Mindfulness

The Benefits Of Meditation — My Personal Journey

This article is split into two sections on meditation: how it changed my life and its scientific benefits. The first is a deeply personal explanation of my particular experience. I want to start with this because I’m hoping by sharing, it’ll give further insight than the dozens of other articles online that tell you why meditation is beneficial, without the necessary anecdotal explanation in support. After all, it’s useful knowing what studies have discovered, but it can be difficult to relate. If you have a thirst for science, you’ll be catered for; the second section summarises key findings.

Feel free to skip to the science if the thought of reading my personal journey bores you. It’s up to you. I won’t judge. Well, not much. But be warned — you’ll be missing out on the story behind the stats and the sensations and the worldview shifts that bubble behind the physical changes to the grey stuff between my ears. The brain. I’m talking about the brain.

Why I Turned To Meditation

The story has to begin somewhere. Growing up in a working class family in Bristol in the UK, like most Western societies, meditation was about as alien as, well, aliens. Other than one forward-thinking primary school teacher lighting incense and asking the class to sit still and relax (something I only realised was a form of meditation literally seconds ago as this popped into my head), meditation was engulfed by a myriad of false beliefs, all pointing one to a sign that said: Not for me.

I can’t say precisely when my mental health became a serious issue, but I was young. I can pinpoint the age of 15 being the first time anxiety and depression started to take control, although looking back I’d experienced panic attacks even younger. By 15, though, they’d become a regularity. I didn’t know what they were. The panic attacks coincided with an illness which left me bedridden through most of my GCSEs (couldn’t have timed it better), an illness that had symptoms closely resembling anxiety, close enough to obscure the true nature of my suffering at the time.

In truth, it took a number of years for me to understand and accept what I was experiencing was anxiety, a product of the mind. Labelling anxiety or depression purely a mental illness completely minimises the devastating impact it has physically. While the root cause is psychological, the instantaneous physiological response wrecks havoc on the fight or flight system. Such is the seamless link between body and mind, it’s not surprising many sufferers go to great lengths to find a physical cause before realising the issue is psychological. Certain physical illnesses can also instigate anxiety and depression, making this crossover even more confusing.

Once I’d accepted my fate, the process of managing symptoms began. I was around the age of 17 or 18 when I sheepishly ordered my first self-help book online. I’m writing this with a wry smile, looking back now, but such was the stigma and my own sense of shame, I even had a space in my room — out of view — to hide my collection. Forget the porn buddy, at the time I felt I needed a self-help buddy to remove my collection of self-helps books in case of an emergency. After all, no one could discover I was mentally weak. At least that’s how I felt at the time, such is the vicious prison of mental illness and, to a degree, perceived masculinity.

An Uncertain Beginning

While reading and understanding the intricacies of anxiety and depression, my intuition led me to meditation. The benefits were clear to see. Buddhist philosophy peaked my curiosity; everything I read resonated. Plus, reframing suffering as integral to spiritual growth was reassuring. However, my initial interest in meditation wasn’t spiritual. I was an atheist. Buddhism appealed to me because I didn’t see it as a religion, I saw it as a sense of principles that “made sense” as opposed to the restrictive dogma found in Western religions.

Eager to get going, I purchased — and I shit you not — Meditation for Dummies. Unfortunately, I faced a major hurdle. My anxiety was so intrusive at the time, my thoughts so visceral and attention-seeking, my mood so consuming, that I struggled to relate to any of it. Simply sitting with the dense fog of thoughts and feelings felt like a form of punishment, not liberation. So I stopped.

Returning With Direction

In the years that followed I continued to suffer from depression and anxiety and continued to educate myself to find a solution. It wasn’t until I was at university that I had a breakthrough. In an unavoidable plug I wish I was getting paid for — I discovered the Headspace app. This gave direction to my meditation, guided me through in a step-by-step process, and finally made this intimidating beast seem manageable by exposing the fact it was both incredibly simple and extraordinarily complex. I then began meditating daily, and that’s when changes started to happen.

