Happiness

Jizo 4Choosing to be happy is hard stuff. The first time I read the lines from Pema Chödrön’s book Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change that I quoted in my last post, the ones about how we have a choice between fighting everything that happens to us (and thus suffering all the time) or relaxing into the moment (and thus finding freedom), I grabbed a pen and wrote in the margin of the book: this is my fundamental problem – I actually seriously can’t decide sometimes which of these 2 options I want . . .

It’s scary how much of a hindrance I can be to my own happiness. It’s hard to admit that sometimes I can’t even decide whether I want to try something new in the hopes that it makes me feel better or just keep repeating the same old behaviors that have only brought me suffering every time I’ve relied on them in the past. When Thầy talks about the power of habit energy, the image that comes to my mind is deep ruts in the ground that my wagon wheels just naturally get stuck in. The ruts are familiar after all, even if they are confining and not particularly comfortable, and part of me gets frightened at the thought of leaving their security. Sometimes I’d actually rather complain about my own misery than risk making a change. At least I know what the misery feels like. Change feels risky.

I once read an article written by a pacifist who was tired of people saying that nonviolence could never work. The pacifist’s response was that we won’t know nonviolence won’t work until we’ve tried it for as long as we’ve tried violence. After all, we’ve been using violence for thousands of years and it hasn’t brought permanent solutions – so why do we keep giving it another chance? Habit energy.

The first step for me in choosing happiness is to recognize when I’m sliding into my old negative states of mind, the ruts of negative affliction. Once I realize that I’ve fallen under the sway of my old companions the kleshas, I can remember that happiness is my choice. But what do I do to choose happiness in this moment? In The Chocolate Cake Sutra, Geri Larkin writes that, “finding happiness in the day-to-day life we’ve been given is surprisingly, embarrassingly, simple. Why? Because it is available the instant we allow our senses to take in the surroundings, the views, the moments, smells, and tastes that we completely miss out on when we are too busy listing all the reasons why we aren’t happy.”

Thầy talks about being grateful for the non-toothache. We forget all about our teeth until they hurt; only when they are aching do we focus our attention on them. Mindfulness practice teaches us to be aware of everything in the present moment, including our own bodies and minds as well as the sights and sounds around us. My awareness needs to be as concentrated on the teeth that don’t hurt as the ones that do, as grateful for the people who are nice to me as upset by the ones who aren’t. I’ve found that keeping a regular gratitude journal works wonders for me. Putting to paper all of the many external and internal conditions that I have to be grateful for is almost guaranteed to make me feel happier, no matter how gloomy I was when I started writing. Reflecting on all I have to be grateful for is also a great way to start or end a sitting meditation session.

Doing something for someone else is another way that I choose happiness. Getting outside of my own head and life is a good way to get real perspective on whatever I’m going through. Even if I’m not directly engaged with someone else, I get a lot of joy and satisfaction out of doing something other-focused, like sewing a quilt that will be a gift for someone else. When my actions and thoughts are benefiting someone else, I’m also watering my own seeds of generosity and selflessness.

Lastly, an important component of choosing happiness is to allow myself to be happy – really happy – when I actually do touch joy. Too often, I temper my happiness in the present moment with worries about the future. Sure, I’m happy now, but this or that could happen to take it away. Instead, I need to remind myself that yes, everything is impermanent, but that is exactly why it is so important to enjoy the wondrous here and now.

Geri Larkin quotes the Chinese saying Ten thousand joys, ten thousand sorrows and writes “In our society we’ve got the sorrows part down. We are skilled at being sad, pissed, depressed, angry, and filled with despair. I see these on a daily basis. What I don’t see as much are belly chortles, grins, smiles, laughter. Somehow, even when the news is good, even when a situation is infused with beauty, we seem to have forgotten how to rejoice. . . The sign over the Chinese temple didn’t say ten thousand sorrows, six hundred joys. Or ten thousand sorrows, one thousand joys. We get both. We get to rejoice. . . As long as people populate the earth there will always be an Iraq. Sorrow, sorrow, sorrow. And there will always be puppies and babies being born and sunflowers and delicious chocolate cake. Joy, joy, joy.”

Joy is all around if only I choose to recognize it, if only I choose to accept it. In any moment I can discount the conditions I have to be happy, thinking that they aren’t enough or they aren’t as good as the conditions that other people have or they aren’t the conditions I expected to get. Or I can stop talking myself out of happiness and actually experience it.

Easter Exultet

Shake out your qualms.
Shake up your dreams.
Deepen your roots.
Extend your branches.
Trust deep water
and head for the open,
even if your vision
shipwrecks you.
Quit your addiction
to sneer and complain.
Open a lookout.
Dance on a brink.
Run with your wildfire.
You are closer to glory
leaping an abyss
than upholstering a rut.
Not dawdling.
Not doubting.
Intrepid all the way
Walk toward clarity.
At every crossroad
Be prepared
to bump into wonder.
Only love prevails.
En route to disaster
insist on canticles.
Lift your ineffable
out of the mundane.
Nothing perishes;
nothing survives;
everything transforms!
Honeymoon with Big Joy!

– James Broughton, Sermons of the Big Joy

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