Ever noticed that the more you try to find happiness directly, the more it eludes your grasp? My hunch is that this is because happiness isn’t properly a goal of life. It’s a feeling that happens when you get some other things right. The U.S. Declaration of Independence affirms that the “pursuit of happiness” is an unalienable right. But notice that it’s the “pursuit” that is every citizen’s right. Can happiness even be a “right”. In the Declaration “life” and “liberty” precede happiness. Maybe Jefferson intuited that happiness is always a by-product of other factors? It’s hard to be truly happy if one’s life is constantly under threat or if you’re not free.
I wonder if the “secret” to happiness is to actually give up even its pursuit – sorry Jefferson. Instead, focus on actually feeling life itself. Lay psychologist and literary critic, Colin Wilson, defined intensity as a realization of the absolute value of life. These are the moments when we so lose ourselves what we’re doing, (could be sports, knitting, a hike) that the vital force itself takes over and we experience ourselves as Life itself localized in our particular bodies. This is when we’re feeling the vital force, life, not thinking about it.
It doesn’t have to be intense activity either. I recall walking through an old growth forest and sensing the mystery of life coursing through the trees and ferns and realizing that I was an expression of the same mystery we call “life”. But in that moment I realized that even giving it a name is a way to distance ourselves from the thing itself. It didn’t exactly freak me out. But it was almost too much, like “seeing the face of G_d”.
Feeling life from the inside issues in a feeling that whether it’s going “our way” or not, life is an absolute value, not relative to whether it’s delivering our personal preferences. And if we feel it coursing through us and drop into the Mystery of being “lifted from the no of all nothing” (e.e.cummings) we may experience what is called “happiness”. There’s a sense that this thing we call “life” is essentially, that is absolutely, good, even when it’s personally crappy, because, well, we got a shot at it and it’s an inestimable gift. I remember walking home from school when I was in grade seven having an extended meditation on how I got to be here. I got a shot at it and somehow I knew that I shouldn’t take it for granted. It was my first conscious experience of gratitude.
But here’s the rub. Many of us, by the time we emerge from childhood, have learned to shut down our feelings, because of the way life (in the form of parents, relatives, peers, the school system, etc.) treated us. It was all too painful. When you shut down the bad feelings, you also shut down access to the good feelings, including the best feeling of all, the absolute goodness of being alive and feeling alive in a living body in a living universe.
Maybe happiness arises when we’re willing to feel it all deeply again. My buddy, David, holds “radical aliveness” weekends for people to come and turn the feelings back on after a very long stretch of deadening them because of past trauma. If we can’t feel alive, there is no happiness. And then the so-called “search for happiness” begins. It may involve a life of the intellect, or indulging the senses, or trying to find it through a series of partners. But these can amount to little more than compensations for not feeling life itself.
A second precondition for happiness is being you. Sounds simple but it’s not. This is related to the capacity to feel alive, in that being true to oneself requires radical acceptance of all of one’s feelings. Even the “bad” ones, like hatred, rage, shame, and sorrow and sexual desire. Every human being is potentially unique in how we want to express ourselves. The courage to self-express, (not at the expense of anybody else), is perhaps the ultimate kink. We often associate kink with sex, but it’s interesting to go beyond the sexual arena and understand our individual self-expression in every aspect of our life as deeply kinky. This requires courage to put ourselves out there. Artists, writers, poets, etc. are deeply kinky. They expose themselves through their art. They say to the world, this is who I am, how I see the world. This is what matters to me, this is how I express myself. Sure, I’m interested in how you relate to my art, but you will never determine my artistic expression. That belongs to me alone.
Being an artist is no guarantee of happiness either. Van Gogh was miserable, but his art was sublime. It may be that for some the world as it is (corrupt, lacking in empathy, greedy, etc.) is so far from one’s vision of beauty that it is too painful to stay open to one’s feelings.
As with feeling deeply, what gets in the way of consistent self-expression is unresolved (unconscious trauma). If we experienced that to be oneself was to be humiliated it will be an obstacle to coming back home to one’s quirky, beautiful individuality. This condition of self-alienation is more prevalent than we think. It’s what accounts for most depression and anxiety, along with social systems and policies that actually seem to be anti-life. To be in a state of alienation from our true nature is hell. The way “home” takes courage based in the conclusion that there is no greater suffering than being who you think others want you to be and refusing to feel all of life deeply.
Still happiness remains a mystery. In my experience you can only generate the conditions for a visit. By finding our way back home by feeling life itself and being our true self we do our part. When it knocks at the door of our lives, we can be ready to invite it in and enjoy its company for a time. But I suspect that it’s wise not to not have any expectations for how long our visitor stays. A guest is, by definition, a temporary visitor, to be cherished and nourished for the duration of the visit. And then to be grateful for the visit when it departs again, as it will. Keep a guest room dusted and the sheets clean for the next surprise visit.