The Key to Happiness

If you’ve spent any time anywhere (whether online or in bookstores, etc.) looking at self-help material, you no doubt encountered probably dozens of titles about the ‘secret to happiness.’ It is something that we, as a society, endlessly struggle to try to find, spending probably millions of dollars on everything from books, CDs/mp3s, retreats, gurus, diets, exercise programs or personal trainers, spa treatments, clothes, drugs – you name it. In an amazon search I just did simply typing in “secret to happiness”, there were just over 6,000 results. I had no idea happiness was such a profitable market. And if you’ve spent any time here in blogland, you’ll find tons of New Agers promising that certain crystals or meditations or whatnot will get you there or an explanation of the achievement of happiness that reads like a doctoral thesis on quantum physics. If quantum physics is happy at you, fabulous! But I promise you don’t need to learn it if you don’t already study it to be happy.Now, in spite of being a joy-filled person by nature (for which I am enormously grateful), I still have a tendency to get in my own way. I still get cranky and moody and irritable and bitchy and just, well, lost. And while I have learned a lot – particularly over the course of the last 5+ years – one of the things I’ve learned is that I know very little. And I’ve reached a point where I am pretty okay with that. I’m happy to marvel at the mystery of the Universe and enjoy the part I play in it. There are, though, two things that I Know that I Know – the key to happiness being one of them – and it is my great joy to share them with you here today. In plain English. For free!

Are you ready?

Are you sure?

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1) What you focus on grows.

2) Gratitude is the key to happiness.

 

Yup. It’s that simple. It just figures that something so seemingly elusive is so simple to find. Now, note that I said simple – not easy. There’s a difference. Simple means uncomplicated. It is not the antonym for difficult.

 

As for the first one – the phrase ‘law of attraction’ probably springs to mind. I haven’t read any of Abraham Hicks material and I may be one of the few Pagans out there in the world who has not read “The Secret” – mostly because I’d already learned the principle from my Teacher. If you haven’t read either of these yourself, you don’t really need to if you just remember #1 up there (I know I personally have a hard time taking anyone who uses the word ‘vortex’ seriously, so if that’s you, too, you’re not alone). That’s the gist of it. Of course, if you want to do some reading, feel free! The bottom line is that the fundamental principle of ‘what you focus on grows’ is NOT froo-froo, New Age fluff. No, that part’s for real. I imagine if you take a hard look through your life and be painfully honest with yourself, you will find it to be true.

 

As for the second one – the expression of genuine gratitude is the fastest way to shift any negative or purely destructive energy and bring it into balance. Balance is our Natural, dynamic state. Everyone’s. When you connect with your Natural way of Being, happiness follows. When I express genuine gratitude, I direct my commentary to my particular conceptualization of the Divine (Momma and Papa), but don’t worry – we’re not going to leave the Atheists out there in the cold. Simply stating, “I am grateful for *fill in the blank*” totally works, as long as you’re genuine. And these don’t need to be earth-shaking sentiments. In fact, it’s being grateful for the little things that I’ve found just amps it up. Blue skies. Flowers that smell yummy. Coffee. Indoor plumbing. Stinky French cheese (I don’t have any in my fridge at the moment, but I’m grateful it exists in the world). Cigarettes. Hot water. African black face soap (it is the shit for combination skin). How it smells right after it rains. Coffee. Body glitter. Baby giggles (if you don’t know any babies, go to youtube). Youtube. Kittens. Deep, belly laughs. The internet. The color magenta. Picnics. Sleeping in. Really awesome sex. Traffic lights turning green right as I approach an intersection. Have I mentioned coffee?  Just try it. For two weeks, write down a minimum of 20 things you’re grateful for every day. Every day, no exceptions. And you need to be genuinely grateful for each and every thing you write down. If you have a hard time with that part, take a moment for each one and imagine what the world (or your world) would be like if that didn’t exist. I’d like to take a moment to remind you that I said this was simple, not easy.

