The pursuit of happiness

In discussions with a friend recently we have been talking about the nature of happiness.  He has recently been on a meditation retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh where the focus was on being happy.  This happiness was focused on the present moment and on being.  I was also pondering this when listening to Ram Dass a few months ago discussing his experiences with his guru Neem Karoli Baba.  I was further prompted to think about this during a discussion with friends on a journey back from Oxford.  I ought to point out that this experience was an interesting one in this context.  I had just finished four very long days in London running programmes and fitting in some informal coaching in the evenings with people who were stuck and wanted help.  The last day finished at just after five o’clock and I calculated that I might just be able to make the 5.47pm train to my home station of Kemble in Gloucestershire.  I got to Paddington station at 5.42, just in time to catch the train to Kemble.  Rushing through the ticket hall of the Underground I squinted at the screen showing departures and platforms (the world has become noticeably hazier over the last 5-10 years and everything seems to be in smaller and smaller fonts, a fact attested to by everyone of a similar age to me but strangely rebuked by the younger generation) and could not see the train to Cheltenham Spa.  However, on further squinting, I noticed the train to Worcester Shrub Hill (the final destination is always changing over the years as they play with trains going via Cheltenham Spa on to Worcester).  I noted the platform and headed for the train, making it with a few minutes to spare.  Once settled on the train, I requested an upgrade from the ticket inspector who seemed a bit surprised but provided me with one.  After some time reading I looked up to check where we were.  I assumed that we were somewhere between Didcot Parkway and Swindon and looking out at the houses I assumed it must be Swindon, although, as I pondered I began to think that the houses did not look familiar.  A dawning sense of dread came over me as I realised that somehow I had been tricked and I wasn’t on the train to Kemble.  I asked the person sitting opposite me where we were to hear that we were just coming into Oxford.  Suddenly my sense of relief at heading home after a tiring week had been replaced with a new adventure.  How on earth was I going to get back home from Oxford?  Fortunately, the guard told me that a train was departing for Didcot Parkway from the opposite platform in 15 mins so I crossed over and began to wait.  At the same time, I began to question why Life might have arranged for me to end up in Oxford.  I was due to meet my friend Mario the next day and it occurred to me that he often works in Oxford so I texted him to ask if by any chance he might be in Oxford and heading home soon (since it was 7pm and Mario works less and less in Oxford, I was dubious that this was likely).  The train to Didcot Parkway was leaving in 5 mins time.  I received a text back from Mario to say that he was indeed in Oxford and was at that very moment just coming out to head home.  On our journey home with another friend of ours we were discussing taking leadership in situations.  Both my friends noticed that they were in positions were they were taking leadership but they were left with a discomfort about the implicit immodesty and power of doing so, who were they to lead?  And yet, the situations they were in demanded leadership and nobody objected to them taking it, indeed they welcomed it.  Our discussion explored what it was in my friends that caused their discomfort and for one of them it was having been bought up in a spiritual tradition where to put oneself forward and to try to lead is seen as egotistical.  I offered the thought that perhaps it is the reverse and not to lead for fear of appearing egotistical is egotistical because one is more concerned with creating the right appearance (of being “good”) rather than responding to what the situation demands or others need.  We then went on to discuss what it is in us that causes this and were talking about the pictures we hold and the attachments to being seen in certain ways.  My friend Claudi, suggested that the real issue was resistance – we all agreed with this.

Spiritual disciplines and practices are concerned in many ways with conquering the ego.  Certainly for my friend who had been on retreat with Thich Nhat Hahn, he was engaged in trying to be in the present moment, where, as he points out, there is no worry.  Worry is only generated by thoughts about the past and the future.  Yet, in a review of a book in New Scientist there was reference to someone whose hippocampus had been badly damaged and who had no memories from early childhood onwards and who could not envisage the future.  The individual had lived in a mental institution unable to cope with life, which as the writer concluded, put paid to the notion of “living in the present”.  As I reflect on this, it also occurs to me that almost all animate life, lives in the present without an ability to conceive of the future or the past, indeed we often curse our fate as humans and wish we were more like other animals in not having to worry about the future or past.  Yet, do we really want to give up on being human?  I have to admit, that I think there is something special about being human and I do not want to give up this curriculum and become a dog instead.  However, when I look around me, I do not see that life seems to be about happiness, or at least, it seems to be one factor among many.  I remember coaching someone who was going through a difficult stage at work.  She was in a very precarious role, with lots of very powerful figures and in the end was asked to leave.  She had a tricky personality to contend with and various sadnesses including loving children but being unable to have them.  She had explored adoption but for a variety of reasons had been unable to adopt.  She said to me that her focus over the coming year was going to be on being happy.  When I enquired, she admitted that this had been her focus for most of her life yet that she had been far from successful.  The concern I expressed for her was that I wasn’t sure that focusing on being happy was a very valuable goal since I wasn’t sure that she controlled this.  As I pointed out, what if Life had an agenda next year for her of her husband dying? She was hardly likely to be happy.  My concern for her was that she might be caught, as she had been so far, in setting up an opposition to the way her life actually was to try and control things she could not control.  Her picture was of herself serenely floating through her life untroubled by any difficult emotions.

So if we are not in control of happiness and if we look around life does not seem to be composed of events designed to facilitate our happiness (death, violence, arguments etc., aging) what is it designed for?  As far as I can tell it seems to be designed as a learning experience. Thus I am not sure that trying to control an ephemeral emotion like happiness is likely to be terribly successful.  I think perhaps how we feel is not important per se.  It is only part of the data in the game.  So it does not matter if we are depressed, angry, sad, happy but rather that we are not resisting these emotions or thinking that they should not be there.  Instead, I think perhaps we are learning instead to understand these emotions and not be so identified with them.  Much of time, working with people seems to consist of simply reassuring them that whatever they are feeling is normal and ok.  Particularly when they are having difficult transits – paranoid? – yep Pluto on your Mercury I remember that one, yes paranoia is pretty normal then.  Something about sharing our experiences allows us to step back from identifying with them, we see that everyone else has similar feelings.  We are all in it together, wrestling with these problems and difficulties.  Indeed one of the biggest indicators that it is all ok is that we can laugh together at the absurd experience of life.  I found myself the other day meeting up with a client who asked me how I was.  I thought about it and I told her I was depressed.  She was immediately worried and asking me what was wrong and what she could do to help, I explained why I was depressed; it was cold, my joints were hurting and something else I can’t now remember had happened but I told her not to worry it wasn’t important it was just how I was feeling and it would probably be gone fairly soon (as it turned out, within a few hours).  I told her that I thought Life was pretty depressing at times so it seemed fairly normal to be depressed about it.  Don Juan says that the only enemy of wisdom is self-importance and indulgence: taking our emotions (and ourselves) too seriously and I think he is right.  The trouble I realised with the pursuit of happiness is that it makes us think that any other emotion we are feeling is somehow wrong and then we have set up an opposition to our life as it is and we are truly stuck.

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