Once I had a colleague who was unhappy. And she didn’t like others to be happy. We worked together at a psychiatric hospital. Whenever she saw me expressing happiness, she would sarcastically say, “Must be nice.” I found this upsetting and confusing.
We know, from ancient Greek philosophy and from modern day neuroscience, that each of us perceives the world uniquely. So, just because we think something is true does not make it so. Using the simple, powerful method of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) we can identify our thoughts and question them, to find out if what we are thinking is true. Is it true that I should not be happy because my colleague is not happy?
I practice CBT professionally and personally. In the situation with my colleague, I was able to determine my stressful thought: “I should suffer if she is suffering”. At the time, I thought that when a person was suffering, to be kind to them I should join in and suffer too. Now I call this “confused compassion”.
If my stressful thought was true, it would mean that no one deserves to be happy ever until everyone in the world is happy. So we are all stuck. No one can move towards happiness.
Within the framework of CBT we identify stressful thoughts in the here and now. Yet these thoughts sit upon other, underlying thoughts. As we uncover these underlying thoughts, we get closer to our “core beliefs” about the world around us. In this context, what is the core belief about suffering? Is suffering necessarily bad?
Of course suffering is not necessarily bad. Suffering can be beneficial. Suffering can be a means for psychological and spiritual growth. If we learn from it. I didn’t know why my colleague was unhappy, but I realized I could believe she might learn something from it. She might find a gem inside of herself if she looked. Now I call this “clear compassion”.
To believe there is a gem within someone’s suffering is clear compassion. It is faith in them. Yet we can’t help another person find their gems if we aren’t looking for our own gems. We can’t do this if we ourselves don’t believe in happiness.
Using CBT for gem finding, we identify one stressful thought at a time, we question one stressful thought at a time, in order to rewire our brains. Neuroscientists have found that “what fires together wires together”. This simple concept was put forth in 1949 by Donald O. Hebb, PhD, a Canadian neuropsychologist known for his work in the learning process. It illustrates the fact that every experience sparks our neurons to “fire together” and when we repeat an experience over and over, the brain learns to spark the same neurons, and so they “wire together”. For example, when we believe a stressful thought such as “I don’t deserve to be happy unless everyone around me is also happy”, we are firing a series of neurons. If we believe this thought over and over, the neurons are wiring together, and we are creating a neural groove in our brain.
When we do CBT, we are instead using other neurons. We are irrigating our brains with new thoughts. We are creating new neural grooves. Happier neural grooves.
In the beginning, we will have both the old neural grooves and the new neural grooves. The old ones are familiar, so it may take time to believe a new thought. Once we learn that happiness is a choice and we start to choose this, it can feel uncomfortable to be around those who are not themselves choosing happiness. It can take time to inhabit the knowledge that people must choose happiness for themselves. We cannot chose for them.
Clear compassion respects their choice. Clear compassion can be intensely sorry for others unhappiness, and yet has wisdom and peace to share. I learned to say to my colleague, “Yes. It really is. Feeling happy is nice.”
I learned to question my core beliefs about suffering, and then, using my new neural grooves, I began to feel clear compassion. I learned to humbly recognize that I don’t know why there is so much suffering in the world, but I can most effectively help by believing in CBT and in the possibility of happiness itself.
Hebb, Donald O. (1949). The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory. John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY