The other day I was riding my bike north along the Hudson River, on the bike path. It was a beautiful day and I could see up in front of me a large group of kids, standing along a fence to the right, holding out their hands for riders to high five.
I’ve been reading “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle and though I read parts of it before, once again, when I am ready, I get the lessons I need to learn. Pema Chodron’s book “The Wisdom of No Escape” sat on my shelf for years before I was ready to read it.
This morning I read this paragraph: “Don’t seek happiness. If you seek it, you won’t find it, because seeking is the antithesis of happiness. Happiness is ever elusive, but freedom from unhappiness is attainable now, by facing what is rather than making up stories about it. Unhappiness covers up your natural state of well-being and inner peace, the source of true happiness.”
This past week I have been at the hospital with a dear friend, Emily. I have written about spending time with her and her husband, Len, in the country for years. She is truly one of the most generous and supportive friends I’ve ever known. Emily is in the ICU at Mt. Sinai Hospital and they don’t know what is wrong with her. She’s on a breathing tube and for a few days we thought she had no chance, but yesterday, she seemed to be a bit better. The outpouring of concern has been amazing. I don’t know if Emily knows how deeply she is loved by so many people all over the world.
I got an email today from a friend who wrote: “I’m glad to read that you are becoming happier, and (I) miss the more frequent blogs posts from the past.” I guess it’s true that for a long time, I wrote about the day to day “suffering” and how I was getting through it and now that I truly am happier, I don’t have as much to write (whine) about. I tried not to whine, but sometimes I think I just had to.
Anyway, I am happier and I credit dancing. We watched the Japanese film, “Shall We Dance” the other night and I loved it. I’d seen it when it first came out and I loved it then too. I related to the Japanese accountant who was feeling little joy in his life despite having everything he always wanted – a good marriage, a daughter, a wonderful home – but he discovered dancing and became obsessed with it. Last night, I went to a dance at the JCC (Jewish Community Center) and had a ball. I was talking to a woman who told me she started dancing when she lost her husband and it helped so much with the grief, she now wishes she could dance all the time. She’s been studying for five years and was very good! I look forward to every Thursday night and if there’s a dance, or a special one night class, I take it and I’ve learned so much in just two and a half months, I can’t believe it.
The interesting news my friend told me in his email is that recently he’d met a woman he really likes. Years ago we both talked about going on Match.com and how frustrating it is. Turns out he didn’t have to — he was fixed up by a co-worker, the woman’s daughter! I guess that just shows you, you never know what life has in store and you might as well enjoy each day and do what you love and make the best of your life as it is. I am so happy for him, I really hope that the relationship continues – he sounds so excited. Yay! Becoming happier…it’s a lovely thing. I’m grateful that for today, despite the fact that it’s freezing out, and there’s still so much to be sad about in the world – I can appreciate all the blessings in my life.
Maybe it’s because I am going to visit my daughter next week, or maybe it’s because after many days of rain and clouds, the sun is shining – whatever the reason, I am feeling happy today.
It’s not that I don’t often feel happy, I just don’t write about it very often. Maybe it’s because there are a group of young people downtown protesting near Wall Street and it makes me happy that this young generation is finally taking the stage.
I also feel encouraged about our President, who seems to finally be acting like the person we elected – standing up to the Republicans and the Tea Party. Sometimes it feels like the only people who have the courage of their convictions are people like Jon Stewart, Michael Moore and Bill Maher.
I am not happy that there are so many problems in this world. But for this moment, as I look out the window and see the sun shining and beautiful light – and I know that in just a couple of hours I will be riding my bicycle along the river – I feel grateful for my life. Being alive is a great gift.
Some mornings I randomly open my “Pocket Pema Chodron” just to see what reading shows up for the day. This one seemed so appropriate, I had to share it.
“As we train in opening our hearts and discovering the soft spot, we gradually feel more joy, the joy that comes from a growing appreciation of our basic goodness. We still experience strong conflicting emotions, we still experience the illusion of separateness, but there’s a fundamental openness that we begin to trust. This trust in our fresh, unbiased nature brings us unlimited joy – a happiness that’s completely devoid of clinging and craving. This is the joy of happiness without a hangover.
How do we cultivate the conditions for joy to expand? We train in staying present. In sitting meditation, we train in mindfulness and unconditional friendliness; in being steadfast with our bodies, our emotions, our thoughts. We stay with our own little plot of earth and trust that it can be cultivated, that cultivation will bring it to its full potential. Even thought it’s full of rocks and the soil is dry, we begin to plow this plot with patience. We let the process evolve naturally.
At the beginning joy is just a feeling that our own situation is workable. We stop looking for a more suitable place to be. We’ve discovered that the continual search for something better does not work out. This doesn’t mean that there are suddenly flowers growing where before there were only rocks. It means we have the confidence that something will grow here. As we cultivate our garden, the conditions become more conducive to the growth of bodhichitta. The joy comes from not giving up on ourselves, from mindfully sticking with ourselves and beginning to experience our great warrior spirit.”
