Dear Still Water Friends,
The second mindfulness training, True Happiness, states: "I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion…" So, what does it mean to be happy and can our own happiness help others find happiness?
The word happiness is derived from the word “hap”, a noun that originated in European languages around 1200 CE meaning: chance, luck, fortune, fate, or unforeseen occurrence. From the Old Norse “happ” comes the meaning chance or good luck; and from the Proto-Germanic “hap” from early 13th century, we get the meaning good fortune. “Hap” as a verb meaning “to happen” appeared during the next century. The very origins of the word happiness imply that there is an unpredictable element to happiness that has something to do with luck and good fortune. But are happy people just lucky or do they do things differently than those who experience life from an unhappy perspective? This is a question that I have enjoyed pondering. Here is a story that inspired my personal interest in this topic.
Mary’s childhood in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s was filled with many painful experiences, including witnessing her mother beating up her drunken father and the women that he was chasing. The chaos in her life was so intense that Mary was put on tranquilizers in the 4th grade in an attempt to keep her from emotionally melting down in the classroom.
After several rough years, Mary dropped out of high school in 1966 to have her first child at the age of 17. When the child was born, Mary’s mother took the newborn baby and kicked Mary out of the house. Two years later, Mary gave birth to a second child outside of wedlock. A couple of years after that, Mary met and married a man who agreed to adopt her two children. However, Mary had to organize a kidnapping of her own children to get them away from her mother so that she could take them to her new home. Unfortunately, that new husband would end up terrorizing Mary and her children for the next 9 years. She gave birth to three additional children in the midst of heavy physical and emotional abuse.
Mary finally got up the courage to leave that man when his abuse became so bad that she feared for her life and for the lives of her children. After she left, Mary took on three jobs to support her five children without child support from any of the fathers. Within two years, Mary met and married another man who turned out to be a severe alcoholic, and she gave birth to her 6th child. Her second husband would take Mary and her 6 children through several years of alcoholic dysfunction, including short stints in several cities in four different states.
Mary finally found stability when she married her third husband, who would be considered a chronic malcontent by most standards. So what ever became of those six children? All six of the kids grew up to be successful and reasonably well-adjusted adults. Five of Mary’s six children have had long term marriages to a single spouse, and all have lives that they would describe as happy for the most part: her eldest son is presenting the program this evening! Was this due to luck, fate, chance, genetics, or was there something that Mary did to help ensure that her kids would survive their chaotic childhoods and move into the world relatively unscathed?
What Mom excelled at was compassion, love, and understanding. No matter what was going on, my mother had the ability to let go of negative situations by seeing that other people, life’s circumstances, poverty, or abuse were not permanent states, and that they were not attachments that served her or her family. In the midst of all of the chaos, my mother found ways to help other people, to listen deeply to those around her, to love openly, and to respond compassionately. Instead of surrendering to the circumstances of her life, she cultivated happiness for herself and her children, using her own inner reservoirs of love and compassion.
This quote from a Guardian Newspaper interview with Thich Nhat Hanh reminds me of how Mary raised her children:
With compassion you can die for other people, like the mother who can die for her child. You have the courage to say it because you are not afraid of losing anything, because you know that understanding and love is the foundation of happiness. But if you have fear of losing your status, your position, you will not have the courage to do it.
To me, this story illustrates three important points: 1) Happiness does not just happen upon us, it is cultivated with compassion, love, and understanding; 2) the cultivation of happiness does not require perfect conditions, in fact, you can cultivate happiness under all kinds of difficult circumstances; and 3) the cultivation of your own happiness can have a great influence on the world around you.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will focus our discussion on our experiences and stories about cultivating happiness. How do you practice the cultivation of happiness? What impact has the practice had on your cultivation of happiness? How has someone else’s cultivation of happiness impacted you?
Looking forward to being with you.
Some addition excepts by Thich Nhat Hanh on happiness are below.
Thich Nhat Hanh on Happiness:
From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation
Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free. …
The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.
From The Art of Power
Many people think excitement is happiness…. But when you are excited you are not peaceful. True happiness is based on peace.
From No Death, No Fear
Taking refuge in our family, friends and community, in the sangha, we change our way of life. We have to live with peace and joy right away and not wait for the future to do it. We have to be well right now, right here, peaceful and joyful in the present moment. There is no way to happiness — happiness is the way.