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My Turn to Embrace Unhappiness

I was pretending to be sad in this picture. Now I'm not pretending.

I was pretending to be sad in this picture. Now I’m not pretending.

I frequently urge students in my happiness and meditation classes to build their happiness brain and heart muscles now, not only to enjoy the moment but also to be better prepared for the inevitable bad times.  It’s part of life, I say aloud.  Meanwhile, internally, I am likely engaged in a mini-argument that goes something like this: “You know, this means you, too.” “No, no, not me! “Yes, you too, you know it’s true.” “Oh, okay, but not for a long time, and nothing really bad, right?”

Yesterday, the “you, too” side won the argument.  Bad times have arrived.

All week, I had lived with low-grade anxiety, worried that I might be in trouble.  The fear started brewing when I called the optometrist on Monday morning to report some troubling eye symptoms, and the receptionist said you need to come in right away.  Not a good sign.  Then, they made sure I got an immediate appointment with one of only four retina specialists in the entire state of Vermont.  More foreboding.  Still, I had hopes for nothing more than a minor inconvenience until the moment Doctor Kim’s tone of voice suddenly changed. As he directed urgent comments to his assistant — in medical shorthand I couldn’t understand — I grew uneasy.  “What does that mean?” I asked.  “I’ll explain it all,” the doctor said.  “First we need pictures.”

Because other unfortunates were ahead of me in line for the photos, that meant an agonizing hour in the waiting room where, surrealistically, the television was blaring a Donald Trump speech.  Finally, it was my turn with the camera specialist, who asked me what I do for a living.  I stammered, ” I’m a happiness teacher,” thinking, “please, please don’t talk to me about happiness because now all I am is a terrified person.”  Fortunately, there were no more questions; he instead reminisced about a recent trip to Costa Rica.

Ironically, when I left the dark camera room for the sunlit hall on my way back to the examination room, everything was startlingly rose-colored.  Seriously — the dye that had been injected in my hand in order to get better eye pictures temporarily turned my vision deep pink.  It was brief, beautiful, and definitely not metaphorical.

Finally, the diagnosis: retinal neurovascularization in my left eye, bleeding that has already caused permanent damage to my eyesight and would blind me completely in that eye — probably within months, the doctor said — if left untreated.  Fortunately, there is a treatment, a drug that will be injected right into my eye.  The doctor assures me, this will hurt.  I need to have the treatment a minimum of three times, probably six times, maybe more, starting right away.  Since it was Friday afternoon, and these injections are a two-day affair, the first treatment is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

Happy weekend.

But I’m not writing this because I feel sorry for myself.   I don’t, actually.  This is the kind of suffering that visits each of us multiple times throughout our lives.  Perhaps literally millions of people are suffering much worse physical and emotional pain than I am at this very minute.  Bad times take many different forms.  Who knew it would be vitreous hemorrhage for me? I never even heard of vitreous hemorrhage before Friday.

The reason I’m writing today is to reflect on just how a happiness professional should handle this situation.  I believe the answer lies in embracing unhappiness.

I managed to beat back the tears until I left the doctor’s office.  I don’t know why.  Surely the doctor and his staff see many people cry, and I definitely wanted to cry.  My left eye is irreversibly damaged.  I almost lost my vision completely in that eye.  That is worth grieving over.  That is worth many tears.

I know I’ll be done crying soon.  From both personal experience and research on happiness and resiliency, I know I’ll bounce back and be my cheery self again, presumably with a keener appreciation of my eyesight. For now, though, it’s important to face this reality, not sugar coat it.  There’s a lot to be grateful for in this situation, and I’ll get there.  However, a full and rich life demands feeling the pain, too.  Already, I’ve had loved ones tell me to be positive and to focus on the gratitude — and, dear hearts, if you’re reading this, I love you and thank you for your kindness — but that is not what I need right now.

Should I be optimistic?  I guess I am, in that I didn’t think twice about whether to have the treatments or not.  Definitely, any optimism I have is grounded in reality: this will not be fun.  It might not even work.  It might happen in the other eye.  But, together with my skilled doctor, I’ll do my best to work toward a positive outcome.

I’ve been thinking about the words of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking naval officer to be held prisoner during the Vietnam War.  He observed that the POWs most likely to survive that experience were those with reality-based optimism.  Neither the prisoners who thought they would be released almost immediately nor the POWs who believed they would never be released survived as well.

Stockdale said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you cannot afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”  So be it.  Faith, yes.  And, tell me the truth.

I’ve also been thinking about a cautionary note in the book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth by father and son positive psychology team Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener.  Although happier people are in general less likely to have ill health, the Dieners warned, when it comes to surviving physical maladies, happier people can fare worse.  Because their glasses are too rosy, perhaps?  Or their optimism isn’t reality based?

So I don’t want that “happy person” who is disconnected from her own health reality.  That means not only doing what I need to do, but also feeling what I need to feel.

With the support of a few loved ones, I’m giving myself some hibernation time — no church choir for me this weekend.  I want to grieve, for the human condition, bodies that break, and my lost eyesight.  I’m also aware of my anger directed at the optometrist who didn’t find any symptoms back in March, at myself for not going to see a retinal specialist earlier, and at the world in general because no one ever told me that such a thing might happen to those of us near-sighted folks with large eyeballs. I will forgive the optometrist.  I will forgive myself.  Not yet, though.

Here’s another aspect of my teaching that now seems a little too close to home: I always read Helen Keller’s essay “Three Days to See” to my meditation classes because it does such a good job of illustrating the value of mindfulness.  Keller wrote compellingly of all the amazing wonders of the world we would see so much better if we were faced with the loss of our eyesight.

Hopefully, I am not facing the loss of my eyesight.  Still, on the ride home from the doctor, while my loving husband drove, I reflected on Helen Keller’s words and tried to savor the picture postcard Vermont summer mountains and sunny blue skies.

