It is very difficult at times to be aware of how many ways we have for making ourselves miserable by our own thoughts and beliefs. So often we structure an argument that begins, “I am unhappy because of blankety-blank.” And believe that our unhappiness is well founded, justified, almost unavoidable, as if it were a law of physics.
It may be true that times are tough, that someone is sick, that there is no work, that someone has left, that something is wrong. It may be true that we feel tired and stressed and at our wit’s end. It may be true that our gut is in knots and our head aches.
But maybe there’s a way for us to be with whatever is happening, accepting it deeply, that allows for a bit more breathing room and a little more happiness. It has something to do with really accepting ourselves as we are, including how we suffer, and how we make ourselves suffer, and how we view our perceived faults, and how harshly we can sometimes judge what we think we see. It has something to do with loving ourselves just as we are, the whole beautiful mess of a human being we are, with our wounds, our shortcomings, our judgments, and our confusion, along with our glory and our magnificence. I think that’s what some people get from Jesus. Jesus opens the door for some people to love themselves and others just as they are. That’s the good part of religion: the love. The love for self and others opens the door to happiness.
“May I love myself just the way I am, suffering and all, imperfections and all.”
Our goal, our mission is to be happy from moment to moment. It’s about being happy, here and now. And to do that, you’ve got have a little love for yourself as well as for everyone else
A lot of people have problems with this. They think happiness is too shallow, that love is for sissies. Happiness is not a good enough goal or a deep enough value. It’s selfish, small. What about my responsibilities? My job? My family? What about injustice? What about war and global warming?
Is anybody going to solve any of these big problems anytime soon? Which is not to say you shouldn’t spend you life working on them. But how does being a miserable son-of-a-gun help you to solve any problems, personal or global?
The Dalai Lama has a plate full of problems he’s working on, maybe for more than one lifetime if you believe in reincarnation, yet he says happiness is the goal of life. And he appears to be succeeding at it in spite of all the travails he and his people are facing.
So, along with peace, give happiness a chance.
What’s so great about being miserable, anyway? Most miserable people are a pain. Being miserable takes up so much time and energy that miserable people often don’t have anything left over for anyone or anything else. So do all you can to give up your misery. It may be harsh to hear, but often we hold onto our misery for dear life. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story, The Oblong Box, in which a young man goes down to his death in a maelstrom because he will not let go of the coffin of his deceased wife. It makes for a dramatic story, and who doesn’t like a good story now and then? But meanwhile, back in reality, we must do what we can to let go of our suffering. Addiction to our own suffering is one of the hardest addictions to break.
I am not discounting the depths of despair and the severity of depression that can afflict us. Some depression is literally gut-wrenching, blinding, vomit-spewing, diarrhea-producing depression, a howlingly miserable disease of mind and body. I am not saying it is easy or our fault. I am grateful for the medications, and therapies, and procedures that can help those of us who suffer the most acutely. We must do all we can to live our lives with a sense of peace, gratitude, love, and, yes, happiness.
Happiness is the goal, right now. Which means we can’t be unhappy about being unhappy when we’re unhappy. Hmmm. When the alarms go off and we begin to feel like crap, we may not know whether we started off by thinking painful thoughts, or whether something started in our body that made us feel badly and then our thoughts aligned with the crappy feeling and became crappy too.
We may not know and it may not matter what came first, the body or the mind. All we know is that we feel like crap. And that’s the point. Stop and stay with that. You feel badly. At this moment, do not get lost in long drawn-out cascades of psychic babble that you use to justify why you feel this way.
“Well, you see, it started before I was born. I was in my mother’s…”
Save that for your therapy sessions where you can actually work on it. For now, stay with the feeling of feeling badly. Keep breathing. Observe your body. Look for a way to return to happiness.
This is not trivial or shallow. It’s a lifelong work.
Your mom dies. Are you supposed to feel happy on the spot? No, not unless you hated her for torturing you, and maybe not even then.
So what am I saying you do?
We need to explore what we mean by happiness. It’s not giddiness. It’s not being stoned. It’s not irresponsible.
By happiness we mean a deep sense of acceptance, peace, gratitude; being present to the present moment even when it’s the moment of our mom’s death. Even when tears are rolling down our cheeks and words are stuck in our throat. Happiness pays the bills, takes care of the children, does the work, learns the lessons, supports the relationship, cares about others, knows loss, looks to the future, prays to heaven, and buries the dead.
Happiness knows sadness and knows death is coming.
Pay attention and enjoy your life, moment to moment. Live in the present. Look around; let your eyes take in the world and feed you. Bless and be blessed. If you start to feel disconnected, sad, lonely, fearful, tight, worried, or just plain shitty, stay focused on that, riveted as if your life depended on it, because it does—at least your happy life does. Don’t move away. Look for the shortest distance back to happiness, back to your centerline. Do not pass GO. Do not get sucked in by “problems.”
“Are you saying I have no problems?” I hear you asking. No, I am not saying that. I am saying that being unhappy is the problem we are talking about here and now. Fix that first, and fix it fast, if you can. If you can’t, then stay connected to your suffering. Accept it. Do what you need to do to get back the connection with your life and the present moment, even if the present moment is painful. Go to gratitude. Check in with your body. Deepen your breath. Slow down your pace. Look around and see the world. Look at your negative thinking. Pay attention to what it is saying to you and how it is making you feel. See the limiting irrational beliefs, the harsh conditioning, or the pain of early childhood issues.
Be really heroic. Get up, if you can, and dance. Stretch. Recommit to your work or your relationship. Make that phone call. Tell that girl that you love her, or that she scares you. Tell that friend that your feelings were hurt. Go to that beach and tell your story to the waves. Kneel and kiss the ground. Do what you have to do to re-establish the connection to life and the present. Get back to happiness. And don’t knock it. Happiness is not stupid.
If God is love, then maybe we can say that the goal of life is to know God, and to know God is to know love, love for ourselves as we are and for the world as it is, in all its mystery, beauty, and sadness.
Love isn’t sad. Love isn’t disconnected. Love is grateful, joyful, alive, and full of possibility. That’s what you want to get back to. Moment by moment, that’s the prize. Keep your eye on it. It will give you what you need to live your life and solve your problems, even the problems you don’t really have and the ones you don’t ever really “solve.”
We close with a quote by the American monk Thomas Merton that celebrates the transformative power of acceptance and self-love—the foundation of real happiness and one of our deepest connections to the sacred.
“Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself, and if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already have surpassed myself.”—Thomas Merton