Originally posted on The Huffington Post 09/12/2012
I'm tired of chasing the happiness mirage, the oasis of contentment that always seems to be just out of reach. I thought that if I accomplished something big, I'd grasp it. But our time is limited, and I want happiness now. After a recent health scare, I took inventory of everything I have to be grateful for in my life. I tallied up an embarrassment of riches: love, friendship, family, pets, travel opportunities, recovered health, and a cozy home. I had every excuse to break out my tap shoes and burst into song. So why wasn't I happy? Did I need more than others? Was I hardwired to be discontent? Why didn't my emotions match the joy that I knew in my gut I should be experiencing?
A while back, a psychiatrist told me the solution was chemical. I took pills that dulled my anxiety, but I gained more weight than contentment. The men in my family told me the key to happiness was to earn lots of money. But rich people don't seem to smile more. In retrospect, I received the very best advice on a date with a guy who told me, "For the love of God, stop thinking so much!"
While we were in the midst of a bad make-out session at the time, I see now that he was onto something. Happiness sneaks up on me when my chattering mind quiets, like when my shaggy mutt snuggles into me, or when my nephew brings me a story to read aloud. In these shimmering moments of accidental happiness, I am not distracted by my usual deluge of crippling thoughts:
This would be better if ... I shouldn't have done that ... I wish I were more ... Why does she get ... If only I had ... This could go terribly wrong when ...
Meet the Tribunal of A**holes in my head. Their critical, unoriginal, and relentless commentary disconnects me from all that is good. It's like listening to a panel of Fox News commentators and "Real Housewives" chime in about my life. I can show them something great, and they can tell me everything that's wrong with it or how it can be improved. I needed to fire them. So I embarked on a seven-night silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock in Northern California. I was on a mission to win The Quiet Game with my mind.
Each morning at Spirit Rock, we'd gather at 6:30 a.m., and after a day of walking and sitting meditation, broken up by a short work period and simple, healthful, vegetarian meals, we'd head back under the stars to our residence halls at 9:30 p.m. In the evenings, our instructors Anna Douglas and Howard Cohn gave inspiring Dharma talks. One evening Anna Douglas explained that Tibetans recognize the heart as the center of consciousness. And when they refer to their "mind," they gesture to their heart. Upon hearing this, I felt a bolt of electricity and wanted to jump off my zafu (meditation pillow). My thinking mind isn't the center of my consciousness. I might have a**hole thoughts, but my thoughts aren't the core of who I am. My heart is. My thoughts don't have to rule me anymore. It was such a relief.
My first days of meditation sitting were glorified naptimes. When my thoughts quieted, I fell asleep. Unlike the Tibetans, my consciousness seemed to be in my mind after all; when it turned off, I turned off. But after a couple days of practice, I was able to stay awake during these periods of respite. I like to think my center of consciousness migrated back to my heart.
That week, I focused on my breath and started to witness my thoughts come and go. Sure, I fantasized about the rest of my summer and worried over my new belly button infection. (Yep, I managed to get a belly button infection from navel gazing. I think it was from meditating after a sweaty hike.) But eventually, I'd bring my attention back to my body and feel at peace for a while. I started noticing a change. I began to realize the extent to which my thoughts had been leaving a rusted patina over all that could shine.
The world looked brighter. Food tasted better now. I felt satiated. My digestive system didn't have to work as hard because my insides weren't tied up in knots from anxiety. Deepak Chopra says, "Our beliefs, thoughts, and emotions direct the chemical reactions that take place in every single cell." By the end of my week at Spirit Rock, I sensed a cellular shift. My stomach didn't hurt. When I put in my contacts, I noticed my eyes were clearer. My eyelashes were longer. I liked being me. My belly button healed.
Western culture proclaims that we should not be happy with what we have. We need more and better! If we find happiness in our current situation, we're accused of settling. But maybe the people who are always grasping for more are the ones settling, succumbing to a life of perpetual dissatisfaction. By no means am I suggesting that we shouldn't live up to our potential. But I am finally realizing I don't need to wait for happiness to come at the end of a chase for success. I can choose to have happiness here and now. And this happiness begins with quieting my mind.