• Heather Lilleston


Is there anything you do on any given day that is not geared towards making yourself more happy?

We are in a constant state of efforting to be happier. Fixing this, straightening out that, organizing this, ensuring that, changing the temperature in the room, fantasizing about the future, and trying not to recreate what didn't work in the past. Our mind is busy busy busy working to help us adjust everything in our world so that it is just how we like it. We are distracted with the million little - and sometimes big - things that need to happen in order to ensure our comfortability, safety and security. To ensure our happiness. 

This busyness becomes a habit. It becomes our “rhythm on repeat.” It leaves minimal room for its original intent - to get everything together enough so that the mind can rest, feel safe, and eventually settle. In this way, even though we are constantly exerting effort towards happiness, we wind up being distracted, fragmented, and overwhelmed. We bypass the richness of each task because our habit is not to focus on one thing, our habit is to do everything. Every task simply yields more tasks, instead of allowing a completion to occur. 

According to the yoga tradition (and please bear with me for a moment), there is a series of steps one can take to reverse this habit and get to some level of contentment that is not fleeting. The first step is to clean your outer world - sometimes spoken of as ethical practices or the practice of virtue - known as the yamas. You can find some mention of this in about every spiritual tradition. It is a step we bypass because it feels like the do’s and don’ts of catholic school, and for most of us, we think it’s pretty obvious stuff that just develops guilt and places us in “good" and “bad” categories, and life is far more complex than that. However, as I will discuss in a moment, it is this very first step that is the most important foundation for any kind of lasting happiness to occur.  

The next step on the path of yoga is to clean your inner world - basic disciplinary practices and physical detoxifying regimes referred to as niyamas, asanas and pranayamas. Following that, is the effort in turning your attention inward  - referred to as pratyahara. This allows the gradual development of concentration, or dharana. Are you seeing a pattern here? We move from outer to inner, from the things around us, our relationships with others to our relationship to ourself. But there is a gradual transition in this so that nothing is forced or shocking to our systems. 

Back to the path. Through consistent effort in concentration, one eventually experiences a spontaneous prolonged period of concentration, known as dhyana. In time this spills over into a state of mind where the thoughts cease to nag and you have this calm, undivided attention. It is said to be such a thorough state of focus that it deletes the concept of a subject observing, or concentrating on an object. The subject and object literally merge into one, and can’t separate oneself from another. You maybe have seen this referred to on spiritual gangster shirts as “the oneness of being” or “we are all one,” etc etc. 

In this state, it is debatable whether the thoughts actually disappear from the mind or if the volume is simply turned down so they no longer harass you. Either way, the thoughts cease to pressure you to fix everything in your world so you can finally experience happiness. You are no longer tugged in every direction. Instead, you experience a stillness. A concentrated focus on the… forgive me in advance… the overly used term “the present moment.” And that focus is actually what brings happiness after all. 

In order for concentration to be natural, smooth and not overtly forced, the initial steps are key to making this transition gentle. You cannot force concentration for very long. Just try. Something will grab your attention, tug you in for some seemingly good reason and even promise happiness as a reward. This level of focus REQUIRES the steps before it, because without those, we just get pulled out into the mess again. Into the unresolved, the unfinished, the incomplete. 

If we want to experience a so-called lasting happiness (hence the connection to focus) we cannot bypass the first step on the path, ETHICS. The forbidden word - yes I said it - ETHICS! It is the foundation of contentment. When your mind watches you time and time again: tell the truth, act with generosity, celebrate other people’s happiness, practice patience, engage with material things with simplicity and minimalistic qualities - when your mind operates like that, then when you sit down to focus, there aren't a million things pulling you away. You can actually put everything else aside, even if it does matter and is important, and focus your mind because nothing is nagging at your attention. With every action, if you are engaging in virtue, in ethics, you are completing the moment. 

What this means is that when we respond to a situation or circumstance, we are responding in a way that doesn’t leave a residue. We don't have to worry when we have told the truth, because there is nothing to hide. We don't regret what we did when we have been generous because we were acting out of a very clear, abundant state of mind. We aren’t reminiscing about what we should have said and didn’t. And all of this allows for a really clear state of mind, a perfect stage set for FOCUS.

When you google “how to focus better,” it will tell you to get enough sleep, be hydrated, exercise. All of these things can help, but what they really help with is virtue and ethics. It’s simply easier to be kind when you are rested and nourished. And that is what is really going to give you the result that you want. You want your mind to feel like there is very little unresolved to pull you away. In this way you get to experience life without the past, or worry about the future ripping you away. This is why focus and happiness are directly linked. You really can’t have one without the other. When you feel happy it is because you are experiencing some level of focus. Of presence. Of contentment. And it comes from kindness. Everything you like in life, comes from kindness. 

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