The Grace of a Saving Question

happy now 3The morning was cold and wearing, yet again, its heavy gray sweater of sky.  I lugged my bags of recyclables out to my car in the rain, feeling a little cheated by the weather.

As I drove to the county’s recycling center, the sight of a little clump of leafless trees along the roadside sent a stab of disappointment through my middle.  The colors are going to be gone, and we haven’t had one day of sunshine to see them in their glory, I thought, pouting.

Ordinarily I would have caught the direction my thoughts were traveling right there and gently steered them around.  But just then, I happened to be passing the very spot in the road where, 19 years ago next month, my teenage son was killed when he lost control of his car and flew over the bank and into a tree.

Because nineteen years have passed, I’m no longer grieving, but the reminder of my son’s accident anchored the disappointment I had been feeling all morning.  I relaxed into it a little, noticing how like the weather it was—heavy and gray, and accepting it as nothing more than psychic weather of my own, a little front of gloom that had floated into my morning.

But the difference between the weather outside and my own mood is that I could choose to blow my internal dreariness away.  Regardless of what’s happening in the outside world, I get to choose how I will feel.  So I asked myself my pet question:  Why am I so happy now?  And sure enough, answers starting flowing from my mind:  My car was running so well, and I was so cozy in the warmth from its heater.  It was Saturday, and I had two whole days to spend as I please.  And even though I had lost my son, he was such a joy that just remembering him made me glad for all the years we got to spend together.

By the time I got to the recycling center at the park, I was awash with gratitude for the richness of my life.  The rain was fine, the trees were breathtaking in their freshly washed beauty, and I was centered in my happiness and glad to alive.

That’s the beauty of practicing happiness.  You know how to come back to it when gloom fronts move in.  You let yourself breathe, you relax your face into a small smile, you entertain the grace of a saving question:  Why am I so happy now?  Why?  Because I can be, and I choose it and embrace it as my most authentic state.

High Noon Happiness

shineIf you want to make the world a brighter place, the only way to do it is to shine.

Shine your shoes, shine your smile, and turn up the fire in your heart.  That’s the ticket.  Just be your best you.

Polish up your talents, polish up your act, buff up walking your talk.

Be a blaze, be a moonbeam, be a candle in the dark.  Let your glow out, do your dazzle up, radiate some beams.  Show your shimmer and your glimmer and your twinkle and your rays.

If you shine, and I shine, and she shines and he, if each of us kicks it up a notch, this here marble could give the sun a run or two for brilliance.  What do you say?

The Happiness of Remembering

treasure“Mom?” my seven year old son said as I was driving him to school.  “Yes, Nathan?”  I replied.

“Where do all the yesterdays go?”

My mind reeled at the depth of his question.  I had no idea how to answer.  And so I said to him, “Where do you think they go?”

He was quiet for a moment and then replied, “I think they all gather together somewhere and make a beautiful secret.”

I think of that moment sometimes in autumn when I gaze at the beauty of the fallen leaves, and I wonder if their glow is a signal from the secret place where all the yesterdays are gathered.

Look at a fallen leaf.  Hold one in your hand, and see if it doesn’t evoke for you golden memories of days gone by, of childhood autumns charged with the brilliance of painted leaves, blue skies, crisp air.

My earliest autumn memories are of the neighborhood’s fathers raking leaves into huge piles on Saturday afternoons, and of great V’s of honking geese flying overhead.  I think of the return to school, dressed in new clothes and carrying a box of new crayons with their delicious new-crayon smell, and rulers and pencils and protractors and notebooks full of lined papers and promises of all I would learn in the coming school year.  I think of Halloween with its pumpkins and costumes and parties, and bonfires and the first snow and how cold my nose felt breathing the frosty air.  I think of football games beneath the glare of stadium lights and the raucous cheers of the crowd and the brass and drum of the marching band.  I think of hot cider and the fragrances of roasts and squashes wafting from the kitchen oven.  And like the leaf I hold in my hand, the memories give off a warm, golden glow.

