Start fulfilling your own need for happiness from within
nsome parts of the world, a monkey trap is constructed from a gourd. It’s staked into the ground so that it can’t be moved, and a small hole is cut into the top that is just big enough for the monkey’s hand. Nuts or other tasty monkey treats go inside. The monkey places its hand in the trap to grab the bait. However, once the monkey grabs the snacks, he can no longer get his hand out of the trap. He’s caught. All he needs to do is open his hand and release the goods to gain his freedom. However, many times he doesn’t. He keeps clinging to them, sacrificing his freedom for the objects of his desire. Sound familiar?
As humans, we also sacrifice our freedom when we cling to things. We may not grasp at nuts, but we do grasp on to people, relationships, material goods, ideas we have about ourselves, expectations we have for others — really, the list is endless. Like the monkey, we get stuck when we can’t release our grasp. Attachment prevents us from living our life fully and enjoying all of the other pleasures around us. We just stand there with our hand stuck in a figurative gourd. Fortunately, once we understand why we get attached, we can start to loosen our grip on the objects of our desire, regaining our freedom so we can enjoy our lives.
Webecome attached to people, things, and beliefs because we think they will make us happy. We want this stuff to fulfill a need. We feel we lack something. The boyfriend will prove that I’m lovable; the new job title will show that I’m smart and competent; looking a certain way will ensure I’m desirable. We grasp and cling to things outside of ourselves to validate our worthiness. However, worthiness is not a façade we can create through external accouterments. No number of boyfriends or girlfriends, job titles, or compliments, can give us the validation we need. Creating a feeling of worthiness is an inside job.
Rather than manipulate people and situations to get our needs fulfilled, we can cultivate sovereignty and learn to fulfill them ourselves.
I hadn’t always realized this bit of wisdom. I often looked to external objects to help me feel good about myself. I could easily get attached to a person or a new shiny object, believing it could be my savior — and I could just as easily become detached if I found a new, better, sexier way to get my needs met. This isn’t non-attachment, it is discard. Attachment and discard are two sides of the same coin. Heads — I attach; Tails — I discard. It’s a coin toss I played trying to figure out the best way to validate my worthiness through outside factors.
The problem is that even when we get what we desire, we often realize that our needs are still not filled. Something continues to feel absent. It didn’t have the effect we had hoped for. That’s because what we are looking for is not out there, it’s within us. Rather than manipulate people and situations to get our needs fulfilled, we can cultivate sovereignty and learn to fulfill them ourselves. For example, rather than waiting until you have a romantic partner with whom you can travel the world, you can travel solo or with a tour group. Don’t depend on a job title to make you feel intelligent; start a blog, and share your insight with others now.
Sometimes we grasp at things we don’t even want. For example, several years back, the company where I was employed was going through restructuring (again). My boss had hinted to me that I was going to get a promotion, which was exciting because it made me feel smart, competent, and dare I say, favored. The thing is, I didn’t even like my job or being in the corporate world. I had never aspired to climb up the corporate ladder — I wanted to get off of it entirely. Later, I was passed up for the promotion without any explanation (good move on my boss’s part). I spent some time feeling marginalized, undervalued, and insignificant. These are the words I used — over and over again. Notice, I didn’t fret about the lack of opportunity or the things that I would no longer get to do. I was worried about my feelings of worthiness. I didn’t want the job; I wanted the feelings that I thought it would invoke.
Similarly, when I was younger, I spent a considerable amount of time attaching to boyfriends. I believed that if I could only get them to love me, then I would feel safe and secure. I spent so much energy ensuring that they loved me that I often didn’t spend enough time considering whether I loved them or if we were even compatible in the first place. Once I felt secure in the relationship, I would realize that the partnership didn’t bring the peace I had anticipated. Then I would move on to a different boyfriend, hoping it would be found there. Attach and discard.
Our time would be better spent on self-discovery, rather than accumulating adornments to decorate our ego.