How Meditation Changed My Life

Meditation benefits.
There are many benefits to meditation.

Uhhh, sensationalist subheading alert! I apologise, but it’s true. It did change my life. Perhaps not in the way I was hoping, or in the way you may be hoping it could change your life as you read through this article (don’t fall into the trap of “I’ll be happy when I start meditating”!). But it opened my eyes to the true reality of things, provided genuine insight into my inner-world and helped me witness how that inner-world shaped my outer-world, too. Crucially, it didn’t get rid of unwanted emotions. It got rid of my need to get rid of them.

And the most peculiar thing? The biggest benefit of meditation is that — when complemented with spiritual reading — it transformed me from an atheist to a “spiritual person,” the kind who talks of eternal love and God and consciousness and transcending time and The Now. The kind I’d raise my eyebrows at, the kind I never thought I’d be. Ultimately, it revealed to me that we’re not what we think (tagline plug alert, uhhhh!).

I appreciate for those completely new to meditation, you may need a bit of time before jumping headfirst into the vast ocean of consciousness and eternal bliss (I’ll stop with the metaphors now) you may be thinking: what are the benefits of meditation that I can relate to? You asked for it, so here it goes:

1. It helped me to understand anxiety and depression.

Meditating on thoughts and feeling associated with anxiety and depression helped me to break down the mental concept of what “anxiety” and “depression” is. Rather than seeing both as some kind of life-sucking Demogorgon, I began to observe the individual components of them. Instead of one label encompassing all the unpleasantness, I saw the physical symptoms, the emotions, the chains of interlinked thoughts, the erroneous beliefs. All of this while I simply sat and focused on my breath.

By shining awareness on the true nature of “anxiety” and “depression,” it helped me stop seeing the way I was feeling as anxiety and depression. To be clearer — I stopped identifying with it. It wasn’t “my” depression, or “my” anxiety. In moments away from meditation when these symptoms were present, I began to note: “Ah, I’m experiencing a wave of anxiety in my chest, my heart rate has increased, I’m thinking x, y, z.” As soon as become a detached observer of the symptoms and the thoughts, you stop resisting.

This is key: resistance to negative thoughts and emotions gives them power. Accepting them reduces their power and they lose their hold on you. This is also key: meditating doesn’t mean those thoughts and emotions disappear. Instead, you avoid resisting and fighting against them.

2. Meditation reduced the frequency of “my” panic attacks.

Nothing screams resistance like a panic attack. For those of you unfortunate enough to have experienced a panic attack, you’ll know what I mean. For those who haven’t, they’re often described as the sensation of losing your mind, losing control or feeling like you’re about to die. It really is that grim. The imploding, explosive wave of sinister energy that motors its way through the body, the sensation of not being able to breathe, the palpable, grotesque sense of danger… Panic attacks aren’t fun, and a lot of sufferers, myself included, feel anxious at the prospect of an anxiety attack. It’s the cruellest catch-22 of anxiety.

Meditation helped though, in particular the focus of present awareness. At their core, panic attacks are linked to a need to “escape.” In the moment of panic, the sufferer doesn’t want to be where they are, they want to escape to safety, mentally or physically. The “attack” is a strong resistance to the present moment, whether situational or emotional. By habitually sitting with the breath, I became more in tune with my mind’s tendency to mentally attempt to escape when faced with troubling emotions. This is important because we can never escape the present, it’s all there is and all there ever will be.

When I experienced the onset of panic away from the time spent meditating — as with step one — I noted the physical properties, focused on my breath, and stopped resisting. Doing so drastically reduced their impact. I still get waves, now and again. But when I do, it’s less “OH SHIT THIS IS HAPPENING” and more “ah, I’m experiencing a strong wave of anxiety, my heart’s racing, but everything will be okay.” Again, I can’t emphasise enough, when it comes to anxiety resistance really is futile.

