by Sara Hollwey and Jill Brierley
The Problem of Happiness
Happiness and inner contentment are among the most intangible states to attain. The whole industry of advertising runs on the premise of tempting consumers with things that might bring happiness. It is like the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow that we never reach, and if we do get there it is impossible to hold on to it reliably and forever.
How to be truly happy is a mystery. Why is it that some of us feel relatively contented in life and comfortable in our own skin, while others of us do not, and may even in extreme moments want to take our own lives? We invest vast amounts of time in amassing material wealth, educational achievements and relationships, and yet how many of us focus on the simple question of what truly makes us happy? Indeed, some people who report experiencing depression over a long period of time may appear to have all of the ingredients needed for happiness. On the ‘outside’ they appear to be successful, affluent or popular, totally at odds with their inner state.
Sufferers of depression report experiencing dark and heavy moods, augmented by feelings of hopelessness that nothing will change. Anyone who suffers from chronic depression knows this as a terrible affliction in their lives, often hidden from those around them. Even though we might accept that happiness is an internal state, we frequently do not operate based on that assumption.
Searching in the Wrong Place
Happiness does not reside simply in the outer fabric of our existence. Even knowing that, most of us have an instinctual reaction to try and fix something external in our lives whenever we feel low or discontented. When we feel powerless to make those changes, such as finding a new job or partner, we may feel that our lives cannot be fully happy or complete.
Viktor Frankl (2006) has taught us that we can choose how we experience events and find inner peace regardless of the outer circumstances. Caught up in nazi Germany in a concentration camp, Frankl discovered that his very survival was linked to how far he could change his inner state. The more he could transform his consciousness from one of fear and hatred to that of love, the more both his capacity for survival and sense of personal power improved.
Likewise, Einstein is reputed to have said that in order to solve problems we need to change our consciousness from the one that created them in the first place. Both Einstein and Frankl focused on inner change as the source of power and happiness. It is a leap of faith to follow such a path, as the external world and all its pulls are so tempting. What Einstein is describing is a shift in consciousness across a threshold.
Crossing the Threshold
So, what did Einstein really mean when he talked about shifting consciousness? Those who already practice meditation might have an inkling of the deeper and calmer and often slightly altered states that they attain through this spiritual practice. When we feel a sense of something beautiful in nature, we are having a mini-shift in consciousness. We dip in and out of different states of consciousness all the time, such as every night when we go to sleep.
However, what Einstein is describing is to intentionally take this natural tendency of switching our consciousness to a new and powerful level. It is about training ourselves to take a moment from whatever we are doing, to step back and observe ourselves as if from outside. From that place we begin to detach. We become unhooked and untangled from the busyness of our thoughts and feelings, and the training to shift our consciousness can begin. Try it. Stand up and turn around from where you have been sitting and reading this article. With a cloudy gaze allow an image of yourself as you have been sitting on the chair to arise. Describe what you see using the third person. notice the language you are using. Is it warm and compassionate or is it a little critical? Step further back until you can view yourself with deep compassion. What do you now notice? If you find this step difficult, keep stepping back as far as it takes until you can feel a sense of separation, and warmth for that you on the chair.
Viewing ourselves with compassion can be unbelievably difficult, but it is essential as a first step in shifting our consciousness. Even if this first step seems almost impossible, every time we stop, step out and detach a little we open a way to self-love. We need to stay with this step as long as it takes until we feel even intimations of warmth for ourselves.
The path of learning to change our consciousness is similar to that of any other training. It demands considerable practice, and a programme that we follow daily. It starts with stopping and stepping out and observing oneself with compassion and detachment and from there continues on a whole developmental journey into training our deepest intuition and wisdom.
In The Inner Camino (Hollwey & Brierley, 2014) we have outlined such a programme. We start with where we are at, with everything that belongs to our ordinary world. We then learn to detach from this as we stop and step out. From that detached place we gradually become aware of those mystical and numinous states that we normally only reach in meditation and other spiritual practices. These states resonate at a vibration higher than the ordinary world of form. These transcendent or numinous states are difficult to describe in words, like the Tao that cannot be named.