 

If you manage your two weeks having been genuinely expressing gratitude for at least 20 things every day, I think you’ll find that at the end of your two weeks, you’ll be a hell of a lot happier than you are right now. And if you’re pretty happy now, imagine how much happier you’ll be incorporating this practice into your routine! And it’s cumulative! It just keeps building. Perhaps you’re remembering a part in the beginning of my post where I said I still get bitchy and cranky, etc. and wondering why you should buy into this stuff I’m saying if I still experience moments where I’m lacking happiness. Have you ever gone to a gym after either having never been to one or there being a pretty long lapse of time between visits? You head over to the free weights, pick up the 10, 20, or 50 lb-ers (some weight that you think would be manageable) and start doing reps. But your muscles aren’t accustomed to working that hard. They tire. Pretty quickly. And, by the way, you’re wearing a weighted suit when you do all this. You can only build that muscle so fast without your body shaking and collapsing in protest. It’s the same king of thing here. The weighted suit you’re wearing is all of the shit piled on top of who you really are, your True Self. The more you “work out,” the closer you come to Balance, the more you start to shed pieces of that suit which, in turn, makes working out easier, which then means you shed more of that suit, and it’s an amazing and magical cycle. It’ll kick your ass 100 ways to Sunday – I won’t lie about that – but if you persevere, you’ll get to where it is you want to be. And you can start it with the simple expression of genuine gratitude.

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Leaving the Zone

Have you ever been looking for something and not even known you were searching? It’s like your spirit bypasses your brain somehow and directs your body where to go, what to do. It gives your brain just enough information so it can lend some resources to the endeavor but, at least initially, restricts access to that part of the brain that can take all those pieces, synthesize them, and then name it. Of course, once that part of the brain has access, the immediate reaction is just, “Well, duh!” How could I have missed that?

I think it happens that way so that we cannot possibly get in our own way too early in the process; so that our spirits have the chance to pull the rest of us into the process and get us to start to really want it. That way, in case our brain balks at the idea, it’s out-voted. Here are the pieces that my spirit had previously kept separate so my brain couldn’t get in my way:

1) Yesterday I began reading a book called Allies in Healing. It’s written for partners of childhood sexual abuse survivors. My wife (a survivor of complex, chronic trauma and abuse) had bought it for me at a used book store. She’s been encouraging me to be more social in general, whether it was to find some kind of support group specifically (online or in person), or to just make friends. While I don’t fall in the extremist area on the introvert/extrovert scale, I’m definitely not the extreme introvert she is. My wife and I have been together for just over five years. She is the most amazing being I have ever met. And though I knew she was a trauma survivor before we got together, I didn’t have the slightest idea as to what that meant for our relationship, how completely it would impact it and us, me, and my life. Up to this point, I’ve essentially gotten through all the challenges that we’ve encountered with her or on my own.

2) Last night I was cleaning up my blogroll. It was a rather saddening affair because most of my favorite blogs either don’t exist anymore (their authors deleted them, which for the record, I completely disagree with, but to each their own) or they haven’t had new entries in forever. It was like coming home after you’ve been away and everything’s different – nobody and nothing is where it used to be. A while ago, I’d try to hunt for new favorite places but couldn’t find anyone that felt like “kin.” So I finally resigned myself to deleting the now-non-existent sites, letting go of the hope that the authors would return and sighed in the loneliness that settled in my space.

3) Before our whole family moved here (south Florida) and it was just my wife and our oldest daughter, they found a Unitarian Universalist church and went to it a couple times. When the rest of us joined them and, the first Sunday we had enough gas money, I went without my wife and with our two girls as well as my wife’s ‘kind of boyfriend.’ We were prepping to go this morning, and I was talking about how I’m not a good mingler. My wife pointed out that the whole point was community – you kind of have to mingle to achieve it. Touche.

4) Late this afternoon, upon my wife’s recommendation, I went over to Quaker Pagan Reflections, and read Cat’s latest post. And that’s when my spirit finally let my brain in on the secret. Community. Support. Connection. Oh!  Thank you, Cat (no, really, I still hadn’t quite gotten it even after the whole church thing – I’m a bit slow some times, what can I say?).

So, instead of just reading and lurking on other people’s blogs, I actually started commenting (whether to express gratitude or if I had something I genuinely wanted to share). Then, I went a step further and googled to find an online forum for partners of sexual abuse survivors. While all relationships present challenges and opportunities to learn and grow, those of us who are partners of these survivors face unique experiences and challenges, and it’s past time that I get some support  and learn how to better equip myself. I did find one, by the way, and I signed up. Go me!

All of the hard experiences that I’ve lived and moved through over the course of the past couple years have been challenging enough, but by isolating myself the way I have, I’ve made it all the more difficult. Stepping away from what is familiar and out of what has become my comfort zone is daunting. I haven’t been social in such a long time that I honestly forget how to be. I have no idea how people do it – meet people for the first time and just chat let alone go from being acquaintances to friends. You might as well be asking me to read the Talmud. In Hebrew. However, I am committing myself to this pursuit. I will face my anxiety, I will move through it, and I will heal this aspect of myself and my life. Comfort, like boredom, is overrated, right? 😉

What ventures out of your comfort zone have you recently made? Or what ventures outside of it do you want to make but haven’t yet?