3. It helped me embrace sadness.

There is no such thing as a “bad emotion” or a “good emotion” — there are only emotions. But most of us label emotions as positive or negative. Looking back, I feel that my own emotional perfectionism exacerbated my suffering. I ran away from negative emotions. Sadness, unlike irrational anxiety, is a valuable and healthy emotion, one I was fleeing from. I mentioned masculinity above. Well, “boys don’t cry.” Men are encouraged to be stoic, to be strong. Anxiety by no means is exclusive to males, but I feel social conditioning makes men more inclined to resist such emotion. No wonder I was running away from sadness. Life is rich, it’s full of ups and downs, joy and suffering. Resisting half of the equation, the sad side of life, is resisting life itself.

Meditation helped me to sit with sadness, examine it, appreciate it. Sadness is a useful tool. It comes in many forms, and you can learn from any of them. It’s important to note, in spiritual terms, the deepest sense of compassion and love comes with a sense of tenderness, of sadness. We live in a society that likes to emphasise happiness. No one likes a grump, after all. But this isn’t healthy. Embracing sadness and the whole emotional spectrum with the same respect is one of the key processes of spiritual growth.

How do I embrace sadness? As mentioned above, I respect and “sit” with it. From my own personal experience, I believe that some forms of depression are due to consistent resistance to sadness, resulting in an “energy block” of that emotion. Consequently, when I feel sad, I let the sadness come to the surface in a process that is both humbling and cathartic. You can try and run from your emotions, but they’ll always catch up with you.

4. It helped me embrace death.

Did you just read the word death and recoil, even slightly? The odds are you did. In the West we have an odd relationship with death. Odd in the sense that we rarely talk about it, instead choosing to ignore it until it confronts us and catches us off guard. But we all die. All our loved ones will die. And not talking about that won’t make that prospect any less scary.

A big part of meditation is understanding the impermanence of the present moment. There’s no greater illustration of impermanence than death. Personally, a lot of my anxiety was a symptom of my resistance to accept death. By that, I mean on a deep, subconscious level, I wasn’t willing to fully embrace that fact we die, and it caused me to fear the future because, guess what, the future is guaranteed to contain death. I suspect my resistance was triggered by a string of deaths of loved ones I experienced over a short space of time, and the unresolved grief arising from my lack of acceptance.

There are lots of theories on how the fear of death trickles down into everyday fears. But for this article, it’s important to note that a big benefit of meditation was alleviating my fear of death. I worked on my relationship with life and the belief systems and attachments to it. My perspective changed and death became the key component responsible for injecting life with its ephemeral beauty.

Scientific Benefits Of Meditation

This is an area I will eventually explore in greater detail. For now it’s worth noting a few key studies to illustrate that my experiences have a grounding in science. Meditation causes measurable changes to the brain. There’s a whole wealth of benefits to meditation, but some studies that stand out for me personally include:

  • Electrical brain waves are different during meditation than they are when we’re awake or asleep. This is deeply significant. The study by The Norwegian University of Science and Technology discovered that our brains are in a different state when meditating, a state that is neither awake or asleep. As well as being a key tool in accessing this state, does this prove meditation is a natural process our ancestors would practice?
  • Meditation reduces the tendency to ruminate thoughts in those who suffer from depression.
  • Meditation changes the physical structure of the brain. A study revealed those who have been meditating over a long period of time had more grey matter in the obrito-frontal and hippocampal cortex of the brain. Curiously, these areas deal with emotional regulation and response control. My “Been There, Meditated, Increased My Obrito-Frontal And Hippocampal Cortex” T-shirts will be available to order soon.
  • Meditation has been proven to be effective in reducing stress and anxiety.
  • And it even increases immune function.

Well This Is All Fantastic, How Do I Start?

As mentioned above, I highly recommend trying the Headspace app to start experiencing the benefits of meditation. It’s a guided mindfulness meditation that can steer you through the basics. However, if you want to get started without downloading an app, the process is simple. If you want to go alone, follow the below instructions or play the guided video.

