I’m looking out of the window at a bright blue sky and the naked tree branches of the end of winter, with new buds waiting for the spring a few weeks away, shivering in the loud wind. For a moment, just a moment, I feel at peace. Just looking out of my window and listening to the wind, there is nothing missing from this moment. I feel, I dare to say, happy like Louis Armstrong in my favorite song of all times.
I’m aware that this state of mind is fragile. In a minute, I will be thinking of what I need to do today, tomorrow, and in the far future. I will start worrying about the pile of todos in my GTD system that I don’t have time to finish, the difficult discussion with my boss that is waiting for me this afternoon and that I’m rehearsing obsessively, the feeling of my own inadequacy, and I’ll be back to my familiar state of hectic anxiety.
I wonder: do we really want to be happy? I look at myself and most of the people I know, and I notice our remarkable gift for postponing happiness and justify why we couldn’t possibly be happy now. An old boyfriend of mine was certain (and tried to persuade me) that we could not be happy until the inevitable proletarian revolution would take place. His belief was the marxist version of my Catholic Sunday school’s teachings: life is a bitch, but if you don’t sin and/or if ask for forgiveness when you do, when you die you’ll end up in Heaven and then you’ll be happy. I give credit to my boyfriend for believing that happiness was possible in this life.
Raise your hand if you think you’ll be happy when life finally gives you a more satisfying job (or, in this economic situation, just a job), or a better relationship, nice warm weather, more money in your 401(k); you’ll be happy when you retire, when you get the money to buy a Kindle, the new MacBook Pro, or a shine motorcycle, that beautiful pair of shoes, or that fancy new table for the dining room. Perhaps you’ll be happy when you move to the West Coast, or to the East Coast, or to that tropical paradise you’ve visited once. You’ll be happy tomorrow. Today is for making your life better.
I thought so. We all hold our breath and wait for the wave to pass, for the rain to stop, and the sun to shine again.
But why? What is preventing us to be happy right here, right now?
A few days ago, while reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings for a class that I’m taking at the Interdependence Project, I found this paragraph on aimlessness:
“If we think we have twenty-four hours to achieve a certain purpose, today will become a means to obtain an end. The moment of chopping wood and carrying water is the moment of happiness. We do not need for these chores to be done to be happy. To have happiness in this moment is the spirit of aimlessness. Otherwise, we will run in circles for the rest of our life. We have everything we need to make the present moment the happiest in our life, even if we have a cold or a headache. We don’t have to wait until we get over our cold to be happy. Having a cold is a part of life.
(…) We don’t need to become anything else. We don’t need to perform some particular act. We only need to be happy in the present moment, and we can be of service to those we love and to our whole society. Aimlessness is stopping and realizing the happiness that is already available. If someone asks us how long he has to practice in order to be happy, we can tell him that he can be happy right now!
(…) I’m happy in the present moment, I do not ask for anything else. I do not expect any additional happiness or conditions that will bring about more happiness. The most important practice is aimlessness, not running after things, not grasping.”
This quote hit me directly between the eyes. If you have run into Thich Nhat Hanh in person or in writing you know that, other than having a lot of Hs in his name, he is a delightful, sweet vietnamese zen monk that writes poetry and knows how to speak to your heart. This book is on the foundations of Buddhism, and as other books on the subject, it has important insights, many numbered lists, and practices to perform. But that quote spoke to me directly.
I could see Thich Nhat Hanh looking right in my eyes and saying: please stop using any possible excuse to avoid to be happy now. Don’t tell yourself that you are not wise enough, that you don’t meditate enough, that you don’t have enough money to retire, that your coworker just yelled at you, that your friend just yelled at your, that the sky is not blue, your mom didn’t love you enough as a child, or that you are socially awkward. Take responsibility for what you are doing to yourself day after day, moment after moment: not paying attention to what can make the present moment the happiest in your life and obsessing about the things that make yourself feel miserable.
Dear friend, continues Thich Nhat Hanh, there is nothing in the future that will bring you happiness if you are not willing to listen to your happiness right now. Some of us are in really ugly situations, it’s true, but even that is not a good excuse to deny ourself the happiness that we could experience if we just paid attention to what is here now.
Perhaps we are afraid of happiness. Perhaps we are just used to be worried and busy, as if our worrying could save us from danger or improve our situation in the future. Perhaps this particular state of peaceful and fulfilled happiness is unfamiliar to us and we don’t recognize it as a useful state of mind. Whatever the reason that makes us focus more on what is missing than on what is there, we should think of the price we pay for procrastinating happiness.
But, I hear you and myself say, how can anybody be happy with all that is happening in the world, the people who are killed, the kids that are dying of hunger or preventable disease right now, the economic crisis that is hurting so many? The old Thay replies:
Yes, there is tremendous suffering all over the world but knowing this need not paralyze us. (…) Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation in the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse. (…) If we don’t know how to breathe, smile, and live every moment of your life deeply, we will never be able to help anyone.”
So, ask yourself, do you really think that something outside of yourself will bring you happiness? Something that may or may not come, that may or may not stay, that may or may not be the way you expect it to be? And how can you be sure that even if this mysterious and elusive thing exists, you would recognize that it’s arrived if you don’t paying attention?
So, I realize, happiness takes responsibility and commitment. Believing that what I’m not yet or I don’t have yet will bring me happiness is such a hurtful illusion. There is no great next thing I’ll be able to buy, achieve, possess, obtain, that will bring me happiness. Deep inside, I’ve always known it. And I know you’ve always known it darn well too.