The Magic of Serenity

serenityOn a summer afternoon, when time had stilled, its moments blossoming wide and deep as sky, he reached for a peach from the picnic basket.   He felt the texture of its fuzzy skin against his lips as his teeth pressed into its fragrant flesh.  The burst of its tangy sweetness drenched his mouth.

From the lake’s edge, the laughter of the children floated up around him and willow boughs waltzed in the warm breeze casting shadows on the lush grass.  Finishing the peach, he stretched out on the blanket on the grass and gazed at the whipped cream clouds floating overhead beyond the willow’s branches.

He remembered how, when he was a child, the clouds took on the shapes of animals and soon he saw a lion and an elephant floating past.  He watched their shapes morph for awhile, and then he closed his eyes and bathed in the serenity of it all.

He wondered what stroke of fortune brought him to this unexpected moment, this island of tranquility.  He wondered how he had lost sight of how good it was to let himself feel this peace.  What a remarkable taste of happiness this was, he thought.  No urgency, no rush, no deadlines.

He knew all those things awaited him and that he would get lost again in their whirl.  But what if he could take this moment with him and relive it in the midst of the mad crush?

He pictured himself in the conference room with everybody huddled around the big walnut table, typing into their notebooks, texting on their phones, fighting to get their opinions heard.  And he saw himself leaning back in his chair, seeing elephant clouds floating over Jane’s head and smiling. Everyone would wonder what he was up to, he thought.  He laughed out loud.

On Wednesday, he gave it a whirl.  The elephant clouds turned into an idea for solving the problem at hand.  When he spoke it, he sounded so calm and sure that everyone listened.

At lunchtime, he walked to the deli and bought himself a peach.

The Happiness of Mastery

MasteryWant to know one of the secrets of high achievers?  They have  clear pictures inside themselves of how it will feel when they’re performing at their best, when they’re playing at the top of their games.

Whether you’re a butcher or baker or candlestick maker, there’s a feeling you get when you’re doing everything right.   You guide the knife perfectly along the lines of muscle, you coax just the right resiliency from the dough beneath your hands, you blend the waxes so they flow with a beautiful consistency.  And in that moment, you experience such clarity and ease that you want to do it again and again, every time you set about your work.

The feeling is a special kind of happiness, one of engagement and flow.  And those who experience it say it’s so fine that it’s worth all the work that goes into creating it.  The hours of learning, the days of practice are nothing compared to the feelings of satisfaction and joy that comes from exercising mastery.

High achievers in all walks of life—athletes, artists, business leaders, surgeons—all describe the sense of wholeness and energetic harmony they feel, the sense of smooth effortlessness, when they were in full resonance with their work.  And what’s more, they say it’s the memory of this feeling that motivates them to keep refining their skills, to pull themselves up again when they hit a dry spell.   They want to feel it every day, to have it be the pivot around which their days revolve.

The key is to keep at what you’re learning until you reach the moment when you’re lost in the utter and complete harmony of doing it well, of being the best you can be at it.  Whatever you’re working toward, take time to sink into your expectation of how it will feel once you have attained prowess, mastery of your skill.  Allow yourself to feel it in your body, to experience the richness of it fully in your imagination, to save the depth of happiness and freedom that it offers your spirit.

The day will come, if you keep on keeping on, if you persevere through the hours of preparation and practice, when the feeling is more than a dream.  And knowing inside yourself how it will feel when you get there is one of the surest ways to keep yourself keeping on.

Breathing toward Happiness

breatheDid you know that by adjusting how you breathe you can increase your level of happiness?  Take a slow, deep breath right now, and let it out in a long, even sigh.  Right away, your whole body relaxes, your mind opens, and you sense a moment in which you’re free to choose—to relax further, or to return to whatever level you were at before the sigh.

It’s really pretty amazing, when you think about it, that something as simple as a sigh can alter your whole state of mind.  But awareness of your breathing can do much more than provide a momentary sense of release.  It can teach you about the intimate ways your body and your feelings interrelate and provide you with keys to guiding yourself toward enhanced well-being.

This one process of ours, our breathing, connects mind, body and emotions as nothing else does.  Its quality—its depth and ease and rhythm—is a wondrous mirror of how we’re feeling.  And by paying attention to how we’re breathing while we’re in different moods, we can gain great insight into where and how we hold different feelings in our body and learn how to consciously manage our breathing to ease the stresses and blocks that keep us from feeling at ease and free.

