Psychologists have mapped out our behavioural model: everyone of us is motivated in one of two ways: either going towards pleasure, or moving away from pain. Either way, we seek happiness: ultimately, we are moved by happiness.
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One fine day about 2300 years ago, young Plato approached his teacher with one question: “Should I marry or stay single?” Socrates pondered on this for several hours. Eventually, he looked into his disciple’s eyes and said: “It doesn’t matter whether you decide to marry or stay single; either way you’ll suffer.”
Even though our ultimate goal is to be happy, our tendency is to suffer. Think about it: during the day, many good things may happen to us. If only one bad thing happens, which one do we most likely hold on to? Which one is the most likely to stay in our memory for longer? The good ones or the bad one?
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Let’s define life as the interaction between an individual and their environment – life is what happens between me and everything else: spouse, work, drinks with friends… -. If this interaction between individual and environment is in harmony (if things reflect our personal scheme), then there is peace; there is happiness. If, however, there is a mismatch (when things don’t go according to plan), then there is sorrow; there is stress.
If life equals the individual plus their environment, what determines then the quality of life of this individual? Themselves, the environment, or both?
Let’s consider two case scenarios. In the worst case scenario: the environment is the master, and the individual – the I – is the slave. Environment equals master; I equals slave. This is the prison model: you are the prisoner, and your officers have full control over your life: when you get up; what you dress; when and what you eat. In this prison model, it is impossible to have a high quality of life.
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Do we create our own prison officers; our own masters? And if so, how do we create them?
Think of your very best friend. Have you all got a mental image yet?
Imagine that your best friend is organising a summer party – and believe it or not, they know how to throw an amazing party. Everyone you know is invited, even people that you did not know your friend knew are invited. Everyone, but you… You wait for a few days, hoping that the invitation card has been delayed in the post. But nothing comes. You call your friend, and discreetly, you hint about the party. You get no reaction. The party day arrives, and you sit at home, alone, because all your friends are at this bloody party. And you feel… well, how do you feel? Do you react?
What happened here is that you expressed a desired from your friend: you expected that your best friend would invite you to the party. By expressing a desire from your best friend, you gave your best friend power. By giving your best friend power, you disempowered yourself. You made your best friend the master, thus you became the slave. When your friend didn’t meet your expectation, you got frustrated, disappointed, angry.
So, do we create our own masters? Yes, we do
How do we create our own masters? Through expectations; by taking things for granted; by believing that things tomorrow will be the same as they were today. And this is how dysfunctional relationships happen: today, I expect from you, tomorrow you’ll expect from me, and we’ll carry on swapping and playing around with the role of slaves.
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If this was the worst case scenario, what would the best case scenario look like?
In the best case scenario, I is the master, and the environment is the slave.
The one million Euro question is then: how can I be my own master?
I’ll share a personal story. My very first job was an internship within the European Commission in Brussels. To save a few cent, every morning I would religiously prepare my lunch. A couple of slices of freshly baked bread, filled with humous, smoked salmon, or a Spanish omelette; some crunchy salad with Italian dressing; a juicy piece of fruit, and a small bar of dark chocolate. Every day, I would cycle to work, following the tracks of the trams, and every time I’d see this beggar sitting at the corner of Gare du Nord. Every morning, rained or snowed, this skinny, little, filthy man, with more hair on his beard than on his head, would sit on a half a square metre piece of cardboard, with only one request – someone to feed him. This very morning I decided to become mother Teresa: I offered my lovingly made lunch to this starved fellow human being. I looked at him, donned with a shiny halo, whilst he unwrapped my wishful present. He took a bite, and then tossed the whole lunch away. He didn’t like it! I was outraged. Both my lunch and sainthood gone in the same split of a second.
Who was the slave here? The lesson was clear: everyone has a choice for their behaviour. And if only we are OK with this, then we can become our own master. We can only become our own master by acquiring an attitude of acceptance.
