It is very dark outside. I wasn’t able to get back to sleep after the parade of children down the hallway woke me at O-dark thirty this morning, so I came downstairs to read my new book - Happier, by Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D. But I couldn’t seem to settle in. I needed a tissue, then some coffee, now a pen and some index cards to jot thoughts down… I finally seemed to have taken care of all the necessities and gotten my feet tucked under the blanket. I immersed myself into reading, becoming more and more comfortable as I melted down into the sofa. After about an entire page and a half of introduction and some nice ‘get-to-know-me’ details, Dr. Ben-Shahar poses the question: “How do you define Happiness?”
“Oh good!” I thought, something to meditate on! I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. I just knew there was a definition right there in my cerebellum that would drop onto my tongue and let me continue reading.
“Why do we go against the flow?” was the first thought I had. “Huh?” I wondered where that came from. “Why do we force ourselves to do things against ‘our grain’ or ‘against the flow’ like, say, getting out of bed in the morning while we are still tired? Why don’t we sleep until we are refreshed, then get up and immerse ourselves into the day when we are naturally ready? That certainly doesn’t seem to make sense. If I’m tired, let me sleep and when I am no longer tired I’ll get up. We follow our natural patterns to go to bed when we are tired, don’t we? 'Honey, I’m tired. I’m going to bed now.' ... Natural rhythm, natural response.
I tried harder to avert monkey-mind and focus on the question.
I then remembered a trip we took when I was about nine years old, visiting a friend of my Mom’s who lived in Italy. After lunch on that first day we all went back to our rooms and took a ‘siesta’. I couldn’t figure out why, years after I finally ended afternoon naptimes, I had to go back to napping. And why in the world were the grown-ups doing it?! Heck, even the stores were closing down! Later that evening as the sky grew dark, the streets lit up with store lights and people emerged into the night. Restaurant patios were alive with voices and laughter, the streets and the shops were filled with people. I remember staying up until after 11:00pm! What was my Mom thinking?!
She was just following the local cultural understanding that the body has a natural rhythm that should be listened to and not muted. Have a nice meal at lunchtime, take a nap, and return to Life refreshed! In one of my all-time favorite books - Illusions, Richard Bach writes of a colony of creatures who live on the bottom of a river. Clinging to the river bottom is their way of Life. They resist the current as they have been taught since birth and as they have always done. One of the creatures (who I can only imagine was named ‘Marcus’), decides that clinging to the bottom is no way to live so he decides to let go and let the river take him as it may. The other creatures scorn him saying that clinging is their way of life and that the river will tumble and smash him on the rocks if he let’s go! Undaunted, he lets go and is immediately tumbled and smashed on the rocks. But he refuses to cling again and in time he is tumbled and smashed no more. He says “The River delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go.” Just follow the flow.
So why do we structure ourselves in conflict with a natural rhythm or calling? And what does any of this have to do with the definition of ‘Happiness‘? I was wondering that myself, there on the couch, and though I haven’t come up with an all-encompassing answer, here is how it came together for me:
Happiness is oftentimes a result of allowing our natural desires and needs to emerge and unfold as they will without being restricted, reshaped or stifled by self-imposed limits.