Friday, February 10, 2017
The pursuit of happiness is something that Americans think of as a right, but what do we know of happiness as a spiritual practice? What does it have to do with our bodies? What is the resonance between happiness and virtue? And happiness and beauty? Some people seem to radiate happiness all the time - the Dalai Lama comes to mind. They embody a profound happiness, and always seem to have a delightful sense of humor, even though they may have lived a life of pain and great suffering. How does happiness thrive in such a life of suffering?
My years have taught me that the purpose of our existence as human beings is to be happy. While we were created to be happy, often suffering is the unforeseen route by which we must find our happiness. It may not be a life anyone would dream of, but such a life still holds a blessing within every challenge. The goal in life is always to fully restore right relation with the Divine, but sometimes the journey there requires us to follow a pathway of suffering; happiness comes from discovering the blessing within the struggle.
Happiness does not come by asking for it from the Divine or from the government or from anyone else. It can only come from within, in the way we decide how to meet the circumstances of our life. Happiness does not always come just because we are pursuing it; sometimes the deepest happiness comes when we are least expecting it. Sometimes we don't need to pursue happiness at all; we just need to pause and let it catch up with us - one of the reasons that the practice of meditation has been so magnetic for people in the West.
In the West most of us chase after happiness for much of our time, day after day; those who make Christian religious practice a part of their lives take time each week to allow happiness to catch up to them. It's called the Sabbath. Muslims pause five times each day to kneel and pray. The simple act of daily prayer can put a punctuation on the busy lives we lead. Ramadan, Lent, Yom Kippur are all religious times of pause to allow us to change the tempo of our lives. At the heart of each celebration devotees discover a vital calmness of the mind that seems essential to restoring and maintaining happiness. Daily prayer allows us to stop and take pause in the world at regular intervals to find balance throughout life.
Three things happen during prayer: The first is giving thanks. The second is confession, admitting to our mistakes to enable us to grow. And third is what we feel by reflecting in the presence of something far greater than any of us, coming to understand that the universe is not indifferent to our existence, deaf to our prayers, or blind to our hopes. There are many different ways to pray. Some pray with images and some use prayer as a sort of emptying out. The Celts found all of life to be a prayer - blessing every moment, whether it was blessing the milking of the cow or blessing the washing of dishes. I find a blessing on each of my runs as I put my body to work and give my mind time to pause. Prayer enables each of us to participate in an act of awareness and attending; taking time to be aware of the presence of the Divine in every breath, the beauty in every moment, the virtue in every challenge and encounter. It is that awareness and attending that is so significant to finding happiness.
Happiness must be more than cerebral. We were born with bodies that naturally desire pleasure; our bodies are tools that help us find wonderful satisfying happiness throughout life. There are three approaches to satisfying our carnal needs - heathenism, the worship of pleasure; asceticism, the denial of pleasure by training the body so that the mind becomes the central pathway to happiness; and finally, the sanctification of pleasure by respecting the body and its needs as a blessing, evidence of the Divine's love for continued creation in the world. Happiness in this sense is about bodily needs being satisfied - having enough to eat, adequate shelter, meaningful work and personal relationships.
Gifts of the Divine are ever to be found and enjoyed in our daily lives. In the Talmud there is a statement that in the future we will have to give an account of every legitimate pleasure that each of us deprived ourselves of in this life, because we were gifted this world to enjoy, and should seek to find happiness within it in every moment. All traditions practice some form of hospitality - it's not just our own pleasure and personal happiness that is at stake, but giving physical pleasure by way of a blessing to those who have less, or who have need, to ease their suffering, offering us perhaps the greatest spiritual reward we can experience. In this way of sharing, the greatest spiritual happiness may be found.
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