“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” Everyone knows that little serenity prayer, and many 12-step meetings close with it. If you’re still finding your way to sobriety, the second part–“the courage to change the things I can”–may seem especially important to you right now, as you work to change your life. But I heard a talk recently about how important the first part–“the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”–can be the key to lasting happiness.
The talk was by Matthieu Richard, a French molecular biologist who left science behind and moved to the Himalayas to become a Buddhist monk (you can watch his talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/matthieu_ricard_on_the_habits_of_happiness.html). He says you can actually train your mind to be happy, no matter what your circumstances.
Richard starts by explaining the difference between happiness and pleasure. Pleasure is external to our inner consciousness, and it doesn’t last. For example, maybe a piece of chocolate cake brings us pleasure, but as soon as we’ve eaten it, the pleasure is gone. Happiness is something lasting and deep. It’s not just a pleasurable sensation, he says, but “a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment, a state that actually pervades and underlies all emotional states and all the joys and sorrows that can come one’s way. . . . Can we have this kind of well-being while being sad? In a way, why not? Because we are speaking of a different level.”
This kind of happiness is doomed if we look outside ourselves for it, because the world is full of the things we cannot change. However, inside ourselves, we can change anything. Says Richard, “That is the ground for mind training. Mind training is based on the idea that two opposite mental factors cannot happen at the same time. You could go from love to hate. But you cannot, at the same time, toward the same object, the same person, want to harm and want to do good.”
So, if your typical reaction to something is to want to do harm, you can train your mind to think of doing good instead. And if you usually react to something with anger or disappointment or resistance, you can train your mind to accept it with serenity instead.
Is this really possible? Studies show that it is. For example, people who meditate on loving-kindness show actual changes in their brain. Over time, these changes become part of the way the brain reacts. Richard compares this to a violinist who practices a piece over and over. Eventually, the musician learns the piece so well that new pathways are formed in her brain and she can play it without thinking consciously about it. The same is true when we practice happiness and serenity as ways of reacting to events in our lives. Eventually, they become automatic reactions, new ways of being, that give us the serenity to accept what we cannot change.
Sherry Gaba, LCSW, is a Psychotherapist and Life Coach in private practice and on Celebrity Rehab on VH1. Sherry is a frequent contributor to anthologies, blogs, and newsletters, and sought out speaker. Visit Sherry at www.sgabatherapy.com for information about life-coaching programs, teleseminars, and webinars, and read her other blog at Counsellor Magazine and The Law of Sobriety Blog with HCI Publications.