Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Want to be happy?

I now realize that it is somewhat ironic how long this blog post has been in the "I really need to write that one, when I have a moment" list...

A while back, I came across an article by Soren Gordhamer, in which he discusses some recent research to come out of Harvard. It seems that some old advice about how to be happy in bad situations is wrong. Many people believe that, if we find ourselves where we don't wish to be, the best thing is to put our minds somewhere else. It makes perfect sense: if we're stuck in traffic, and we hate being stuck in traffic, then we can just imagine that we're sitting on a beach in Hawaii, instead. We transport ourselves there, at least mentally, and then all is well. What could be more logical?

Except, it doesn't work. What works, in terms of making us happy, is not pretending to be somewhere better, but rather paying attention to exactly where we are. A person's happiness has much less to do with what is actually happening, it turns out, and more to do with how much we are "in the moment."

According to the article, "Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing."

He points out that what the researchers have really done is just confirm, through some experiments, what teachers of Mindfulness have been saying for centuries. The beginning of all spirituality, and of all true contentment, lies simply in the act of being fully present in the current moment. Mindfulness Meditation, at its core, is simply about paying attention. Gordhamer references my favorite teaching from Buddhist monk and Mindfulness master Thich Nhat Hanh, who teaches that there are two ways to wash dishes - you can either focus on getting the dishes clean (the result), or on the simple act of washing the dishes (the act itself). The latter is the path to happiness.

Gordhamer also goes on to talk about how hard it is to be fully mindful in our modern, technology-filled world:

But where is our attention most of the day? It is generally lost in thought. According to the researchers, "On average throughout all the quarter-million responses, minds were wandering 47 percent of the time." But we do not need researchers to tell us that our mind wanders just about all the time; we can watch and see for ourselves. As Eckhart Tolle has said, "Compulsive thinking has become a collective disease."

And now we have all kinds of gadgets that, essentially, help us stay in our minds, disconnected from our body and actual experience in a given moment. Walk down the street of any major city and most people are essentially "somewhere else," either because they are on their phone or are daydreaming about some future moment or reliving a past one. This moment, the one we are living now, is so often missed.

I love my iPhone, and I love my iPad, but I've often referred to them as "anti-Mindfulness devices." They are perfect tools for not paying attention to the world around us, for not being in the moment. And, as useful and fun as they are, they have to, sometimes, be put away.

We have become a society caught in Doing, and disconnected from what we may call Presence or Being. As Ram Dass used to say, "We become Human Doings instead of Human Beings."

By the way, I learned about Hanh and Mindfulness because a congregant introduced me to them* after a sermon I gave a few years ago. In it, I talked about Rabbi Irving Greenberg, and his take on Shabbat - that it should be a day of living in the moment. Most of our lives, he said, center around planning for the future - whether that future be in 3 minutes or 30 years. But, when we get to that moment, we won't be enjoying it, because we'll be using it to plan for another future moment. And so on. And so, since we never get to enjoy a single moment, every moment that we spend planning is, in effect, wasted. We spend a moment on another moment, which never exists for itself. So, we go through life, never living a single moment, in full.

* DH - if you're reading this, a sincere "thank you!"

Greenberg suggests that we need to stop, weekly, and focus only on the here and now*. That's why we can't do any work on Shabbat - work is preparing for later. Shabbat is about now. Hanh suggest taking moments out of life and simply paying attention. The details are different; the underlying idea remarkably the same.

* of course this can't be taken to extremes - spirituality and self-care can never be allowed to become isolationist and narcissistic.

Life is busy, and it will remain so. Do yourself a favor: take 5 minutes or, even better, take this Shabbat, and just be. Stop being a Human Doing, and be a Human Being. It might just be the secret to happiness.

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