On Happiness

One way to seek happiness is through shopping. Consuming your way to nirvana. Spending, gorging, and bling bling’n ‘til your heart's content. When one is regularly moving toward pleasure and away from pain through greed and gluttony one is practicing hedonism.

Another way to seek happiness is to avoid anything painful or laborious. Run, flee, skedaddle from challenges or difficulties. Anything that might promise exertion, avoid at all costs. Or as Bob Marley said, “Don't rock my boat, I don't want my boat to be rock’n.”

But there is a third alternative to consider. Acceptance. With acceptance you don't try to buy your way out of your constriction and you don't dawn your track shoes and start running. When you accept your situation, it doesn't mean you like it or that you don't do anything about it. If you can avoid either of the first two choices, and give yourself a chance to accept your situation, you can begin to change it. You don’t waste your precious resources by running down dead ends.

I’m not suggesting a leap to acceptance to avoid your feelings. Feel your outrage. Experience your internal protest, emotional riot, and meltdown. Don’t fight it. Expect it. Get in touch with your suffering. To experience your suffering fully is a form of compassion. The word "compassion" literally means to sit with suffering. Through self-acceptance you can begin to heal yourself, which leads to happiness. Acceptance is the key.

There are times when buying things will provide some superficial happiness. And other times when avoidance will be useful. My warning to you is, don’t take yourself hostage by using spending or avoidance habitually. Be aware that when you’re purchasing you could be fleeing your feelings, and when you're fleeing your feelings you could be purchasing some future misery. Whenever you try to fix the human condition by using consumerism and avoidance unconsciously you can end up worse off without knowing it until you're out of money and exhausted.

A lot can be gained from people who practice 12-Step recovery. They've learned to accept and avoid using anything addictive one day at a time. That approach provides many of them with a great deal of happiness.

You can try to buy happiness. You can try and run from problems.  Acceptance offers a third alternative.


Sitting With It

It takes practice and skill to sit. I thought it was easy. How often do I just sit? I'm telling you it's challenging not to cave in and start doing stuff. Like thinking, for example. Whenever I sit I start thinking, stressing or fretting over some new catastrophe that is certainly going to kill me this time. Or daydreaming, that mental excursion designed to help me flee the emotional experience of...whatever. My mind never shuts off. I think so much I really do believe I'm sitting when what I'm actually doing is following my mind, like a parent chasing after a toddler, trying to keep her from wandering into dangerous territory. I can't front­­­­—sitting ain't easy.

I notice other people find sitting difficult, too. They want to explain a problem, solve a problem, ignore a problem, exaggerate a problem, minimize a problem. They can't just sit. Because we have so much difficulty sitting with ourselves, we have difficulty sitting with each other. We all want to do something, even if we don't know what the something is we want to do.

Take, for example, my experience with Pearl, an African American woman I see every Monday.

“My hands are lethal weapons. I can kill you with one blow,” she says as she pushes the front door open to the community mental health office where I work. Scarf tied to her head, white rimmed sunglasses, numerous necklaces, neck scarf, blouse, leggings, and tennis shoes. She looks like some psychedelic space traveler with a mothership parked outside. Her fetid clothing assaults my respiratory system. She refuses to take medication, so her delusions rise even above her body odor.

Tearfully she laments, “They don't like me cause I'm white. Why they don't like me?”

Her mind never stops, often not even for sleep. Persecuted by her own thoughts, she can't sit still.

Her symptoms make it difficult if not impossible to engage her in any meaningful way. (I'm defining meaningful as getting her to begin taking her medication and managing her symptoms.) However, like the rest of us, she is both here and not here, and learning how to sit with her for me is meaningful. Her psychosis lies outside any treatment plan. To be with her, to sit with her, to hold space with her requires that I reduce my narcissistic expectations and be with uncertainty. Accept, listen, and allow her to be who she is. The way that she is. Just sit.

It's not difficult to sit with her. It is difficult to sit with powerlessness, vulnerability, and the shame of knowing I cannot help her. I cannot change her into someone else. It's not difficult to sit with her. It's difficult to sit with the knowledge that my mind can leave me at any time, too.   

Sitting helps you get over yourself. Sitting teaches you how to sit with others. Sitting gives you the experience of powerlessness. Sitting puts stuff in your face. So the next time you see an advertisement for mindfulness, a white woman in a leotard, sitting by a still pond inviting you to sit, remember sitting is not an escape. Sitting is not a vacation. Sitting is work. Don't do anything. Just sit.