Why do we often feel so unhappy even when everything is fine, and there is no reason to feel sad or discontent in the first place? Everyone has their own unique situation and experiences, but the core reason might be simpler than we think.
There used to be periods in my life when I felt unhappy all the time. Getting a new job, earning more money, and buying more stuff gave only a temporary relief. Soon after I got what I wanted the feeling of unhappiness would return again. I couldn’t understand why all my efforts ended up the same way. “What can I do to feel better?” I asked myself.
In A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose written by one of the most influential spiritual teachers of our time Eckhart Tolle, this tendency is attributed to three unconscious mental habits that we develop throughout our lives.
To understand how this habit works, we can conduct a simple experiment by paying attention to our state of mind in the middle of routine activity. For example, waiting in line may feel unbearable to the point that we would do anything to make it move faster. We might feel angry at a cashier for being slow or at people who stand before us in line.
I remember feeling like that at my favorite coffee shop during the “rush hour.” I wanted to buy my coffee, but the waiting was killing me. I would start listening to music or reading a book on my phone to make the time go faster.
Eckhart Tolle calls this mental habit treating the present moment as a means to an end. We perform an activity only to get to the next moment. We don’t want to be where we are right now.
To the ego, the present moment is at best only useful as a means to an end. It gets you to some future moment that is considered more important. Even though the future never comes, except as the present moment, and is therefore never more than a thought in your head. In other words, you’re never fully here, because you’re always busy trying to get elsewhere.
The second unconscious habit takes the first one a step further. How do we know if we’re exhibiting this unhealthy pattern in our lives? We need to ask ourselves how many problems we need to solve in the next few months. How important are they on the scale from 1 to 10? Once we’ve named them, we need to notice how they take up all our thoughts and leave no space for anything else. All we can think about is our problems.
This is the point where life becomes problematic, and we treat the present moment as an obstacle. Seeing problems becomes our go-to approach to life. But for every problem that we solve, a new one pops up, and we continue to be trapped in an endless cycle of stress and unfulfillment.
“I’ll be whatever you want me to be,” says Life or the Now. “I’ll treat you the way you treat me. If you see me as a problem, I will be a problem to you. If you treat me as an obstacle, I will be an obstacle.”
When treating everything as a “problem” becomes a habit practiced in all aspects of our lives, the world becomes a very unwelcome place.
Eventually, we start seeing the present moment as an enemy. We hate what we do, complain about every little thing that goes wrong, and see ourselves as victims of unfortunate circumstances.
In other words, we are in conflict with what is. When we are in conflict with reality, our life becomes frustrating and unbearable.
You are making Life into an enemy and Life says, “War is what you want, and war is what you get.” An external reality which always reflects back to you your inner state is then experienced as hostile.
Whenever we feel unhappy or discontent, we need to ask this simple question, “What is my relationship with the present moment?” And then look deep inside to find the answer.
More often than not, we may find that we’re treating the present moment as a means to an end, an obstacle, or an enemy. The truth is, the present moment is inseparable from Life. And so what we’re really doing is making an enemy of Life itself.
This question is an excellent way of unmasking the ego in you and bringing you into the state of presence. Although the question doesn’t embody the absolute truth — ultimately, “I” and present moment are one — it is a useful pointer in the right direction. Ask yourself it often, until you don’t need it anymore.