Happiness in Odd Places

Yesterday I took my son for his one-year well-child visit. In the exam room, there was a calendar with this quote for August:

Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.

Denis Waitley

I can totally buy the first sentence. Happiness isn’t something tangible, so one couldn’t do any of those things with it. I can even buy the first part of the second sentence, that happiness is a “spiritual experience.” There’s some debate in my mind about whether an emotion is spiritual, but in the sense that it’s intangible and internal (and perhaps ineffable), I think spiritual is as good a way of describing it as any.

I’m not sure about the “living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude” part, though. It’s not the love, grace, and gratitude that give me trouble (well, grace always gives me a little trouble); it’s the “living every minute” part. Is it really not happiness if I don’t live love, grace, and gratitude every minute? What is it if I water the garden with love, grace, and gratitude, but I don’t wait in line at the grocery store with them? Was I not actually happy in the garden?

I didn’t know who Denis Waitley was until I Wikipedia-ed him. Perhaps it’s not advisable to put too much energy into analyzing a motivational speaker’s definition of happiness, especially when I’ve got the wisdom of Buddhist monks at my disposal. But it’s been on my mind since I saw it, and I wanted to think it through in writing.

Now that I’ve thought it through, I don’t think this is a definition of happiness I’ll go with. The “every minute” part makes it too black-and-white for me. It doesn’t make sense to me that my feeling of contentment and serenity couldn’t be defined as happiness if I didn’t feel it all the time.

Bouncing Meditation

Kozy Carrier Mei Tai

I’m reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices. It’s not the first time I’ve read about walking meditation, but it’s been very much on my mind. He suggests walking slowly and mindfully, allowing your breath to guide your steps rather than the other way around. “When you breathe in,” he says, “take two or three steps, depending on the capacity of your lungs. If your lungs want two steps while breathing in, then give exactly two steps. If you feel better with three steps, then give yourself three steps. When you breathe out, also listen to your lungs. Know how many steps your lungs want you to make while breathing out.” As we go along, we should modify the number of steps we take per in-breath and out-breath based on what our lungs want.

I’ve started trying to take a mindfulness walk with the kids a couple of times a week. Based on our experiences so far, I think “mindfulness walk with the kids” might be an oxymoron. But I have found another place in my life to apply the principles of walking meditation.

For each of my son’s naps, I put him in a mei tai carrier on my chest and bounce him on my birth ball until he falls asleep. We have white noise on, and sometimes I sing, but often he falls asleep better if I’m silently bouncing him or just humming one note over and over again. Which leaves me not much to do besides bouncing. Today I found myself counting the number of bounces I took on my in-breath, and then counting the number of bounces on the out-breath. I smiled a little because I hadn’t consciously made the choice to do a Bouncing Meditation, but I was pleased that I stumbled upon this means of combining my mindfulness practice with my mothering.

I closed my eyes and focused on my breath. After a few breaths, I felt my shoulders and my face relaxing. I felt kind of floaty, like weight was being lifted from my body allowing me to sit taller without effort. This feeling of serenity and lightness was much nicer than what I usually do, which is stare at the clock wondering when I’m going to be able to lay him down on his little bed.

After he was asleep, I was relaxed and ready to jump into a frantic 15-minute house-cleaning session before the babysitter arrived, humming and smiling as I went. I didn’t make much headway, but at least I felt calm about it.

Happiness is…


Image via Wikipedia

…hearing my children laugh as they played together after breakfast today (and the fact that they weren’t laughing because they were doing something dangerous or destructive).

(As I explore happiness this week, I am recording some of the moments of happiness during my day.)

Small Actions, Big Results

My friend, Lea, shared Sarah Wilson’s blog with me. I don’t read it all the time, but I do check it every now and then, and I happened to check it Sunday. Sunday’s post was about the single most important thing—from Gretchen Rubin’s perspective—that one can do to increase happiness in one’s life. The answer? “Make your bed. Every day.”

I like the simplicity of this answer. I’m fairly convinced that happiness doesn’t come from making huge changes all at once. It’s a matter of shifting one’s perspective, which I think is often a very subtle thing. I heard a story on To the Best of Our Knowledge on NPR this weekend about fonts. On the show, Nicholson Baker, author of the article “A New Page: Can the Kindle Really Improve on the Book?” in The New Yorker last year, told an anecdote that illustrates how important font choice is. In exploring the Kindle, he read a passage from the same book on the Kindle, on his iPod Touch, and in the paper book form. It was funny on the iPod and in the paper form, but the joke fell flat for him on the Kindle. Baker writes in the article, “Monotype Caecilia [the font on the Kindle] was grim and Calvinist; it had a way of reducing everything to arbitrary heaps of words.”

