Wednesday, April 8, 2015


Where is it?

For me the key to what happiness I have is being able to live in the dynamic tension between traditional opposites without having to vanquish or elevate one over the other. It's seeing life as more of a spectrum or a dimmer switch than an on or off/black and white series of choices. I find that living in the dynamic tension between opposites often means living mostly towards the middle of the spectrum.

On the opposite ends of the spectrum could be Animal and Civilized, Selfish and Loving, Self-Serving and Altruistic, Loving and Lustful, Violent and Peaceful, Separate and "one with everything", Cooperative and Competitive, Ambitious and Content, Bold and Careful, Afraid and Confident, Pro-Active and Complacent, Certain and Doubtful, Trying and Relaxing...

I see all of these as hard-wired aspects of myself and my nature that must be expressed and balanced, rather than transcended, eliminated, or cleansed.

So much of the unhappiness I see around me seems related to people not accepting themselves as they are and trying to live up to some impossible ideal. The happiest people seem to be those who are not trying to erase some un-erasable aspect of their human nature. For one thing, not fighting themselves all the time frees up tons of energy. It also lets them focus more on the opportunities around them than on the internal struggle within them. We've all met people who won't or can't take advantage of opportunities that are right in front of them because their own internal struggle has dibs on all their energy and focus.

Excessive "running round after happiness" doesn't lead to a lot of happiness, but completely giving up on happiness doesn't either. The ends of the spectrum aren’t satisfying and don’t bring happiness precisely because they exclude the vital, real, and un-erasable other end of the spectrum. So with regard to happiness, I find the best thing to do is to respect and accept my natural human tendency to run after it, and turn it loose every now and then. But also to respect and accept my natural and human tendency to say, "Fuck it. I ain't doing shit." And turn that loose every now and then too. I try to spend most of the time in between, allowing the push and pull of these tendencies to shape my daily actions. This way I don't push too hard for happiness, but I don't sink into apathy either. In the dynamic and uncertain tension between the two is where I find what peace and happiness I've been able to find.

I don’t believe that I’m just suggesting a life of moderation here. I'm saying that these poles exist already in us. They are not erasable. A sensible approach seems to be to deny neither, but to exist in the tension between them, rather than judging or trying to eliminate one of them, since that's impossible, or at least it seems so to me. I say, be afraid when you are afraid, brave when you are brave. But mostly know that you are both, hang out in the middle and respond accordingly to the next situation. If you cling to your fear when it isn't justified, or put up a constant front of being brave...then I think happiness will elude you.

It's not so much a "holding" to the middle, or a matter of moderating with force the tendency to go to extremes. It seems to me more like accepting my human mixed nature and not forcing myself toward either end of any of the spectrums I mentioned above.

There is no need to moderate joy for instance, unless doing so would endanger you. If you are hiding from the Nazi's under the floor boards and they decide to leave, by all means moderate the urge to yell, Yippee! But absent that threat, let joy have its day.

But that's a far cry from then drawing the conclusion that joy is our natural state, that it is "who we really are", that we should therefore always be joyful, and that what isn't joyful is sinful, bad, or "illusion", and must be seen through, transcended or eliminated. Giving up on joy and clinging to sadness is similarly futile. Sadness and joy are immutably part of life. Embrace them when they come, let them go when they are done, and I think happiness is more likely to follow. The happiest people I know seem to accept their nature as it is and the least happy seem to be people continually on campaigns to fix themselves. I guess I would say it's our nature to be broken and in conflict, and accepting that makes for a happier life.

What passes for "happiness" a lot of the time is instant gratification, "fun", being passively entertained, and having nothing unpleasant to do. These can be nice but they don't lead me to happiness. When I was primarily focused on that stuff, life was always vaguely unsatisfying. I always wanted more of whatever I was getting, and when I got it, I wanted even more because it just never felt right. Then, I discovered some things I really wanted to work at. Things like T'ai-Chi, Yoga, Relationship, and Songwriting. Now what used to be the main course is like dessert and what used to be a chore like washing the dishes is the main course. And I like it.

Some people insist that happiness is just a story we tell ourselves. Unhappy? Change your story. I don’t think the story we tell ourselves is unimportant, but if a story is bullshit, no matter how good a story it is, I don't think it will work for very long, or make you very happy. I'm less concerned with story and spin than with orientation. People are always selling some version of "change your story, change your life" and I just don't buy it. Seems like a hopeful head-trip to me.

I meet a lot of people who seem to be telling themselves what they wish was true, but know is not, and they sure don't look happy. And other people who cling to their stories with a death grip and they don't look too happy either.

