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Too often our conversations on happiness are superficial at best. When Linda asked me the following questions, I welcomed the opportunity to go deeper.
Q: Was there a pivotal moment in your life when you realized that your happiness was an internal choice that could be made despite your outside circumstances?
I remember the exact moment. It was about three days before I was going to be moving from Texas to California. My divorce had been finalized earlier that month, and I was getting ready to move in with my brother and his family, go to work in my brother's law office, and start law school. I had discovered the Dharma (the Buddha's teachings) about six months before and had developed a daily meditation practice. And I was deeply content about my life's choices.
I was standing in the parking lot of my apartment complex talking with a high-drama friend. He was down in the dumps about something – yet again. And I realized that it was his nature to be down, regardless of what was going on in his life. So I said to him, without ever consciously having had this thought before, “Happiness is a choice.”
That was December of 1998, and I've been making the choice to be happy on a daily basis ever since.
Q: How do you remind yourself that happiness is always within and catch your footing in those whirlwind moments of life that can throw us off balance?
First, I remember to breathe. It sounds simple, but conscious breathing is a powerful tool for transformation in the moment. Anything you do with complete consciousness can stop you up short, bring you back to the present moment, and allow you to asses your situation. The present moment is the point of power. Nothing happens that isn't happening now. So the first step is to get back to right now, and I do that with the breath.
Then I practice gratitude. I've noticed that when I'm unhappy, it's usually because I'm either dredging up the past and stewing over it, or worrying about some future event that might not even arrive. In THIS moment, there's always something to be grateful for. Sometimes, it's just the fact that I can take that breath. Sometimes, it's that I'm being present enough to pause and reflect. It might be, “at least it's not raining.” It doesn't matter what it is. Simply noting that SOMETHING is going well, is enough.
Once I've gotten grounded in the present and remembered that not everything is going to hell, I can decide what to do next. Usually, I take a look at whatever is contributing to my unhappiness and decide whether I want to shift something in my life, or come to accept it just as it is. Both change and acceptance work equally well, provided you're fully committed.
By the way, I used this technique often during chemo. Frequently, the thing I was grateful for was “I'm still alive!” Not something to take for granted, let me tell you. The source of my unhappiness was usually pain or nausea. Sometimes I could take a pill for relief, but at other times, I just had to accept that this was my life in that moment. Once I realized that there was nothing I could do to shift the situation and stopped fighting, I experienced a transcendent calmness. I might still be in pain or nauseated, but my mind was the tranquil eye of the storm going on in my body.
Q: What is your personal definition of happiness today?
It can be anything from a deep sense of peace, to a feeling of ecstatic bliss. The important thing for me, as a Zen Buddhist Monk, is to recognize that happiness is just another mental state. It doesn't define who or what I am. All mental states are constantly in flux, arising and passing away. No matter how happy I am right now, something can happen in the next moment that will make me feel miserable – at least until I notice my misery and make a different choice.
Q: Share three things that bring you happiness.
Nothing brings me happiness. When I was dating my husband, I asked him, “Do I make you happy?” And he said, “No. You don't have that power. But you contribute to my happiness.” At the time, I was disappointed because here I was trying to be romantic, and he was being all philosophical! But then I got his point and decided to marry him.
So with that caveat, here are three things that contribute to my happiness: practicing gratitude, taking in the good, and being of service.
I started a daily gratitude journal in 2010, when I took the Internet version of James Baraz's course “Awakening Joy.” I made an entry on the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I kept it up through my mastectomy, chemo, and radiation. Every day I list things I'm grateful for, things I enjoyed that day, and areas of my life where I feel satisfied. That three-part listing comes from M J Ryan's book “Attitudes of Gratitude.” I try to list 10 in each category, but I won't stop until I have at least 3. Also, I don't allow myself to repeat items from yesterday's list!
I've done gratitude journaling on paper, and I've tried it by sharing my list through email with a dear friend who shared his list with me. Currently, I'm back to paper. But the only important thing is that I do it. I always feel contented afterwards.
“Taking in the good” is a practice taught by neuroscientist Rick Hanson. The idea is that you concentrate on happy events when they arise, and this helps your brain wire new happiness circuits. He explains how and why this works in his book “Buddha's Brain.” I first heard Rick speak in the “Awakening Joy” course.
The last major thing I do that contributes to my happiness is to be of service. In the Five Mountain Zen Order, we quote Bodhidharma's family motto a lot: “How may I help you?”
As of today, I've been 3,000 miles away from home for six weeks, helping my mom to recover after a massive heart attack. I miss my husband horribly, our dogs only slightly less, and our cat a little bit. (I'm kidding! I love our cat.) But I wouldn't be anywhere else, doing anything else. It's been absolutely heartbreaking at times to be here. Like when her cardiologist told her she wasn't going to get any better, and she still feels like crap all the time. Or when she cries due to pain. It's hard work, being a caregiver! But I'm honored to be with her during this sea change in her life. I'm overjoyed that we're as close as we are, and that I get to repay my mother, in a very small way, for everything she's done for me.
It's good to be of service to others, too. I try to do volunteer work every year or two. Throwing money at a problem can be life changing for the recipients, but it helps ME more when I'm on the ground, so to speak.
So those are some things that I do, none of which I invented. I encourage others to find out what helps them to be happy.
Thanks to my friend, Publisher Linda Joy, for these inspiring questions! Let's continue the discussion: please share how you choose happiness in the comments below.
Remember to check out Linda’s new book, “Inspiration for a Woman’s Soul: Choosing Happiness” at http://bit.ly/Happiness_Book to receive the bonus gift bundle!
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~ Rev. Jăbō