Yes, yes, it’s a small sample size, isn’t objective, and I’m not entirely sure how a font can be Calvinist, but it’s interesting to think that something as subtle (so subtle that most people probably don’t consciously notice it) as font choice could influence so profoundly one’s experience of a portion of text. And Baker isn’t the only one who thinks that font choice can make a big difference. There was apparently an uproar of dissatisfaction when Ikea changed the font in their catalogs from Futura to Verdana, and a great deal of thought and consideration goes into choosing a typeface for books, catalogs, political campaigns, and websites. I just use the default font on the WordPress theme that I chose. So if my posts aren’t interesting, blame whatever font this is.

At any rate, the things that affect our perception are often much smaller than we realize consciously, and I think it’s entirely possible that doing something as small as making my bed every day could help me feel happier. I wonder what other small things I could be doing to up my happiness level…


A Look Back at Week 2, and Looking Ahead to Week 3

This past week has brought me some promising experiences, like actually feeling happy, which is a nice treat, as well as more questions. I think the main thing the mindfulness is doing is opening a little path through the thoughts to the emotions that lie beneath. I think I buffer myself a lot of the time with my brain. This prevents me from connecting deeply with myself or with anyone else. Cutting through the mire of thought gives me access to the happiness underneath, but it also opens me up to the pain, doubt, and fear that reside down there. The past two weeks, I’ve found my eyes tearing up with surprising frequency, although I’m not exactly crying and I’m not exactly sad. It’s more a feeling of fullness. That leaks out of my eyes. I think it’s a result of just feeling more than I have been.

This week I’ve had the chance to examine some superstitions I apparently hold around feeling happy. And I’ve had the opportunity to see what happens when I pull back from mindfulness: I start feeling overwhelmed and irritable and uncharitable again.

Saturday night we went to a barbecue at a friend’s house. Most of the people there were my husband’s coworkers and their families. My children comprised 50% of the children there. I was the only one wearing a skirt. And Birkenstocks. These things may have contributed to my feeling outside of the group, but I had the sense that my mindfulness was keeping me away from social connections, too. Well, not the mindfulness directly, but my kind of pulling-into-myself defense of that core of feeling I’m just starting to expose to the world via mindfulness. I also noticed that I have trouble thinking of things to say when I’m aware of my judgmental thoughts. (How full of judgment have my conversations been in the past? I shudder to think.) I’m hoping that as I grow more accustomed to mindfulness and to feeling more emotions I will gradually be able to connect with others better and more empathically. Baby steps.

I’ve basically abandoned a written emotions log. I just can’t seem to record my emotions. But I am pausing several times a day, becoming aware of my emotions, and reflecting on the needs behind those emotions. While I don’t have a record to analyze for patterns, I am at least doing the work of being more aware of my emotions and needs.

The breathing is going beautifully, though. I really enjoy it and it really seems to help ground me.

For Week 3, I want to explore a bit more what happiness is. In her book, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin writes about defining happiness,

“I decided instead to follow the hallowed tradition set by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who defined obscenity by saying ‘I know it when I see it,’ and Louis Armstrong, who said, ‘If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know,’ and A.E. Housman, who wrote that he ‘could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat’ but that he ‘recognizes the object by the symptoms it evokes.'”

While I think this is probably a reasonable overall definition of happiness, I think I might be able to hone it a little more to define my own personal happiness. Specifically, what does it mean to be “happier”? Would I feel happy more often? Would my baseline emotional level be a couple notches up? Would I simply experience a deeper lever of happiness when I did feel happy? Am I still “happier” if the happiness I feel is still tinged with that underlying fear and superstition? Of course, that last question starts to get into the realm of “am I doing it right?” which is probably not terribly helpful.

I’m really intrigued by the idea, which I’ve seen attributed to both the Dalai Lama and Aristotle but which may well have been asserted by others, that happiness results from virtuous action. I don’t really know how to pin down a meaningful definition of virtue, so I don’t know how to analyze this assertion. It seems logical that happiness wouldn’t result from immoral or harmful actions. At least not lasting happiness. And then there’s the whole issue of the flexible definitions of “moral,” “ethical,” and “virtuous” that gives me a whole hatful of trouble. I would like to find a way to think through this without getting sucked into a semantic vortex. Or perhaps the trouble is that I’m trying to use my mind to understand something that exists in my heart. Did I mention a vortex? I’m clearly swirling about down here.

