A troubled, but good-hearted young man sought to slay his inner demons. So, he left family and the familiar behind, took vows of poverty and celibacy, and joined a monastery. After the noviciate period ended, and following years of mentoring and rigorous study, the man left for the desert.
There, in isolation, he felt he could be cured of sin; the never-ending temptations, his inner rage, the hoped for vengeance he still wished to take from injuries decades in the past; and his turbulent desires for money, women, and drink. After all, spiritual seekers have long retreated to the desert where things die. This monk’s hope was exactly that: Death, the death of all that was wrong within him.
The years passed and the ever-aging man stuck with his prayers, mantras, sacred readings, and isolation. But the temptations and struggles within him only seemed to intensify. He could find no relief. In misery, he decided to leave the little cave that had been his home, and relocate deeper in the desert, where hopefully the even more ascetic conditions would finally purge his soul.
As he prepared to leave for the journey, another monk appeared suddenly and unexpectedly in the mouth of the cave. “Who are you?” he shakily asked the stranger. “Me?” came the response, “I am you. I am your self. And it looks like you’re leaving this place to get away from me – to get away from you! Untie your sandals. No matter where you go to get away, you will always be stuck with you.”
A shorter version of this parable is told of a counseling patient, reclining on a couch talking to her psychiatrist. “No matter where I go,” she confessed, “I have to take myself along. That is what ruins everything.” The inescapable truth is that happiness is an inside job.
The same can be said for contentment, love, joy, peace, hope, transformation, and all those other intangible but necessary ingredients for a full life. You simply aren’t going to find those things “out there.” Now, “out there” you can find infatuation and obsession. You can find distraction and numb your senses.
You can find religion and endless programs of behavior management, but the real thing is where it has always been: Inside you, waiting for activation. Sure, others can contribute to or rob you of your happiness; and certainly circumstance and struggle move your emotions like the ebb and flow of water. But nothing can ultimately control your happiness unless you allow it.
The reality is this: Most of your problems aren’t external, but internal. Thus, most of your healing will come from inside, not outside. You have to do the hard work of the soul, the deep searching and fearless self-examination, necessary for transformation and a life lived to the fullest. It will be worth it, though, because no matter where you go, you will always be stuck with you, so be the healthiest version of yourself as possible.