The numinous realm is voiceless, formless and infinite. It is within us, beyond us, and connects us in a unified wholeness, uniting all humans as indivisibly one. It exists in an un-manifest ground of being, and is a place of peace, stillness and freedom from pain and suffering.
(Hollwey & Brierley, 2014: 20-21)
By stopping and stepping out, it is as if we are stepping onto a bridge. We allow ourselves to tap into aspects of this numinous realm while still having our feet firmly in the camp of our ordinary lives. When we stop and step out we attain what we call a state of dual awareness, where we see the ordinary and numinous equally. It is too simplistic to say that the numinous is the source of happiness. When we are sitting in the numinous alone, these concepts of happiness or unhappiness are irrelevant; they belong to the simpler human story. However there is much wisdom in the Buddhist system that the route to all unhappiness is our attachment to that very human story. The more we can step onto this bridge of shifted or Intuitive Consciousness, the happier we become. It is about bringing an extraordinary consciousness right into the heart of our daily existence.
One way to imagine this Intuitive Consciousness is to hear its voice as a warm soothing guide or friend, one that does not get overwhelmed in whatever stories are happening in the moment. It is a kind of consciousness that has a connection to our ordinary lives without being swamped by whatever is going on in that moment. It is perhaps the nearest we can get to living a deep and contemplative life while being fully immersed in our own existence. Therefore when we step onto the bridge, we resonate on the level where we have a capacity to both feel and empathise with our joys and sorrows, and yet also know that we are more than just that.
The path of awakening is an inner journey. It can be seen as a pilgrimage to self, much as in the tradition of outer pilgrimages, such as the Camino de Santiago de Compostella, or the Way of St James of the Field of Stars. We have chosen the analogy of the Camino because it is a journey that has captured the imagination of thousands of people and also can involve a change in consciousness, if done with intentionality.
Ideally when we walk the Camino we bring as little as possible in order to lessen our load. Already for many of us we are out of our comfort zone. We may meet the limits of our physical endurance, or our anxieties around getting lost; we may meet ourselves, our loneliness and our fears when we step out of the structure and the safety of our routine. By simply walking day after day, the mind slowly empties. Over time, amazing things happen if we stay with our process. We literally walk into greater detachment. From there we may gain insights and inspirations and a sense of new perspective around how we make choices in our lives.
Eckhart Tolle (2004) talks about how thinking can be like an inner tormentor in our heads. We have a constant ‘internal chatter’ that goes on, mostly internalised from adults around us when growing up. The problem with our thinking or inner chatter is that it is rarely, if ever, compassionate and warm as we have encountered when we have stepped onto the bridge of Intuitive Consciousness. More usually it is reactive, self-critical and judgmental; the more negative our internal chatter, the more unhappy we become. On the Camino much of this chatter finally stills. Furthermore we may experience more inner contentment than we have ever managed to experience. However, part of the problem with the Camino, or any other retreat space, is that it is hard to maintain that inner quietness when we return home.
Life as a Camino
How can the whole of our lives become like a Camino? Instead of having to travel to northern Spain, how can we bring mindful intention and detachment to every waking moment of our day? On the Inner Camino we seek to cultivate a crossing of the threshold into Intuitive Consciousness. It is a guidebook on how to live life as a Camino and it offers a series of exercises to follow, stage by stage.
We learn how to still the chatter through stepping across the threshold and accessing this intuitive wisdom on a daily basis. It is about ‘bringing the Camino home’, of living every day out of a different consciousness.
On the Inner Camino we alter the way we see our world and, as if climbing inside our own soul, become aware of how we interpret our own existence. The more we develop this muscle, the easier it is to step onto the bridge of Intuitive Consciousness. As we do this, we build our inner fitness and become increasingly comfortable in our own skin. This is the biggest blessing of all.
Once we have mastered the basic step of stepping into Intuitive Consciousness, it is ideal if we can make this a part of our daily practice. The problem is that when life gets deeply painful it is the last thing we want to do. We get stuck in our states of unhappiness because we cannot see any way out. We just want the situation to change.