The secret place where yesterdays gather is beautiful because it contains all the moments that brought us to where we are right now, all the experiences, all the choices, all the lessons, all the joys.  It holds the record of our unfolding, our expanding complexity and breadth.  It’s the storehouse of our judgment, discernment and wisdom, built from all the hours of our lives.  It holds all our laughter and all our tears, our hours of celebration and of grief, our triumphs and our failures, our losses and our gains.  In it, every thought we ever thought is collected, every detail of every sensory perception, every texture of every emotion, and the stirring of every potential we ever explored.

It’s secret because it’s too much to say.  It takes a lifetime to build it, and it grows with every breath we take, compounding the moments into a treasury of personal wealth, turning them to gold.  But we can access it any time we choose, and revel in its riches.  One key is simply to pick up an autumn leaf and hold it in your hand.

Ceaselessly Flowing Joy

Ceaseless JoyOnce I read a set of “Adorations to the Sun,” that purported to be a translation of the prayers the Egyptians offered to their sun-god, Ra, at sunrise, noon, sunset and midnight.

While all four possessed great power and beauty, my favorite was the one offered at sunset.  It begins with these lines of praise:

“Glory be to Thee, O Lord of Life, for Thy joy flows out to the ends of the universe.”

In the hearts of the Egyptians, the nature of the light streaming forth from the sun, the lord of life, was joy.

Contrary to popular understanding, it wasn’t the physical sun the Egyptians worshiped.  Our sky’s light-giving orb, indeed the powerhouse for all life on earth, was simply an outer symbol of an ineffable, benevolent, life-giving power they called “the sun behind the sun.”  And how wondrous that they identified the essence of its animating spirit as joy – ceaseless, eternally flowing joy!

I remembered this story today when I went out, after a rather trying day at work, to look for a photo for my photo project.  All day, deep, colorless clouds had blanketed the sky.  The temperatures had dropped to just a few degrees above freezing, and a light rain was starting to fall as I grabbed my camera and left the warmth of my car.

It’s the height of the fall season here, and heaps of orange and gold leaves were scattered beneath my feet.  As I looked at them through my camera, I was suddenly spellbound by their beauty.  Their dazzling hues transported me to another dimension of being where everything that greeted my eyes was vibrantly, joyously alive.  The wind and rain invigorated me.  The wild rustling of leaves overhead sounded like a symphony.  I saw birds gliding on the great currents of wind as if they were skateboarding through the sky.

Poking out from behind a rusty old bridge support, I spotted a shout of red and saw that a little clump of pink fall flowers was rising from the midst of the foliage.  And when I stooped to look closely, I saw a dozen golden suns peering up me from center of the sunset-pink petals.

That’s when the lines from the adoration sang in my mind:  “Thy joy flows out to the ends of the universe.”  All the way to this small cluster of flowers, to these autumn leaves strewn on the ground, to these eyes of mine, seeing their beauty, to this heart of mine, overwhelmed now with the awesome joy of it all.  Glory be to Thee, indeed, O Lord of Life, to the sun behind the sun, by whatever name we know Thee.

The Happiness of Dreaming

DreamAs lightly as leaves floating on a stream, our fantasies drift across our minds.  Falling from the high realms of possibility, they paint their tantalizing dreams.

In them, we dress in improbable colors, so different from those we’ve known in all the seasons gone by.  We try on brighter roles where our potential is set free, where we no longer cling to the known, but fly.

The brave among us seize their dreams, seeing in them an image of realities they can, with daring and effort, create.  They see in their dreams visions of a future they can indeed choose and claim.

“What if?” they ask, allowing themselves to consider a new course.  “Why not!” they exclaim, seeing in their dream a reflection of their heart’s true desires.

All that keeps you attached to anything less than your fullest life is fear.  But once you put your trust in yourself and in life’s ability to support and guide you, anything is possible.  If your dream is dazzling enough, pure enough, if it truly calls you, dare to meet it with courage.  Ask yourself what you would be willing to do to make it real, and what you are willing not to do any longer.  And then you will be on your way.

The Happiness of Good Intentions

happy now 2More and more every day I fall in love with my happiness question:  “Why am I so happy now?”  And I must say I think my question loves me back because it keeps bringing me new giggles and revelations.

I was reading tonight about how the intentions we set for ourselves determine our direction.  When I get out of bed intending for the day to be filled with meaning and gladness, that tends to be exactly what I get.  And my happiness question is the perfect container to hold that intention.