The story you are creating and what you believe in is not nothing. It is important. But I think real happiness comes from what you choose to focus on and enjoy rather than how you frame what happens to you.

Also, a lot of people seem to fight their own natures, believing that happiness will come when and if they become a different person, or achieve some kind of purity. I find that the more I accept my nature, including the parts that I don't like or have been told are "dark", "lower", etc., the happier I get. Acceptance also frees up energy to focus on things that bring me life and pleasure.

And there is some research too that being happy might be genetic. Or at least somewhat genetic. There are apparently "happy monkeys" and "unhappy monkeys" and it seems to be hard wired. It would explain the constant tension between people who are discontent and want to change the status quo and people who are content and want to leave things as they are. I think both are good and serve the overall community.

For me happiness is more about my orientation towards my experience than my spin on it. If I'm oriented towards finding the aliveness that I can find, touching what's touchable and pleasurable, seeking what's beautiful and meaningful to me, than I'm happy. If I just tell myself a story about how that's what I'm about, then it's just a bullshit story whether I believe it or not. I know plenty of passive aggressive hippie types who seem to believe their stories and would tell you they are "happy", but who, to my eyes anyway, look pretty angry and miserable. And if they're so happy why take huge amounts of euphorics daily?

Just enjoying a flower doesn't feel like a story, just a focusing of attention on something enjoyable. I enjoy making music, I enjoy teaching T'ai-Chi, I enjoy writing, I enjoy spending time with my wife and friends, I enjoy being in Nature, so I do these things a lot and so I'm happier than if I don't do them. I think if a person can sense into what makes them feel the most alive and brings them the most pleasure, and then do that, they will be happier for it.

So imagine yourself in a garden enjoying a perfect flower. There is a big scary monster just around the corner who may or may not exist. Whether you believe in monsters or not, whether you know there's a monster there or not, you're just enjoying the flower, because monsters or not, that's what you want to be enjoying. Like the Zen Koan about the guy hanging from a branch half way down a cliff with hungry tigers above and below, who sees a berry hanging off a bush and is reaching for it...

Here's a poem by 15th Century Zen Master Ikkyu:

I hate it
I know it's nothing
Still I suck the world's sweet juicy plum

Maybe happiness is a choice, I don't know. But if it is a choice, it might be a very difficult one for some people, so I wouldn't dream of being so facile as to say "Happiness is a choice, so just choose it." People often make the mistake of assuming that if something is easy for some or even most people, it is therefore easy for everyone. Most of the time I'm actually too busy enjoying my life to even think about "happiness" or "living in the now", whatever that means.

Some people run around looking for the perfect place to live or be, as though that’s the key to happiness.  But if happiness was just a simple matter of finding the right location, there'd be a lot more happy people running around. Look at the amount of drinking and drug use and domestic violence that happen in so many of the most beautiful places in the world, places like Hawaii, Alaska, Southern California, and right here in the Rogue Valley of Oregon.

Nothing seems more absurd to me than deeming un-erasable aspects of who we are: animal, lustful, violent, selfish, competitive, separate, etc., to be "evil", and other un-erasable aspects of who we are: civilized, loving, peaceful, giving, cooperative, "one", etc., to be "good".

In my view purity is impossible. I've never met a person devoid of self-interest. In fact, the guru types who claim to have achieved it seem more self-interested than most.

Why then, is it so hard to admit that we exist in the tension between our aspects? Why so black and white? Is the ambiguity that painful? I admit it took awhile for me to find it and accept it. At first I had to tolerate it because I could find no way to rid myself of my "bad" aspects. But then in time I began to like the tension of not striving to exclude one pole or the other. And finally began to really enjoy and even love the electric un-resolvable middle.

One of things that drew me to T'ai-Chi was the realization that I could mind-fuck with the best of them. But I figured there was no way to mind-fuck my ass off the ground if I'd just been pushed there!

As I got more into T’ai-Chi and adopted more of a “Flow More~Force Less” attitude, people would ask me if I felt this would make me too passive, since in their minds, not forcing things meant giving up on life. But being passive is again, slipping to one side of another polarity. Fine to do occasionally, but denying the active part of our natures has its costs. I don’t think pursuing absolute purity, or absolute corruption for that matter, ever brings about real happiness, because of the energy needed to deny the other end of the teeter-totter. And that other end, no matter what it is, will not be denied. This is where I wish I could hit some special combination of keys that would produce a little yin/yang symbol here:____. The best I can manage now is this: %. Not black, not white but the dynamic tension that is both.