Reality blogging – in the Truest sense

I try to be a very tolerant person. I think it’s a good quality to possess and express and consider it a key ingredient in the recipe for world peace. But I find I have little to no tolerance for “reality TV.”  I consider the phrase a misnomer. In my experience, and when I have forced myself to sit down and watch it (mostly when it was first introduced to our cinematic existence), I concluded little other than it being an unecessarily excessive drama-filled production; a caricature of the human experience. And because I place such an enormous value on Truth, any time I encounter or hear about it, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that makes me want to spit. So I do my best to avoid it, not wanting to waste energy.

Though somewhat less potent, my response to what I consider “reality blogging” is similar. It’s something I’ve written about (here) before, but apparently, I’m not quite done with it, so here I am again. Before I continue, I think it’s important for me to clarify that I am, by Nature, an Idealist. I am Joy-filled and Innocent (in the Truest sense of the word). I am not a cynic. Nor am I pessimistic. Really. So throughout the remainder of this post when I’m discussing these kind of blogs, it’s important for me to communicate my distaste for them does not come from that place.

I am all for positivity and positive thinking and energy and the laws of attraction and Love and Gratitude. They are sources of hope and healing and, seriously, I conclude that there’s not enough of any of them in the world; that if there were more of them, the world (and everyone in it) would be more healed and, in general, better. Not the kind of better that leads to debates about superiority or inferiority or judgment, but the kind of better that only compares each person with that person. Better as in more a manifestation of their True Selves.

Now, it is damn hard work to get to that place of True Self and certainly to live from there. I know because I’m working on it. And instead of things getting easier the further I go, they seem to get more challenging as I root through all the shit that’s piled on top of Who I Really Am in an effort to get rid of it. Yet, I find I am also filled with more resources to be able to move through that process, and the rewards are great. The “reality blogs” that frustrate me are the ones that are fairytale-esque, the ones that are only positivity, that show only the light-filled portion of that journey or only the “end” of it.

Perhaps you’re wondering why, if I’m all Joy-filled and Hopeful, something that’s so positive bothers me so much. I’ve been wondering that myself, and here is what I’ve come up with: Those blogs are the air brushed and glamour shot photos of the pursuit of self-actualization. As a Witch and a person, I have dedicated myself to being an instrument of healing in the world. Healing – synonymous with self-actualization, for in self-actualization we heal all that is not our Truest Self – is not easy. Healing is messy and painful and uncomfortable and takes far longer than anyone ever wants it to (anyone who has actually attempted to pursue psychological, spiritual, emotional, or even serious physical healing will attest to that).  Because I have committed myself to being an instrument of healing (and perhaps because of my professional training as a counselor), I think anyone considering healing should have fully informed consent before they begin. They need to know how much it’s going to suck in the middle, how it will probably get worse before it gets better (and that’s a good sign!), how it will be a process and, depending on the nature of the healing, a lifelong pursuit. So these blogs that only showcase the “end product” or the light half of the adventure serve as false advertising, mystify the process and possibly create disillusionment in anyone who reads them who is considering healing. Such disillusionment can be downright damaging, sometimes irreparably so because if one person comes across a blog like that and tries to pursue healing and then runs smack into the actual Reality of the process, the consequences – and I’m NOT being dramatic here – can be as severe as to be literally deadly. I don’t understand something, though. The question I have for those bloggers who paint such an unrealistic picture of healing and growing is this: if you actually grew or healed or are pursuing growth and healing, then I can guarantee you did or are working at it – why would you exclude the actual work part from what you share?  Do you not realize that in doing so, you dishonor not only the process itself, but your Self as well as the progress you have made and are making? How can anyone share in your triumph with you when you don’t talk about what it was or is that you’re triumphing over?

Now, to be clear, I’m not advocating anyone be a fount of negativity or talk about nothing BUT their trials or obstacles without following that up with how they moved through them. But if you’re going to blog about a pursuit of growth or healing, then I think you have the responsibility to your readers – whether your readers number 5 or 5, 000 – to be honest and real, to include the dark as well as the light. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found that movies or books based on true stories are so much more powerful and meaningful than those that aren’t. So even though it can be hard, even when it might not paint the prettiest picture of you, I encourage any bloggers writing about growth and healing to include those moments of stumbling, those moments that seem less-than-beautiful if not downright ugly.

It is our imperfections that make us perfect and beautiful.