  1. Sit in a comfortable position, upright and alert. Using a chair is fine, but make sure your back is supported.
  2. Take a few deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
  3. After a few minutes, close your eyes. Focus on the sensations of your body; the feeling of your feet on the floor, your hands in your lap, your legs on the chair beneath you.
  4. Next, pay attention briefly to the sounds surrounding you. Don’t judge them, just observe.
  5. Bring your attention to your body. From head to toe, mentally “scan” your body. Notice the sensations and emotions within you.
  6. Turn your attention to your breath. Each in breath. Each out breath.
  7. Whenever you become distracted by thought, return to the breath. Note that the moment you notice distraction is the moment you become “aware.”
  8. When you are ready, stop focusing on the breath and give yourself some time to let the mind be completely free. No focus. No attention.
  9. Then return your attention to your body. The feeling of your feet on the floor, hands in your lap, etc. Notice sounds and smells around you.
  10. Open your eyes.
  11. Smile (optional).

It seems incredibly simple, and it is. I will eventually give more instruction and guidance on meditation. But for now, I hope my story has helped to inspire you to try and experience the benefits of meditation for yourself. I don’t want to mislead, however. This is an article focusing on the benefits of meditation. There has been, and will continue to be, frustration and mishaps along the way in my journey. There are days where I feel completely out of touch. Disenchanted. Lost. Days of clarity are followed by days of confusion. But it’s all part of the learning curve, and every bend and bump along that curve gives an opportunity to learn.

One last thing — good luck!

I’m keen to hear your experience of meditation, share all in the comments. If you have any questions about my experience, ask below.

Happiness

A Winter Blues Busting Morning Routine

A standard morning routine consists of a quick bite to eat, a shower and a brush of the teeth before hurrying out the door. Non-standard morning routines are often linked to enhanced, near superhuman productivity. They’re framed through stories of awe focusing on high-profile people such as Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill or Benjamin Franklin. They advocate reduced sleep. Rising early. Smoking a pipe. Saving the world. They’re well intentioned and nice in theory, but starting such a routine — let alone sticking to it — is a difficult task.

That’s because — for most of us — the reward of increased productivity isn’t enough to entice us out from under the sheets when not completely necessary. If we’re not a Silicon Valley extraordinaire of high-flying politician, the incentive isn’t enough; we don’t have to rise early to get to work on time. However, there is another incentive. As the clocks fall back and the nights draw in, our morning routine can have a surprising impact on reducing the low mood and low energy that accompanies winter blues.

Before we begin on exploring how and why a change of morning habit can increase your mood and wellbeing, it’s first important to note the difference between so-called winter blues and Season Affective Disorder (SAD). Naturally, as sunlight reduces, so do vitamin D levels. As does the amount of light that reaches the pineal gland (responsible for regulating the body clock). Consequently, the majority of us will feel more lethargic and less sprightly as our cardiac rhythm slows. However, those who suffer from SAD experience symptoms commonly associated with clinical depression (loss of pleasure, feelings of worthlessness, irritability, anxiety) during the winter months.

Wherever you fall on the spectrum, this routine is designed to help. Following the five below habits won’t only allow you to survive winter, but to thrive in winter:

1. Wake Up Earlier Than Necessary

The way you start the morning frames the mental approach to the rest of the day. Wake up with just enough time to quickly shower and run out of the door, and your cortisol levels increase, you feel rushed, you feel stressed, and you carry this into the day. By waking up with the intent to put aside some time to focus purely on your wellbeing, you’re starting an important habit of self-compassion.

To perform the tasks on this list, you’ll need more time. Depending on how quickly you usually get ready in the morning, set your alarm 30 or 40 minutes before your usual time. I personally give myself at least an hour and a half before the time I need to leave the house. If you find that it’s practically impossible, you may need to go to sleep earlier the evening before. Scientific studies have revealed that, thanks to our body clock, we perform better at various tasks at different times. So it’s beneficial to replace the sluggish hour or so of before bed with an extra hour in the morning, a time when our minds are most alert.