I couldn’t do it.  I just needed to be sad.

It’s dark, rainy and cold today.  Later this week, sunny skies and seasonable temperatures are expected to return.  Perhaps my own good cheer will re-emerge in a few days as well.  Maybe not.  Either way is okay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hills Are Alive — With the Sound of Climate Resistance

Vermont's Green Mountains, alive with music and climate action.

Vermont’s Green Mountains, alive with music and climate action.

For my granddaughter Madeleine’s fourth birthday, my husband gave her a Sound of Music DVD.  She was pleased enough, but when we sat down to watch this family favorite together a conflict arose.  Madeleine insisted on Star Wars instead, with us. Since we most definitely did not want to watch Star Wars ourselves, unpleasantness was brewing.  So I dusted off my mediator skills — yes, these tools can work even with pre-schoolers — to determine why Madeleine was going to the mat for Star Wars.  The answer? Darth Vader, a major league bad guy.

Ah. Easy to solve. We had convinced Madeleine that Sound of Music was a happy, singing, dancing love fest when she is currently much more fascinated with monsters of all stripes.  When I explained that Sound of Music actually has some of the worst bad guys in history — real ones, led by the evil monster Hitler — Madeleine was satisfied.  She changed into a princess costume, and we settled in for an afternoon of nuns and Nazis.

Madeleine enjoyed herself, but with that set-up, I found Sound of Music to be a very disturbing movie.  It was unsettling at the least to watch the characters on screen — based on real people — go merrily about their lovely lives with picnics, puppet shows, and a gala ball despite the fact that their country was about to be devastated.  So much suffering was just around the corner, yet no one seemed to know or care, except the Captain.  Even he, though, seems completely absorbed in his own life.

The problem is, that’s kind of where we are right now — singing, dancing, falling in love, and having parties while the climate change monster is on our very doorstep, at best.  In many places, the ravages of climate change have already barged right through the front hall with never-before-imagined fires, droughts, super storms, and crazy temperatures.

Life where I live often seems normal, but it isn’t — and it isn’t normal where you are, either.  We can keep pretending that all is well – but that doesn’t change the fact that the telegraph boy singing to our daughter in the garden is a Nazi, metaphorically speaking.  Peril is upon us.  Beating back that peril will take a great deal more than the Captain’s defiant yanking down of the Swastika flag hanging from his villa. We have to rise up and take creative, strong, bold, and united action.

Montpelier, Vermont may not be as stunning as Salzburg, Austria where the Sound of Music takes place — but it is heartbreakingly lovely here, especially in the spring when the sun returns, the frogs again begin their loud mating rituals, and the Farmer’s Market comes back outside.  Sometimes, it is so hard to remember and appreciate that we are living under such a dire threat.  But we are.  We are.  We are.

Of course the comparison to the Sound of Music can only go so far.  How many of us actually make play clothes out of draperies any more?  And I by no means wish to imply that all the hard working men and women in the fossil fuels industry are Nazis.  We are all complicit in building and maintaining the system.

Here’s the good news, the really really good news: the climate justice movement is huge, a worldwide collaboration — growing not only numbers but also in audacity. Soon, from May 4-15, 2016 you can look for and participate in an unprecedented global wave of mass actions targeting the world’s most dangerous fossil fuel projects to keep coal, oil, and gas in the ground and accelerate a just transition to 100% renewable energy.

This tremendous resistance is called “Break Free from Fossil Fuels,” led by local and international organizations, grassroots groups, and regional coalitions  — all determined to stop fossil fuel projects with more than a dozen major mobilizations on six continents.  Excitingly, for my friends and readers in Vermont, one of these actions will be just across the border from us, in Albany, on May 14th.  You can get on a bus to head over there for this historic day!  All the info you need is here.

Wherever in the world you are, you can look to Break Free’s planned actions as an outstanding illustration of the perseverance and courage of citizen activists all across the planet.  Thank god for their willingness to put their bodies on the line!  I am deeply grateful, and heartened by the movement’s willingness to escalate resistance to free us all from the unspeakable suffering of climate change.

Equally important, Break Free is working to build a brighter future for all.  Certainly there are viable solutions.  In fact, in his book The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding says creating this better future should be easier than vanquishing the Nazis, once we’re all on board.

But we’re not all on board.  Despite December’s Paris climate agreement, governments remain irresponsibly slow to take real climate action — so we the people have to step it up.  Break Free proponents say we are close to an historic, global shift in our energy system.  The way we get there is by peaceful direct action that confronts those who are profiting from climate change and takes power back for the people.  This will often mean arrest, and creating situations that inconvenience and/or confuse others.

Not too long ago, there was an action in Montpelier which shut down a street and a critical office building in an effort to stop a fracked gas pipeline in my state.  I visited some of those camped out in the street, in the rain, offering them companionship and gratitude.  Other people dropped by to bring them food.  They had plenty of food.

The next night, I was stunned when a woman in my yoga class — a woman who works in the shut down office building — made snide and derogatory remarks about this same group of climate warriors.  We were preparing for yoga, a peaceful, respectful time, so I kept my mouth shut.  But I wanted to shout, they are trying to save the planet for godsakes!  Who cares if you’re inconvenienced at work for a few hours???

So I know not everyone will applaud those taking part in the Break Free actions.  But here’s the thing.  It is easy now to look back to the time of Sound of Music, and the war that followed, and applaud all the disobedience and resistance against the Nazis any and every citizen mustered.  Even, wish there had been more. How much more will that be the case in the future, as our grandchildren’s children reflect back on our actions?  Particularly since none of us can climb over a mountain to reach safety?  There is no safety.  If ever resistance and disobedience were called for, the time is now.

