Over 300 years ago, as Burmese forces prepared to launch an attack into Siam (now Thailand), a group of Siamese Buddhist monks sprung into action to protect a large, precious, golden Buddha statue from the looming invaders. The statue was covered with a thick layer of clay to mask its significance.
The monks were overrun, and for centuries the secret of the golden Buddha statue was laid to rest with them. In the 1950s, in an attempt to move the statue to make way for a new highway, the clay began to crack and the gold that lay beneath was revealed.
This story was popularized by author Jack Canfield in the blockbuster bestseller Chicken Soup for the Soul. It’s a metaphor for what many of us, as aspiring minimalists, seek to manifest, which is to reveal our true selves to the world. We have goodness, hope, and dreams inside of us, but through a lifetime of striving, comparing, and accumulating, we build layer upon layer of layer of “clay” that hides our light within. It is only through the purposeful act of chiseling away these layers that we can become, or become again, who we are truly meant to be.
Does Your Happiness Live in the Shadows?
One of the saddest circumstances of modern life is the fact that so many people are chasing happiness from external sources when the key to their happiness lies within. We foist our desires for happiness onto someone else, and then resent when our hopes go unfulfilled. We believe that a material possession—be it a house, car, or new outfit—will lead to contentment, but save for a fleeting rush, end up with remorse every time. We think “only if I get that promotion…” or “when I meet the person of my dreams…” but our happy future doesn’t materialize the way we expected. Author Tal Ben-Shahar calls this the “arrival fallacy,” which is the belief—often false—that when you arrive at a certain destination, you’ll be happy.
We live our lives in the shadow of happiness but have trouble drawing it into the light.
For much of my 30s (I’m now 42), my own happiness lived in the shadows, close enough to sense but always out of grasp. By all outward appearances, my life was idyllic. I had a beautiful wife, a large, expensive house, two successful businesses, lived in a great community, and was blessed with three healthy, happy girls. Despite all this, a deep sense of discontent permeated me.
I struggled with this seeming paradox. I had achieved much of what I spent my early life striving for. Wasn’t I on the road to happiness? The further I traveled along the road, however, the more imbalance I felt. It was only by stopping, stripping away, and in many ways starting over that I was able to see the light.
What I was seeking wasn’t outside of me, in the form of something or someone. My happiness was already inside of me. Like the golden Buddha, I just needed to chisel away at the layers of clay that enveloped me. Fundamentally and foundationally, I was okay. Not perfect, but certainly good enough. I became mindful of who I was, and what I wanted, and realized that everything that I needed to be content existed within my true, authentic self.
This realization was like a pressure valve being released inside of me. I came to understand that the edifice that I had built around me—the material trappings of success, the yearning for approval, the desire for acceptance—was inhibiting, not furthering my happiness. It was ego run amok and it had to go. I was struck with the realization that happiness cannot come from externalities, but rather must be tapped from within.
The Hard Lessons of the Pursuit of Happiness
What I’ve come to learn in the years since is that happiness is not a linear path. The pursuit of happiness is full of pitfalls, fits, and starts. And it’s hard work. Anyone who believes that happiness, itself, is a fixed destination will suffer from the “arrival fallacy,” too. Throughout my experience of trying to live a more purposeful, intentional, meaningful life, I’ve hit a number of road bumps. There have been hurt feelings. It has been hard to let go because sentiment and perceived self-worth are embedded deeply in the objects, beliefs, and relationships we spend a lifetime accumulating.
The point is, there will be good days and bad days, triumphs and disappointments, but once you step out of the shadow and reveal your true self to the world, you’ll come to realize that everything will be okay. No matter what happens, you’ll be resolute in the knowledge that no one can rob you of your happiness, because no one controls it other than you. This understanding will bubble to the top of your consciousness and guide your hard choices. As Rachel Archelaus once wrote, “The more of me I be, the clearer I can see.”
Break Free to be Free
If you, like me, are interested in transforming so that you can show up in the world as more of your true, authentic self, it’s important to begin the process of chipping away at the heavy layers that suffocate our intrinsic happiness and keep it relegated to the shadows.
What follows are three important areas to work on. If you’re a regular reader of No Sidebar, this will undoubtedly sound familiar, but the resistance that rears up to stop us from taking the hard actions, thereby suppressing our true selves, means that they bear repeating. Minimize, and if possible banish, these things:
We all have stories about why we’re not good, strong, pretty, smart, [fill in the blank] enough to be who we are, chase what we want, be with whom we deserve, or achieve what we’re capable of. Understand where these stories derive from. Sit with them. Recognize them for what they are. Rid yourself of them.
Mark Twain once wrote, “Comparison is the death of joy.” It’s hard to avoid comparing ourselves to others in today’s world. Modern marketing tactics, social media feeds, and misguided people try to lead us to believe that happiness lies in something other than our own circumstances. Don’t try to live someone else’s idealized self—embrace your own true self.
We’ve all fallen victim to the idea that more stuff will bring more happiness. The odds are that this pernicious belief is the reason you spend your time and attention on these pages—they serve as a counterbalance to our cultural norms. The truth is, everything that we accept in our lives, from the people we spend our time with to the things we spend our money on, is a trade-off for something else. All that we bring into our life carries a price in terms of the time, money, and energy it requires of us. To break free of the shadow we must break free of our dependence on shiny new objects to bring us fleeting moments of happiness, and embrace what really matters.
Conventional wisdom suggests that there’s something more out there that will make us happy. Real, hard-fought wisdom, born of life experience, tells us otherwise. Happiness lies within. Often, like the golden Buddha, it’s simply cloaked by layers of grit and grime that accumulate over the course of a lifetime. If you can come to accept, to the core of your being, that you are good enough exactly as you are—even if it takes considerable work to reveal it—then you’ll find it within yourself to bring your true self to the surface. By breaking free, we can be free.