Homemade Happiness

When it comes to happiness, we are in charge. 40% of our happiness comes from things we can do to keep it alive. I’m usually pretty cheerful but it has been a dire year. With some beautiful highlights, but no way 40%.

Yet, according to Barbara Graham, our culture promotes the idea that happiness is a given, and that most people believe there’s no reason why folks can’t be happy all the time–unless there’s something wrong with them.

I never believed that. When I was young and cynical I was taken with the idea that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation” and women got an extra spoonful. As I matured and designed life the way I wanted it to look, I figured I got it right about half the time. That seemed fair: 50/50 equal measures of suffering and joy.

Now math is not my subject, but if i automatically have 50% happiness and I can add 40% more, that means  the happiness in my life shoots up to 90%. Well, wouldn’t that be nice right about now? I really want to get off these crutches, stop dealing with medications and pain and sleeplessness, and just be ME again.

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UC Berkeley has an entire department devoted to the study of happiness (I think I would be 100% happier had I graduated with honors from that school) and they put together a sort of top ten list of things to do to increase the happiness quotient. Let’s see. Right now, honestly, I’m at about 30% (with zero being dead). This is up from 20% yesterday when I spent yet another day having blood drawn at the doctor’s office.

So here’s my plan. Do those ten things on the list and get 70% happy. I can totally live with 70% happy. The first thing on the list is to SAVOR LIFE’S JOYS. “Pay close attention to life’s pleasures and share them with others.”

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All I have to do is look in front of me to see one of my favorite pleasures: my laptop. I don’t know what my happiness numbers would be without writing, oh wait, I do, because some days in the past couple of months I’ve been too sick to write. So here I am with my best pleasure. And next to me: a cup of tea. Nothing beats a cup of tea. I like Stash Black Breakfast with a splash of almond milk. And almond milk?! Thank you whoever thought of that stuff. Regular milk and I don’t agree, soy milk is just okay, but almond milk is like a sweet dream.

Seems I don’t have to reach far to get that happiness thing heading higher. Next up? DROP GRUDGES. Give me a few days for that one as I have a longish list. But I will be back and will send progress on my health and happiness for the next ten posts. Want the complete list now? I read it in the June issue of “Mindful” magazine. Page 49. And there’s another of the joys I savor, reading and sharing what I read:)

The Sixties Two Ways

Those of us who came of age in the 1960s are now in our 60s…including my lovely husband, Al, who turns 60 soon. Al and I are at the top of our game, if you think of life as a game, which of course it is. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. With Al, I won big time! He’s my favorite person on the planet and supports me no matter what. There have been a lot of amazing sunsets in our thirty years together:)

Since early 2014, Al and I have had more challenges as a couple than we’ve had in our entire marriage. We’ve also had more blessings. Through it all, he was the one I leaned on, he was the one I could count on, he was the one who held me in the light. He loved me well; he loves me still. How lucky am I? I will never forget the remarkable kindness of this man I had the good sense to marry.

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I’ve grown in amazing ways just by following Al’s example. Where I am anxious, he is calm. Where I am insecure, he is a rock. Where I am sad, he always has a smile. He’s sparked some major changes for me, all for the better. He’s always telling me to “go for it” with whatever my heart desires. And now I’m able to do the same for him. I tell him all about the Desire Map stuff I’m learning even though I think he somehow intuited it the day he was born sixty years ago.

As Al and I came of age in the 1960s, the world was all about peace & love. We had those qualities instilled in us at an age where they took root and grew. Peace and love are still two of my favorite words and best feelings. And we are still stardust, we are still golden…just like Joni Mitchell says in “Woodstock.”

I used to think that bodies being made of stardust was a nice metaphor. Many years later, through my interest in and study of cosmology, I learned that we are literally made of stardust. Joni wrote some smart lyrics. And we are still living in Woodstock Nation, without the mud and bad acid:)

Al and I create dreams for our future instead of rushing to meet deadlines. Our next big dream is to visit ancient Greece. Well, that’s my dream. Al wants to go to Alaska, via Seattle of course. I’m on board with that trip because there’s a little someone in Seattle I’m longing to see. And his parents, too!

No matter where our stardust lands on the planet, I believe that, for both of us, the 60s are going to be sensational. All over again.

Peace & Love,

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Looking Anew at Desire

Danielle LaPorte knows how to work the word desire. Yes, the Buddhists are right: if we desire someone or something we cannot have, we will suffer. In another entirely different way, desire leads to liberation, fulfillment and happiness. LaPorte’s Desire Map project, with workshops and books, clarifies desire done right.

It has been 21 days life-changing days since my Desire Map workshop with Laura Zera. I’ve done a lot of writing, thinking, and desire mapping. Getting clear with what I want the rest of my life to look like. Before I took this workshop, I was lost. I knew it. I’d been working my way up from hell for several months, but was still stuck in so many places.

Enter Desire Mapping. Even the word “desire” freaked me out. Whatever I desired would automatically be denied, would lead to suffering, would hurt me by its utter absence from my life. Or so I believed. LaPorte does a different thing with desire. She keeps the luscious word but mixes it up with a few others to focus her idea about how to get happy, how to let go, how to feel free.