2. Make A “Winter-Blues-Busting Breakfast”

Our diets have an important role to play in all aspects of our health, including our mood. The “Winter-Blues-Busting Breakfast” (as I call it) targets three areas linked to winter blues: carbohydrate cravings, omega-3 and vitamin D. It’s important to start with a meal that satisfies these areas and keeps you full, in turn keeping your blood sugar levels steady.

Studies show that those who have a high-protein breakfast stay full for longer with reduced feelings of hunger. A study by Heather Leidy, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the MU School of Medicine, discovered that, in overweight teens, a high-protein breakfast also reduces weight-gain and stabilised glucose. Combine this with a complex carbohydrate, and your first meal will provide you with plenty of energy to start the day right and stave off cravings (this applies to later meals, too).

3. Consider Supplements

Studies have also shown that both omega-3 (an essential fatty acid our body doesn’t produce) and vitamin D have a role to play in our brain’s production of serotonin. A deficiency in either has been linked to genetic pathways crucial to brain development. Both can be found in foods; the former with fatty fish (or avocados for non-meat eaters) the latter with eggs, cheese and mushrooms.

Vitamin D is, of course, also found in sunlight. However, especially in winter months, our levels can drop to a deficiency, especially with modern lifestyles that see most of us working inside for the majority of the day. Considering a lack of vitamin D can cause depression, it’s worth being vigilant on how much you consume via your diet.

I’d advocate supplements for both omega-3 and vitamin D, at least as an insurance policy. You’ll hear people argue that vitamin D deficiency is overhyped, however, one study found that one in four Americans were found to be deficient. Plus, a major global study advised the British government to fortify foods with vitamin D due to the number of Brits with low-levels. The same study also revealed that vitamin D can reduce the chances of colds and flu.

4. Try Light Therapy

As mentioned above, our cardiac rhythm slows in winter. Our ancestors would’ve simply slept a lot more, entering a mini-hibernation. It’s not viable to do that in the modern world, unfortunately. The link to such energy levels and seasons is down to the amount of light, and is widely regarded the key factor in SAD. Fortunately, light therapy (also known as phototherapy) has been proven to be a highly successful form of treatment. A 1998 study of 96 patients showed significant improvement when using light therapy.

morning-routine
Your morning routine can help bust winter blues

Light therapy involves sitting in front of a particularly bright light for 30 minutes per day. Such light boxes contain 10,000 lux, which is around 100 times brighter than standard indoor lighting. The beauty of using one of these lights is it gives you no option but to sit and read in front of it for the allocated half an hour. What that means for the benefit of the wellbeing morning routine is that you can use this time to read (I’d opt for either spiritual text or something light-hearted), journal, sip coffee and eat your “Winter-Blues-Busting Breakfast.”

It’s important to note light therapy should only be used in more serious cases. Before considering whether to invest, if you have a mild form of winter blues, simply getting out and about, taking a walk in the sun (when it’s there!) may be enough to instigate noticeable improvements.

5. Avoid Your Phone In The Morning

Over 40% of Americans check their mobile phones within five minutes of waking up. Such is the attachment to smartphones in modern society, there’s even a name for the fear of being without one — nomophobia. There’s more and more evidence that our constant state of “connection” is making us depressed and anxious. We’re always “on call.” We’re always “checked in” or “online.” That means that to truly dedicate yourself to this morning routine, to really take some time for yourself, you need to avoid checking your phone. In any capacity. No Facebook. No emails. Buy an alarm clock and use it instead of your phone. Choose to connect on your terms.

5. Meditate

Last but by no means least… The reduced levels of anxiety and depression that come with daily meditation can only be beneficial in dealing with feelings of low mood and lethargy. I won’t go into those details just yet, as there’s more to come later, but even taking 10 minutes in the morning to sit quietly with your own thoughts can lighten your mood.

It may also shine a light on the belief patterns and interconnected thoughts linked with winter blues.