In case you missed it earlier, my happiness question is what started this whole blog.  Formally, it’s called a “Positive Affirmative Question.”  It starts with a “Why?” that won’t let your brain rest until it starts producing answers.   I take my happiness question with me wherever I go, and ask it of myself whenever I think of it.

In addition to the power of its structure, it’s magical because it captures so perfectly my intention to discover ever greater, deeper, more meaningful and satisfying happiness in my life.  It reminds me that happiness is what I choose for myself, that it’s my will to live in happiness, to taste and savor all its dimensions and flavors.

Sometimes I use a Positive Affirmative Question to focus on other qualities or traits that I want to increase in my life.  As I look out over the landscape of my day in the morning, I think about the positive outcomes I want to create and ask myself what strengths I can use to generate them.  If I have a huge stack of pressing tasks waiting for me at the office, for example, I may decide that being focused and productive would work in my favor.  So I wrap my intention in a Positive Affirmative Question and take it with me to work.  I write it on a sticky note and fasten it to my computer screen:  “Why am I so focused and productive now?”   If I’m heading out on a photo excursion, I ask myself  “Why am I taking such beautiful pictures now?”

Whatever direction you want your day to go, wrapping your intention in a Positive Affirmative Question is a powerful way to keep it in mind.  Try it, and watch how it shapes your choices and calls your attention to opportunities to move in harmony with your goal.

The Happiness of Stillness

stillnessWe were talking last week, some friends and I, about the tendency in today’s world for people to bombard themselves continuously with sound.  It rumbles from cars and fills the air in every shop and market.  It’s in our elevators, waiting rooms, and offices.  We stuff our ears with buds of it when we’re walking in the park or out for a morning run.

The instant we arrive home, it’s on with the stereo, the radio, the TV.  Their sounds play into the night and wake us in the morning.  “It’s audio wallpaper,” a coworker once told me when he brought in a tiny desktop TV; “I can’t think without it.”

An ingrained habit, it’s almost like an addiction, this craving for continuous sound.  For the most part, people aren’t listening for pleasure; they may not be paying attention to the music or talk at all. But deprive them of it, and it puts them on edge.  They don’t know what to do without the stimulation and distraction it provides.

If you’re someone whose world is continuously filled with man-made sound, I’d like to make a suggestion.  As a happiness experiment, try weaning yourself from it so you can discover the pleasure and calm of ambient and natural sounds.  Learn to listen to the background music that life itself provides—the sounds of the city, of your workplace, the particular music of your home.  Listen to the wind, to the tone of peoples’ voices, to the laughter and cries of children, to the songs of the birds, the barking of dogs.

Then move deeper and explore the sound of yourself—the rushing of your thoughtstream, the movement of air in and out of your nostrils, your footfalls as you walk, the sounds you make when you eat, the tone of your own voice in all its moods and modes of expression.

Learning truly to listen quiets us; it opens our attention to new layers of being.  When we listen to the sounds of the world, we get to know it in a whole new way.  When we learn to listen to others, it opens our heart to them, broadening and strengthening our connections with them, deepening our appreciation for them, and our affection.  When we truly listen to ourselves, we uncover new dimensions of self-knowledge; we discover thoughts and emotions that had gone unnoticed before and gain the opportunity to consciously respond to them.

Beneath the sounds, upholding them all, lies a fathomless stillness, the layer of pure being and peace found through meditation.  Learning to listen is a kind of waking meditation that helps you realize that it’s there, in all its shimmering beauty.  You begin to sense its presence between the syllables of words, beneath machinery’s hum, supporting the whispering breeze.  You feel it upholding the beating of your heart, the breathing of your lungs.  And when you listen quietly and fully enough, its peace will seep into your awareness, and you’ll discover its nature is love.

A Happiness Nugget

gold nuggetOld Hank was a cowboy philosopher back in the gold rush days, known far and wide for his smile and twinkling eyes.  He never struck it rich, and in his years he had seen some hard times.  Enough of them, in fact, to have left a lesser man bitter and mean.

But Hank was no lesser man.  He was strong and kind, capable and self-possessed in an easy-going, unassuming kind of way.