Make a little mental note right now to see how you’re breathing the next time you feel really happy.  See how fully you’re using your lungs, allowing air to flow into their depths.  Then try that breathing for several minutes when your mood is a little low.

For most of us, gentle inhalations to a slow count of ten with exhalations a little longer for several cycles will bring a wonderful sense of relaxed happiness.  It relaxes muscular tension and provides fresh oxygen to open your mind to new options and possibilities that you couldn’t see while you were locked into a tighter perception.

Add conscious breathing to your happiness practice.  Play with it and discover for yourself that increased happiness is only a few breaths away.

Happiness Meets Murphy’s Law

It was one of those Murphy’s Law days.  You know, the kind where you keep exclaiming, “What on earth can go wrong next!” and are instantly rewarded with an answer.  It was as if someone let loose a box of gremlins during the night and they busily crossed wires and hid things and demagnetized all the electrons.   Late start.  Rain. Traffic.  Crying children.  Orney adults.  Ringing phones.  Paralyzed software.  Spilled coffee.  Leaking pens.  Out-of-order machines.

happy nowAbout noon, my glazed-over eyes spotted a little sticky note on the bulletin board next to my desk.  “Why are you so happy now?” it asked.   What an absolutely ridiculous question!  I broke out in laughter at its sheer absurdity just as a coworker walked past.

“What’s so funny?” she demanded, sticking her head in my door.

“Everything!” I gasped.  “You.  Me.  Diane.  The whole damned day.  I mean, could it be more outlandish than this?”

“You have a point,” she said, rolling her eyes.  The gesture was so exaggerated that it made me laugh again, and seeing herself through my eyes for a second, she started chuckling, too.

“What’s so funny?”  Leslie said, pulled in by our laughter.  I pointed at her and Kathy and I laughed harder.

“Everything!” Kathy choked out.  “Everything!”

“You’ll have to excuse us,” I said, “We’ve gone over the edge.  Just slid right on over into hysteria.”

Kathy and I pulled ourselves together.  Kathy was wiping a tear from her eye.  “What a zoo!” I said.  “Aren’t we amazing, to function at all in the midst of so much chaos?”

“Yeah,” Leslie said.  “I guess we really are.”

They left, smiling and relaxed, and I sat for a moment and thought about the magic my little sticky note had triggered.  Instantly, it brought us a round of comic relief, and in its wake, renewal and perspective.   “Why am I so happy now?”  Because, I answered silently, we are all so willing to be.

The Happiness of a Challenge

Fire Lily
Fire Lily

A couple weeks ago I took my love of making photos to a new level.  I decided to post a photo that I took during the day on my Flickr page every day for a year.  To set a goal to do any behavior every day for a year is a pretty big challenge.  But I expect to raise my happiness level exponentially as I pursue it.

For one thing, it lets me exercise some of my key strengths, such as my love for beauty.  And exercising your strengths is a great way to increase your happiness.  We like doing what comes naturally to us, using our talents, following the bent of our particular personality.  Doing what comes easily, and doing it well, is just plain fun.

I like challenges, too, and another of my strengths is perseverance.  I can keep on as stubbornly as the Energizer bunny once I set a task for myself.  Still, 365 days is a lot of days.  Who knows what twists they will hold?  Can I keep at it though thick and thin?  Not knowing is part of the adventure.

If I fail, will I be crushed?  Nah.  It’s only a game I’m playing with myself.  And lots of things could come along that would be more important to me than taking a picture.  But, I tell myself, if I succeed, imagine the incredible sense of accomplishment I’ll feel!  And that—the dream of how I’ll feel if I succeed—is what will keep me going.

I expect to learn a lot from the experiment, too.  And because of love of learning is another of my strengths, that’s another aspect of the challenge that will bring me joy.  I expect to learn more about photography, how to look for the beautiful and interesting in new ways, and how to stretch myself to meet a goal I’ve set for myself even when I’m in a spell where I’m wholly unmotivated.  I expect to see my view of the world’s beauty reflected in a whole new say, and to have, a year from now, a very interesting log of how I look at things.

Juicy goals do so much for increasing our happiness.  They give us something meaningful to work toward.  They challenge us to rise to new levels of performance.  They let us learn to trust that we can overcome obstacles.  They let us feel the flow of our strengths in action.

