How to Be Happy in Hell: The Good and the Terrible at Once

Photo of Cat Saunders, author of "How to Be Happy in Hell"

“People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing
cannot be good and terrible at the same time.”  –C. S. Lewis

By Cat Saunders

Anyone can be happy in heaven. It takes skill to be happy in hell. While I’m no expert on the subject of being happy in hell, this isn’t due to a lack of hardship. It’s just that the stakes are always raised whenever I make progress, so I remain a beginner. It’s like that mountain climbing allegory. Whenever you make it to the top of one mountain, you can see that an even higher peak awaits you.

Since I can’t claim mastery of a “happy in hell” attitude, how come I’m writing about it? Well, if I wait until I master the subject, I might be waiting for a very long time. Also, people teach what they need to know. If I offer some tips about being happy in hell, I’m sure faithful readers will point out my errors or offer additional tips. I welcome corrections and additional tips because they will help me grow.

In Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook, there’s a chapter called “How to Love Your Shame.”  In that chapter, I suggest that shame feels so awful that most people act compulsively in the midst of it, instead of doing what’s truly helpful. Shame is like quicksand. If you don’t know how to deal with it, you might dig yourself in deeper trying to flail your way out.

The same thing applies to being happy in hell. If you have some tricks up your sleeve for dealing with shit, you’ll probably do better when it hits the proverbial fan. Also, stress can debilitate memory function. So it’s good to have additional tricks to help you remember your tricks!

Acronyms are one of my favorite memory jogs. Apropos to the subject at hand, I’ll use the acronym HAPPY IN HELL to outline a few techniques for parrying life’s onslaughts with grace.

H stands for HONOR WHAT’S HAPPENING. In a 1989 Sun magazine interview, I asked Ram Dass how he prays. He said, “When I pray, I never ask for anything, because I don’t even know why things are the way they are. How could I ask for them to be different? The only thing I ask is, ‘Help me understand better what’s happening so my actions will come out of more wisdom.’

A stands for ASK FOR HELP. My favorite shaman, Michael Harner, says that there is no self-help. I love that! His statement does a number to the control-addicted part of me that thinks I can–or should–do everything myself. The truth is, I can’t even take a breath without the support of the entire universe.

Sometimes I’m willing to ask for help, but don’t know what I need. In that case, I ask someone I trust–a friend, mentor, or consultant–to help me figure out what I need. Then, if what I need requires additional support, I ask the relevant person.

This brings up the fear of rejection. When someone says no when I ask for help, I try to remember that it’s my request–not me–that’s being rejected. It’s never any particular person’s job to help me. Rather, it’s my job to ask other people until I get the help I need.

P stands for POLISH YOUR PERCEPTIONS. For years, I used mood-altering substances–primarily marijuana and caffeine–to deal with emotional pain, anxiety and fear, shame, fatigue, boredom–even excitement. My “allies” helped me survive. However, they also hurt me, because drugs enhance certain perceptions while clouding others. The overall result is decreased clarity and destabilized emotions.

I don’t know about you, but in hellish situations, I like to have all my wits about me. I want my perceptions polished and my emotions stable. That way, my actions–and my internal experience–can arise from a centered place in me.

Drugs were a valuable crutch when I didn’t know how to walk. But walking with crutches is nothing like walking free.

P stands for PRACTICE CRAZY WISDOM. Crazy wisdom means imagining the wildest or weirdest thing possible, and then doing it–or some symbolic representation of it. For example, I was raised to be extremely polite. Sometimes I lament this training when I encounter intractable people who treat good manners as an invitation to attack.

One of my crazy wisdom techniques for dealing with these people is to imagine myself as a Tyrannosaurus Rex, an Arnold Schwarzenegger, or an Andrew Vachss. Then I say whatever I need to say in my own well-mannered style. But I say it with the extra “kick butt” support of my alter ego’s persona.

Y stands for YIELD THE RIGHT OF WAY. When things don’t go my way–whether for moments or years–I can either persist in my arrogant assumption that things should go my way. Or I can yield the right of way. Yielding changes my perspective on a situation, which–according to quantum physics–inevitably changes the situation itself. Yielding the right of way also helps me focus on changing what I can change, namely, myself and my own expectations. This is obviously more effective than trying to change the world.

I stands for INHALE AND EXHALE. In 1974, I fell in love with a tantra teacher who was deep into breath work (we called it “rebirthing” back then). Years of training with him and many others taught me how “circular” (continuous) breathing can rejuvenate the body. It can also stimulate brain function, balance emotions, increase creativity, heighten spiritual awareness, and improve sex.

Hellish situations tend to put a damper on everything I just mentioned. So the single most important thing to do during stress–or anytime–is to keep breathing. Inhale and exhale!