We often discover when we receive shocking news such as the serious illness of a loved one, or even ourselves, that everything changes radically in our daily lives. Our consciousness becomes heightened through this fear or grief, and all of the ‘normal things’ that we are worried about seem to miraculously disappear. Such a shock often catapults us across a threshold and we abruptly drop many of the hooks of our life story. Difficult decisions become easy such as missing important meetings at work and following more of our essential needs. The point here is not that we should manage our lives constantly as if on the edge of a crisis, although Buddhist teachings do recommend that we live in the imagination that we might face our death in every moment. Rather, the more we can live in states across the threshold without needing an actual crisis, the richer and more fulfilling our lives will inevitably become.
When we are having a big emotional experience or crisis, we are hard-wired as humans to respond with fight or flight, or to throw up defences to save ourselves from pain. Some of us may even react by sinking into the black hole of despair. It is hard just to pause, and to sit in our pain and suffering without doing any of our normal reactions. It is almost impossible to let the fullness of the pain to be there without trying to block it in any way.
When we stop and step out across the threshold, we no longer simply react and attempt to make the pain go away, tell ourselves that it will never ever end, or simply experience ourselves as victims of it. From our dual awareness gaze we can hold both the pain and intuitive wisdom that can make meaning of the situation in a far wider context. In other words, as we observe and experience ourselves in the pain, we also allow the pain to begin to transform us. The pain, in its intensity, and because we are no longer simply the victim of it, wrenches our hearts open so that we can connect with our existential human experience. It opens us up to the universal truth of human suffering. Here we meet our interconnectedness and compassion. We expand the capacity of our hearts and our pain becomes a gateway to a greater level of love.
In such moments, stepping onto the bridge is all that is needed, where we have a sufficiently strong base to hold that level of intensity. At some point the pain will inevitably begin to transform. We will begin to see new possibilities and synchronicities. Our open-hearted experience of our interconnectedness with others and the world we live in will bring about unimagined change for ourselves and our relationships.
The Role of the Therapist
So how does therapy contribute to the problem of happiness? Some therapies focus more on the level of psychological or ego awareness, such as exploring our thinking patterns. Others look at how we access less rational forms of our inner world through our feelings or bodies. This psychological work is extremely important and contributes much towards building self-knowledge and some relief of suffering. We may understand how some childhood experiences could have contributed to our unhappiness. However, in spite of considerable self-knowledge, we often continue to be unhappy.
Accessing this bridge and Intuitive Consciousness has traditionally been seen as belonging to a spiritual practice and is not necessarily a remit of therapy, although transpersonal therapists might contest this. Some therapists take the role of the soothing wise figure, observing from a detached and outside perspective. This goes towards healing early developmental and attachment ruptures in a client’s life.
How much deeper might the healing be to facilitate the client to cross the threshold, and to experience themselves from an entirely different consciousness? Even clients who have considerable trauma and abuse histories can change how they feel about themselves once they learn how to step into Intuitive Consciousness. All internal criticism effortlessly falls away. They may experience a moment of genuine love towards themselves and thereby finally feel the beginnings of real happiness.
Taking it Further
The further along the Inner Camino we travel, the more we become attuned to the very source of our energy and power. We connect to the foundation of life itself. Once we have developed this ability and practiced it enough we become the detached compassionate voice of Intuitive Consciousness ourselves. Living across the threshold becomes our new consciousness as we learn to step back far enough as if looking at ourselves from great distance. As did the ancient pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella, we become guided by our own field of stars.
Sara Hollwey Reg.Psychol.Ps.S.I; MIAHIP; MIACP; dipl.PW is currently working as a clinical psychologist in the School of Psychology at University College Dublin. She also has a private psychotherapy and supervision practice working with individuals, couples, families and groups, using Processwork, Integrative Psychotherapy and Spatial Dynamics movement therapy.
Jill Brierley UKCP; dipl.PW; Europe Accredited EMDR Practitioner is currently working as a supervisor and psychotherapist. She has a private practice where she works with individuals, couples and groups using Processwork and Integrative Arts Psychotherapy, and is also an EMDR practitioner working with Post Traumatic Stress.
The authors can be contacted through their website www.inner-camino.com.
Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. (I. Lasch, Trans.) Boston: Beacon Press.
Hollwey. S. & Brierley, J. (2014). The inner Camino, a path of awakening. Scotland: Findhorn Press.
Tolle, E. (2004). The power of now: A guide to spiritual enlightenment. California: Namaste Publishing and new World Library.