And there’s a subtle something more, a kind of magic that happens when you’re doing the things that bring you joy.  Mythologist Joseph Campbell put it this way:  “When you’re following your bliss,” he said, “doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors; and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else.”   I’m excited about that.  I want to see the opening of those doors.

Comfortable Shoes

old shoesFor the past several weeks I have been playing with the question, “Why am I so happy now?”  I ask it of myself in the morning when I wake up and throughout the day, whenever it occurs to me.  And it brings me back some very wonderful answers.Today the answer came from a pair of old shoes.

As I laced up a pair of worn sneakers that I pulled from the back of a closet to wear on my photo-walk, I suddenly realized how much I love these old shoes.  They’re creased and scuffed and grassed-stained, but they support me where I need support.  They’re soft and pliable in all the right ways, and they keep me from slipping when I’m on questionable terrain.   Most of all, I suppose, I like how they are associated with so many wonderful memories.  They’re like old friends.  It made me happy, I realized, just to put them on.

As the evening unfolded, it brought with it old friends of the human persuasion, engaging in the kind of good, intimate conversation that happens between friends who know each other well.

I’m happy, I thought later, for the old friendships that grace my life, for the people who fit me like comfortable shoes.  We’ve walked many roads together, in all kinds of weather.  And like my shoes, they offer me support where I need it, the softness of their affection, and they keep me from slipping when I venture onto untried ground.

In today’s throw-away, mile-a-minute culture, what a treasure, what a comfort, enduring friendships provide.  Despite the scuffs and wrinkles, they fit so beautifully well—even when you’ve left them in the back of the closet far too long.

If that’s where a couple of your old friends are, pull them out.  Give them a little brushing—a phone call maybe, a catch-up email.  Tell them you love them because they’re as wonderful as comfortable shoes.

The Happiness of Celebration

“The purpose of life is the celebration of it.”be

I don’t remember when I first came across that line or know its source.  But I remember that it blazed across my consciousness as one of those great, shining truths that you know at once will stay with you forever.   And indeed it has, taking on increasing significance as the years roll by.

When the word “celebration” first came into use, it meant to solemnize or to honor.  In short, it meant to hold something in reverence.  Then, along its travels through time, it picked up connotations of happiness and revelry.  The events to which it first referred, after all, were those that provided life with some of its greatest joys—marriage, communion with the Divine, the anniversary of the days a culture considered holy.

How apt a word, then, to answer the great Why of our existence!  It doesn’t solve the mystery, but it tells us how to meet it.  We are here, it says, to honor life, to hold the fact of it in joyous reverence.  We’re here to dance and sing, to drink the wine of life’s moments and enjoy the feast of days.

Even when the wine is bitter, and the feast but dry crumbs, we can bring to it our reverence, our understanding that these things, too, are life and a part of the great mystery which we are privileged to experience.

Regardless of the stories of our lives, however humble or great our aspirations or achievements or abilities, we’re all part of life’s magnificent stream.  That our little individualized sparks of consciousness, embodied in such fleeting forms, can envision whole universes, can experience whole symphonies of emotion, can conceptualize infinity and eternity and dream that we somehow compose them, is so astounding that what but celebration can be our response!

If you have been searching for a purpose, may I offer you this one?  Embrace it, and I guarantee, it will lead you to happiness and satisfaction and joy.

Hard Times Knockin’

I read a wonderful quote today by the late journalist and broadcaster Allistair Cooke.

“In the best of times,” he said, “our days are numbered anyway.  And so it would be a crime against nature for any generation to take the world crisis so solemnly that it put off enjoying those things for which we were presumably designed in the first place . . . the opportunity to do good work, to fall in love, to enjoy friends, to hit a ball, and to bounce a baby.”

I found it interesting that Cooke, a man who was passionately and intimately involved with so many crucial junctures of contemporary history, would gently point out in this paragraph of his that every generation experiences a world in crisis.  Not just our grandparents, or our parents, or us.  But every generation.
picnicers
Given all the turmoil of our current times, it’s good to remember that the world didn’t end when crises confronted humanity in the past.  People went on.  And the wisest ones followed the path that Cooke so elegantly describes.  They lived their lives.  Not lost in struggle and warring against the evils that threatened their well-being, but involving themselves in all those things that make living worthwhile.  They worked and played, and loved, and laughed with friends, and welcomed new life onto the world’s stage—even when it was drenched in darkness.