Spirituality

Einstein’s Million-Dollar Note On Happiness Explains Spiritual Attachment

In 1922 Albert Einstein wrote a note on how to live a happy life. It said: “A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.” That note recently sold at auction for $1.56 million. Einstein’s note subtly hints that attachment prevents us from being happy, and non-attachment brings joy. Here’s why.

All of us have varying levels of attachment to desired outcomes or to life situations. Attachment is a buzzword that pinpoints the cause of suffering. To define attachment, Buddhist philosophy is a good place to start. In particular, the Four Noble Truths, which are:

  • Dukkha (life is full of suffering)
  • Samudāya (the origin of suffering is attachment)
  • Nirodha (we can be liberated from such suffering)
  • Magga (there is a path that can be followed to be liberated from suffering)

I won’t go in-depth on the intricacies of the Noble Truths here, as they’ve been covered elsewhere. However, it’s important to acknowledge how Buddhist philosophy highlights the conflict in seeking and craving pleasure in the outside world. The Buddha taught that the root of all suffering is tanhā, which translates to desire, craving or (that word again) attachment. Unfortunately, craving pleasure from physical senses (food, sex, alcohol) is destined to fail as it only brings short-lived happiness. It lacks true meaning, true purpose. Or in Einstein’s words, the pursuit of what we crave is bound with unrest.

attachment
We often crave “things” to make us feel happy

Interestingly, attachment also applies to things we see as positive. Maybe it’s our health, our iPhone, our partner. We catch colds, break bones, drop our phones down the toilet and argue (or worse still, break up with) our partners. For sake of simplicity, let’s call these attachment to current positives. It’s the deep-rooted sense of “I like x now, I don’t want it to change.” The trouble is, everything changes (more on impermanence later) and the more attached you become to good things, the more you suffer when they change. Which they will. Always.

The Influence Of Buddhism On Psychotherapy

Before moving on to non-attachment (or nirvana in Buddhism) it’s important to note that the principles above also provide the building blocks for the scientific approach to psychology. For example, meditation master Chögyam Trungpa identified in his 1975 book Glimpses of Abhidharma just how influential Buddhism has been to psychotherapy:

“Many modern psychologists have found that the discoveries and explanations of the abhidharma [ancient Buddhist texts] coincide with their own recent discoveries and new ideas; as though the abhidharma, which was taught 2,500 years ago, had been redeveloped in the modern idiom.”

Many well-respected thinkers of Western psychology agree. Analytical psychologist Carl Jung wrote a 30-page foreword to D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a popular form of talking therapy in the West, aims to restructure the mind. Further still, a branch of CBT, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, takes huge inspiration from Buddhist philosophy, in particular, the Eightfold Path. The Indian Journal of Psychiatry even identifies the Buddha as a “unique psychotherapist.”

How To Practice Non-Attachment

A statement I’ll end up repeating a lot on Mind That Ego: the moment you become aware of a specific behaviour or habit is the moment that sparks change. As soon as you realise your own personal relationship to attachment, you can apply clarity to it to help it reduce its hold. In his book Essential Spirituality, Roger Walsh identifies four exercises in non-attachment to reduce craving. These are:

  1. Recognise pain as feedback. This is the first point of awareness, as mentioned above. It’s the acknowledgement that the pain or suffering you are feeling isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom of attachments and cravings.
  2. Examine the experience of craving. This exercise has deep roots in mindfulness. Walsh highlights that often when we think about our cravings, we pay attention to what we are trying to get (cake, a new car, that last Rolo) and not the sensation of craving itself.
  3. Reflect on the costs of craving. We all need motivation now and again, and what better motivation than giving some consideration to how such attachments are influencing our lives? Especially a process that uses energy and keeps us in an unhappy loop of seek, find, seek, find.
  4. Recognise underlying thoughts and beliefs. I mention CBT above, which is relevant to this exercise. CBT therapy focuses on changing our thought patterns and beliefs. This technique can also be applied to our particular attachments, our “I’ll be happy whens.” If we crave money our primary thought is more than likely: “I’ll be happy when I have made more money.” Dig deeper, and you might find thoughts linked to self-esteem (“I need to earn x per year to be a valuable person”) or even comparison and jealousy (“my friend earns x, I should earn the same”).

