Meditation, Happiness, and the Trap of the Intellect

Happiness can be generated from within, but the mind can get in the way! The process requires inner strength, which can be developed. But the process is easily misunderstood.

Originally published 1998

Meditation and Happiness

It is a remarkable fact that happiness can be generated from within, either in formal meditation or by informal “thought focusing” while going about the business of daily living. I learned this remarkable technique while studying with Grandmaster Tae Yun Kim. She has a remarkable range of techniques to get people to meditate in their daily life, and to discover the positive vibrations in the universe.

What I found, in that process, was that by focusing on appreciation, or gratitude, or forgiveness, I would first experience a welling up of powerful, positive emotional forces. Continued focus on those feelings would amplify them over and over, until they swelled into a crescendo of bliss, experienced as a joyful love of the universe and all it contains.

In one process, I focused on appreciation. I appreciated the gifts of nature: clouds, green trees, and flowers. I appreciated the life I had, the peace around me, the opportunities I enjoyed. In another process, I focused on gratitude. I felt gratitude for the life-giving sun, for the oxygen-producing trees, for the gift of sight and the mobility of my body. A third process had me focusing on forgiveness — forgiveness for others, forgiveness from others, forgiveness for myself. In point of fact, it was the first time in my life I had ever experienced forgiveness.

The emotions begun in formal mediation were carried forward throughout the day. At odd moments, while driving, taking a walk at lunch, or taking a break, I fed these emotions, focusing more and more fully on the feelings, finding more and more reasons for them. When focusing on gratitude, for example, I began to feel gratitude for my car, my parents, the sun, the rain, clouds, stars, the people in my life, my job, and on, and on. I felt marvelously, blissfully happy. On each of these occasions, for periods lasting several days to several weeks, I experienced total enlightenment.

The Trap of the Intellect

As powerful as the feelings were, however, on each occasion they dissipated. It was rather disheartening. I mean, there I was — enlightened! And now it was gone. Worse, I had no idea what made it go away. Partly, of course, it was the difficulty of maintaining that strong focus over such a long period of time. But in retrospect, I am convinced that “the trap of the intellect” more than anything else caused my “fall from grace”.

The intellect is a very powerful tool in the meditation process. By focusing and holding a thought, it triggers an emotional response. Through creative imagination, it finds more and more reasons for that feeling. So, when focusing on gratitude, I first felt gratitude for one thing. Then the intellect found more and more things to be grateful for. The intellect acted as an amplifier in that process, producing more and more powerful feelings.

But like a chain saw, the intellect can be used either to perform a lot of work, or to undo the results of much effort. When the mind found things to be grateful for, it was assisting the process. But “the trap of the intellect” lay in identifying those things as the reason for the feelings I was experiencing. Its a subtle difference, but an important one.

The problem is that as soon as the mind is convinced that the feelings are produced by the various reasons then, when things change, the mind is totally convinced that your feelings should change! The fact is that your feelings can be motivated from within, or they can be motivated from without. It takes a lot of practice to “ride over” the external influences and consistently generate feelings from within, regardless of what is occurring on the outside. The very mind that was such a powerful tool for amplifying the feelings can be their undoing.

Recognizing the Trap

What began as an act of will — a conscious decision to experience a chosen emotion — gradually declines into an intellectual exercise of listing “reasons”, and expecting the emotion to come about as a result. At first, it does. But over time, the emotions dwindle. The process of “counting your blessings” no longer seems effective, and you wonder why.

The problem is that the mere fact of thinking about a thing does not, in itself, produce an emotional reaction. You can either observe it, without emotion, or you can experience it, with emotion. Experiencing the emotion is fundamentally an act of choice. Whether replaying a recent traumatic event or reliving a happy moment, the feeling you have is a matter of choice, independent of the event. As you go about intellectually listing things, you gradually lose the sensation of making a choice, like a muscle that atrophies from neglect.

So merely “counting your blessings” as an intellectual exercise does not work. Unfortunate, but true. If it did work, parental admonitions to do so would have worked. But they never did, did they? Because thinking of a thing is not the same as choosing to experience a particular feeling.

So the first sign that one is caught in the “trap of the intellect” is a gradually diminishing of the joy and exhilaration you recently experienced. After a while, you begin to feel positively normal, and that is quite a letdown after your previous feelings. Then, eventually, something bad happens in your life and you feel powerless to resist the emotional onslaught associated with it. Where before you easily rode over the “bumps in the road”, letting nothing annoy you or interrupt your continued good feeling, now the event causes any of the negative feelings that you were free of, at least for a short while. Anger, jealousy, shame, sorrow, depression, or some other negative emotion now enters your life as freely as it used to do before. You are now officially “down”.

Avoiding the Trap

But before you experienced the gradual letdown, you experienced the crescendo of emotions that came from recounting your reasons for feeling that way. That was the intellect serving as a powerful amplifier, feeding back your emotions and amplifying them again and again, until you reached a pinnacle of emotion.

It may be possible to find things to be happy about (appreciative of, grateful for), without identifying them as “reasons”. Because, once convinced that the external influences are the reason for happiness, the mind becomes an ally of external influences instead of a guardian against them.