A final note.  What does this have to do with happiness?  Everything, it has everything to do with happiness.  You may have seen the meme floating around the internet proclaiming that “Happiness is an inside job.”  Well it is — and it is also an outside job.  Just how happy do you think the von Trapps were in exile, as they learned how many of their friends and neighbors back in Salzburg had been killed by the Nazis?  As they themselves struggled to build their new life?  And what of love and compassion?  How happy do you think I feel when I consider the world my beloved Madeleine will grow up to inherit?  Oh, yes, and food.  Food makes me happy.  What if climate change destroys the crops? Etc. Ad nauseum.

I’ll wrap up with one more look at the von Trapps.  Their love, music, play, resilience, and courage were all excellent coping qualities in extremely hard times, even if their lack of awareness and action was almost deadly for them.  Our challenge is to emulate their strengths as we face the peril of our age. Fine, let’s be playful: I have confidence in sunshine, I have confidence in rain, I have confidence that spring will come again — besides which you see I have confidence in the climate justice movement!  Seriously, I do.  May it be so.

In the Shadow of Terrorism: Loving Kindness and Permission to be Human

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Here’s what I ate the weekend ISIS attacked Paris: pizza on Friday night; leftover pizza for breakfast, a big bowl of buttered rice and veggies at lunch, and pasta for dinner on Saturday; and on Sunday, granola for breakfast, ravioli for lunch, and more rice and dal for dinner.

Here’s how much I exercised: not much. Mostly I was a love seat potato.  I sat bundled under a blanket, just me and my laptop, with its images and articles about the Paris and Beirut terrorist attacks.  I made myself watch the disturbing home video of the exterior of the Bataclan Concert Hall, a video shot as concert goers escaped the killing.  I forced myself to read a lengthy March 2015 feature in The Atlantic, “What Isis Really Wants” and other articles that spelled out how globalization and climate change would continue to create conflicts over scarce resources.

As I immersed myself in learning, I questioned my choices.  Should I really be drenched in so much negativity? After all, I consciously never watched any Isis beheadings.  I felt the same way for a long time about watching videos of unarmed black men being fatally shot by police officers.  Eventually I decided that it was my responsibility as a United States citizen to watch some of those videos.

Saturday, I felt that same responsibility as a citizen of the world.  As soon as I heard about the carnage in Paris, I believed we had slipped into something like what Pope Francis called a “piecemeal third world war. I had to know more –and even more, when I found out about Beirut.  Why wasn’t that city receiving the same media coverage and sympathy?  Do Parisian lives really matter more than Lebanese?  What was going on? I plowed doggedly through the weekend, with my body taking on what my mind wouldn’t let me feel.

Not that all this information provided answers.  It is a big, nasty, complex mess requiring tough choices by people with higher pay grades than mine.  However, it is clear to me that both systemic and personal happiness thinking and strategies have important roles to play in the upcoming days, weeks, and years.  When you combine climate change with its droughts and natural disasters, along with the demands of an insatiable growth economy, the result will be wars, famine, and refugees.  Warning lights are flashing and the sirens are going off: we need to move toward a new economic paradigm of well being, much like that advocated by Gross National Happiness USA.

On the personal side, to stay sane and productive no matter how all this plays out, we need to invest in: nurturing and savoring relationships, growing community,building resilience, living with gratitude and meaning, practicing forgiveness (maybe not of ISIS just yet, I’m no saint), experiencing joy in the here and now, and tending to practical matters like getting a good night’s sleep.

Perhaps the two most important personal happiness strategies are kindness and permission to be human.

In the preface to Piero Ferrucci’s The Power of Kindness, the Dalai Lama wrote,  “It is clear that our very survival, even today, depends upon the acts and kindness of so many people.  … our happiness is inextricably bound up with the happiness of others.  Similarly, if society suffers, we ourselves suffer.  On the other hand, the more our hearts and minds are afflicted with ill will, the more miserable we become.  Therefore, we cannot avoid the necessity of kindness and compassion.”

Some of the necessary kindness will be on a grand scale, like the Beirut father who tackled a suicide bomber, thus sacrificing his own life but saving scores of others, including his own little girl.  Some kindnesses will become viral, like the man who saved the pregnant woman’s life in the Bataclan video.  But for most of us, most of the time, our kindness and compassion will be small because we are only human.

I learned the phrase “permission to be human” from the fabulous Tal Ben-Shahar.  He helps happiness students understand that we can do ourselves and others a big favor by embracing the fact that we are beings with bodies, biology, emotions and sometimes very whacky brains.  Permission to be human does not mean permission to misbehave, or to hurt another.  It means sometimes being a lot angrier than we would like — or feeling a myriad of other less than desirable emotions.  Last Saturday it meant my body compensated for all the work my brain was doing by demanding comfort food and lots of carbs.  Permission to be human — that is where kindness can start.  Cut our own poor hearts a little bit of slack.

Then, with more compassionate hearts, we can radiate greater kindness and understanding to friends and loved ones.  That day with my laptop, I was frustrated with friends who seemed too strident with their Beirut postings. Their reactions were different from mine, but no less valid. Permission to be human.  The next day, when I asked a friend why he was only talking about Paris and not Beirut, he was shocked.  He hadn’t heard about the Beirut suicide attackers.  Not omniscient?  Permission to be human, my friend.

The next layer is sharing kindness and compassion with our broader communities.  Later that day, I had the opportunity to do just that, when I found myself walking next to a friend of a friend.  He was weighed down by personal troubles and shared some of his sorrow as we walked.  Before going our separate ways, we hugged for a long time.

Hugs.  What a great expression of mutual kindness.

Finally, in prayer and meditation, political action and choices, and our use of social media, we can extend our kindness and compassion to wider and wider circles — even to those we don’t understand, who infuriate and frighten us.

But there are caveats and limits.

First, being kind is not being spineless, as was powerfully demonstrated by the reaction of Parisians holding a vigil for victims of the ISIS attacks.  When confronted by anti-immigrant protesters, the larger crowd rose up in love and forced the hate mongerers to back off.

