How to Master the Fine Art of Getting Out of Your Own Way
3 ways to remove obstacles you have built against a life of happiness
We spend most of our lives striving.
We strive for what we think will make us happy and contented. And it’s usually the same old things that we all try to seek: wealth, promotions, prestige, perfect soulmate, and so forth.
Too few of us ever learn that our approach is usually inside out. When we finally figure this out, oftentimes, it’s when we are older, and most of our life is already over.
Society leads us astray
Our society teaches us to decide what you want and go after it with our entire being and all our energy. The problem with that is we end up building more obstacles to contentedness than we began with.
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You might respond, “But all kinds of people in our society are achieving those goals using this standard approach.”
Yet we see the drama that constantly surrounds the lives of celebrities — who have reached their dreams. They have failed marriages, drug addictions, constant controversy, and often die young¹.
They might have reached their goals, but they never found true contentedness.
How to remove life’s obstacles
There is a natural way to achieve a life of true happiness and joy. Many sages from ancient Eastern philosophies have provided the steps; all we need do is live them in our daily lives.
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A very comforting element of using these methods is that they were derived from spiritual teachings that have been around for thousands of years — and are still relevant. While many of them come straight out of Zen and Buddha’s teachings, they can also be found in Hinduism and Christianity.
The first step in learning who you really are is to realize that you know nothing². Socrates admonished us to embrace this ‘know nothing’ mindset. Zen teaches us to return to a ‘beginner’s mind’ because it is an open mind.
When our minds are empty, then we are in our greatest state of learning. Most of us already know that someone who already believes they know everything is the hardest person in the world to teach. Learning must always be a part of our lives.
Open mind also requires that we unlearn our prejudices, drop any prejudgments that we have made about ourselves and those around us. This state of mind will provide a new self-awareness. We’ll be able to observe our own biases regarding reality. Our prevailing thoughts, desires, and feelings provide new information about who we have been.
Understand that this doesn’t mean we don’t have a grip on reality. It’s usually the reverse — we typically have too much of a grip on the reality we have defined in our minds. We then willfully try to force and reshape the world into what we have envisioned.
When we finally let go of the prejudged world we have been seeing, we experience an amazing surge of mental and emotional energy.
Balancing our natural desires
Our desires drive our motivation. We humans deeply value the desires of profit, power, pleasure, and prestige. All of us want these, and we need a given amount of them to be contented.
But the question is whether or not these base desires are all we need. If so, should we devote all of our energy to seeking them?
4 legitimate desires
Hinduism specifies four legitimate goals of life that should be sought. The first two goals are wealth and pleasure. That’s good because most people are already seeking those two objectives.
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However, the third goal is living by your moral duty. This is where the crowd begins thinning out. Most of us live by a set of morals, but rarely do we list it as a goal. The fourth and final goal, according to Hindu tradition, is achieving spiritual liberation. People usually do not think about spiritualism until their golden years.
Understanding the different desires
The Buddha defined what is called the four ‘immeasurables’ or unlimited attitudes³. These are compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. It is because we can never have too much of them that they are called immeasurables.
Conversely, there are some desires that we should avoid and never experience. These are things like jealousy, hatred, greed, the urge to hurt others, and so on.
Then some desires belong to a third category. These are desires that we can freely enjoy — but in moderation. For example, the desires we have for sex, food, and sleep. We all understand that an excess of any of these is unhealthy.
The tricky part about managing desires from this third category is that every individual has their own critical limit. When critical limits of a desire are reached, excessive behavior begins. Believe it or not, extremes are often easier to manage than moderation. For instance, if a person has become addicted to sex, it’s might be easier to practice abstinence.
The Greeks referred to this tendency toward excess as ‘hubris’ and considered it a clear lack of self-knowledge and awareness. Only when a person knows their own limits can they ever know how much is enough.
Understanding our discontentedness
Discontentedness is pretty easy to define. It can be measured as the distance between our desires and reality.
Buddhists have endeavored to remove suffering from their lives while adding happiness. As we already know, both happiness and reality are subjective and depend largely on our perspective.
Our best approach would be to list all the times that we felt happy. Perhaps one of the things you may have noticed from this list is that your past moments of happiness were quite temporary.
Even when you enjoyed longer periods of feeling happy, you most likely worried, at least a little, about how long it was going to last. This craving for longer periods of joy causes some of us to seek artificial methods like drugs and booze to supplement our happy state until we feel joy again.
When we think about this logically, there are two strategies for overcoming our discontent. Either we change reality to satisfy our desire or we modify our desire and match it to reality. If this is the case, then we must ask: Which of our desires do we attempt to satisfy, and which desires should be dropped?
This life lesson is not as depressing as it may seem. As we sharpen our awareness of ourselves and the world around us, we are better equipped to find our true calling.
For instance, suppose you are a star football player in your community, and your life desire is to play professionally. After many years of devotion and hard work, you discover that you cannot compete at the professional level. This is when your desire must be modified. If you’ve kept an open mind and not gotten too depressed by this realization, then perhaps you’ll now become a great professional football coach instead.
Many times, there is an underlying force at work when we feel discontented. When we feel happy, we desire to remain in that state permanently. Our instincts tell us this permanence is not possible because we dread the moment our happiness leaves.
This is why we must learn to embrace the changing world in which we live. We need both the good and bad to have perspective⁴. We need darkness to embrace the light.
It is natural for humans to crave a permanent world that does not change and to be independent. Yet, the reality is that we live in a constant flux of change, and we are interdependent beings — these facts we must accept.
Our life journey will find a smoother path when we learn to naturally connect with our surroundings. As we go about our daily lives, we always project an attitude and a vibration.
This is why some days are better than others in terms of productivity and how we interact with others. The key is to understand that this ebb and flow is natural, and we need to keep pushing along in a fruitful way.
Never forget these three methods that will keep you centered and guide you to the best version of yourself.
- Know thyself — Always be aware of your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Casually seek to find out why you feel a certain way — never force the issue with your inner self. The answer will come when you least expect it.
- Balance your desires — Understand the difference between immeasurable desires, forbidden desires, and desires requiring moderation. Excessive desire has ruined more lives than anything. Control any urge you have for excessive desires.
- Embrace the changing world — Discontentedness is often the result of a changing world along with our desire to keep things permanent. Learn to accept the good and the bad with equal grace.
: Sharon Marcus. The Drama of Celebrity. Princeton University Press, 2019.
: Mitchell Green. (April 25, 2019). Know Thyself — The Value and Limits of Self-Knowledge. https://www.ed.ac.uk/ppls/philosophy/research/impact/free-online-courses/know-thyself.
: Pema Dragpa. (September 16, 2016). The Four Immeasurables. https://www.padmasambhava.org/sermon/four-immesurables/.
: PersonalTao.com. What is Yin Yang? https://personaltao.com/taoism/what-is-yin-yang/.