‘Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.’
It is typical of Oscar Wilde that, in his witty way, he touches on a rather painful truth. There are people who simply don’t seem to have the knack of making others happy, of being pleasant company. Other people are so open-hearted and generous, they sow harmony and good-will in even difficult circumstances. The rest of us are somewhere in between – we probably have plenty of people in our lives whose faces light up when we enter a room, as well as a few who are less than delighted to run into us. We all want to be happy, we all want to be liked, and we all struggle with both.
One of the effects of regular meditation is an increase in the activity of the left pre-frontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with positive feeling states. This effect can be measured after only eight weeks of daily meditation, such as during a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, and becomes more pronounced with long-term meditators. And indeed, people who have been meditating for many years do tend to come across as cheerful and positive. Yet it’s not quite as simple as meditating every day and finding instant bliss and peace. The process of meditation can take us to some pretty challenging places. There are a number of reasons why it’s often difficult to be in the present moment, why we prefer to be distracted or ruminating or fantasising or planning ahead obsessively – anything, in fact, but to be here now! One reason is quite simply that the present moment may not be a pleasant place to find ourselves in. Even if we’re not facing any imminent disasters, the present moment may feel empty, sad, unfulfilled. To be at ease in the present moment, we have to be ‘comfortable with uncertainty’, as the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes in her book of that name. We also need to have ‘negative capability’ – a term coined by the English poet John Keats when he was only 22 years old, which he described as being ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ We could perhaps add to this – without any irritable reaching after happiness.
The Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
‘Many people think excitement is happiness… But when you are excited you are not peaceful. True happiness is based on peace.’
Another way of looking at happiness is to think about contentment, which we will explore in next week’s reflection.
Weekly practice idea:
This week, practise the STOP exercise (see previous post in May) several times a day, and notice your feeling state – is it pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? If it is pleasant, is there a sense of excitement or more of contentment? If it unpleasant, is that because of some strong emotions, or more of a sense of emptiness? Over the course of the week, do you notice any patterns?