The Peaceful Secret
“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” — Pascal
It was quite an eye-opener when I first heard this quote. What if everyone had the ability to sit with themselves for hours—free from any distractions that their surroundings had to offer? If everyone could be at peace with themselves, most problems would cease to exist. There would be no wars and conflicts. Greed would no longer plague the world. There would be unprecedented harmony.
This is a simple statement but also a profound truth.
So what’s stopping us from achieving this peaceful state? The answer is obvious — perpetual restlessness and distractions. Why are we so distracted? ‘Technology, of course!’ is the unanimous answer. Yet, I invite you to think deeply. Is technology the real problem? Will getting rid of smartphones and email lead to a happier life? Not really. There was a time in very recent memory when these things did not exist.
The truth is, there will always be distractions. A few decades ago, when these modern tools did not exist, people wasted time on television, radio, magazines, newspapers, smoking, drinking, gossiping, etc. They still do but you get the point. All technology has done is make it easier for us to indulge in these and other distractions.
All of these outward stimuli merely give us the means to scratch the inward itch of distraction. In other words, distraction begins inside of us, regardless of the tools available or accessible outside of us.
This habit of perpetual distraction is costing us our happiness.
A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind
A well-known study by Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matt Killingsworth reveals the effects of distractions on our happiness.
The study took 2,250 people and pinged them on their smartphones at random times during the day. The notification schedule was different for each participant.
Each notification asked them several questions about their mood, happiness, environment, state of mind, and the task at hand. The results revealed one important insight.
No matter what task an individual was working on, their mind was almost always wandering.
“There is never a time when new distraction will not show up; we sow them, so several will grow from the same seed.” — Seneca
We all can relate to this reality. The mind has a tendency to wander. It’s hard to concentrate fully on anything we are doing. Scientists call this the brain’s Default Mode Network, aka the monkey mind—never resting, always swinging from one branch to the next.
Our seemingly innocent preoccupation with the monkey mind affects us more deeply than we think. As it turns out, there is a direct correlation between our awareness of the present moment and our happiness levels (as shown in the graph below).
As you can see, the more people were aware of the present moment, the happier they were. It did not matter if they were driving, doing laundry, or spending time with their family. It did not matter what kind of job they had or the amount of money they earned. All that mattered was their awareness of the present moment.
Though this insight seems new, saints of every religion and philosophy have said this from time immemorial. When our mind wanders, we are living either in the past (with regrets and disappointments) or in the future (with concomitant worries and anxieties) – all of which are unpleasant but in the Eternal Now there are no worries. There are no regrets.
It is natural to think that happiness comes from our possessions, relationships, money, job satisfaction, etc. It can – but only to a certain extent and only for a limited time. Eternal happiness, on the other hand, can only be found in the present moment.
Once, when Swami Kriyananda (my spiritual teacher and the founder of Ananda Sangha) was asked, “What is the best moment of your life?” he replied, “This moment.” He, like all the wise ones, had learned to live in the present moment.
And…you can too by training your mind to live more in the present. This you can do by regular practice of meditation. Using simple techniques of meditation like Hong-Sau, you can train your mind to come back to the breath every time it wanders to the past or the future by using simple techniques of meditation, such as Hong-Sau, you can train your mind to come back to the breath every time it wanders to the past or the future.
Once you can better keep the mind from wandering during meditation, you can also do this in daily life. This is why meditation is such a great tool to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, moods, and many other mental ailments. Even ten minutes of meditation a day can bring radical changes in your life (and in your brain structure).
So, remember—true happiness can only be found in the present moment and meditation is one sure way to get back to the here and now. Saints tell us this. Science tells us this — and you have no reason not to try this—especially when you can start finding lasting happiness with only a few minutes a day!