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I love the story at the beginning of the Desire Map book telling how LaPorte discovered this method of living life its highest potential. One New Year’s Eve, she was, as usual, making a list of goals. She had gotten good at this and had goals for several areas of her life: work, love, play. Somehow she didn’t feel so great as she filled out this goal worksheet. She had the feeling those goals would just get lost.

She contemplated her feelings around goals. What if she just gave up setting goals? Her energy shot up. She felt lighter. Happier. She wanted to keep those feelings, but how to make them about her goals? She began to scribble down words on her worksheet, not goals but feeling words. She was on fire inspired about how she wanted to feel. Just reading, I got that fired up inspired, too.

I knew joy and I knew sorrow and for sure preferred joy.  I did not live in joy. Not most of the time. My feelings more often than not bossed me around, dictated I do what I did not want to do, rained on my parade, criticized and diminished me. I wanted to figure out how to stay in joy longer, and drop the despair. Could I put joy in charge of every action I took? Maybe I needed to give myself permission to desire again, to feel good, to dig deep for understanding about what I wanted and needed.

It’s going to take more than 21 days, but I am well on my way, amazed that I am clear on how I want to feel, focused on doing the things that I know will get me there, letting everything else go. If you’d like to see your life sparkle again, the Desire Map might just be your way out of darkness, too.

For Love

As the big day for romance approaches I am filled with love. It has been said that we are only able to fully love when we acknowledge that the world is a terrible place. It is. And yet…we have chemistry on our side. Oxytocin, the so-called cuddle chemical (L. Phillips) fills me as I write this from my firelit room in freezing Michigan, far away from the sunny little one who caused this physical reaction.

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This is Owen. No matter the distance, my love for him persists.

I’m a fortunate person. All my life I have had one goal: to be a good wife and mother. And while I have not always met my own expectations, in fact, have often failed, I am grateful to have lived to see both my children grown and beloved and happy. Recently, I have also found my own hard-won happiness. For the first time in my life, I am putting myself first. I love my family. Visiting my son, his wife, and my grandson makes that love feel very immediate. So I have many reasons to feel fortunate, although they all come down to one thing: love.

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A friend gave me the picture frame above. Family is Everything. Is that true? Certainly I’ve lived my life as if it were. But what about friendship? I really love my friends. And I feel such compassion for all the lonely people without family or a beloved or a best friend. Because their circumstances leave them without close connections, are they nothing? Do they deserve nothing? I think they deserve everything. Love is everything and everyone deserves it. Unless they, you know, rape and pillage and so forth. Those people, I don’t know. They probably never got enough love. Or they were born defective, without empathy, which is the definition of a psychopath.

I don’t really like to talk about my family and psychopaths in the same post. It’s an unfortunate and uncomfortable truth: the world can be such a sad, bad place but also full of joy and wonder.

This weekend we have official permission to dwell on love. I measure life a success if you have happiness and love. The two seem to me to be twins, mirroring each other, shining like glitter on fresh snow. But ah, there’s the catch: snow is cold and icy and so too is a life without love, or a life that is lived loving someone who will never return your feelings.

Unrequited love is much on my mind as we come to Cupid’s special day. I think of all the sad lovers, the unhappy lovers, the unrequited lovers in the world. For so many people, this weekend is going to be full of tears. I have been in that place. Is there anyone who has not?

If you came to this page because you’re alone on a day when it hurts more than usual, I can tell you again: love yourself first. Love can transform itself. You can love someone without them returning that love and it is still good to feel that love inside yourself. Turn it around and give it to yourself. It feels a little weird at first but it works, I swear it does.

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You can be alone with a box of chocolates and love yourself, not by eating the box empty, but by feeling that love you have for another as a good thing. Let it expand and fall back upon your own self. Love is why we are here: to love ourselves well and to love others. Feel love, send love, speak love. Even if you are sad and alone and have the flu. I in fact have the flu at this moment and perhaps that is why this post seems a little effusive. The DayQuil made me do it!

Love yourself well. Take rest and allow your heart to heal if it is broken or bruised or heavy.

Like attracts like and if you let love reside without prejudice, it will return to you. You will be loved. Love is not what you think it is. It is not always hearts and flowers and that sweet rush of pure junkie joy that comes from the new. We get addicted to the high of new love like we get addicted to chocolate and grandchildren. After my time with Owen, I wanted someone to make me a perfume that smelled like him: milk and baby lotion and that special Owen-ness.

Sometimes love can be quiet and strong and giving. Give love freely even when it flies right out the window, right past the heart you aim it at. Love anyway. If you are broken, let love heal your heart. And if you have the flu, take two NyQuil and call me in the morning.

Changing My Mind

The human mind is a quirky old thing. Old being the key word. We are still dealing with our primitive brain and things get complicated when our shiny new neocortex starts tussling with the reptile. These two parts of our brain, like it or not, must co-exist; sometimes it feels like an uneasy marriage.

