I am sitting in an empty hotel room, but I am not alone. From my left ear marches a steady string of tiny people, even smaller than lilliputians, each one carrying a placard on which a few words are written. I watch them march forward, turn, reach the edge of my peripheral vision, and vanish. I feel strangely cheerful.
No, I'm not having acid flashbacks. I'm trying an exercise designed by psychologists to help me gain my sanity by gently losing my mind. The lilliputian head parade (which I'll explain in a minute) is helping me step back from the stream of thought I usually see as my "real life" and find a source of comfort and sustenance at a level deeper than thought.
This process is utterly different from typical attempts to pursue happiness, most of which depend on controlling events and feelings. Think of a problem that has plagued you for a long time—your weight, a loved one's bad habits, fear of terrorism, whatever. No doubt you've tried valiantly to control this issue, but are your efforts working? The answer has to be no; otherwise you would have solved the problem long ago. What if your real trouble isn't the issue you brood about so compulsively but the brooding itself?
For example, take my body—please. Like most people, I want desperately to control the way my body looks, feels, and behaves. Society offers plenty of products to help: diets, exercises, medications, cosmetics, plastic surgery. I've tried several of these approaches, and some of them actually worked...a little bit, for a little while. But in the long run, my body always returns to doing pretty much what it damn well pleases. It still weighs more than I'd like. It continues to age, looking less like Britney Spears and more like Ernest Borgnine every day. It still gets sick. And it's still going to die.
I've suffered greatly because of my body's insolent refusal to submit to my control, but most of the suffering has been mental not physical. My occasional fatigue, though unpleasant, isn't nearly as bad as my frustration about being so low-energy. The cellulite I have sported from infancy never caused me any physical discomfort whatsoever, but I have suffered untold anguish obsessing about how much I despise it, what other people must think of it, why I can't get rid of it, how it is basically—when you get right down to brass tacks—ruining my life.
Psychologists who subscribe to acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) call this kind of suffering "dirty" pain. "Clean" pain is what we feel when something hurtful happens to us. Dirty pain is the result of our thoughts about how wrong this is, how it proves we—and life—are bad. The two kinds of suffering occupy different sections of the brain: One part simply registers events, while another creates a continuous stream of thoughts about those events. The vast majority of our unhappiness comes from this secondary response—not from painful reality but from painful thoughts about reality. Western psychology is just accepting something saints and mystics have taught for centuries: that this suffering ends only when we learn to detach from the thinking mind.