May 26, 2011

How Can I Be Happy When the World Is Falling Apart? ~Donna Quesada

Photo: UK Department of International Development

We make a lifetime career out of sabotaging ourselves. As the pronouncement goes, pain is inevitable, but the suffering is optional.

The Buddha revealed the many ways in which we take that option, making life more difficult than it has to be—all because of our tweaked outlook on reality. We struggle with the fact of change yet, simultaneously, look for escape. The suffering that follows is a special kind of suffering; it’s a chronic discontent, a compulsive wiggliness.

Photo: Poi Apeles

We spin and re-spin the past and fantasize about the future, convincing ourselves all the while, that we’re being productive.

This starts from the time we’re young. Struck at some moment by a vague sensation of inner longing, we imagine there will be some magical time in the future when everything will just jell. When we’re little kids, we wish we were big kids and when we finally are big kids, we think only of graduation: “if only I could get out of this hell-hole, called high school.”

Then when we graduate, it’s all about college: “if only I could get into UCLA, everything would be perfect.” And maybe we do and maybe we don’t, but whatever we do, wherever we end up, we can only think of one thing—graduating from there, so we can finally get a place of our own, and pay off these student loans, and get a job…a real job.” And eventually we do.

Then, we bemoan the commute and the long days and that ego-maniac coworker and the micro-manager boss. We wish we were home, or better yet, we wish it were the weekend, or better still we think: ”what I really want is a vacation, so I can pay off this mortgage and finally be debt free”.

We feel trapped: “wouldn’t it be nice to retire so I could just plant my garden and paint.” And eventually we do, and when we do, we wish we were young again.

We can never be anywhere else but here, yet at any given moment, we’re everywhere but here.

“But what’s wrong with having goals and looking forward to stuff,” Andrew asked.

“Nothing, as long as those goals haven’t got you by the nose. The problem is our disabling attachment to the outcome. We think we can’t be happy unless things go the way we think they ought to go. We have fixed expectations, and can’t accept any other way, so we spin; we run it through 100 times in our minds just to reassure ourselves. Like a hiccough in the brain, we rehearse the scenarios—what we’ll do and what we’ll say, if it doesn’t go the way we wanted,” I explained.

The spinning provides a sense of safety, albeit a spurious one, since it makes us only as secure as those old lap belts in the old 50‘s cars. We have a hard time simply being, being with doubt, with not knowing, with reality as it is. So, as a coping mechanism, we seek stimulation. It’s not that planning and following up are inherently bad—it’s that the extra stuff is not only extra, but keeps us from ever knowing true peace of mind.

“What if I choose to be distracted? What if my fantasy world is better than reality!”, like Marc said last week. “What if everything does suck? You even said it, just look at the news—it’s all insanity! How is it even possible to be happy with all the problems in the world?” Carlo asked.


“So we’re back to that—everything sucks?” I said, with mock exasperation.

“But, why is it that some people manage to be joyful, even when things are falling apart?” I then asked.

“Imagine two guys walking through campus. One guy disses the ugly old buildings, complains about the weather, and whines about his classes. The other guy only sees the beautiful new fountains, the picturesque sky, and is happy he even got classes, considering the budget cuts. These guys are walking through the same campus, under the same sky and they’re looking at the same buildings. Wherein lies the difference?” I asked.

“Their minds.” the usually quiet Renée said.

“So…it’s our minds that suck!” I said. “But we feel that the deliberating and despair serve some purpose.”

“Go back to our fictional Mr. Negative: he says he can’t be happy because he’s too worried about the world; but does his misery actually help anything? If so, how? Does it help the flood victims? Or, the hungry?” I asked.

“It’s really the same point we made about your goals; you have them, but you can only do so much at one time. Like a staircase; you know it’s there, but you can only take one step at a time. And as my own Zen teacher used to say, in the typically cheeky, Zen way, ‘you want to go to Law School, then fill out the application.’ Of course, you could wring your hands and pace the floor, as well, but that would be as absurd as wearing two hats,” I explained.

I made an example of Todd, who sits in front. Everyone knows he just raised over a million dollars for the Japanese Tsunami victims, and he seems like a pretty happy guy, in general.

“Let’s say Mr. Happy is like Todd, devoting all his free time to his causes—so that preempts any suggestion of blissful ignorance on his part. But, he also knows that right here, right now—as corny as it sounds—the birds are chirping and an airplane just went by overhead,” I said.

“But…you have to get still to hear them,” I said, softly.

Photo: John Fowler

We all got quiet…the rumbling and spitting of an old airplane became vivid…and then a bird, and then another…and then the distant traffic.

“Sounds you normally miss because you’re somewhere else,” I said.

“Here’s the real point—and let’s be honest. You’re not miserable because you’re worried about health care reform, or political corruption in El Salvador. You’re not chronically anxious because of the endless insanity in the middle-east.”

“If you were, guess what? You’d get involved! And then you’d be happy because you’d actually be doing something! You’d be empowered and hopeful and fulfilled. You’d feel victorious rather than victimized,” I said.

“I met Jane Goodall,” I continued. “She’s seen ugliness and heartbreak and has dedicated her life to fixing it. Yet, she was anything but the picture of despair. She was loving and encouraging. I’ve seen videos of Mother Theresa. No matter how much pain and suffering she saw everyday of her 87 years of life she never spoke of despair.”

“She spoke of the power of prayer and the kindness of God’s love—the love she gave away freely. She knew that those in need weren’t hungry only for food, but also for love. And she knew that in order to give love, you had to embody it. She once told a story of a poor man who wanted to be a part of her mission. He came to her with the only twenty pennies he had earned that day. He wanted her to have them, but she knew if she took them, he wouldn’t eat that day.”

“She also knew if she didn’t, that he would be hurt. So, she took them and he jumped for joy—the same joy she manifested as she served those in need. If she had sat instead, wringing her hands, she never could have done what she did. She would have been weighted by the enormity of the burden,” I explained.

“What’s the point of mutual despair?” I asked.

Our Mr. Happy is happy because he’s present and so he’s full—full of the beauty around him. He sees it, hears it, touches it and doesn’t want to miss it. He’s full of hope. He understands that we can only do what we can. Even Mother Theresa knew she couldn’t fix all of India, but she could help one person at a time, as long as she was present to the task at hand.

Anyway, there will never be a time when everything is fixed, and so, happiness is less about gratification, and more about freedom from the conditioned belief that life is not livable or fun without certain things. It’s freedom from our own spinning wheels. It’s the simple delight of having our feet firmly planted, of feeling grounded…of belonging, rather than the incessant longing for something else.


Donna Quesada. Instructor of eastern philosophy and Kundalini Yoga, Zen practitioner, and author of Buddha in the Classroom; Zen Wisdom to Inspire Teachers. Website: www.donnaquesada.com

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