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happiness is a journey

Or how Zen can help us to stay focused and calm in adverse circumstances

Happiness can mean so many different things. It is one of those ephemeral categories that elude definition in absolute terms. People seem to set their individual standards for happiness and make judgments from their own point of view. And while some people run ceaselessly from one experience to another in hope of finding the ultimate happiness, others appear to be quite content with what they have. But what happens when apparently happy people experience adversity?


Last year in January a cupboard in my kitchen came off the wall and crashed on the floor together with my china and my collection of glasses. I was in the bathroom. I heard some noise, but thought that my neighbor had dropped something. Later, when I went to the kitchen, I could not believe my eyes. I could not enter the kitchen because the entrance was blocked by the damaged piece of furniture and the china and glass that was scattered all over the kitchen floor. Interestingly, I stayed completely calm. I looked at the spectacle and tried to assess the damage. In the sink I saw a plate, a Roswell mug from my husband, a tea cup and a saucer, and a water glass. I was busy writing in the morning and maybe a bit too lazy, so I did not wash these things right after my breakfast. And there they were. Intact.

The kitchen was a mess and the cupboard would have to be moved away and repaired or replaced. I had my few things left, so I did not have to run out to a store right away. I knew though, that sooner or later, I would have to go shopping to replace the broken china and the glasses and I would have to spend money that I originally intended to spend on something else. Moreover, the timing of this incident could not be worse because I was really busy and did not have the time to take care of the mess. But when actually is the best time for a little disaster in our lives? If we could, we would make them disappear before they even occur, but this is not how things work. Some things cannot be prevented. They just happen. There are people who believe that things happen for a reason so that we can learn from them and grow. The most important lesson you can learn is to stay calm and detach yourself from the event. Accept what has happened, clear the mess, and move on.

Years ago I might have had a minor nervous breakdown at the sight of my favorite china lying crushed to pieces on my kitchen floor. A bowl that could never be replaced. A favorite tea cup. Elegant wine glasses. Even though I knew that things did break or could get lost, but could actually be replaced, a loss would make me sad, sometimes even unhappy. I would have been sad for days reminding myself how horrible it was not to have that particular object, or a pet, or a person in my life anymore. But not this time. Not after years of preoccupation with Buddhist philosophy, yoga, and meditation. Not after years of a life in the present. Not after the realization that everything is transient, impermanent, and illusory. 

Very often we define ourselves through our possessions. Our possessions often have a particular meaning to us and their loss may be very painful. The more emotions or memories are associated with the object, the more unique and irreplaceable it becomes to us. We perceive the loss as something unbearable. There is no consolation. And definitely, there is nothing that could ever replace it in our hearts. Or is there?

In our day to day existence, no matter how happy and fulfilled, we have to face situations that sometimes are beyond our control. Some of us become completely overwhelmed, while others face the adversity with determination to find a solution. They refuse to give up or become victims. They do not delight in their pain and do not ruminate incessantly on their problem. Instead, they demonstrate incredible resilience. They acknowledge what has happened, accept it, calculate the consequences, look for a solution, and move on. It does not mean that they do not feel anything when adversities occur in their lives. Their emotions may be very intense, but they have learned that to worry about things that cannot be undone, prevented, or influenced in any possible way, is a waste of time and precious energy they could rather use to find a solution or to heal their own pain. The glass may appear to have a wrong size, but it is never empty. To accept what happened does not mean to resign oneself to the circumstances. Resistance and refusal to accept creates more tension and pain. To accept means to see the situation as what it really is and let go.

We are never completely helpless. We may not always be in control of the circumstances we are in, but we can always consciously chose the way how we respond to them. Herein lies the difference between those who feel truly happy and fulfilled and those who see themselves as helpless victims of bad luck, higher injustice, or some kind of punishment they deserve anyway. A shift in perspective would make a great difference, but it does not come as easily as one may wish. It involves mental and emotional discipline and most importantly, the realization that it is futile to hold on to things. Buddhism teaches us that everything is in flux. Nothing lasts forever. Because our minds need some kind of permanence in the floating world, they create an illusion of continuity. Sometimes the illusion is shattered like the china in my kitchen and whole worlds collapse. Yet, to those who live in the moment and savor its essence, the cracks in the surface are as impermanent and illusory as everything else.

Happiness is a journey not a destination. Travel well...

By Dominique Allmon


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