When you first meet a Thai person, invariably they will ask you, “Are you happy?”
It’s a fair question and one which we’re not used to asking in the United States.
Here’s my “so-called” dilemma. Is it okay that I’m so happy to be in Thailand when the pandemic is raging at home and our country is so rife with divisions?
As Jimmy Carter wrote in his editorial “I Fear for Our Democracy,” that appeared in the New York Times in early January, we really need to find ways to connect human to human and “re-engage across the divide.”
It’s anyone’s guess what will happen.
Yet, here I am in my “happy place” back in Thailand in my sanctuary, Songdhammakalyani Temple, with my beloved teacher, mentor, and friend, Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni. It has been two years since I last visited and I missed her so much.
I delight in the simplest pleasure of being in her company. Yesterday, we had tea in the garden in the afternoon. The intense heat of the day began to cool down and a gentle breeze blew softly through the leaves. I don’t remember much of what was said; I simply know I felt completely content at that moment.
I’ll be frank. It is not easy living in a monastery day after day, 90-degree heat and 90 percent humidity with no air-conditioning, sleeping on a two-inch mattress, eating two modest meals a day for breakfast and lunch, dousing myself in cold water once a day to remove the surface dirt, waking each morning at 4:30 to arrive at morning changing, stumbling into the prayer room with the bleary eyes of a pilgrim.
Yet there is something about the simplicity of life here that calls forth a life-affirming mantra within me. I’m alive. I’m alive, healthy, and awake. The world beckons, opening its arms with an invitation to delight in the path I am on.
In the Dhamma talk last night, Venerable Dhammananda talked about the difference between want and need. I have what I need, but I cling to what I want, some future expectation of something better, something I can’t live without—the next shiny new thing.
Similarly, I cling to past memories, trying to hold onto an experience that has long since passed me by.
Before I took this trip, I was in a stuck place, missing and clinging to the memory of my former husband who I divorced three years ago after leaving a 34-year marriage. Part of me wanted him back, even knowing that he has moved onto a new relationship. The truth is I have everything I need right here and now.
As soon as I arrived at the monastery, I noticed my mind making a shift from the past to the present. Time slowed down as I began to connect more deeply with myself. I no longer had “100” preoccupations filling my mind but began to appreciate the simple things around me—a tropical flower, a chirping bird nearby, or the sound of early morning chanting.
Perhaps this is the key to happiness and what makes it so satisfying; we slow down and connect with the here and now of our experience.
People describe the feelings of happiness in a variety of ways—excitement, gratitude, rapture, joy, ecstasy, delight, spiritual radiance, contentment, pleasure, and so forth. For me, it is a combination of joy, peace, and contentment—all at the same time. It’s a spontaneous feeling that surges through me when I least expect it, like spotting a rainbow filtering through the sunlight. It’s a feeling of oneness, with myself and the other person, no walls or barriers between us, just two loving hearts beating in unison.
I believe that happiness is a choice, that finding happiness in this chaotic world is a sacred imperative, and that we are most likely to find it when we take care of ourselves. We need to nourish ourselves emotionally, physically, and spiritually to maintain a sense of well-being in these difficult times.
I used to think taking time out for myself was selfish, but the truth is that when we do what we enjoy, we are happier, and when we are happier, we can share our joy with others.
Here are some tips on finding happiness:
1. Listen to your heart.
2. Focus on what you are grateful for.
3. Do the things you love.
4. Create a list of “happy” activities and choose one each day.
5. Make time for self-care.
6. Connect with people you love.
The world needs more “happy” right now.
Maybe the Thai people have it right and it’s no accident this country is known as the “land of smiles.”
I do not mean to diminish the amount of suffering that’s going on in people’s lives, nor ignore the difficulties that confront us. I am also aware of just how privileged I am to be able to travel in the first place and am grateful for the opportunity.
While all that is true, I still think it’s important to find peace and contentment in our lives.
Life is so precious; it’s good to slow down and savor the moment once in a while. Who knows? You may find happiness in unexpected places.
What’s your happy place? What brings you joy?