Bodhichitta can be translated to “the awakening mind, the acceptance of what is.” Most days I feel able to live this way, some days are more challenging. But it feels like I’m moving in that direction and it’s good.
Last night I went out to dinner with the friend I am moving in with in a few weeks, Abigail. She is also a writer and perhaps the nicest person in the entire world. She brought over some things for the stoop sale my friends Anita and Megan and I are having today. We’re selling books, household things, clothing, all the stuff I want to get rid of so my move is easier. Although it is sad to let go of my books, I’ll be living around the block from a public library and I will be fine.
Abigail and I went for sushi and had fun talking about relationships (she and her husband split up over fifteen years ago) and men and life and sex and work. We have known each other since our kids were four years-old and they are now twenty-one. The four of us went on a vacation to the Yukatan in Mexico when we barely knew each other and had a fantastic time, but that’s a story for another day.
When I came home after dinner, I continued going through my belongings, tossing out what I don’t need, reading old emails, looking at photos and then I went through my jewelry to decide what I wanted to sell. A friend called while I was sorting the jewelry, so I was distracted and probably less emotional about deciding what to sell.
As I was looking at old papers, I found an article about Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard professor who wrote “Stumbling on Happiness.” I cut out the article over a year ago (April 22, 2008.)
In the article, Gilbert says that at one point in his life he went through so many crises at once, his mentor passed away, his mother died, his marriage ended and his son had serious problems in school – but what he found that: “the truth is, bad things don’t affect us as profoundly as we expect them to. That’s true of good things too.”
“People have an inability to predict what will make them happy – or unhappy.”
Gilbert says that if you “take a scale from 0 – 100, people, generally report their happiness at 75. We keep trying to get to 100. Sometimes, we get there. But we don’t stay long.”
“We certainly fear the things that get us to 10 or 20 – the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a serious challenge to our health. But when those things happen, most of us will return to our emotional baselines more quickly than we’d predict. Humans are wildly resilient.”
“Wildly resilient.” I love that.
He says that most of us are great rationalizers. “We expect to feel devastated if our spouse leaves or if we get passed over for a big promotion at work.
But when things like that do happen, it’s soon, ‘She was never right for me’ or ‘I actually need more free time for my family.’ People have remarkable talent for finding ways to soften the impact of negative events. Thus they mistakenly expect such blows to be much more devastating than they turn out to be.”
And then he goes on to say, “We know that the best predictor of human happiness is human relationships and the amount of time that people spend with family and friends.
We know that it’s significantly more important than money and somewhat more important than health. That’s what the data shows. The interesting thing is that people will sacrifice social relationships to get other things that won’t make them as happy – money. That’s what I mean when I say people should do ‘wise shopping’ for happiness.”
“Another thing we know from studies is that people tend to take more pleasure from experiences than in things. So if you have ‘x’ amount of dollars to spend on a vacation or a good meal or movies, it will get you more happiness than a durable good or object. One reason is that experiences tend to be shared with other people and objects generally aren’t.”
“You’ll always have Paris” is so true. I certainly feel it as I discard so many things that I thought would bring me happiness, a necklace, a book, a coat – and they never did.
Reading the article made me realize, that as difficult a period as this has been (mother died, marriage ending, daughter moved away from home, have to move, need a job) – it’s also been an amazingly transformative experience too. I have spent more time with friends and in social situations than I have in years and I have found that my friends have really shown up for me. I’m so filled with gratitude and, although I do at times feel grief and sadness, I also feel happy. My sister and I even had a great talk the other day and that felt really good.
So last night, the song “You Send Me” popped into my head. I played it and danced around the loft to Aretha Franklin. As I danced, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of well being and joy.
I guess last night I hit 100 and today I’ll be back at 75.
After I wrote the last post, “The Summer of Grief, Part II” or “Grief: The Sequel” I thought, wow, how long are people going to be able to read this? This is getting tiresome for everyone, including me. You’d think I was living in a cave somewhere, with no food and no friends and nothing to do but mourn. I live in one of the most vibrant cities in the world, surrounded by all kinds of people, parks, theater, music, summer, tonight I’m going dancing at Lincoln Center with some friends… enough whining.
So I am now choosing to be happy for at least one day. Or perhaps most of the day. Sometimes you can make the choice, even if you know it’s not going to necessarily last.
Yes, I lost my mother. Yes, I miss her. Yes to all the things I am going through. But it is the most perfect of summer days and I am choosing to be right here in this moment and excited about the day.
So forget the last post. Or read it and if you relate, I’m there with you. And if you are more into the joy of the day, I’m there with you too.
I hope I have a good story to tell you about the fantastic day I’m going to have. Or perhaps I’m just a big fat fraud and I will walk out the door and start crying.