At any rate, I want to make sure that I keep a picture of my goal in mind as I go about honing and practicing my resolutions so I can be reasonably certain I’m following the path that I mean to. It’s very easy for me to seek refuge in my mind, where I feel safe and protected but alone, rather than exploring my emotions, where I worry there may be a Pandora’s box that, once opened, will unleash feelings and emotions over which I have no control. One thing of which I’m certain: growth and change don’t generally happen when I feel safe. Perhaps that can be one of my measures; if I’m feeling unsettled and maybe even rebellious, I’m probably on the right track. If I’m feeling safe, maybe I should consider shaking things up.


More Thoughts on Happiness

It is self-evident that a generous heart and wholesome actions lead to greater peace and that their negative counterparts bring undesirable consequences. Happiness arises from virtuous causes. If we truly desire to be happy, there is no other way to proceed but by way of virtue: it is the method by which happiness is achieved. And, we might add, that the basis of virtue, its ground, is ethical discipline.

HH the Dalai Lama

I’m not clear what he means by “virtue” and “ethical discipline.” It seems like both of those things are dependent on culture since morally right and ethical behavior varies by culture. Is there a universal path to happiness, or is it always subject to interpretation through one’s cultural lens? Or are the cultural differences in morals and virtues just in surface behaviors, and the deeper morals and virtues are universal?

For that matter, does “happiness” always look and feel the same to different people? I recently read Crazy Like Us by  Ethan Watters (well, I read half and skimmed the rest) in which Watters provides evidence to suggest that mental illness manifests itself and is effectively treated in different ways in different cultures and in different times. If depression looks different in the US than it does in Japan, does happiness look different, too?

Suspicious of Happiness

This morning I went about my normal routine (such as it is with two kids), and somewhere in the middle of cleaning up breakfast, I noticed that I was feeling happy. First I thought, “Wow! This is nice!” But after a few moments of being aware of my happiness, I noticed that under the happiness was the suspicion that by being happy I am inviting Bad Things to happen. There is an undercurrent of fear and suspicion and also the sense that, by feeling fearful, I’m protecting myself from Bad Things happening. Kind of like touching wood only perhaps more neurotic. Logically, I know this doesn’t make sense, but since when are emotions logical?

Where does this come from? Is it genetic or is it a learned response? Am I destined to keep feeling this fear underneath my happiness, or is there a way I can un-learn this reaction? Or maybe this fear is there to keep me from becoming complacent in my happiness, and maybe I don’t want to do away with it? What would happen if I had happiness without fear?

Maybe It’s Working?

I went to a step aerobics class last night.

Last night was the second class I’ve taken in 7+ years, when I used to take step classes twice a week at the gym at work. Back in the day, I loved step classes; they were the only time in my life that I’d ever felt coordinated (well, except for high school marching band). But the first class back after that long hiatus was pretty humbling. I couldn’t understand the instructor’s cues. (Did he say “sit down pongo”? What the heck is that? Mambo step pivot straddle, 180 over, exit to the back? Is that even possible?)  I especially had trouble on turns. For some reason, I always ended up facing everyone else in the class. I spent much of the time comparing myself to the other steppers. The woman in front of me never missed a step. The woman behind me looked lost a couple of times, but not nearly as much as I did. I started to feel frustrated and angry. When the class was over, I considered never going again.

But the time I had available to work out last night coincided with the time of the step class, so I decided to give it another go now that I’d had a week and a half of mindfulness. I still got lost. I still found myself face-to-face with everyone else in the class after at least half of the turns. But about halfway through I realized: I was happy! I wasn’t just tolerating the class. I was actively enjoying myself. I was even smiling. Embarrassment still found me several times, but the fact that I was happy at all was pretty remarkable.

I know it’s way too soon to conclude anything about the roll mindfulness may or may not have played in my uncharacteristic enjoyment of an activity in which I did not, to say the least, excel, but I found it encouraging that I had such a positive emotional response.

I wonder what need was being met in that moment. I was doing better than in the first class, so perhaps that met my need for competence or growth. One of the things I was really loving was moving to the rhythm of the music, so maybe there was some rhythmic need that was met. It certainly met my need for physical exercise. And I met two of my commandments in that class, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly,” and “Risk looking silly.”

Not only that, but I took the kids to the park today and didn’t hate it! I might be on a roll.

Grateful for the Dishwasher Delay (Well, Almost Grateful)

I won’t go into the details, but we still don’t have a working dishwasher.

