love is the fruit of understanding. If we SEE clearly what love is, we find ourselves BEING love. It is not the operation of the mind upon the mind. If it is, there will be a “wanter” trying to be loving because they find fault with how they are, how others are or how circumstances are and are trying to use “love” as a device to handle it. In Vedanta this trying to be anything is called “becoming” and is not considered the way out of emotional suffering. We are talking about LOVE which IS non-fault-finding accommodation, and so it completely embraces us as we are, others as they are and circumstances as they are. It is completely devoid of any friction or trying. Trying means friction.
Being in harmony with What Is includes being in harmony with anger, sadness, confusion, pain, loneliness, frustration, hatred, malice, anxiety, the stupid actions of ourselves and others, uncomfortable circumstances. Responsiveness from love is entirely different from reactions from our desires and aversions. Response is not possible without love in the sense I am talking about it. It is only IN LOVE that we have a relatively clear and objective mind, free from the burden of emotional pain (fear, hostility and depression) and at the same time have a responsiveness which meets everything in the best possible way.
Unhappy One, understanding in the Vedanta sense takes you to being what is understood. Understanding of what love is takes you to itself, not any action on your part.
So my dear Unhappy One, with the right understanding you too will discover that non-fault-finding accommodation embraces you as you are, wherever you are, and that you too exist in love and thus become emotionally painless.