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Monday, September 27, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness

A colleague of mine at Keene State College is teaching a section of the same course I teach, Integrative Thinking and Writing. There are some forty sections of this course, each with a specific theme or topic, chosen by the instructor. Students choose the section that interests them or fits in their sched-ule. Like me, Alice has two sections each with its own theme. One is "Death and Dying," the other, "The Pursuit of Happi-ness." Guess that about covers it. I was sufficiently intrigued by Alice's topics that we got together over coffee to talk about them. There is no shortage of students interested in a writing course on death and dying, and according to Alice, the students in that section seem more engaged than the ones pursuing happi-ness.

As you all know, much has been researched and written about happiness. To name just a few recent books:

Climb Your Stairway to Heaven: The 9 Habits of Maximum Happiness
The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living (by the Dalai Lama, no less)
The Pursuit of Happiness: Discovering the Pathway to Fulfill-ment, Well-Being, and Enduring Personal Joy
Happiness: Lessons from a New Science
And lastly, by one of the foremost psychologists studying happi-ness, who I like
to think is a distant cousin, Martin Seligman, Authentic Happi-ness: Using the New
Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lad ting Ful-fillment.
Interestingly enough, my colleague uses none of these as her course text. Instead she chose Barbara Ehrenreich's book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

Apparently, happiness has its limits and even its encroach-ments.
What compelled me most about my conversation with Alice were her own questions: Is there something of more value to us as humans than happiness? Is contentment the same as happiness or is it deeper? Why is happiness so darn important? Is it what we should be pursuing?

Obviously, it is not necessary for the propagation of the species, nor does our happiness insure planetary well-being. If anything, what we conflate with happiness: the allure of more, immediate gratification and unbridled appetites—does more harm to the earth than good.

So what then is the value of happiness? Is it reducible to a simple-minded positivism available to any who harness the power of positive thinking? Is it an attitude, brought on per-haps by gratitude? Or is deeper than that? More than a state of prolonged pleasure? Is happiness a state of contentment brought about by attitude and achievement? Does it involve a level of accomplishment that requires a modicum of opportunity that must be guaranteed by the state? Is that why its pursuit is essen-tial to the American Declaration of Independence? Is it what compelled the Dalai Lama to collaborate with leading neuroscien-tist Richard Davidson?

Using brain imagery to track what happens to a mind happily engrossed in meditation, scientists can now "promote resilience and happiness and other positive qualities of the mind through enhanced training and mental exercises."

Some psychologists posit happiness as a state of well-being. Davidson defines it as " a combination of positive emo-tional states, including contentment, satisfaction, pleasure and joy... associated with actively embracing the world and being fully engaged."

What happens to happiness if it resides in the state of embrace: our capacity, willingness, desire to embrace the world, and in turn, be engaged?
Perhaps this is what shifts happiness from a psychological to a spiritual experience. Or perhaps this is what directs us to our deepest values.
In her "Morning Poem," Mary Oliver writes,
"there is still somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted"

...whether or not you have ever dared to be happy, suggesting happiness is nothing less than an act of daring: ad-venturous courage.If she is right that "somewhere deep with [us] a beast [shouts] that the earth is exactly what it wanted," this may be the poet's nod to the scientist's revelation that happiness cor-relates with our embrace of the world, and our willing ness to engage.

But precisely because happiness gets co-opted by movements of prosperity and positivism, it may be worthwhile to take up Alice's question, to determine whether the pursuit of attentive-ness and engagement rank up there with life and liberty.

In his book, Climb Your Stairway to Heaven: The 9 Habits of Maximum Happiness, David Leonhardt identifies elements of atten-tiveness and engagement such as include seizing the day, count-ing blessings, and spreading joy though he also devotes a fair amount of word-space to good old fashioned self-focused positive thinking.

But in a world so clearly filled with suffering: the atrocities that repeat themselves in each generation, the ram-pant inequity in the distribution and allocation of resources, and a mindset that encourages us to perceive everything from trees to talent to terrapins as resources to maximize — do at-tentiveness and engagement require more than positive thoughts and stress reduction?