Tonight, we decided to make a real meal rather than just eggs. Since the demise of the dishwasher, we’ve been eating a lot of eggs in an attempt to make fewer dirty dishes. Tonight, I made two pots of pasta (wheat and gluten-free), sauce, sauteed greens, and gluten-free bread. It took me about an hour to do all of the dinner dishes. It felt like forever. But it gave me lots of opportunities to be mindful. I would start to get grumpy, then I would take a deep breath and make note of my emotions and what needs were not being met by the circumstances. Then I would feel grateful and serene for a few moments before I would feel grumpy again and the cycle would run through once more.

It was interesting to find that the thought that kept coming to me was that it was unfair that I should be doing the dishes. We should have already had a working dishwasher. I should have made something simpler for dinner. What’s the emotion that goes with that thought? Feeling put-out, maybe? Sulky? Is “sulky” an emotion?

At any rate, I was pleased to find that when I turned this thought around and examined it, asked myself in what way my doing dishes by hand was unfair, the thought disappeared (albeit momentarily).

I started to think ill of my efforts. I must not be doing very well with this mindfulness thing if I was still having so many negative feelings. But, after another deep breath, I reminded myself that the point isn’t to not feel any negative feelings; it’s to be mindful of my feelings and not let them run my actions unchecked. I remembered Gretchen Rubin writing about her resolution to imitate a spiritual master. Rubin writes how St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the spiritual master Rubin had chosen, “tells the story of how she once broke into a sweat at the effort to conquer her annoyance when a fellow nun made maddening clicking noises during evening prayers.” And she was a saint.

I can almost feel grateful that we don’t yet have our new dishwasher because it’s given me a chance to practice mindfulness and to have these little insights about myself. At the very least, I’ve stopped obsessing about how great it will be once we have the new dishwasher. It will be a time-saver, but it won’t be life-altering. We couldn’t afford the model with that feature on it.

Motherhood as an Opportunity for Spiritual Growth

Today is my son’s first birthday. One year ago today, I first snuggled with him warm against my chest and basked in the expansiveness of birth and complete and total love.

I try to remember that feeling daily, but caring for a baby and a five-year-old often leaves me more negative than I would like. The past year is a blur, even more than the first year of my daughter’s life was. I feel utterly disoriented in time. I feel frightened at how quickly time has passed. Will it continue to speed up? Will I turn my head to notice something else and when I turn back, my children will be grown?

I know I can’t hold onto them as children, nor would I want to, really. But I would like to hold them in this moment and notice them for who they are now instead of wishing them on to a less challenging stage (which I’m fairly certain doesn’t exist. Everyone I talk to assures me that as some things get easier, other things get more difficult).

I found a message about compassion and happiness by the Dalai Lama that has given me much to consider. One of the points I’m pondering on the anniversary of my son’s birth is this:

I must emphasize again that merely thinking that compassion and reason and patience are good will not be enough to develop them. We must wait for difficulties to arise and then attempt to practice them…For a person who cherishes compassion and love, the practice of tolerance is essential, and for that, an enemy is indispensable. So we should feel grateful to our enemies, for it is they who can best help us develop a tranquil mind!

Now to be clear, I don’t consider my children my enemies. But too often, I do find myself viewing them as my adversaries. “Why are they doing this to me?” I think. “Why can’t they give me a break?”

Of course, they’re not doing anything “to” me. They’re simply trying to meet their emotional and physical needs in the only way they know how. They can’t give me a break because we are in a relationship. They need my love, and I need their love. They need to give me their love, and I need to give them my love. But they do offer many, many (many) opportunities for me to practice compassion and reason and patience. I would love to feel grateful to my children for such opportunities. That seems like it might be the advanced level of this process, though. If I can just remain calm in the face of situations to which I would otherwise respond with anger and harsh words, perhaps I can assume positive intent, be my best self, and strengthen our relationship rather than simply trying to get them into the car or out of the tub or home from the park. But the first step is just awareness. Just breathing and being and noticing.

The biggest challenge for me in this endeavor will, I think, be letting myself practice and not viewing it as a test that I’ll either pass or fail. It’s not about being Good Mom or Awful Mom. It’s about growing with my children and making my best effort to be there for them and to let them be there for me.

It’s always so much easier to write this stuff when everyone’s asleep and the house is quiet than it is to remember it and actually practice it when my daughter screams, “Never!” to me in response to a request not to pet her brother’s face with her feet or when she perches him on top of a chair and then walks away.

Baby steps. The only thing I need to do this month is increase my awareness. I don’t need to actively change anything.

Have others had success feeling grateful about situations that challenge you? What challenges in your life have you found to be the best opportunities for growth?