I also want to shout “Boo! Boo!”– and plan to do essentially that tomorrow at a counter protest in front of the Vermont Statehouse.  In response to a previously scheduled anti-Syrian refugee, Islamaphobic protest, the word has gone out to rally in support of justice, fairness, and accepting Syrian refugees into our cold but loving state.  I will be there.

Sometimes kindness is hugs.  Sometimes it is saying loudly and non-violently, “Your actions are unacceptable!!”

Second, there are limits.  When I played Barbara Frederickson’s inspiring “Loving All” guided meditation for a meditation class this week, I just could not extend loving kindness wishes to “all.” Though Fredrickson urged listeners to emphasize “all,” I thought not only of ISIS but also of the hate-spewing, anti-Syrian, so-called political leaders.  At this point in time, I just cannot open my heart to people engaged in such mean-spirited and dangerous tactics.

Cultivating kindness and compassion is a lifelong practice.  It can be challenging in the best of times, much less in these anxious days.  I would never deliberately hurt anyone, but just now, if my heart isn’t as open as I would like it to be, so be it.  Permission to be human.  

 

 

 

Funerals: An Important Piece of the Happiness Puzzle

Deviled eggs for the reception following my friend Melanie's memorial service.

Deviled eggs for the reception following my friend Melanie’s memorial service.

My friend Melanie passed away about a month ago.  Though she died of natural causes, it still seemed sudden. Certainly she was much too young — only 56.

Her memorial service was sad.  Her widower and young adult children put on brave faces, but we could all feel their heartache, along with our own sorrow.  Yet, paradoxically, funerals like Melanie’s can be an important piece of the happiness puzzle.  This may not be true for all funerals.  When my friend Kathy was murdered by her husband (who then committed suicide), her service was a wrenching river of sobs.  Also, for the immediate family and closest of friends, the weight of grief and shock may be overwhelming for some time to come — though even for them, in the midst of pain, there is ample room for gratitude.  For the rest of us, when people who are not children die because their bodies give out, funerals and memorial services can strengthen our individual and collective happiness muscles.

Not that I was happy at the end of the day. I wasn’t.  I was weary, and wanted to do nothing other than take a hot bath and drink a glass of wine.  Spending my day making a couple dozen deviled eggs for the post-memorial service reception, then attending the service and reception, before collapsing sadly at home is not my idea of a good time.  However, to live a meaningful life (without which true happiness may well be impossible), we have to do a lot of things we’d rather not.  Just look at the other end of the life spectrum, and ask parents of newborns how much they enjoy sleep deprivation and all the other sacrifices they are making to raise flourishing children. Love, relationships, integrity — all come with a price tag.

It is easy to be happy in happy circumstances.  It is much harder to find the joy and beauty in life under difficult circumstances.  I am beginning to believe this ability is a key distinction between happier people and less happy people. During times of normal sadness (not extreme circumstances) two strategies may be particularly helpful:

  1. Benefit finding — more popularly known as looking for the silver linings; and
  2. The power of “and” — that is, the capacity to hold onto more than one concept at the same time, even if they seem contradictory (for example, both sweetness and sorrow).  Indeed, maybe the “and” is necessary.  As Francis Bacon said, “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.”

Also, I write this with all due respect to Melanie, who was a writer herself.  Not only that, Melanie studied happiness with me and even taught it to her high school English students.  Melanie loved learning, and inquiry into human affairs.  She had two Master’s degrees, one in English Literature from Oxford.  I’m pretty sure she would appreciate the Francis Bacon quote, and my introspection.  So, allowing for the sorrow and the benefits, here are some silver linings from her memorial service and reception:

1. Funerals allow us to feel our feelings.  When I learned that Melanie had died, I sort of went numb.  I was entertaining out-of-town visitors for several days, and had to focus on their needs and welfare.  All I could think about Melanie was, “this makes no sense.”  She was supposed to have joined me for a meditation class the evening before she died.  I just could not wrap my head around the fact that she was dead. I knew I should be crying, but the tears wouldn’t come.  Finally, finally, as I sat in a pew waiting for the service to begin, I could feel my tears begin, too.

The crying was important. As Tal Ben-Shahar points out in his book Being Happy:

  • “All our feelings flow along the same emotional pipeline, so when we block painful emotions, we are also indirectly blocking pleasurable ones. … Painful emotions are an inevitable part of the experience of being human, and therefore rejecting them is ultimately rejecting part of our humanity.  To lead a fulfilling life — a happy life — we need to allow ourselves the range of human emotions.  In other words, we need to give ourselves the permission to be human.”

2. Funerals help us be good.  Back in 2005, a woman named Deidre Sullivan shared her “This I Believe” essay on NPR, an essay entitled “Always Go to the Funeral.” Though I love the “This I Believe” series, Sullivan’s essay is the only one I can remember — not the words, just the profound importance of showing up in these critical moments.  A few years ago, my son gave me a book of “This I Believe” essays, including Sullivan’s.  Here’s part of what she wrote:

  • “‘Always Go to the Funeral’ means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it.  I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to.  I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy.  You know, the painfully unattended birthday party.  The hospital visit during happy hour.  The shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles.  In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been between good versus evil.  It’s hardly so epic.  Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.”

I wouldn’t say I definitely didn’t want want to attend the service, exactly.  I knew that would be a time to learn more about Melanie’s life, and to give and receive love with fellow mourners. What I didn’t want to do was make the deviled eggs.  Yet that too is love, and necessary.  Nor did I want to make dinner to take to the grieving family.  I’m not much of a cook, so these were the inconveniences for me.  In my humdrum battle of “doing good versus doing nothing,” both heart and conscience dictated that I choose good.

3. Funerals build community. The deviled eggs and meal train obligations weren’t just for Melanie and her family — I was also upholding my community obligations. In 2001, we moved to this corner of Vermont because we wanted to live in a strong community, and boy, do we!  When word of Melanie’s death spread, so did the phone calls and emails: who will sing in the pick-up choir?  What meals does the family need, and who is organizing? How about the reception — how do we sign up for that?  How about setting up, and cleaning up? What else does the family need?

