The Wilderness is Not Your Happy Place

What determines our happiness? A sunny day? A good meal? The warm embrace of a close friend? What if I challenged your notion of happiness? What if I told you that allowing the weather, the quality of a meal, or the presence of a friend to control your happiness is a bad habit you should probably break?

Society has this catch phrase I dislike immensely: “Go to your happy place.” When life gets tough, and anxiety increases, just bliss out. Escape. Numb the pain. Just go to your happy place. For many of us we take “mental health days” from work, which see us on mountain tops, jacked up on endorphins, crunching on power bars, running ridges, tackling killer class III rapids, and striking yoga poses on the precipice of infinity.

For many years the wilderness was my happy place. When life conditions got tough and I couldn’t deal the wilderness was there for me. A vast, open green space where I could go lose myself. The problem with this practice was that I always had to come back to my so-called regular life. I had to return to society and inevitably the mirror was always waiting.

One day I woke up and realized I had it all wrong. It took several karmic kicks to the head to hit this point. After slamming myself into a series of metaphorical brick walls I realized what a poor practice this was. “A bad day outside is better than the best day inside”, I’d say with the cocky confidence only the baddest of bad asses can deliver. And I meant it. I could endure whipping winds and driving cold rains in the worst conditions, but I couldn’t deal with the demons inside my mind. I couldn’t deal with the attitudes and wrong perceptions that built resentment in my relationships. The cycle of suffering seemed unending. This mindset created division in my life. Office/home life = shit. Mountain life = utopia. But what about the 75% of my life that I wasn’t on a mountain, or running a river? Whether I knew it or not I was solidly defining the majority of my life as “down time,” creating a spiraling state of depression and suffering. The more I grasped at an idealistic concept of a relationship, or work setting, or home life the more depressed and angry I became. “I can’t be outside, so this moment sucks.” Whoa. Slow down there, son.

One of my teachers, a Tibetan monk and Buddhist teacher named Chögyam Trungpa, would call this habit of running to our happy place a poor practice for living. Any time we place our happiness in external conditions we eliminate a world of possibility. Further, we deny the reality of the moment as it exists before us. We cease to work with our mind in the present moment, and instead escape to a reality that doesn’t exist. We attempt to skirt and escape the emotions that define our life, rather than working mindfully with them.

Or, as Henry Rollins tells us – “There’s no such thing as spare time, no such thing as free time, no such thing as down time, all you got is life time. Go!”

When we experience that fight or flight response, and choose to run to our happy place what we’re really saying is that “I don’t want to feel the things I’m feeling right now. I don’t want to have this experience.” Just noticing and acknowledging that desire to escape is the first step of waking up, but guess what? This experience that you don’t want is part of your life, and it’s a part of living. Choosing not to face these emotions doesn’t make them go away. Bravery and courage is found in allowing ourselves to experience these moments fully, embracing the things that we might not like about ourselves, and allowing ourselves to look deeply inside.

When we choose escapism over a mindful approach we place our happiness in the hands of flimsy conditions that change moment to moment. This practice creates more confusion rather than clarity. It also shifts the responsibility for our mental state of mind onto other people, and objects. We are responsible for our mind. No one else. The day isn’t bad because it’s rainy. The day isn’t bad because my boss is upset. The day isn’t even bad because I experienced a sad moment. It was simply a sad moment, a rainy day, and an irritated boss. And like all things, these moments pass.

Instead, through sitting meditation, and mindfulness, we can work to address the underlying causes of our anger, or anxiety. By avoiding these perceived negative emotions, we set ourselves up to encounter them again, and again. We cannot run away from ourselves, no matter how achingly those mountains are calling. Sometimes we must simply sit, and not go.

Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that happiness is here, now. We experience it by touching the present moment, removed of our projections, removed from the narratives our minds create, removed of our imposed ideas of what things should be rather than what they are. Slowly we move to see things and experience events simply as they are, as fundamentally okay, freed from our preconceptions. In this practice is the source of true happiness and contentment. Otherwise, we miss the opportunity to truly live every moment of our lives, here and now.

Photo credit: Stefan Thaler