N stands for NURTURE YOURSELF. During a long period of adversity, I rented space from a much loved, but very boisterous and boundary-less group of friends. Imagine a solitary, privacy-loving cat trapped in a pack of barking, bantering, bickering dogs. That image will give you some idea of my daily (and nightly) experience with what I came to call “Grand Central Circus.”

For the first few years of my tenure in “the pack,” I naively assumed that simple consideration would be granted if I merely meowed politely enough. When that failed, I meowed louder. Occasionally, in fits of sleep-deprived exasperation, I growled.

These methods had some effect on the local majority. They mercifully decided that curbing a few of their behaviors was easier than listening to some obnoxious cat yowl about them. However, curbing inconsiderate behavior is much different from eliminating it. Eventually I realized it was unfair to keep asking dogs–however human–to act like cats.

Ultimately, I knew that my stay at Grand Central Circus was “graduate school.” My assignment was not only to survive, but also to thrive. I succeeded in surviving. But I had a tough time thriving on less than three uninterrupted hours of sleep every night for years.

Sleep–the mother of all nurturing activities–was virtually impossible at Grand Central Circus. And other unmentionable characteristics of the place made that it a royal nightmare for me. Yet its lack of external support–and the general adversity of the time–caused considerable internal growth.

That period provided harsh lessons in the temptation–and futility–of revenge. It also challenged me to remain civil in the face of torment (I didn’t always succeed). Most of all, it taught me the absolute necessity of nurturing myself no matter what. It was, as C. S. Lewis would say, terrible and good at the same time.

H stands for HANDLE YOUR HANG-UPS. Whenever I find myself in hell, I notice that the local demons always look mighty familiar. The local demons, of course, are my own peculiar set of emotional hang-ups. The local demons are that strange and mysterious collection of karmic myths, cultural conditioning, and family patterns that contribute to, and detract from, my innate personality.

This eclectic mix of gold and garbage sometimes triggers an unfortunate array of automatic behavior during stressful situations. Needless to say, automatic behavior–the garbage part–increases the likelihood that difficult situations will become downright hellish. Thus, I’m a big advocate of handling hang-ups through various means. These include personal observation, reflection, ongoing behavioral modification, and the help of watchdog friends and consultants.

Ram Dass said that after decades of work on himself, “I haven’t gotten rid of one neurosis. Not one. The only thing that has changed is that while before these neuroses were huge monsters that possessed me, now they’re like little shmoos that I invite over for tea. I say, ‘Oh, sexual perversity! Haven’t seen you in weeks!’ They’re sort of my style now. When your neuroses become your style, then you’ve got it made.”

E stands for EXPAND PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. To me, personal responsibility is the number one issue in life. If everyone on the planet suddenly took 100% responsibility for themselves and their actions, heaven on earth would manifest overnight.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen. Besides, taking 100% responsibility has nothing to do with anyone else and everything to do with me. All I can do is work on myself and my own behavior. Considering the magnitude of this project, it should keep me busy for, say, the rest of my life.

L stands for LAUGH. When I distill the essence of my soul into one image, it’s always the same: a cosmic grin. During ghastly experiences of pain, loss, hardship, or fear, something will suddenly strike me as funny, and I’ll crack up laughing. Humor in the midst of hell–and perhaps even because of it–is my saving grace.

Some people think this makes me a masochist or a bona fide nut case. But I cultivate this quality in myself. For one thing, it makes me feel good. Laughter stimulates endorphins, after all. Also, humor helps me remember the big picture. Namely, the trials and tribulations of material existence are merely different aspects of the same lila (Sanskrit for “God’s play”).

I personally love the way the writers of the NBC sitcom “Scrubs” make fun of medical training–with great accuracy, I might add. Quite frankly, I think that comedians like Robin Williams and Barry Humphries (who plays the character Dame Edna) are great healers of our times.

L stands for LET GO. When all else fails–and in general–I remind myself to let go. I remind myself to let go of grudges against self or others. Let go of the illusion of control. Let go of needing to be seen or heard, wanted or appreciated. And let go of needing to be important at all!

I remind myself to let go of pride, perfectionism, and preconceived definitions of happiness. Let go of entitlement-based notions about deserving to be happy. And let go of shame-based fears about not deserving to be happy.

I remind myself to let go of needing to feel happy in order to be happy. Let go of needing to be happy at all! In short, let go of anything and everything that stands in the way of experiencing heaven on earth, even when it’s hell.

This article was originally published by The New Times in June 2002 and updated in June 2017.

If you’d like to read Dr. Christiane Northrup’s personally annotated version of “How to Be Happy in Hell,” please click here.

To read Cat’s complete Ram Dass interview excerpted in this article, please see “Suffering as Grace: An Interview with Ram Dass.”

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).