Perhaps…perhaps…perhaps. Don’t you love that song? It’s in that fantastic movie about Australian ballroom dancing….Zoe, where are you? I need the name…it’s not Mad Hot Ballroom…it’s……………….help! It’s directed by Baz Luhrmann. Oh, I’ll google it right now. Hold on.
Thank you IMBD. “Strictly Ballroom.” Love that movie! Zoe and I love it.
And may I just add that I am so grateful for this fantastic week of amazing weather on the east coast. And raspberries. As my friend Annie reminded me, raspberries are awesome. As are cherries.
We’ll always have fruit.
As the news of our separation begins to spread, I have had a number of conversations with friends who have expressed unhappiness with their relationships.
“Oh, God, I would love to leave my husband, but I’m terrified of being alone. I just can’t handle it. But I would leave, if I could…I really would. He’s driving me crazy. You are so brave. I wish I could do it. You’re doing it for all of us.”
First of all, let me say I am not brave. I was up last night at 3 a.m. with a bad headache, praying for pain relief and the ability to fall back to sleep. And a lottery win.
Is anybody happy? Let’s start with the definition:
1 Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment. 2. Fortunate. 3. (of words or behavior) very suitable, pleasing.
Unless you are clinically depressed, or dealing with a serious crisis, I think most people show pleasure or contentment some of the time. Fortunate? A lot of us who don’t have jobs now are not feeling fortunate and that is clearly putting a strain on relationships. I would bet that the divorce rate is up right now.
I do know some couples who have the kind of relationship I would like to have. Here’s the story of one of them.
“A” was married rather young, around 26, to a man, “P” who she met at work. He was (is) seven years older than she is and he was either married or separating from his first wife. They seemed to be so suited to each other, A & P, they had very similar backgrounds, the same sense of humor, they almost looked like brother and sister. I remember at one of A’s birthday parties, P made a toast that was so loving, I felt a bit envious. They had two kids, two years apart, and when the kids were young, they moved from the city to the suburbs. This did not please A, but she felt she had no choice, since P was a control freak.
P traveled often for his work and I remember being a little surprised whenever A said, “Yay! I’m so happy when he’s away!” Steve traveled too and though I enjoyed having the time with Zoe, I did miss him.
One summer everything pretty much imploded between A & P. A had an affair. When it turned out that P had already had one, with one of their close friends, it became clear that the relationship was over. They lived together for a time in that War of the Roses way, but once they sold the house, A began a new life that included dating. She also found a good job, it didn’t pay too well, but she enjoyed it. Her two kids, ten and twelve at the time of the divorce, were definitely struggling and it was a bad time for A, who had very little support from her family.
She put herself on a few dating websites and proceeded to go out with pretty much every decent guy in the tri-state area. She slept with a few and tried hard to find a little bit of happiness where she could.
Then one day, a few years into her new life, she told me she saw a guy (L) on-line who seemed thoughtful and attractive. He was wearing a baseball cap in his photo that had the letters of her favorite radio station. After a few emails back and forth, L requested that they meet, since most of the time when you are face to face, you realize that there’s no way you’re going to like this person.
So they met. And that didn’t happen. They liked each other. Immediately. I remember A saying, “I like this guy….but he’s so different from anyone I’ve ever dated.”
And one of her friends, it might have been me, said, “And is that such a bad thing?”
Clearly it wasn’t. They fell in love and although it wasn’t easy, they both have two kids and bringing together two families is always a challenge…and they both have difficult ex’s…despite all that, it worked out. Brilliantly.
In Yiddish the word “beshert” means soul mate. A & L are soul mates and it is a pleasure to know them and witness their love. I am so happy for both of them and I hope someday that I may be fortunate enough to meet my beshert.
In the meantime, I’m just going to try to be happy and get through the nights. And I think I’ll go buy myself a big bottle of Advil and a few lottery tickets.
I am feeling quite happy these days and there aren’t many reasons I can cite for this. The world is a (fucking) mess. Obama and his new team have their work cut out for them. I have no income stream and I don’t know when I will or where it will come from. Several friends are struggling too, looking for work, having lost their jobs or their businesses in this horrible economy. Mumbai suffered horrible attacks recently and something like 170 people were killed. I did read about some incredible acts of bravery that occurred and that inspired me.
Maybe I feel happy because we only have about six weeks left with Bush and Cheney in office. That is one excellent reason to celebrate. Whoo hoo! We may never have to endure another Bush speech. Ever. How thrilling is that?
Maybe it’s because it feels like we are all in this together, everyone is holding their breath to see what will happen in the coming year. We all have something to worry about: jobs, parents, money, illness, kids, the economy, the new administration, the environment. It’s all so bad, so dire, that all we can do is made a decision to feel hopeful.
Or maybe I feel happy because Calvin Trillin was on Jon Stewart last night and he makes me feel happy. He lost his beloved wife, Alice, and he didn’t look particularly happy to be on television, but he goes on. (TV and with life.)
Or maybe it’s because the weather is beautiful and winter hasn’t started yet. That’s a good enough reason.