Perhaps you think that I take this whole blogging thing too seriously and are saying to yourself, “Blogs are for entertainment – Who looks to them for a life-changing experience? Get a grip, lady and chill out.” But I’ve looked to blogs for that very reason, for connection with others, to try to find out if I was the only one who had experiences like those I’ve had, if there was truly hope out there, if anyone who’d had similar problems had made it through to some better place. When we are dying of thirst, we will hunt feverishly, almost maniacally, for any source to quench us, to sustain us; and, when the internet provides immediate access and connection to a host of the world’s population, surely someone out there could offer us the life-giving substance we so desperately need. And we can stay anonymous so no one will know how we struggle and where we fall short! So, if one has access, what better place to look?

In light of all of that, I commit to you that I will never try to gloss over or sugar coat the healing process, the process of unfolding and becoming my True Self; I will share my struggles (though not wallow in them) with you and I will share how I move through them. I will be honest and authentic and seek to inspire encouragement and hope. And I welcome dialogue, your stories, your feedback, your input, so while I certainly appreciate all the “likes” for my posts, if you feel moved to do so, please do comment. I genuinely want to know what you think and how you’re doing, and if I can be of any help, I am honored to share in your journey.

How did I get on this carpet?

Life is such an amazing and beautiful thing. Ceaselessly astonishing and surprising to me. The mystery of it all continues to amaze me each and every day. Experiencing and interacting with the Divine and the Divine’s sense of humor has, often simultaneously, brought me to my knees in gut-wrenching sobs while feeling the embrace of Love and Compassion as I sit there crumpled up in a ball of snotting, overwhelming emotion and awareness of Truth and how far from and close to it I am, sometimes all at once.

Every time I experience an opportunity for some significant jump in growth and dedicate myself to pursuing that jump, to embracing it before and around me, to unfold and become more of my True Self Momma and Papa inevitably call me to the carpet about it – usually within a 24 hr period. That call typically manifests in the form of some challenge. The Divine is ALWAYS listening, and while I imagine They hoot and holler and cheer for us when we make such declarations of dedication to change and healing and are ready and willing to coach us and walk through the whole sticky, messy, and some times painful process of it with us, They are compassionate enough to test us first, to provide us an ‘out’, to make sure we really mean it. My challenge after taking up the mantle of Love and Gratitude on my crusade of anti-negativity showed up in the form of our almost 21 year old son behaving like a complete douche and, well, a typical 21 yr old male with a history of trauma who has only just begun the healing process.

The incident itself is less important than was my response to it. Now, perhaps it’s my Irish ancestry at work, but I am a temperamental being who also happens to be, among other things, relentless, willful and headstrong. It’s a delicious combination of traits (I’m not being sarcastic – really, it is marvelous), and one of the mysteries is that just those four traits can comingle in myriad different measures to produce an astounding number of different reactions and responses. Some healing and creative, some…well, not so much. On this particular occasion, they coalesced and manufactured a river of lava, a veritable flow of fury that simmered below the surface and threatened to geiser at the slightest misstep or lack of adequate contrition on our son’s part. I spent the whole of yesterday walking around in restless agitation, justifying my emotional state by reminding myself of our son’s inappropriate demanding, ungrateful, disrespectful, and bitchy behavior. Replaying the scene of our argument on a movie reel in my mind with extra attention and encore performances of the part where he called my wife (his mother) a “crazy lady.” Like a school yard bully, I aimed a steely eyeball at him (when I deigned to look upon his face) throughout the day, my ears on high alert like a cat’s ready to pounce at the smallest nuance of attitude. I didn’t try to move past the mad. I reveled in it, keeping it barely managed.

By 11pm last night, I was exhausted.  I’d already taken an hour and a half nap earlier in the day, confused as to why I was so tired. It wasn’t until just before bef time that I remembered how tiring being angry was. My wife and I were sitting on the back patio, and she asked me what was up because I seemed not okay. I replied saying I was still angry. She then inquired as to why I hadn’t been able to let go of my mad. The conversation that ensued entailed my wife, as ambassador for the Goddess and God, calling me to the carpet and reminding me of my crusade as well as poignantly asking how I was doing with that right now? Oh, a Divine touche! Well, hell. I was gloriously sucking at it. Hahaha!  How marvelous!  What a wonderful opportunity to grow! Throughout our conversation, I reaffirmed several important tenets I have promised to uphold: 1) I will always love our kids more than I will be mad at them, 2) I will ensure they are firm in this knowledge, and 3) the goal is to heal the person, not to simply change the behavior. I was still a little grumpy even at the end of the conversation, but it was a different kind of mad. It was the, ‘well, damn, I fucked that up and my emotions are not yet in perfect congruence with my goals and doesn’t that suck’ kind of grumpy. Yup, I fell off the Love and Gratitude wagon before I was even settled on to it. Good thing I’m relentless 😉

Today, as I think about yesterday, I simply find myself chuckling to and at myself. Oh, Jess, did you really think it was going to be easy? Of course I have to instill Love and Gratitude in myself before I can begin trying to create it around me. So today, I am dusting myself off from that little wagon stumbling incident yesterday and damned if I’m not going to get back on that wagon again!

