Happiness?

beverly-nguyen-39520.jpg

I think there is a general misconception about the state of happiness.

Here in the US, written into one of our founding documents, we find the phrase : “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

These words have had a profound effect on the psyche of our country.  While originally, as the phrasing implies, the word “happiness” meant more the pursuit of wealth and a good situation in life, it’s meaning has morphed as time has passed.  Now that many of us take finding a decent situation for granted, the meaning of “the pursuit of happiness” has become something less tangible, more of a state of mind than anything else.  We should be joyful, we think, it’s our right to feel happy most of the time.  We want to follow our bliss, find endless affirmations around us, employ positive thinking to attract what we want in life.  After all, “happiness” is our right.

The thing is, life in the world isn’t a streamlined experience.  If you expect conditions that are conducive to your happiness to be present all the time, you’re going to be let down.  Crappy things can happen out of the blue, “ruining” what may have started out a good day/week/month/year, regardless of the positive thinking you’ve employed.  Nature is not predictable, and rarely is thinking things will continue on as they are indefinitely a good long-term strategy.  I don’t mean to sound bleak or like a downer.  If you look at it scientifically, a static system is a dead system–we’re all meant to exist in a continual dance of finding equilibrium.

In less obvious ways, I think this “pursuit of happiness” can affect the way deal with our health, physical and emotional.  Rather than a long hard slog to feeling mostly alright with a few crappy days every now and then, we want our pathological symptoms to go away, the sooner the better.  We want to be cured from what ails us, to overcome our flaws and endlessly improve ourselves.  Then, maybe, we can start getting down the the business of being happy.

But what if happy is learning to work with those symptoms, of accepting our limitations, and within those confines, appreciating, if not loving, our strengths?  What if happiness is that moment we stop trying to be this glowing, radiant magazine cover version of ourselves and reinvest that energy inward to taking a good long look at ourselves and being ok with that, however messy?

I’ve lately started to re-work what I consider to be “happy”. Maybe this is odd, but personally, I’m not a big fan of feeing giddy happiness–it feels too fragile, like sumptuous dessert to be enjoyed only every so often.  I much prefer to feel a calm sense of resiliency, the feeling that regardless of what happens, good or bad, I’ll be able to assimilate and adapt as needed.  Happiness as an appreciation of inner strength.  That way if today happens to be a cruddy day, or if illness befalls me, it becomes less of a catastrophe or set back than something that I can deal with, moment by moment, without feeling like I’ve been pulled away from my previously happy state.

This is a work in progress, an aspiration, but it feels useful.  It gives the sense that, bar anything horrible, I’ll be ok, and that’s a good place to be.  And the thing is, most of us are already there, if we just let ourselves appreciate that fact.  We’ve got this.

levi-saunders-133027.jpg

Your most constant companion

max-conrad-203234.jpg

Often, when beginners are given meditation instruction, they are told to pay attention to their breath, the feeling of air rushing in and out of their nose. While I occasionally like this method, it also trips me up.  I can become hyper-aware of my breathing, and it starts becoming forced and irregular.  Additionally, guidance may also be given to place ones hands on top of each other in your lap, touching your thumbs together.  I’ve always preferred to place my hands face down on my knees, feeling the pressure and stability of my palms as they rest, supported.

This past Saturday in my physics class, we began learning about dynamics, which is the sum of all the forces acting on us at a given time.  Forces do not come out of nowhere–they are the relationship of two or more objects.  While the teacher listed the various types of forces on the whiteboard, my thoughts latched onto the last one: gravity.  Gravity is the force acted on us by the earth; except in a rarified environment, we are always subject to it. My daughter, like most small children, performs a multitude of experiments to test gravity, dropping things from her high chair and other random places, watching as time and again, they do indeed drop down.  By the time we’re grown, we take gravity for granted, a banal fact of our existence.

When I thought of it, how gravity is a force and where there is a force there is a relationship, I was awestruck at the thought of gravity’s origin.  To picture the earth is to visualize it on some grand, cosmic scale-the view of astronauts looking out their window.   Yet when thought of in this context, the earth becomes intimate, something that we have a continuous relationship with from our first moments alive on to our last breath.  To take the time to feel the weight of our feet on the ground, our body as lies in bed, the feeling of our seat in a chair, is bring our minds into closer contact with that relationship we have with gravity, and consequently with the earth.  This isn’t mysticism–this is scientific fact.

As we go about our day and our lives, we endure many moments of hardship and stress.  Mindfulness is helpful for this, if you can catch yourself before being totally overwhelmed.  In these moments of strife, however, a meditative space can be hard to enter into, seemingly remote, reserved for monks and sacred places far from us.   Finding tools that remind us of those calm, clear moments are essential.  When I thought of gravity as a reminder of our relationship with the earth, it seemed to be a useful way of making that meditative peace and clarity both immediate and accessible.   When we’re feeling caught up in crap, disconnected from ourselves and struggling, we can sink our thoughts to our feet, to that point of contact with the ground below us.  When we feel that weight, the force of the planet’s gravitational pull, why not take the time to appreciate the force that holds us, the earth that connects and sustains us and all the other beings with this most constant of companions?

emilia-samborska-115704.jpg

 

The Science of Self-Compassion

Why is it sometimes harder to be nice to ourselves than being kind to others?   How is it that we can beat ourselves up about the unkind things we may have said or thought about others, and not think for a moment about the harsh words we’ve leveled at ourselves? If we don’t succeed immediately at something why are we apt to think that we’re a failure, instead of taking into consideration that we many need time to learn?  Why do mistakes tend to haunt us, becoming regrets instead of life lessons?

Though many have been onto this for years, if not decades, for myself, it’s only been in recent years that I’ve tried to start practicing self-compassion.  In the past, when people talked about loving themselves, it sounded hokey to me, like a cheeseball way to excuse egoism.  Maybe that sounds harsh, but it reflects the high level of self-criticism that tends to be my default.  It was only when I put it together that it was harder for me to have compassion for others if I didn’t have the same for myself that I started working on this.  As RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love anybody else?”

Still, in the daily grind, it’s easy to forget to hold compassion for yourself.  It’s also easy to confuse what the true meaning of self-compassion is.  It doesn’t mean indulging yourself indiscriminatingly or being lax in the standards you hold for yourself.  The Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published this helpful and comprehensive graphic as a resource for those wanting to better understand how to practice self-compassion:

TheScientificBenefitsofSelf-Compassion

For those interested in reading more about this topic, here are some additional resources:

The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley

The Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education

Scientific American “The Self-Compassion Solution”