Men tipped their hats to him when he came into town, and offered to buy him breakfast just to enjoy his company.

Mostly they wanted to know how he kept his happy disposition after all the trials and tribulations he’d been through in his life.  And this is the tale he told them:

“No point in being miserable.  When you wallow in your troubles, they got you lassoed.  You don’t get out of the desert by thinkin’ about how hot and thirsty you are.  You picture the creek and green grass in the mountains up ahead.  When you’re stuck in a  blizzard, you focus on the fire and biscuits you’ll have when you get home.  When you finally get there and have that fire going and those biscuits baking, that’s the time to wallow.”

“It’s kind of like panning for gold,” Hank would tell them.  “You pay no attention to the rubble; you just keep on looking for that gleam.  Then – when you find a nugget – that’s what you tuck it in your pouch and take home.”

The Magical Power of “Thank You”

thank you, pumpkin“What do you say?” our mothers prompted us whenever we received a favor.

“Thank you,” we mumbled, embarrassed to be reminded yet again.

If the lessons took, the phrase rolls automatically from our tongues once we reach a certain age.  We say it without a thought.  But if you’re seeking to build greater happiness in your life, few tools will help you as much as learning to say  “thank you” with mindfulness, to say it from your heart.

“Thank you” is much more than a polite saying for greasing the wheels of human interaction.  It’s a genuinely magical phrase that, rightly applied, has the power to lift and heal and bring new light to nearly any situation in which we might find ourselves.

One of the best ways to experience its power is to use it as a kind of mantra as you go through your day.  Speak it silently as often as you can, to everyone and everything you notice.  And speak it out loud to those who bring you pleasure and give meaning to your life.

Repeat it silently to all that’s lovely and whole, to everyone and everything that sparks gladness in your heart.  Let it lace your thoughts as you go about all your ordinary activities.  Say it to your toothbrush in the morning and to the mirror and the face you see there.  Say it to your refrigerator and to the light switch and the faucet.  Say it to your car or bus, to your legs, to elevators and doorknobs.

Then kick its magic up a notch.  Practice silently saying “thank you” to everyone and everything that disturbs you and watch what happens inside yourself as you do.  Watch it reveal hidden judgments and unconscious values.  Watch as it refocuses your viewpoint and shows you new angles from which to view things.  Say it to tasks you normally shrink from.  Say it to traffic and garbage.  Practice it when someone is irritating you, or boring you, or offending you and watch how it impacts your emotions, your perspective, and even the other person.

Try adopting this happiness practice for a month—even if it sounds silly to you.  Keep a journal of your experiences.  I don’t call it magical for nothing.  Try it.  I dare you.  And I thank you for at least considering giving it a whirl.

Happiness: What Dogs Know

my favorite thing!I heard a guy on the radio talking about why he loved dogs.  “No matter what’s going on,” he says, “it’s always their favorite thing.  You ask ‘em, ‘Want to go for a walk?’ and they get so excited you can hear their doggy brains saying, ‘Oh boy!  My favorite thing!’  Want to take a nap?  ‘Oh boy!  My favorite thing!’  Want a bone? “Oh boy! My favorite thing!”  Want to go chase skunks?  ‘Oh boy!  My favorite thing!’”

Dogs know the key.  It’s loving whatever comes down the pike, whatever the moment brings.  Well, okay, not everything.  Dogs have their times of grief and pain just like we humans do.  But on your ordinary run-of-the-mill day, dogs are minute-by-minute on it. Walk, sleep, eat, dig, jump, scratch, work or play, a dog does it with every molecule of his being.

Dogs don’t get tied up in indecision.  They don’t worry about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow.   And they’re not big on comparing themselves to the status of the dog next door.  They don’t fret about whether they’re as strong or as smart or who has the bigger dog house or the best-groomed hair.

That pretty much frees them to exercise their natural enthusiasm, to latch on to the sweet spot in every passing moment and play it for all its worth.  For dogs, it’s all about right now, and loving it.  It’s about basking in it, devouring it, lolling in it, engaging with it, full-tilt all the way.

Sometimes I hear people say that the world is going to the dogs.  I wish it would—at least long enough to see all the things they have to teach us.  It just might turn out to be a better place.