Let’s not let mindfulness advocates confuse happiness with equanimity.
The part of our minds that most people identify with is the part that silently talks to us with a running commentary. We listen to it all day long. Let’s call it “The Talker.”
“The Talker” prefers pleasure over pain, happiness over sadness, winning over losing, health over sickness, and any of the other judgments that help us navigate our lives. Although it plays a critical role that we cannot live without, “The Talker” is stuck in the duality that makes us judge one thing better than another. It does not allow us to experience the world without judgment.
The central principle of mindfulness is to look at experiences without judgment.
Adherents of mindfulness often speak of the part that practices mindfulness as “The Watcher.” It lives outside of the duality and sees everything as equally valuable. Mindfulness is a wonderful practice that increases awareness of what is really happening because “The Watcher” does not ignore or accentuate details based on preferences.
Unfortunately, many claim that mindfulness leads to happiness. As happiness and sadness are judgments based on preferences, this breaks with the whole concept of looking at our experiences without judgment. Mindfulness practiced properly does not lead to happiness; it leads to a greater awareness of whatever you are experiencing whether you like it or not.
Mindfulness does not mean we have no preferences or that we make no effort to alleviate pain. “The Watcher” is perfectly capable of watching without judgment while “The Talker” tells us our feelings about things. But, most of us pay attention to “The Talker” and cannot access “The Watcher” as much as we should. Our perceptions are not “full” because we are not mindful of the whole picture that “The Watcher” helps fill out.
This lack of balance is the primary cause of suffering. We get so caught up in the judgments of “The Talker” that we are not content with life the way it is. We resist experiences that could be of great value because our preferences shut us out from perceiving the whole picture. We end up focusing on changing the experiences and missing the insights that are available in them. We also miss out on the bliss that is at the core of every moment.
Many people practice mindfulness or other forms of meditation with the goal of achieving a blissful state.
Turning off “The Talker” for a while and focusing on only the present moment produces very pleasurable feelings. They love the state because it is free from the pain and suffering we feel when “The Talker” judges things in a negative light. With much practice, they achieve states that are so pleasurable they call them the ultimate “high.”
But being “high” is not bliss. It is still stuck in contrast consciousness and the world of duality. To feel “high” means you will also feel “low” sometimes. Real bliss is beyond duality, it is in pain just as much as in pleasure. There is no more bliss during “high” times than during low times: bliss is equally available in every moment.
Saint Teresa of Avila spent her life looking for bliss. She was in tremendous physical pain her whole life and thought that she would attain the ecstasy (bliss) she was after if she could just remove the pain long enough to experience a blissful state. Eventually, she realized her error and found what she was looking for. Once found, she was able to hold onto it no matter what “The Talker” was telling her.
In describing the difference between bliss and happiness, Saint Teresa said, “The pain is still there. It bothers me so little now I feel my soul is served by it.” She had grown in her practice of mindfulness to be able to perceive the whole picture: “The Talker” experienced the pain fully and she took necessary actions to alleviate it, but at the same time she felt the bliss that only “The Watcher” is capable of perceiving.
Mindfulness does not lead to happiness.
It sometimes leads to greater experience of the very real pains we all have: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. What mindfulness does lead to, though, is bliss. But in order to feel it you have to know the difference between happiness and bliss.
Every moment of our lives is an opportunity to be in bliss, but we avoid those with the most potential because we think that the difficult experiences need to be removed first. We are closer to experiencing bliss during the difficult times because they challenge us to break from our attachment to happiness.
It is not really bliss if the experience we think is bliss goes away when we are in pain. As bliss is beyond the duality of happy-sad, gain-loss, pleasure-displeasure, and even health-illness; we cannot truly know bliss until we see it in our pain. Once we find bliss in pain, we find it everywhere.
Now that I found bliss, I see it in every moment of my life no matter what the circumstance or state of mind. I prefer to call it equanimity because that better describes it for me: All states are equally blissful and there is no need to change any of them to experience it. In equanimity I can see that depression is part of the bliss just as much as pleasure, happiness, and all other conditions.
Equanimity is the essence of Yoga as described in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Be steadfast in yoga, devotee. Perform your duty without attachment, remaining equal to success or failure. Such equanimity of mind is called Yoga.” (Yogananda, Paramahansa, The Bhagavad Gita, translation, 2003 Self-Realization Fellowship, CA, 2:48)
When we are in equanimity (bliss), we make decisions based on wisdom and the equal input from both “The Talker” and “The Watcher.” We are no longer controlled by the likes and dislikes of “The Talker,” although we are informed by its perceptions. We do what is right, not necessarily what satisfies our ego. That is what practicing mindfulness is all about.