Friday, August 24, 2012

Where Happiness Lives

 "Happiness is born from letting go of what is unnecessary."  
(I attribute the above quote to Sharon Salzberg because I first read it in one of her teachings on meditation and, to date, I have found no other source.)

When I read Salzberg's statement and really think about its meaning, the question that arises for me is this:  What does "necessary" mean?  

If you're at all like me, you often say (and think) that you "need" something, when in fact you may just really want it.  When this was pointed out to me several years ago during a conversation about food cravings, I remember thinking that of course I wasn't really under the impression that I needed chocolate, even when I insisted that my body literally required a daily hit of the sweet stuff in order to survive.  As usual, my overly dramatic "I need chocolate" (most likely uttered while the back of my hand was pressed against my brow, swoon-style) was just more of my own special brand of point-illustrating hyperbole, not unlike my "I would die without my morning coffee" assertions and my "I can't handle Mondays" laments. No one ever actually died without caffeine (that I know of, though I am always interested in credible information to the contrary) and Mondays are neither handled nor un-handled. They simply are.  So, although untrue in a literal sense, these types of statements are powerful beliefs I often hold true. And the power I give these non-truths, often without even realizing how deeply I subscribe to them, is what allows me to hold myself captive at times.

That said, what is true, in my opinion, is the old saying - or at least my paraphrase of one variation on the old saying  - that "How you speak determines how you feel and how you feel determines how you act." This is probably why, both anecdotally and according to various credible research studies, the most successful, longest lasting changes come about when we simultaneously address all components of our thinking, feeling, acting selves.  Seems easy, no?  After all, with the exception of a few illnesses that result in loss of ability to control one's behavior, we are in charge - completely in charge - of whether and how we act.   Think about the last time you tried to "give up" something you didn't need but really wanted.  Was it a food?  A material possession?  A relationship or even a particular way of thinking about something/someone?  If all you did was tell yourself "No," each time you reached for that chocolate or slid that Mastercard out of your wallet for yet another impulse purchase, how hard was it to follow through?  Sure, you may have changed the behavior and proven to yourself that a Hershey bar is not actually essential to survival, but where did that take you for the rest of the day? Fixated on how much you still wanted the candy?  Or, if it was a thought process you were working on, did your choice to not lash out at someone eat away at you anyway, so that you felt angry and resentful toward that person in ways that drained your energy and focused all your attention on someone else, rather than on comforting and simply being with yourself?

I am interested in the suggestion I have often heard that it is never really "the thing" that we want, but the happiness we believe it will deliver to us.  Happiness, that invisible, undefinable, sometimes unidentifiable concept that always seems "right over there," just out of reach, though available to everyone else - especially the everyone else's we believe to have nicer homes, happier relationships, better behaved children, more advanced degrees, higher paying jobs, more attractive bodies, and greater health. This makes sense to me on a level I can't necessarily explain, but that seems logical. After all, what about a house - a pile of wood and nails and glass and carpet  - can actually make us "happy"?  Isn't it more about the concept of home, the longing for a place to feel safe and grounded and away from "the world" that fills us with what we think we can achieve through bankrupting mortgages and stuffy, upscale neighborhoods?  Yet because "The American Dream" tends to be more of a fantasy - or even a fiction - than an achievable reality, we stress ourselves out and go into debt and give up precious time with loved ones and the things we really enjoy as we struggle to make more money. On the other hand, sometimes we simply check out of life altogether in the absence of feeling able to achieve what seems unachievable.

I am definitely not suggesting that a complete lack of these things paves the road to happiness.  Poverty and isolation and family dysfunction are often so wrapped up in the depression and anxiety that spirals around us that it is often impossible to tell whether the crises cause the self-defeating feelings or vice versa.  What I am saying, however, is that I have come to believe that happiness continues to evade us because we don't even know how we define it.  We don't know where it lives or what it wants or what it even looks like, but we are pretty sure it is tangible, and we often believe - I think - that there is not enough to go around.  Our rush to beat everyone else to the happiness finish line requires constant dedication on our parts to get all this stuff as quickly (and sometimes as ruthlessly) as possible. 

Contrary to The American Dream story we have been told for decades, happiness is not a right - as much as I wish it were.  Even so, happiness is not an impossibility, either.  In fact, I think we have over-complicated happiness to the extent that we don't believe it can really be as simple as wanting it and finding it and experiencing it.  And that is why we can't yet believe that in letting go of what we do not need we can actually hold onto what we desire. 

This week I am literally letting go of things as I move from one apartment to another.  My new home has less space, less room for "stuff" I have acquired over the years, stuff I don't need, some stuff I don't even want and can't remember where or why I ended up owning it.  But it is a learning process, going through things and thinking about who I really am by looking at what I do and do not need, then thinking about what I do and do not want.  I encourage you to examine the needs and wants in your own life and see what you come up with. Though letting go of our attachments can be a hard and sometimes painful experince, it can be incredibly liberating, too.  And if you are willing and brave enough to try this, even starting with one little "junk drawer" in one room of your house, I bet, if nothing else, you will suddenly find a lot more uncluttered space in your life.  And in that space, where once there were things, there will finally be more room for you.

Happy "letting go" until next time,
~~ Hasky

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