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Longing for Happiness

Purposeful Wanderings - Bradford L. Glass - May 2023

Newsletter - 5.23
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The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

The topic of happiness has shown up in several of my conversations recently … often enough that I began to listen not just to the stories, but for the recurring patterns underneath. All voiced a desire for happiness (who wouldn’t want to be happy?), but the experience of happiness varied widely; many called it elusive. As you continue, think about your life’s “happiness equation,” perhaps inquiring as to where/how/if you find happiness in your life.

Happiness is a way of being, not a “thing,” so its meaning is personal. I claim you can neither be happy nor validly complain it’s impossible until you’ve explored what happiness means – to you. When I recall my contemplations on happiness years ago, I named three things that would constitute happiness – for me. First, regular solitude in nature – it connects me with all of life. Second, a living environment of simplicity (physical space, relationships, rhythm of my day) – it creates inner peace. Third, living and working from the natural energy of my heart and soul – by being and doing what I love, my life is sustainable, I connect more meaningfully with others, and feel I make a difference in the world. I will add that the simple clarity of these choices makes it all very real for me … each day.

In speaking with others, I found one key trait that distinguished those who experience happiness from those who lament its absence. Happy people live in the present moment. As a result, they believe happiness is up to them, not dependent on others, life or world. By contrast, unhappy or “sometimes” people lost their energy living in the past (with guilt/anger/resentment for what had already happened), or in the future (with worry/anxiety/dread for what might (or not) happen next). For them, the present moment was the moment they continually missed while fretting over the last, or the next, moment instead. While their stories about past or future may be true, it is their attachment to the stories that denied them the experience of happiness … because their stories didn’t live in the present, but in the past or the future. Attachment caused them to see happiness as outside of them, dependent on life’s circumstances. “I mean, how can I be happy with what’s going on in my life? If only things were different.”

Everyone I spoke with – no matter their view of happiness – faced challenges in life. Yet responses confirmed what I’d believed to be true: we experience what we look for – even if unconsciously. If we “believe” life is difficult, life shows up that way. If we “believe” life is beautiful, we see beauty at every turn. If we “believe” any new idea is nonsense, we see little hope anywhere. And if we “believe” happiness is a choice, we choose it! In the present.

Although obvious, if your happiness depends on others, life, the world: 1) you risk a lot of bad days (when others, life or the world invariably don’t cooperate with your agenda), and 2) you risk chasing happiness forever, by trying to create experiences in the external world. One thorny issue here is that it’s futile to chase happiness where it doesn’t live, so we end up unconsciously chasing excitement instead, thinking we’re on track. Excitement is not the same as happiness. Excitement isn’t sustainable from within; it needs constant feeding from outside … hence the endless chase. On the other hand, if your happiness depends only on you, you know to “look for it where it does live” … inside you, not out there, where you’d been taught to look. Best of all, sourcing your own happiness from inside you makes its experience totally within your control. Others need not cooperate; life’s challenges don’t interrupt it. (See exercise for “how.”) But if your past or your future is in control of your life, you miss this.

We all need a “reference system” in life, a way of knowing how we’re doing (happy, fulfilled, satisfied, successful, etc.). By shifting your reference system from one dependent on external circumstances (the behavior/opinion of others, the trappings of a consumer world, the past, the future, even the weather), to one dependent solely on your choices and inner truth … in this very moment, you’re “in charge” of your happiness. This way, happiness is a natural outcome, not a “sought object.”

Exercise: Creating happiness: Here’s a way to get to know the belief system that underlies your choices today. At the end of each day, reflect on a few events from the day. From that “replay,” name three things for which you feel grateful. Gratitude need not be about big things … it could be a smile from a stranger, a friend’s phone call, the smell of a flower, a sunset, a gift you received (or gave). Write them down. (A calendar book is great for this.)

With regular practice, you get inside the “machine” that drives your seeing, thinking and behavior. You see how that machine uses unconsciously-held beliefs to make your choices in life. By naming these beliefs as you discover them, you release old stories naturally, replacing them [also naturally] with your inner truth … the beginning of happiness. For most, one of those hidden beliefs is that you shouldn’t examine your beliefs; if you don’t ferret that one out, thereby releasing it, then your tomorrows will look alarmingly like your yesterdays. In addition, thinking about gratitude brings you into the present moment, offering you a glimpse of “right now” … the only place you can experience anything!

As a way to bring yourself more into the present moment, repeat the reflective/replay exercise from above, this time noting “where in time” your thoughts took you during the day’s events. Did you find yourself totally present for “what was,” in that moment … or did thoughts take you back to old stories, or perhaps ahead to what might be worrying you about tomorrow? Just notice; no judgment, no force, no denial. Keep track; listen and learn.

As you take responsibility for your happiness, you soften the judgment you hold for others, life, the world. As you do that, you become far more aware of the impact of your choices … mainly because they are now your choices, and not something tossed into your life by some unknown malevolent force.

Life Lessons from Nature: When you’re immersed in nature, what’s your experience? Beauty? Distaste? Fear? A mix? While most people love the fragrance of a wild rose, just as many feel the opposite about spiders. Roses and dandelions have a lot in common. So do spiders and butterflies. Yet how we experience those things may differ greatly. Because spiders are no more aware of our dislike than butterflies are of our love, we must conclude the distinction lives only in our minds, and therefore results from beliefs we carry around from ages past.

I have a friend who would far rather encounter a drug dealer on a city street at night than a mouse in her kitchen in broad daylight. I have a niece who’s so freaked out by mosquitoes that she’d rather spend summer at the mall than experience one day on a pristine mountain lake. Yet … I have a friend who invites insects into her home so she may better know the gifts they offer. And I have a friend who spends a month or so each year only feet away from brown bears, absorbing the connectedness they share together. This is not about right/wrong, good/bad. It’s about a choice we make about how to experience life, others, world. And that is one of our biggest choices.

Book of the month:The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. A beautiful conversation between two remarkable men, known for their love, joy, compassion and humor, along with [and perhaps despite, or maybe even because of] lives of extreme hardship. Filled with wisdom and emotion … and practices to create a life of joy that is independent of circumstances.


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