If Spirituality Means Giving Up Everything Fun, Why Bother?

Most of us like a cheeky beer, splashing out on new clothes or having sex (probably not at the same time).  Here’s the good news — you don’t have to give them up. I’m a huge believer in moderation, and in the right dose, all of the pleasures we physically seek can be indulged now and again. The key, though, is to make sure that process of seeking doesn’t become interlinked with a sense of craving. When you feel you need any of these things to be happy, that’s when it’s a problem.

When you practice non-attachment and finding self-fulfilment in “the now,” you won’t need to seek more money, more sex or more alcohol. That means you’re the one in control, choosing to divulge when necessary. Curiously, once this relationship has changed from attachment to non-attachment, behaviour soon follows, almost out of our conscious control. You might no longer feel the need to drink or binge-eat or whatever your attachments are.

In fact, you may start to live a quiet and modest life, full of joy.

Happiness

How To Find Self-Fulfilment

Semantics are both insufficient and crucial when discussing spirituality. They’re insufficient in that individual spirituality is a direct experience. All the words in the world can only point you in the right direction, they can’t fully explain what the destination feels like, looks like, sounds like. But they’re crucial in making sure those directions are as accurate as possible. Mind That Ego is a self-fulfilment blog, a label I feel best fits. But what is self-fulfilment? And how is it different from everyday fulfilment?

There are three definitions of fulfilment: the fulfilment of a dream, to achieve fulfilment of one’s hopes, or the state or quality of being fulfilled. We’re concerned with the latter, for one crucial reason — it’s an internal state. Of course, fulfilling a dream or achieving a goal is an extremely rewarding, healthy part of life. But this subset of fulfilment is linked to external events. When our sense of fulfilment is linked to external events, it’s outside of our control. If we don’t achieve our goals or realise that dream, then what?

Fleeting Fulfilment And The “I’ll Be Happy When” Mindset

That’s where self-fulfilment is your friend. Self-fulfilment can be defined as being content with oneself, in the present moment, regardless of external factors. It’s the antithesis of one of the biggest ailments of modern Western civilisation, the “I’ll be happy when” mindset (capitalism is a huge purveyor of this mindset, but more on that later). The “I’ll be happy when” mindset is a red herring, a spiteful illusion. It’s the mind tricking you into looking elsewhere for fulfilment, anywhere but “the now.” Some examples of how it can manifest include:

  • I’ll be happy when… I meet the perfect partner.
  • I’ll be happy when… I get that pay-rise.
  • I’ll be happy when… I lose weight.
  • I’ll be happy when… the sun is shining, my bills are paid, I get my haircut, I have sex, I eat the meal, drink the drink, take the drugs, etc.
  • I’ll be happy when… Bristol Rovers are in the Premier League (that one’s mine).

Just looking at this list of “I’ll be happy” whens exposes them for their true value. Not only are they out of our control (maybe you won’t meet the perfect partner, maybe you’ll lose your job, maybe you’ll gain weight) they’re also fleeting. That is, once they are “fulfilled,” the mind will instantly be looking for the next “I’ll be happy when,” because this “I’ll be happy when” becomes “I thought I’d be happy when.” And so the cycle continues.

Self-Fulfilment, Being Present And Appreciation

“Well, that’s just great, Ricky. But how can I break the cycle?” Good question. As highlighted above, the “I’ll be happy when” mindset is a product of the thinking mind. Or, as I’ll refer to it for now and forever, the ego (more on the intricacies of the ego later). Consequently, you can’t think your way out of this one. This is a lot harder than it sounds, because most of us born into Western culture have been raised in a way that strongly identifies with the thinking mind — as Descartes said: “I think, therefore I am.” Thinking your way out of the “I’ll be happy when” cycle is like trying to extinguish a campfire by sprinkling gasoline on it, for want of a better metaphor. You may even find you start to think “I’ll be happy when I’m free from I’ll be happy whens.”