What does attentiveness ask?
One day, in the midst of my own happiness: let's call it a state of well-being, I asked a wise and Buddhist-flavored coun-selor why u it I get to be so happy and experience joy and com-fort while so many beings suffer?

Karma, she answered. We don't know what their karma re-quires of them but yours requires that you bear witness to their suffering, that your notice and acknowledge it.

In short my karma demands my attentiveness and engagement. Apparently how I engage is an open and endless question. Must I, must we, follow the trail of tears to hotspots and war zones, disasters and landscapes of desolation? Some of us do feel called to foreign soil. And some us, self included, adhere to Wendell Berry's maxim that we must respond where history has placed us. Here, now, where my paws are. This is the realm of my influence, the specificity of my embrace.

As I immersed myself in the engagement with you that entails writing sermons, I paused long enough to take my dog Zuki for a walk in the woods. We are lucky to live next to many acres of young forest where Zuki prowls, happily unleashed. (If I know nothing about human happiness, I imagine canine bliss as the moment the leash snaps off the collar and Zuki darts unimpeded into the woods.) As I ambled along the trail I heard the rustle of dogs: not one, more. As Zuki can-tered toward me I saw what looked like a tawny shepherd followed by a brindled reddish, gray-ish, yellowish one in pursuit. They were of course coyotes and as I watched to see what they would do: hoping there would not be aggression in the mix, the coyotes noticed me and slunk away. God, they were beautiful, and without thinking, I muttered a prayer aloud that they be kept well, that they survive the winter, unharmed by hunters. And then I thought of the deer that roam the forest, the ones who will be inevitably eaten so that the coyotes stay alive. Zuki and I have come upon the barest remains of a downed deer, the ground cover of fur, the elegant, fleshless spine, the partial skull. No beauty there, other than perhaps the cycle of woodland life unintruded upon by humans. The moment with the beautiful coyotes and my beautiful dog, similar in build and size but for her sleek and complete blackness, summoned me to embrace the awe of wildness with its inherent pain.

It invites, lo, insists that I engage wholeheartedly with the encounter: that is to say the heart that beats desire for coyote well-being, and the heart that beats breathless coming upon a carpet of fur emptied of its being.

Thus, to engage fully doesn't always feel like happiness. To engage with life when grief burgles the house and redeco-rates, hanging drapes so opaque it seems impossible for any light to get through. Surely that is not happiness, but the re-sulting impulse to get out of the house or hunker further down signals a pulse. Embrace is not always an expression of joy, a sign of affection. Sometimes it denotes relief—in dogspeak, em-brace often involves teeth, sometimes playfully, sometimes not.

If embrace is the act or state of beholding the world as we are held by it; a combination of attentiveness and engagement neuroscientists and Buddhist monks recognize as a kind of one-ness with being, then perhaps my colleague Alice is right to question the pursuit of happiness. Perchance it is not the brass ring to reach for, to groom our children to grab. Admittedly, detouring from the
pursuit of happiness, which gets peddled as the insatiable quest for satisfaction, might damage the consumer economy, but it could restore well-being. Or perhaps the challenge is to expand our notion of embrace, to notice what we notice, to attend the fullness of it all.

David Stendl-Rast posits the antidote to exhaustion isn't rest; it is wholeheartedness. The antidote to discontent might be wholeheartedness as well.
The fine Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye write this:

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
A wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world tails in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
Something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn't need you to hold it down.
It doesn't need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
And disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
And now live over a quarry of noise and dust
Cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
It too could wake up filled with possibilities
Of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
And love even the floor which needs to be swept,
The soiled linens and scratched records
Since there is no place large enough
To contain so much happiness,
You shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
Into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
For the moon, but continues to hold it, and to share it,
And in that way, be known.

As the night sky holds the moon, we too are held in the sky's embrace. Whether or not we dare to be happy, let us dare to of-fer the world our attentiveness, let us dare to wholeheartedly engage. Amen.