I pulled out an old family album to show my granddaughter, Naia, pictures of her mom when she was her age. Naia got distracted after a few minutes but I was hooked. It’s amazing to look at old pictures and realize, this was my former self. I peered into my own past eyes and, as the pictures of me got progressively older I noticed that, after a dark phase, my smile became increasingly brighter. It made me wonder, what is it about my present self that is happier than my former self? What would I tell the young woman in the pictures about being happy?
I have written, in these newsletters, about the joy of my home, family and garden. That aliveness, the aliveness I see reflected on my face when looking in a mirror, is not the product of dreams that have come true. On the contrary, most of my dreams have not come true. Nor is my current happiness due to greater health and vitality, recognition in my field, or having found the perfect partner. My health has been a constant challenge, recognition in my field has eluded me and the blessing of a life partner has not been in the cards. Other dreams have slipped through my fingers as well. Since childhood I’ve carried, deep within me, a vision of creating a retreat center on beautiful acreage. My father planted that dream in me one summer when he took me with him to Vancouver to look at some land that was for sale. I was enchanted by the green moss, rolling streams and the idea of a place where people could live and work together, a place that would be of benefit to the world. This dream comes from deep within my DNA, from grandfather, to father, to me. But the realization of that dream died with my father. So what can my current, authentic well being possibly be attributed to?
The question, what creates real and lasting happiness, is of prime importance to each one of us, particularly parents. A joyful heart is the greatest gift we can give our loved ones. A joyful heart is clearly not dependent on money. A number of studies have concluded that once our income reaches a few notches above poverty level, once our basic needs are met, our relative happiness quotient starts leveling off. A working class family is as likely to be happy, or unhappy, as a wealthy family. We need enough money to procure food, shelter, clothing, health care and other necessities. After those conditions are met, something else super cedes material gain as an indicator of potential happiness. Nor is happiness dependent upon health, as there are many examples of people who find joy in the midst of illness and even deformity. A joyful heart is not contingent upon being born into a traditional family configuration, religious or sexual orientation or level of education. Happiness transcends all of these factors. This is actually great news. It means that the bar for happiness levels off and becomes attainable for most, if not all, of us.
Having searched for happiness down many a dark alley I’ve finally found it hiding in plain sight, within the present moment, regardless of what the moment holds. The present moment might hold pain, or loss, or a party, or a book. A joyful heart is not dependent on fortunate circumstances. This is the second piece of good news. Not only is a joyful heart possible for all of us, regardless of where we find ourselves in our life, a warm, richly textured life is available right in the middle of our current now, and nowhere else. We may feel sadness or anger or even hopelessness, the richness of life resides in those moments as well. This has been my experience, as the aliveness of so many of the sad songs I’ve sung can attest to. It’s not being sad, or angry or hopeless that separates us from the richness of life. The problem lies in either pulling away from our authentic experience or, alternately, hanging on to it. That avoidance of or attachment, rejection or clinging to our present experience makes life unbearable. It stops up the works. A joyful heart is found in intimacy with the moment, whatever the moment holds.
I have found my own joyful heart in the midst of lost dreams. The practice of meditation and wisdom studies has built up a patina in my consciousness over time. That patina is made up of sad, happy, angry, peaceful and hopeless moments that have been intimately entered into. What I would tell my younger self about happiness is this; happiness is not created by getting what you think you want but by deeply embracing your life as it is right now. What a wondrous thing it is to be alive! There is magic in every particle of dust. Being aware of the aliveness offers access to that magic. This is why mindfulness is being taught for everything from dealing with chronic pain to parenting. It really works. And it deepens as the years of practice go on. Surrendering to the present moment is so simple. Try it. Right now- what do you feel? Relax into that. Allow it to be there without clinging or rejecting what you find. Allow thoughts and feelings to fly through your consciousness unencumbered. What does it feel like in your body right now? Are you buzzing with plans? Restless? Feeling heavy? Elated? Blah? Watch the feelings deepen, abate and shift. Witness the constant shifts. Allow the shifts to happen without commentary, embarrassment or pride. How alive it is to be you right now! That is what I would say to my younger self. Have your dreams, build your castles, but find your aliveness in the present moment. Ultimately, that is your life.