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Philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote 300 years ago: “We look at the world with our own coloured glasses, and through these coloured glasses we see the world”. If your glasses are tinted blue, your world is blue. If they are tinted pink, you’ll see a pink world.
I have a friend from Los Angeles. She tells me that in LA, the thinner you are, the more welcome you are into the social circles. My friend is a very round woman, so she never enjoyed her life there. Five years ago, she settled in Hawaii. Now, she has a great social life.
What happens if I have red tinted glasses, but I don’t like red? What should I do? Paint the world green like my friend did? Or change the glasses?
I would say: change the glasses; examine my life.
Socrates once said: “An unexamined life is not worth living”. Just imagine living your life at full speed only to realise at the very end that… you went in the wrong direction!
How do you examine life? Is that even possible?
One way is through language.
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Did you know that the Sami in Finland have 180 words for ice and snow? Who can tell me how many words the Hindus have for ice and snow? One, and it is the same for both words. Language reveals the colour of our glasses, the in-built programmes that we need to run our lives, and of which we are sometimes barely aware.
The three most common words in the world languages are “I”, “my” and “but”. The most prevalent in-built programme is “I want”. In the last 55 years, we have grown six times more prosperous in the Western world, and yet, we are four times more depressed. Life has become disproportionately easier, but the quality of life has not gone any higher.
If you were to ask your best friend what it is that they want in life, and they would tell you. If you would ask them twice more what else it is that they want in life, and twice more they would reply. Do you think that if they had all these three items they would be satisfied? Or would they still feel discontent?
It seems like happiness, as grass, is always greener at the other side.
In other to reach happiness, we materialise our desires: someone who loves us, a house, a phone. Then we label them: my partner, my house, my phone. As soon as we put the label “my” in front of a noun, something curious happens: I start to fear that I may lose the thing I own. Then I either accumulate more so if any gets stolen, I will still keep one for myself. Or I build up fences around to protect my possessions. And you can see a downward spiral forming: the more I own, the more I have to lose, the more I fear, the more I cling onto things, the more I want. All along what I was seeking was security, happiness. Instead, the “I want” programme only brought me more insecurity; more dependency; more sorrow. The “I want” programme makes us a “slave”.
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We’ve already agreed that the best case scenario is for “I” to be the master. So what’s the alternative to that downward spiral of the “I want” programme?
Imagine that your cousin, whom you haven’t seen in a while, and whom you deeply appreciate, comes to visit you. You prepare the spare bedroom to the last detail; you buy delicious food; and you put on the best of your smiles. They are a greatly respectful and careful guest, and you are extremely hospitable.
Imagine that after two or three weeks, they have not mentioned when they will be leaving. After six weeks, they act as if your house and everything in it belonged to them; worse, they act as if they were to stay with you for the rest of their lives. Would you still be hospitable?
As hosts, we prefer the first type of guest, don’t we? The one who knows their exit, their way out of the house.
Do we all know that we are guests in this room? We often forget that we are also guests in this planet and in this body. Who thinks is going to live forever?
The paradox is that we are guests in this world who do not want to think of the exit. We are the annoying cousin. By blocking the reality that we are just guests passing by, we subconsciously create a belief: that we are here to stay forever. And if we are here forever then, we ask ourselves, what is it left but to accumulate? The downward spiral.
The alternative to the downward spiral is to acknowledge and behave in this world and in this body, as if we were guests. Because we are guests. We only exist in a tiny period of time. We belong to nothing, and nothing really belongs to us. Just think: who enjoy Dublin the best, the locals or the tourists? The tourists, as guests, have a higher sense of appreciation and acceptance.
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By changing the coloured glasses from the “I want” programme to the “I’m a guest” programme, we stop expecting from the world; we move up the spiral. By moving up the spiral, we become our own master. By being our own master, we allow ourselves to live a better quality of life; to be happy. And all starts by examining our life.
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English poet William Ernest Henley once wrote: “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
Material adapted and re-arranged from the talk The Power of Self Acceptance given by Dr Prashant Kakoday at the Brahma Kumaris Centre in Dublin, July 2013.