Instead of thinking your way out, the answer is experience itself. Being, “the now,” present, awareness… Whatever you call it, the experience of pure being is the antidote to thought. It’s the ingredient freeing your sense of fulfilment (and sense of worth, for that matter) from external events and provides headspace from the thinking mind and its accompanying emotions. But it’s not a magic fix. It requires practice, and plenty of it, in the form of meditation and mindfulness. If you’re new to spirituality you may well be thinking this sounds too good to be true, but, I promise you, the effects can be life-changing.

To highlight my point crudely, a common benefit of mindfulness, meditation and being present is appreciation. Not in the thinking sense of “I should appreciate the fact I have food and shelter,” but instead as a direct experience, a state. By being present, you appreciate the moment, directly, away from all those pesky “I’ll be happy whens.” The more you tap in to this appreciation of being present, the more those “I’ll be happy whens” dissolve, leading to their eventual disappearance.

A Lack Of “I’ll Be Happy Whens” Doesn’t Mean A Life Without Goals

By dissolving the “I’ll be happy whens,” does this mean we can give up on society? Stop having goals? Become content just being and never seek fulfilment from the endlessly surprising, vibrant, exciting outside world? No. The key with self-fulfilment and “I’ll be happy whens” is the change in relationship. Rather than having a sense of fulfilment dependent on an outcome (and suffering with lack of success), you’ll have a non-attached relationship with your goals. You’ll feel content whether you achieve them or not. Success is the cherry on top, the added bonus.

self-fufilment
This could be you, but it doesn’t have to be.

For example, let’s say one of my “I’ll be happy whens” is relationship based. I’ll be happy when I have the perfect girlfriend. My sense of fulfilment is linked to an outcome I can’t predict (not to mention “perfect” doesn’t exist). I’m attached to the result. Every encounter with a potential partner is seen through the perspective of whether they will be the one to fulfil my “I’ll be happy when.” Not only is that putting an immense amount of pressure on potential partners, it’s also handing away my autonomy for happiness onto the most unpredictable external factor — someone else.

Self-fulfilment alters this “I’ll be happy when” drastically. The first step is acknowledging the ego’s role by becoming aware of it. This example is particularly pertinent because thanks to Hollywood culture, we’ve been programmed to believe in the notion of romantic love, or “the one.” So, most of us have such “I’ll be happy when” thoughts at some stage.

The next step is the practice of mindfulness and meditation to gain inner self-worth and contentment. Then the approach to the “I’ll be happy when” changes. Without any attachment to the outcome, it doesn’t matter whether or not you find the “perfect partner.” But that doesn’t mean you’re then destined to die alone, quite the opposite; it means when meeting someone, you have no pre-existing ideas. You aren’t seeking fulfilment from them, you’re already fulfilled. You can experience all the joy of falling in love, sharing goals, providing support to each other, growing spiritually together and all those nice things, but also remain independent and self-fulfilled away from the relationship. Sounds a lot like friendship, right?

Finally, Self-Fulfilment Isn’t…

Now we know how self-fulfilment can break the cycle of “I’ll be happy whens,” here are few things it isn’t:

  • Selfish. In fact it’s the opposite. By being more content in the now and feeling fulfilled, all of your relationships will be enhanced, and you’ll approach your goals with more clarity.
  • The abolition of goals and motivation. As mentioned before, self-fulfilment will change your relationship to goals and success. It doesn’t mean you have to give them up, you just no longer have the sense of needing them to be fulfilled. It’s liberating, and may even see your goals change.
  • Easy. It’s important to end on this caveat. It’s bloody hard work, and it takes time. But it is possible with dedicated spiritual practice.

If all of this seems daunting, just remember, as soon as you are aware of these thought processes, you’re already one step into the journey of changing the relationship. And don’t fall into the trap of: “I’ll be happy when I am free of I’ll be happy whens.”

What are your “I’ll be happy whens”? Do you feel they prevent your happiness in the present?