They lived for the hours of goodness.  They embraced hope.  They savored the pleasures that fell across their paths.  They gave themselves to work, to the service of others, and to family, and friends—to “enjoying those things for which we were presumably designed in the first place.”

When the present world crises threaten your peace of mind, think about those who lived through hard times before.  It’s not what you lose that matters in the long run.  It’s what you make of what you have left.

The Happiness of Practice

When I was a little kid, I grew to hate the word “practice.”  Generally uttered by my mother as a command to attend to the week’s piano lesson, it came to mean an unwelcome delay or interruption of my playtime.

Over the years, of course, I reaped rich rewards from this imposed daily ritual.  In fact, the rewards generalized into so many areas of my life that I can’t possibly pay the debt of gratitude I owe my mom for her determined insistence that I learn the how to sit for practice regardless of how strong the pull to avoid it.

Today, the practices I have incorporated into my daily routine—thinking about happiness as I write pieces for this blog, making a photo of at least one beautiful thing, exercising, meditation—are real sources of happiness for me.

Not only do my daily practices add a soothing sense of rhythm to my day, but they allow me to connect at regular intervals with the things that matter to me.  They keep me from being distracted from all the glittering attractions that do not hold the real gold.  The real gold in our lives lies in the things we value most highly.  And happiness comes from digging deeply into its veins, from putting our time into mining it and refining it until its qualities become a part of us.

The more deeply you dig, the more you work at refining, the more you understand the real nature and beauty of your practice—whatever it is.  It becomes your teacher, leading you to ever new discoveries, not only about the object of your practice, but about you yourself.  You learn the nuances of the tools you’re using and new skills for applying them.  You learn to keep digging when the vein seems to have run dry.  You learn to refine your practice with a hotter fire, to make it burn away the dross and yield greater purity.

Of course it’s great fun to realize that you have developed skills along the way, too.  One day you notice that you’re hitting your target on center nearly every time, almost effortlessly.  The ball clears the net.  You hear the way the clay wants to bend.  The code has become a natural language.  You see the way the light falls.  Your stride becomes a natural flow.

But best of all, you have become a larger you, expressing in the world more of who you truly want to be.  All because you took the time to practice, to connect with the things that give you the greatest satisfaction and joy.  And that, my friends, is happiness.

The Happiness of Loving Kindness

“When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.” ~ The Dalai Lama

I recently happened on a beautiful gift of serenity and quiet joy – the heart-opening practice of the Loving Kindness Meditation.* Many versions of it exist, but the one I chose to follow was a simple one that took only twenty minutes of my time and yielded an exquisite sense of tranquility.

It goes like this: After sitting quietly for a bit to calm yourself, as you would do with any meditation, you send focused, conscious thoughts in four waves. You begin with yourself, wishing yourself happiness, healing, prosperity, forgiveness, love and all that you need to flourish and thrive. Spend at least five minutes enfolding yourself in these thoughts. There’s no rush. Allow yourself the full time to bathe in your sincere desires for your own well-being.

Next, expand your wave of benediction out to embrace those nearest and dearest to you. Picture each one in your mind, and saying their names, one at a time, wish them all the goodness you just wished yourself. Imagine their hearts opening to receive your blessings.

Now let your wave of loving-kindness expand to your more casual relationships and to strangers. Feel it gently expanding to touch hearts in all the world’s nations and cultures.

As the wave expands, it becomes filled with more and more loving kindness, becoming sweeter with every passing moment.

Finally, embrace within it people you dislike or who you view as enemies of any kind, and hold them in loving kindness, too.

When you have finished, gently open your eyes and savor the softness and openness of your heart. Let its gladness spread to your face and its glow color everything around you as you return to your normal routine.

Because it’s very soothing and fills you with a sense of connectedness and peace, I find using it as I settle into bed for the night especially enjoyable. But I urge you to try it, regardless of what hour you may choose. The happiness it brings is deep and fresh and sweet.

* * *

*I’m sorry; I was on a surfing rampage when I found it and I didn’t think to add the source of it to my notes. I offer my sincere gratitude to its author, believing his or her permission to share it with you would flow easily.