Thankfully, I’ve gotten much better at abstaining from the attach and discard cycle. I spend a lot of time considering what I actually want and why I want it. I make sure that the things I pursue or allow into my life will provide value and pleasure, not just a boost to my ego. I ask myself, “Will this be a good fit with my values and goals, or am I looking for it to fulfill an internal need?” If it is the latter, I work on fulfilling the need from within rather than enlisting someone else to do it. I also make sure that I’m able to care for and nurture the people and things I let into my life. I want to make sure I’m good for others as well. I’ve become discerning.
However, sometimes I still get hooked. Lately, I’ve been wondering — or, more accurately, ruminating — over when my boyfriend and I will move in together. I sometimes equate this milestone with his love for me. I get fixated on the idea that if he loved me, he would rush to live with me (and my two kids, dog, and eight chickens). Then I remember to loosen my grip on my fixed ideas.
When we get fixated on the object of our desire, we get tunnel vision. Everything in our periphery gets excluded. The desire to live with my boyfriend sometimes causes me to forget all of the terrific things about our relationship. I also forget the fantastic things about my current home. Attachment causes us to focus on what we believe we are lacking, rather than being grateful for what we already have. This results in us going through life with a feeling of scarcity, rather than abundance, even though we likely have everything we truly need.
These days I’m focused on turning my home into a delightful and fun place to live. I’ve decorated my office. I’m clearing out clutter. I have plants galore. My kids and I are already planning our spring garden and are considering getting some goats. I believe my boyfriend and I will live together at some point. Though I desire that, I’m no longer attached to the idea. I can enjoy and find peace in the present.
Sometimes people confuse non-attachment for apathy. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, it’s the opposite. Non-attachment gives us the ability to enjoy things for what they are, rather than the stories we create around them. Non-attachment is equanimity. We can like something and desire it, but we have the wisdom to know that it doesn’t define us. We understand that we won’t die or disappear if we don’t get it. Non-attachment gives us the ability to open our hands and walk away from the trap in favor of our freedom.
This is not to say we shouldn’t take enjoyment from our relationships, physical pleasures, or other awesome things. We should! We should revel in all the worldly joys available to us, and fervently! However, let’s hold them lightly with an open hand. Sometimes, when I feel stuck, I literally open my palms wide to remind myself to stop grasping. When we keep our hands open, we allow the things that are meant to be in our life the ability to enter, and the things that are not intended to be in our life the freedom to leave.
Everyone and everything changes — most of all, ourselves. What we enjoyed today might not be here tomorrow. And that’s okay. Without the binds of attachment, we won’t be trapped. We will find other things to enjoy.
Now when I hear friends or family lament about the things they desire, whether it’s the cute guy at the gym, a fancy new car, or a wrinkle-free face, I want to scream, “You’re going the wrong way!” Happiness is found when we’re living authentically and in alignment with our soul’s purpose. I know that’s not always easier to figure out. That’s why our time would be better spent on self-discovery, rather than accumulating adornments to decorate our ego.
Onour journey toward self-actualization, the most important thing we can do is to get curious about what makes us tick. We can spend time contemplating our desires, our motivations, and our behaviors. Here are some journaling questions to help you begin to understand why you want the things you want, and how you can go about fulfilling your own needs.
1. Describe something to which you feel attached.
2. Imagine not having it. What would your life be like? In what ways might you be worse off? In what ways might things actually be better?
3. Often, we want things not because of their physical manifestation but because of the way we think having those things will make us feel. For example, we may want a significant other to feel loved, or a fancy house to feel successful. Spend some time thinking about why you want what you want. What are the feelings you believe getting what you desire would invoke? What if you didn’t get it?
4. What are other ways you can cultivate the feeling of getting what you want? Try to consider ways you can fulfill your own needs, so you are not dependent on other people or outside factors.
Once you understand that your motivation for acquiring a particular thing is to get an internal need met, you can begin to figure out how to fulfill that need yourself. This is a much more rewarding and sustainable practice since external factors can’t fill your needs anyway. Rather than fixating on the one thing that has you stuck, savor all the pleasurable experiences available to you. When we approach life feeling whole, we have the clarity to notice more opportunities come our way. If that doesn’t bring peace of mind, remember Oscar Wilde’s words: “There are only two tragedies in life. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”