Our ability to come together is no accident.  We work — and play — at building community, all year long, year after year, probably for several centuries now.  We all do our part, in ways large and small, from helping to organize the winter Mardis Gras, marching in the Fourth of July parade, setting up tables for the Corn Roast — and, showing up for the funerals. Melanie’s service both displayed the strength of our community, and further strengthened it.

Perhaps appropriately, a toddler’s birthday party took place in our community center just a few hours before the post-memorial service reception.  The full panoply of life, made better by community.

During the service itself, I marveled at and felt grateful for everyone in attendance.  Melanie’s community.  My community.  We can all count on it, because we all show up.  I was overwhelmed by the love and also the awareness that each of us is here only temporarily.  At the reception, I hugged two (of many) cherished community members and friends, told each that I loved her and was grateful for her, and received similar warmth in return.  I also spent a lot of time in the kitchen doing the dishes, because this is what community is all about.

For Melanie, here’s another Francis Bacon quote: “There is no man that imparteth his joy to his friends, but he joyeth the more; and no man that imparteth his grief to his friends but he grieveth the less.”

We share the joy, we share the grief, we share the cooking and cleaning up.  We build community.

4. Funerals open the door to valuable introspection. A few winters back, I took a week long online happiness course from the Pursuit of Happiness folks. One of the assignments was to consider what we wanted the speakers at our own funerals to say.  I think this is an incredibly valuable exercise, and one that naturally arises while attending a memorial service.  What will be said about me?

Maybe that sounds narcissistic, but I actually find it a helpful touchstone.  As we go through our ordinary days, adding up to our lifetimes — what do we want that final tally to look like?

That’s one aspect of introspection.  The other is, what do you not want to regret at death’s door?  You, me — who wants to be dying and say, but wait!!  I always meant to (fill in the blank).  Too late, then.

In 2012, a palliative care nurse named Bonnie Ware published the results of her inquiry into the regrets of hospice care patients.  Her study, “Top Five Regrets of the Dying” found these five common themes: “1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. 2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. 4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. 5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

When I die, I want to say, I am satisfied, not “I wish.”  I want to be comfortable with having led a full, rich life.  One that included funerals and deviled eggs.  A life of love, service, fun, and courage.  One that was as happy as possible.  That’s what I’m working on.  How about you?

 

 

 

 

Mediation or Meditation? Which Is My Happiness Path?

I’m beginning to think the Universe played at little joke on me.

Back in 2005, when I tearfully concluded that my right livelihood could no longer be found within the craft show world, I thought the Universe gave me the answer to what was supposed to come next.  In retrospect, it seemed like the Mother Superior moment in “The Sound of Music,” the moment she advised Maria, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” Cue “Climb Every Mountain.”  My own window seemed to open, with or without divine intervention, in a Stockholm cafe.  I thought the message was clear: the mountain I had to climb was getting a masters degree, in mediation.

Pondering my future in Sweden in 2005.

Pondering my future in Sweden in 2005.

I had flown to Sweden just days after a disastrous craft show experience, a show that led me to sob in the bathroom and promise the heavens above that I was definitely closing the craft show door.  Lucky for me, my trip to Stockholm to visit dear friends Bert and Keith was already arranged.  It was great to get away, and they were attentive hosts.  One day they both had to work, so I was on my own.  I ended up touring the Nobel Museum, an incredibly cool and deeply inspiring institution.

Afterwords, alone in the cafe, I heard the the word “mediator” jump into my head.  Seriously, that’s what it felt like — the word jumped into my head and I immediately knew that’s what I was supposed to do next.  As soon as I got home, I contacted the admissions office at Woodbury College (now part of Champlain College) and signed up to begin their brand new Master’s program.  I knew so little about formal mediation that I somehow hoped I could be a mediator without dealing with conflict — in hindsight, a wildly silly misunderstanding of what I was getting into.  Mediation is all about stepping calmly into the eye of the conflict storm.  Ultimately, I learned to do just that, but personal conflict still distresses me.

None of this is as flaky as it may sound.  Mediation in many ways suits my personality, talents, and what I was looking for professionally at that time.  I wanted to help heal the world in some way, and mediation allowed me to use my communications skills to create at least a little more peace, a little more happiness.  I  hadn’t yet taken the VIA strengths survey, but now I know my signature strengths can be valuable to both the mediation process and to establishing rapport with parties in a conflict: the ability to forgive, emotional intelligence, and the capacity to give and receive love.

Indeed, I was good enough to be asked even before I graduated to coach new mediation students at Woodbury, and have continued working with the program ever since.  I also created the position of Staff Mediator at Home Share Now, and took on various freelance mediation and facilitation gigs with some professional and personal satisfaction.  Given that healthy relationships are the number one predictor of happiness, helping folks resolve their conflicts more successfully is clearly a job that brings more happiness into the world.

And yet … lately I’ve been wondering, perhaps the Universe was really saying, “Meditation.”  What if I misheard?

Okay, I’m not that woo-woo.  The two words sound so much alike, I often trip up and use the wrong one.  The idea that I may have misheard makes me laugh.  And, the truth is, almost as soon as I finished my master’s degree — culminating with a Capstone study on “Mediation and Suffering” — I picked up Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness followed soon after by Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss.  I didn’t know it yet, but I was already following a different career path.

Of course, productive conflict resolution is a HUGE part of individual and societal happiness.  And I learned lots of great skills to use both in my personal life and in all my work efforts.  I highly recommend the Champlain program, and the gifted teachers there. Mediation is most definitely a happiness path, a right livelihood to build greater well being on every level.

But I don’t think it’s my path.  Teaching, coaching, advocating, and writing about the whys and hows of both personal and systemic well being — including meditation — that’s my path.