Our reptile brain was simply focused on two things: staying alive and continuing the species. Avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. Easy except that damn “fight or flight” mode psychologists always talk about still has me in its grip more often than I care to admit, even to myself. Or should I say, my mind. Yes, it is possible to hide things from your own tricky mind.

Because with all the other developments of our new brain, we have this thing called denial. Some of us are very good at it. And our new smarts created not just a way to harness fire but also new and fun stuff to add to the procreation process we are coded to seek out and enjoy. There’s a pill for anxiety, a more sophisticated form of “flight” and there’s stuff for depression, too, which is something our cavemen ancestors didn’t really live long enough to experience, nor have enough time to ruminate upon.

I’ve recently had a bout of “the dark night of the soul” ~ yes, philosophy and theology and shadows turned into poetry our brain teems with … and then there are the torments: the shame, greed, envy and hate. Mostly we are ashamed to feel these negative emotions, which is why I, for one, prefer to keep them hidden, even from myself.

But that murk will suck me down anyway sometimes, even though I may not know why. Since my days as a single mom, the lowest point of my life, I’ve learned a few lessons on how to stop the pain and the denial and face the truth. Or so I thought. I meditated. I prayed. I studied world religions and new thought philosophies. And still, shame persisted and stung me when I least expected it, well into my fifth decade of life. Just when I thought things had finally settled down.

A cascade of events that I’ve recounted here these past few months brought me to my knees and I knew I needed more. I found a good therapist and started repair work on my mind. Because recent findings in the scientific community have learned our minds are much more plastic than we once believed. We can literally change our minds, although it’s a bit of work. I  was already halfway there with a couple of decades of meditation on my zafu.

Okay, these days, my sofa.

What can I say? I like to meditate with the possibility of a nap at the end of the breath session. Anyone who has worked with their mind in meditation knows there’s no empty bowl or serenity. It’s pretty messy in there with thoughts and emotions clinging and clanging. But I have learned to breath through them and let things float away without judgment. Or that’s the goal anyway.

I always have a goal whenever I learn anything difficult, and meditation is no exception. But it is so worth it and has helped me with this new endeavor to change my mind. When I say “change my mind” I mean actually reconfigure the way I think. It’s doable. Ask anyone who has broken a bad habit.

So how does one take the mind from anxiety and depression to happiness? That’s what I want, same thing my ancestors did. More pleasure, less pain. And it is possible. The catch is you have to go through the pain to get to the peace. Face up to feelings, those uncomfortable emotions. Try to follow them to their root. I usually have half a dozen mixed in there, so it takes a minute (or a month). But once I got that part, I wasn’t sure where to go. I did a ritual with fire. That was cool but I felt like I’d cleaned the house (of my mind) and it was quickly getting dusty again.

So, here’s what the book I’m reading right now suggests. Find happy images from your current life and when you go into the blues, meditate. While in this place of relative calm, face those ugly emotions, let them pass through, and then pop a happy image in place.

That’s where I got stuck. I didn’t have any happy images. Did I? Well, I could try to write a list. I might only have one or two things on it, but it was a start. Ha. I wrote for two pages, starting with the time, not too long ago, when my husband told me I was the love of his life and he wanted to grow old with me. Awwww. Then I remembered he called me today just to say that if he couldn’t be with me, at least he could hear my voice.

I thought about my new book, just arrived in the mail yesterday, a real, tangible thing I had made. Holding a book of my own had once been a distant dream. I have a row of books now, my own books, on a row of shelves holding my most cherished, carefully curated, collection. I should curate my thoughts so carefully.

More positive images: all the laughter yesterday with the writers. God it feels good to laugh. Tom to me: “I see you’ve gotten over your reluctance to share sex scenes.” And then Bob, many minutes later, “This takes the record for the scene longest discussed, and we’re not done yet!” We laughed, even sweet Veronica, we four comfortable in a way only a perfectly in sync group can be.

And last night, the wonderful dinner out with good friends, and Kelly telling me a self-deprecating story about her failed attempt at dessert. I like a person who can laugh at themselves. Kindly. That kindness within the laughter, that sense of connection, those are two things I need in my mind more. They bring the heart ease. And all I have to do to feel them is to think about them instead of the negative stuff. Or, more accurately, after I acknowledge the negatives, dismiss them and say “next!”

I have hardly touched on my long list, which includes a sweet talk with my son yesterday and seeing my awesome grandson every week on FaceTime. He loves his Mama so much and I can see it in his eyes up close because she holds the phone next to her face as he kicks his legs, tries to suck his toes, and fist pumps the air around him, always with a smile. Owen is one happy baby. Which of course makes me a very happy granny.

In need of a mental makeover? Try this image replacement thing. It’s better than staying stuck in the mud. The lotus, flower of Buddhist teachings, grows in mud. That most precious and beautiful of flowers would never grow and open to the sunlight if it hadn’t first germinated in the mud. So don’t be afraid of your deep shame and secrets. Sink into the mud, open your heart, let shame have its say, realize negatives are products of a quirky mind working with old brain stuff we really can’t control, and let them go. Let them grow into something beautiful, like a baby’s smile. Namaste.