Wherever you are in the beautiful process and journey that is your life, I hope for you the ability to chuckle at yourself when you fall – to not take it all so seriously as to discourage you from continuing on when you get those scrapes and bruises on your knees and shins from falling off whatever wagon you were trying to get or stay on. I hope for you a touch of relentlessness to urge you to keep trying in those times because truly, nothing ever gets better if you just give up.

Expansions in the name of Love and Gratitude

At some point during the other day, I had a moment of clarity the likes of which I have only experienced a handful of times in my life. I had been listening to the short people in my house and L throughout the day and something was building up within me without my awareness. Like the sky parting after a long and tumultuous storm to reveal blueness so vivid that one swears the sky had never donned this vibrant shade before, it coalesced in my mind in words: negativity. Everywhere around me, the people I love and whose lives I am so honored to share and witness were a teaming bundle of complaints, whining, sniping, and irritability. I noticed it not only in them, but also in myself – either right before I would utter something or immediately after I thought or said it. As pervasive and present as noxious gas, it was everywhere I turned, in everything I heard. Knowing that complaining and negativity is the opposite of gratitude, and only serves to attract more of the same, I became angry; of course, only to realize minutes later that my anger only fed the negativity around me and wouldn’t help to heal these amazing people in asshole’s clothing or the situation so that wasn’t an option. The next part of the revelation occured when I began to pay closer attention to their behavior, to what they said and how they said it. And I found one common underlying theme to all of it: Fear.

I have learned that there are two (I guess technically three, but two are partners and on the “same side”) primary sources whose roots we can trace all of our decisions, thoughts, emotions and behaviors back to: 1) Fear, or its opposite 2) Love and Gratitude. Everything  (and I do mean everything) – from what you decide to wear each day to why you chose the career track you did to how you function and interact in relationship – comes back to one of these two concepts. Now, to be clear, I’m not saying all fear is “bad.” Fear, in its true form and not the hyped up anxiety we often mistake it for today, is a survival mechanism. It is one of the managers of the limbic system and the driver behind the flight/fight/or freeze response. But most stress management experts will tell you that our physiology hasn’t caught up with our modern environment. Rarely, unless one works in a dangerous and high-risk profession, is the fear that drives us today based on our immediate survival. It’s leftover from the days when it served that purpose but except in those rare occasions, its roots aren’t planted in survival. They’re planted in selfishness. AA brilliantly acknowledges this root of self- and other destruction in the famous Big Book and its 12-step program. It’s one of the main reasons why there is such a focus on service in the program and why, after one has reached a somewhat stable level of sobriety, one’s next step is to be a sponsor to someone else struggling. As a side note, the Big Book is brilliant in and of itself and I think everyone on the planet would benefit from reading it and walking through the 12 steps as well as learning the 12 traditions. For those of us without substance issues, there are any number of addictions we can substitute, if not the addiction to selfishness as a whole.

For the past several days, when I’m not herding children or cats or trying to figure out some way to not let the people I love make me crazy I’ve been reading a biography about a Franciscan priest who was a chaplain for the FDNY and died during the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11. I’m less than halfway through the book, and I can affirm to you that this man whom I never met in person has already dramatically changed my life in ways I am sure will continue to unfold for years to come. It’s called The Book of Mychal if you’re interested. Perhaps it’s the Christians I knew growing up or the one my parents attempted to groom me into becoming or my lack of experience with Christians who seem to truly LIVE their faith that makes the story of Father Mychal’s life that much more moving and awe-inspiring. But more than the type of Christian he was, the book (and he) is incredible because it describes the person he was. (A witchy parenthesis – it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if this man actually was Saint Francis reincarnated. That was a damn cool dude that particular time around to begin with.) He was a man of unfathomable love, devotion, compassion, and service.

So it is Father Mychal I think about when I look around my home and see the state of the people I love embroiled in negativity, weighted down in fear. And again, like a few other times so far in this life, I feel an expansion within myself. If I have the capacity to recognize the state of things, then I wholeheartedly believe that I have the capacity to heal them and make them better for us all. And perhaps that might mean expanding even more, but I fully believe I’m capable of that as well and that the opportunity would not be presented to me if it were otherwise.