I didn’t leap blindly into meditation in the same way I took up mediation.  After all, I’ve been meditating since the last century!  However, I am surprised that it has become such a prominent piece of my overall career puzzle — surprised and extremely gratified.  In all my secular meditation classes, which I call “Meditating for Happiness,” I hear the most amazing and beautiful stories about how participants are using their new meditation tools to live significantly better lives — to sleep better, to control blood pressure, to help their families be happier, to handle workplace stress and road rage, even to cope with death.  Whether it’s in the corporate environment, at a health care facility or a senior center, students in every class thank me for teaching them strategies for much greater health and happiness.  They thank me, but I also leave almost every class overflowing with gratitude.  I often think, “I have the best job in the world!”

So what does all this have to do with anybody else’s happiness?

Both mediation and meditation are extremely good for happiness — yours, mine, and ours — in so many ways, both internally and externally.  As I write this, I am struck by how much both practices rely on deep heart felt mindfulness, and especially listening — to the said, to the unsaid, to what really matters.  I am fortunate that both have been part of my happy life.

More to to the point though, is the belief that living our best possible lives means choosing the best possible livelihoods.  It allows us to experience days filled with both pleasure and meaning.  Funny, I touched upon this from a very different angle in my previous essay (on The Happiness Walk).  I quoted Aristotle then, and I’ll quote him again: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.”  It’s hard to beat Aristotle, but here a few other insightful takes on making good work choices:

  • Balzac had a more literate touch, when he wrote: “An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.”
  • A more modern view comes from the wise and loving educator Parker Palmer: “A vocation that is not mine, no matter how externally valued, does violence to the self…”
  • Then there’s everyone’s favorite Sufi poet, Rumi: “Discover vocation and creation. And joy will come like clairvoyance, where blindness was before.”

So the question is, what is your right livelihood, your vocational path to happiness? Perhaps you are already well ensconced in your own colorful and joyful crossroads between your talents and the world’s needs (of which, lord knows, there are plenty!).  If not, perhaps you too can go to the Nobel Museum and sit in a Swedish cafe to hear what the Universe wants to tell you.  Or at the least, you can meditate on it.

 

The Happiness Journey: Meaning and Joy in Florida!

My new walking shoes!

My new walking shoes!

“Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body.”  — George Carlin

Ah, George Carlin. Since 2009, when I began following my personal and gross national happiness path, I’ve tried to wean myself off shopping.  Among the many reasons to do so is a desire to get off the hedonic consumer treadmill.  An even more powerful motivation came from Annie Leonard, whose “Story of Stuff” video first opened my eyes to the planetary and culturally destructive effects of thoughtless, wasteful shopping.  Individually and collectively, we pay an unacceptably high price to accumulate possessions — much worse than merely taping sandwiches all over our hungry selves.

Plus, stepping aside from a regular career path to follow my happiness calling dramatically curtailed my disposable income.  Tellingly, my life satisfaction has risen.  Partly, that’s because my shopping is in greater concordance with my beliefs.  As I see it, corporate profit derived from constant pressure on all of us to buy, buy, buy is the leading driver behind climate change and income inequality.  The less I buy of a whole host of products I don’t need, and never needed in the first place, the more I can release the corporate grip on my life — freeing me for a life lived in greater harmony with my values.

Of course, it’s not that I don’t do any shopping.  These are aspirational values, not always realized.  However, I do strive to keep it local, used, or something I really want/need.  Which brings me to the brand new walking shoes pictured above.  I haven’t bought new shoes for five years.  But in a month I’ll be going on an internal and external journey, and, for both aspects, I need good shoes. You see, I will be rejoining The Happiness Walk for nine days and 100 miles through northern Florida in mid-September.  And I know from previous experience that it is wise to invest in good shoes!

I was last part of this adventure in October 2012 for two magical yet gruesome days (see this blog for a description).  My heart and soul were singing, but my toenails were in the process of falling off.

My very unhappy feet after two days of happy walking in 2012.

My very unhappy feet after two days of happy walking in 2012.

This time, I decided to invest in decent shoes, as well as socks and moleskin to put on any budding blisters. Happiness may be an inside job, but we ignore the mind-body connection at our peril.  It would be much harder for me to have a transformative internal journey if my feet were screaming in pain.

Why Would Anybody Want to Walk 100 Miles Through Rural, Hot Florida?

There are a lot of reasons not to walk, starting with the weather. Mid-September in Florida is bound to be hot, hot, hot — and humid to boot.  Meanwhile, the Vermont weather I’ll leave behind will be glorious.  September is quite possibly Vermont’s best month. Leaves are starting to turn, but we can still swim and kayak –though not for much longer! Knowing that time is running out makes Vermont sunny September days especially precious.

Another reason to stay home is loyalty to my church, the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, which shuts down for the summer and will just be starting a new church year when I leave for Florida. My little family within the church is the choir.  Last year was rough and sad for us.  We not only sang but also cried together, throughout our beloved choir director’s terminal illness and death.  Now, we have a really terrific new choir director.  I want to be there with my choir family as we regroup and begin anew.  Instead, I’ll be trudging through desolate Florida scenery.

Hmmm.  Interesting how the words “trudge” and “desolate” snuck into that paragraph.  I guess part of me really wants to stay home!  Maybe because I don’t want to leave my husband.  And I don’t want to fly, because of the negative environmental impact.

These are all important happiness considerations — exercising in nature, nurturing spirituality and community, cherishing my marriage, and taking climate action. Still, I am going, because the happiness factors from participating in the walk — for a short period of time, not the kind of commitment Paula Francis and Linda Wheatley have made — outweigh the happiness of staying home.

