Last year I took an online course called Living From a Place of Surrender taught by bestselling author Michael Singer (The Untethered Soul). The thrust of the course is about why people aren’t happy and how they can be happy.
Singer doesn’t use the word happy. He says that life can be consistently filled with feelings of joy, love and energy. Not just some of the time, but most of the time.
Many of you read that and think, “That’s ridiculous. Nobody feels great all or most of the time. That’s just not the nature of life. It’s impossible.”
I felt the same way up until taking this course, which is the best I’ve ever taken. (BTW, I’ve taken tons of courses, read all the books and done a lot of online seminars so that’s saying something. Do yourself a favor and take it. You can find it at Soundstrue.com).
Our baggage dictates our life
Singer’s teaching is that people are unhappy because as kids and into adulthood they hold onto and push down emotionally difficult experiences (he calls them samskaras, a Sanskrit word) instead of experiencing them and letting them go. These samskaras then become lodged in our psyches where they dictate our actions and life decisions.
In fact, most of us spend our lives in what we think is the pursuit of happiness, but is in reality just trying to manipulate the world to accommodate these traumas. That’s a lot of spiritual-psycho babble so let’s look at a few examples to clarify.
The first is from my own life. With five older, intelligent, successful siblings and a Fortune 500 CEO father, I developed a deep insecurity about not measuring up in my family. So most of my life has been about “pursuing happiness” by manipulating the outside world in ways that would make me appear “successful.” How specifically did this play out?
My college admission rat race
First there was the whole college rat race. I had two siblings who’d graduated from Stanford and another was at Harvard while I was still in high school. To compensate, I did everything I possibly could with my academic and athletic talent to get into as good a college as I could. I didn’t have the straight A grades most of my siblings had and I was not as good a tennis player as my older brother who went to Stanford.
So I pursued the tennis coach at Princeton who I convinced to take a chance on me by putting me on his short list of 3–4 players he pushed with the admissions office. I squeaked in. Did this make me happy? No. It just fed my insecurity samskara.
Mr. Gerken goes to Washington
Next came Washington, DC, where I again tried to manipulate the outside world to accommodate my insecurity “stuff.” I pushed hard to make it up the power ladder, securing jobs with the eventual speaker of the House and also the House majority whip. It never felt right and it didn’t make me happier. Why? Because my stuff/samskaras were still lodged inside me.
What tough emotional experiences/samskaras did you push down and never let go of that you’ve spent your life compensating for?
Was your dad distant and unavailable, leading you to try and accommodate that through relationship after relationship where the guy could never be “there” enough for you?
Were you bullied as a kid and not the popular guy at school, causing you to exert every fiber of your being to become rich and successful in order to “show them”?
Did your parents’ terrible, rocky marriage result in you compensating by being the non-confrontational, people-pleasing, peacemaker in all areas of your life?
We all do it
We’ve all done this to one degree or another. And the fundamental problem is this: It doesn’t work. Ever.
It doesn’t matter if you lose that thirty pounds, buy the Ferrari, marry your dream guy or get into Princeton, you’ll still revert to your default level of unhappiness/unease. Why? Because your stuff is still there.
How does having all that emotional baggage actually manifest in making you uneasy/unhappy in life? Singer’s basic assertion is that these samskaras block the free flow of energy that is our natural state. They are like rocks in a river that create disturbances and eddies, etc.
Mickey’s central teaching
Which leads to the crux of his teaching: The path to happiness doesn’t involve adding a single thing to your life. Not a car. Not a person. Not kale-celery smoothies, fasting cleanses, Soul Cycle workouts or even three month meditation retreats.
No. You don’t need to add anything.
The entire path is about eliminating these emotional blockages.
So don’t go for the mansion. Remove your baggage. Don’t look for the perfect guy/relationship. Remove your baggage. Don’t devote 95% of your attention to treating your body like a temple. Remove your baggage.
How to remove the baggage
Which leads to the $64,000 question: How do we remove that baggage?
Singer offers one simple practice. Any time one of these feelings comes up, the moment that happens, stop, relax everything in your body, and then let that feeling rise up and out of you.
And just keep doing that. And doing that. And doing that. It’s a continuous practice of relaxing and letting go of your stuff.
The hardest part is training yourself to become aware when these feelings are triggered. Why is that so hard? Because these feelings come and go all the time and we’ve just accepted them as normal, in my case for several decades. So recognizing them when they arise requires vigilant attention.
My tennis example
Here’s a current example from my life where I’m working on this. I’m a tennis player. Played juniors, varsity at Princeton for four years and won many club championships over the past many years.
Next week I’m playing in one of the biggest American senior tennis tournaments of the year. And guess what? I’m experiencing nervous feelings already.
This is a perfect example of a samskara that’s been lodged inside me since I was nine years old. “If I don’t win, I’m a loser and people will look at me differently. If I win people will think I’m a better person.” It’s embarrassing admitting that in my mid-50’s I still get nervous for a tennis tournament. But it is what it is.
This time, however, I’ve decided to use this tournament to let go of this particular baggage. I’ve already felt this nervous feeling probably ten times so far and each time I’ve stopped, relaxed and let it go.
Use getting your buttons pushed
I encourage others to do the same. Use the arising of these feelings as opportunities to let them go.
When you notice that angry feeling rising up because your husband just ignored you as your dad did when you were growing up, instead of engaging with it, just stop, close your eyes, relax and then allow the feeling to rise up and out of you. Just like removing a rock from the river.
Make this your primary focus
Finally, to be successful at this we need to put it at the forefront of our attention. It can’t just be one of twenty things you work on in life. Letting go of your stuff needs to be number one.
But if you think about it, it makes sense to do just that. Because getting rid of that baggage is going to make you happier, more loving and an overall better human being. Which is great not just for you but for your spouse, kids, friends, coworkers…everybody you come into contact with.
So that’s the one-two punch of Mickey Singer’s teaching on why we’re unhappy and how we can become happy. 1. We all have a ton of baggage stuffed inside that controls how we live our lives, and not in a good way. 2. Our life’s work is to continuously let that baggage go.
When we do that we actually feel better inside. Lighter. More energetic. More compassionate. More joyful.
I’m nowhere close to where Mickey is on this path. After all, he’s been on it for fifty years and I’ve just gotten serious about it the past few years. But I do sense progress and good things ahead.