On the other hand, it takes an extremely tight mental discipline to identify things without identifying them as reasons. Its not clear that the mind is capable of it. A surer course is one that was suggested to me by Tom Saunders, one of Grandmaster Tae Yun Kim’s instructors. Once, when I told him how distressed I was at not being able to hold on to the peak experience I recently had, he said, “After a while, you learn to avoid the highs, as well as the lows”.

This was a lesson told to me many times at different times by Grandmaster and her instructors. It was one I never really understood. But it makes sense. The “highs” come from the feedback effect when the intellect enters the process. The feeling builds and builds, but the process cannot be sustained indefinitely. Eventually, it burns out.

So the trick is to forego the amplification — keep choosing to experience the emotion, but avoid listing reasons intellectually. Your feeling then comes more and more from within, from your inner choice. It comes less and less from external influences. And that is the beginning of your “inner strength” — the ability to control your emotional state regardless of external circumstances.

Developing Inner Strength

Developing that inner strength to choose under your own volition, regardless of external influences, is precisely what Grandmaster Tae Yun Kim‘s deeply traditional training is all about. It has a martial arts component, but at bottom it is training of the mind, body, and spirit — the ability to take charge of your life, regardless of your environment, and control your own destiny.

There is an interplay between the inner world of the spirit and the external environment, of course. Often it is helpful to make changes in your environment in order to develop your inner strength. But, like a muscle that needs weights for resistance in order to grow, your inner strength needs the strength of steadily progressing negative circumstances in order to develop to their fullest. Grandmaster calls these circumstances “tests”. You never see them coming, and you don’t see them at all until after you have been training for a while and have begun to develop your inner strength.

As you grow stronger, the tests become more demanding. Grandmaster is marvelously creative when it comes to designing these “tests”. They are not limited to the training hall, but can come any time, anywhere. Witnessed from the outside, they may seem unfair or overly demanding. But like a muscle that exercised to soreness in order to promote growth, the tests are designed to be a little more than you can do.

When you experience such a moment, it is anything but comfortable. At such times, the experience may well seem unfair and overly demanding. But long afterwards, when you recognize the inner strength you gained from the process, you begin to appreciate how valuable it was.

Unfortunately, the process is impossible to gauge accurately. There are no measured “weights” on a weight stack, and no way to measure a person’s inner strength precisely. So designing and executing the tests is more an art than a science. As a result, its impossible to avoid mistakes.

One example: One high-ranking person who had done a remarkable job conducting a public event was berated in front of everyone for forgetting some trivial detail. No beginner would ever have been given such treatment. But this person had been training for a long time. To an outsider looking on, it would seem grossly unfair, as though Grandmaster was on some kind of super power trip. To someone who understood the process, however, the question was, how would the person react? Did they have the inner strength and strength of purpose to recognize they had done well, and hold on to that regardless of how others saw it? Or would they get defensive and argumentative because they were upset by the yelling? In this case, the person was more than equal to the challenge. They remained smiling and agreeable throughout the challenge, and never for a moment lost their good humor. They had passed the test!

Sometimes, after such an occasion, Grandmaster never lets on that her performance was faked. That means the test is continuing. But her performance is so genuinely convincing that you are never totally sure it is a performance. The only clue comes from the times when she suddenly drops the front. Where one moment she was angry, chastising, scolding, in the next moment she is smiling and laughing and dancing with joy. It then becomes clear that she was feigning her angry — because no human being on earth could possibly change their emotional gears so rapidly.

At the ultimate extreme, was the training given to one of her strongest students, Mark Amador. She gave him that treatment for four straight months. I was there when she let on what had been happening. Never once in that time had he doubted himself or been anything but totally positive in his outlook. Now there was inner strength that would not be swayed by external forces.

Of course, the risks entailed in such training are great. Feeling unfairly criticized, a person might well leave in a huff and harbor bitter feelings until the end of their days. Or someone witnessing the spectacle might form a totally mistaken impression of Grandmaster, or her motives. But the bottom line is that the training works. The people who train under her are the most joyful, loving people I have ever seen, anywhere. I have seen people from all walks of life, people who started with every conceivable emotional fixation — fear, anger, depression, shyness, you name it — cast off their emotional afflictions and begin to live the life they want to live, instead of the life someone else has determined for them.

It is an unfortunate fact that the training process can be easily misconstrued, and that it is not possible to scientifically design a test to just the right level, and no more. As a result, the teacher can easily suffer from public misunderstanding and even personal animosity. Fortunately, there are some teachers willing to take the risk. Because no process is as effective in developing the inner strength to become the person you were born to be.

Copyright © 1998-2017, TreeLight PenWorks

Please share!


  1. Ginger Gee Author January 6, 2018 (5:26 pm)

    AND, the TEACHER must themselves be possessed of extraordinary inner strength in order to be willing to subject themselves to the public misunderstanding & personal animosity that could result from being the person who conducts said tests!!!

    Reply to Ginger Gee Report comment

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Path to Creativity | June 3, 2017 (5:04 pm)

    […] course, the process he described is in other cultures known as meditation. It does not require any particular religious belief, although it is typically accompanied by an […]

Add your thoughts...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.