Before I get into the why’s for me, I invite you to consider what the why’s might be for you.  This is not an exclusive activity.  From fellow walkers to hosts along the route to funders, there are many ways you can be involved, if The Happiness Walk also calls to you. Now, why it calls to me …

First: Right Livelihood. Long before the advent of positive psychology research, Aristotle had a lot to say about happiness, including this: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.”  The world definitely needs more happiness, well being, meaning, joy — whatever you want to call it, we need more of it.  As for my talents, I spend a lot of time walking the happiness talk — but this is different.  The Happiness Walk is about showing up, asking the right questions, and listening wholeheartedly.  Fortunately, these are just the skills (talents, even) that have been honed in my mediation and coaching work.  I love people, and am tremendously curious about everyone’s stories.  Listening is something I can do, with my head and my heart.  This is good work for me.  It will make me happy.

Second: P.E.R.M.A. Martin Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. framework for individual happiness seems to be my go-to way of assessing life choices.  Using this perspective, The Happiness Walk passes with flying colors:

  • Positivity: Spending nine days listening to others — our hosts, people on the street, waitresses, anybody and everybody we meet — describe what makes them happy?  And talking with them in turn about the happiness movement?  It just doesn’t get any more positive than that.
  • Engagement: From my (hopefully happy) toes, to my heart, soul and mind, I will be fully engaged with the task at hand.  This is field research, as well as an opportunity to spread the paradigm-shifting gospel — both of which are at the core of my life’s work.  Engaged?  Oh, yes. Yes, yes.
  • Relationships: This one is interesting.  In her book Love 2.0, Barbara Frederickson talks about the “micro-bursts” of love that can occur between strangers.  The Happiness Walk is just one big micro-burst of love after another.  These relationships are short, but deeply meaningful.  And of course, I’ll be growing my relationship with fellow walker and happiness activist, Paula Francis.  Thus, relationships will also be a significant part of the experience.
  • Meaning: Big time.  I do this work because I believe firmly that the current gross national product (GNP) paradigm is trashing the environment, feeding the flames of greed and income inequality, and causing or exacerbating all kinds of wrong headed policies and actions on both the systemic and personal level.  In other words, the happiness movement is urgently important.  Meaningful?  Yes, so much so that I am deeply grateful to have found this path.
  • Accomplishment: No, and yes.  I suspect that the work of building a movement will not be finished for a long time.  Maybe never.  Instead, I have to find my sense of accomplishment in all the small steps along the way  (small steps, ha ha ha).  When my part of the walk is over, I will feel very accomplished!  And very happy.

Third: The Hamburger Principle. This one comes from Tal Ben-Shahar, and it, too, is one of my favorite frames for considering happiness.  The cheeseburger part is a long story, but basically, Tal lays out four quadrants to illustrate four options for living life. The idea here is, humans need both pleasure and meaning to be happy — a combination that resides in just one of the quadrants, which are:

  • The Rat Race. This quadrant can be all about meaning, but doing the work in such a single minded way as to leave little time for all else that makes life enjoyable.  While being in rat race mode for a time is okay, it is insufficient to lead a thriving life.
  • Hedonism. This, of course, is all about the pleasure.  I imagine most of you, like me, have indulged in hedonistic episodes (a.k.a., vacation!).  Again, this is fine in spurts. But a hedonistic lifestyle is shallow and also insufficient for a thriving life.
  • Nihilism. In this sorry quadrant, one has neither meaning nor pleasure.  This is a bleak life.  Let’s get out of here, fast!
  • Happiness. And the winner is, that sweet spot where one has a balance of meaning and pleasure.  We are physical as well as spiritual beings who need both purpose and joy to thrive.  And thrive I will, my friends, at least during the happiness walk when I will be solidly in this most desirable quadrant.

Fourth: Self Concordant Goals.  Now, how about a little Nietzche?  He said, “when there is a what for, every how becomes possible.” The what for is, once again, meaning — but we also need the how, we need to take action, we need goals.

There are some caveats here.  First, the happiness of goals lies in the journey, not in arriving at the destination. It’s about being in the present and knowing where you’re going, and why.  This seems a particularly apt point for my upcoming participation in The Happiness Walk, since it is literally a journey.  Though my final destination is Live Oak, Florida, that destination is not at all the point.  It is definitely the day-to-day, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other journey that excites me.

The second caveat is, not all goals are happy making.  Think, for example, of a bright young student striving to get into medical school because that’s what her parents want.  Doesn’t sound so happy, does it?  Now consider “self-concordant goals,” goals which are personally, deeply meaningful.  Tal Ben-Shahar says  self-concordant goals are:

  1. Aligned with personal interests and values (check!)
  2. Freely chosen goals (check!)
  3. Want to vs. Have to (check!)
  4. What do you really, really want to do (and check!)

So, once again, while Paula and I don’t yet know where we’ll be spending the night for most of the time I’m walking with her, this much is clear: following this happiness path seems destined to make me a happier person.  Paula, too, I’m pretty sure.

Fifth and Finally: The Gift of Giving. We all know that acts of kindness, full-hearted giving and tending to others are reliable strategies for feeling better ourselves. Further — looping back to the beginning of this essay, and my desire to step away from shopping — there are so many very special gifts we can give that cost us only our time and attention. For example, there is the gift of listening. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen observes:

“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words. ”

And the beautiful thing is, the listeners — in this case, the Happiness Walkers — will get just as much happiness as those who are sharing their stories with us. All this and more … reason enough to leave Vermont in September. In fact, the connections will be so powerful, I will likely want to keep walking. Fortunately, there will plenty of happiness arguments to compel me to come home because, you know what? Happiness is where you look for it.

One final gift, for you! A very special offering — “When Someone Deeply Listens to You,” by poet John Fox:

When Someone Deeply Listens to You
When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved. When someone deeply listens to you
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!When someone deeply listens to you
your barefeet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.

Human Connections, Human Happiness

Free hugs at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.

Free hugs at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.

Our connections with fellow humans — either fleeting or lasting for many decades — are the sine qua non of happiness (ie, without relationships with others, there is no happiness, and that’s about it for my 8th grade Latin).  Simultaneously, these connections can be vexing, painful, or unpleasantly surprising.  However, because we do in fact need each other, it makes sense to heed the Dalai Lama’s advice when it comes to our interactions with others.

This is the advice I have in mind, from one of the Dalai Lama’s books I read years ago: in every interaction we have, we can make the other person happier, or less happy.  That is powerful.  Every single time we make a human connection, we can either add to or decrease the other person’s happiness.

Not that we are responsible for others’ happiness entirely.  But it is quite a moral responsibility when put in those terms.

And, it may also be highly practical, because, well, you never know.

Let me tell you a little story, one of my favorites.  I’m quite pleased to find a happiness hook that gives me an excuse to share it.

The story takes place way back in 1968, when I was 14 years-old.  I was third of six kids, and we didn’t have a lot of money.  So the fact that I was by myself in our living room, listening to the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was unusual.  I loved that album, which I bought with hard-earned babysitting money.  Loved, loved. I was happily singing along with all my blissed-out teenage heart when a friend of my oldest sister walked through the room.  Let’s call him Paul.  Paul was handsome, witty, charismatic.  I had a bit of an unrequited crush on him.  When Paul paused at the front door and turned to speak to me, I was all a flutter, thrilled that he was stooping to talk to me!

“Do you know my definition of stupid?” he asked.

“No,” I quickly replied.  “What is it?”

“People who sing along to the Beatles,” he responded before turning around and exiting my house.

All these years later, I can’t quite remember how little and unworthy that remark made me feel. Instead, this story has become a family joke.  You see, just three years later, I married Paul’s younger brother Bob.  When Paul made that offhand remark to me, he could never possibly have imagined that I would be his sister-in-law for, oh, just about 45 years so far — and that I would never let him forget that brief interaction!

Not that I blame the funny, self-assured 18 year-old that he was then.  It was a long, long time ago, and that moment in time has been superseded by many another loving and supportive word or act (like driving Bob and me to the hospital to have our first baby, and doing Ed Sullivan imitations along the way).

No, the reason I love this story is, it clearly shows, when we connect with people, making them happier or less happy, we have no idea what roles we might play in each other’s lives in the future.  So being nice is both good common sense, and good karma sense.

Consider the case posted on Twitter last month about an angry man who cursed at another commuter on London’s Tube.  Not only did the angry man add to someone else’s unhappiness in the moment — he added to his own.  He arrived at a job interview a little while later and discovered that the man he had just cussed at was the interviewer.  He did not get the job.

That’s a very graphic — and karmic — illustration of how interactions can affect our own happiness as well.  As Donovan so beautifully warbled many years ago, happiness runs in a circular motion.

It’s also interesting to think about what might have happened if the angry man in the Tube had somehow connected with the interviewer in a more positive way during their commutes.  Perhaps he would have gotten the job?  Perhaps they would have had an ongoing, positive relationship?

Certainly, connections do not need to be lengthy to be significant.  Two summers ago, I was wearing one of my favorite dresses (very happy, covered in blue daisies) as I walked toward the library.  A woman I had never seen before, or since, was walking in the opposite direction.  As she neared me, she said, “You look very nice today, ma’am.” That’s all.  But she made me smile, and feel good.  I beamed a very genuine, “Thank you!” in her direction.

Certainly I’ve been on the proactive side of the equation many times. Recently, while vacationing with our cute-as-a-button two year old grandchild, we sang to and for total strangers in an open-hearted way that is hard to imagine without an innocent babe involved.  We were received in the same open-hearted way, again no doubt thanks to our granddaughter’s presence.  Otherwise, we grown ups aren’t normally this sweet to folks we don’t know.

That’s kinda sad.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown defines “connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, hear, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”  She also states, “we are wired for connection.  It’s in our biology.  From the time we are born, we need connection to thrive emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually.”

Even without cute babies, strangers can give that to each other.  Tal Ben-Shahar tells a story of an early, early morning at an airport, a morning at the start of a long flight, a morning when he was not at his happiest — until a woman who worked at the airport bestowed a warm and kind smile on him.  That brief but genuine connection cheered him up so much, he continues to tell the story year after year as part of his lecture on making the choice to smile more often.  I love it.  Done judiciously, it’s such an easy win-win.

Of course, our most meaningful connections are found in relationships of longer duration — but every relationship has to start somewhere.  Some connections we’re born into.  Most, we have to establish.  I remember the beginning of my friendships with two of my dearest friends in Vermont, Judy and Eric.  We had lived here only a few weeks, and I felt lost among the many happy strangers at the Maple Corner Fourth of July bash — until this kind and interesting couple took the time to chat with me, the newcomer, the stranger.  None of us knew that a deep and abiding friendship was being born.  I was just grateful that these two were being nice to me, seeing, hearing, and valuing me.  Connection.

It’s all about the nice, within limits. The point is to add to the world’s supply of happiness — yours included.  As a recent meme on Facebook put it, “you are not required to provide heat to others by setting yourself on fire.”  Sometimes the best we can do is not infect others with our glumness.

There is also the question of authenticity.  Who are you?  What is the best way for you to make connections — deeper connections with loved ones, new and even one-time connections with strangers?  Who may or may not end up married to someone in your family. Or giving you a job.

For most of us, it would be inauthentic to like the man in the photo, a fellow visitor to Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York last September.  He wasn’t on staff, he wasn’t leading any workshops — he just wanted to give hugs.  He was so sensitive about it, too.  No one got a hug who didn’t want one.  He just wore this sign while he was there, and hugged whoever responded.

They were good hugs, too.  Oh, yes, I took advantage of this opportunity to connect.  He made me happier.  He made lots of people happier.

That is my aspiration, too — I want to make lots of people happier. It’s a choice we all can make, each of us in our own style.

Good common sense. Good karma sense. Just plain good.