This morning I was chatting with my kids as they waited for their school bus to arrive and somehow the conversation drifted upon the subject of happiness. As my son is only thirteen but highly intelligent he is naturally still excited about the life he will carve out, as well as all the fun things he’ll be able to buy when he gets older. Therefore today, as on many other occasions, he expressed his belief that possessing things such as a new car can bring about happiness.
Now any experienced parent reading this article will be familiar with the myth that parents are solely responsible for the way their children turn out. In fact so much the opposite is true. The myth is perpetuated by young adults that were raised in dysfunctional environments. For them it often seems so obvious that their parents are the root cause of all suffering. Yet the reality is that even children that are fortunate enough to be raised in an ideal environment develop their own personalities which are often quite different from their parents’ expectations. My son is quickly on his way to becoming a man so I must exercise extreme caution when suggesting ideas that conflict with his own emerging philosophies because maintaining healthy ambition is critical to a young man’s early successes. To quote from Scarface, “First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the girl.”
I’m not suggesting the character of Tony Montana is a role model. All I’m saying is that it’s important that young men desire to climb the ladder because the only other choices are to go nowhere or dig a hole. It would be great if everyone realized that money isn’t real but the world doesn’t work that way. For the moment we must keep up the pretense that little slips of printed paper are equal in value to our time, output and consumptive needs. Slightly later in life when my son is educated enough to earn a decent living and stand on his own two feet, I will no longer have to worry about my ideas shattering his illusions.
My daughter on the other hand is almost ten years old and still willing to listen to my ideas before passing judgement on them, which she then does unabashedly. Her quick wit and impeccable timing make her a joy to converse with and I can totally envision her becoming a stand-up comedian someday. What she wants to become changes too frequently for me to keep track of. I believe she currently wants to be an architect and a YouTube animation artist and producer. Before that it was an astronaut, scientist, author, inventor of the flying car and a Victoria’s Secret model among other things. When I was her age in the late 70’s I knew little to nothing about the world and wanted only to be Han Solo. That type of childhood went extinct with the birth of the internet.
The trade-off is that my kids are more than a little world wise, traveled, excellent in school, easily adaptable to unfamiliar people and environments as well as just being very interesting to talk to. Their communication skills make it easy for my parents to relate to them as well and I can’t express how much of a relief that is to me. My grandparents in contrast did make an effort but there were vast limitations to holding a conversation with them. One of the main differences was that they explained nothing about the world and when I asked questions I was scoffed at for not knowing the answers, presumably by some kind of osmosis while I was still in the womb. In retrospect I realize that despite their age and wisdom they existed in a little bubble and knew very little about the world themselves despite having seen a great deal of it. The Midwest has always been about 40 years behind the West Coast in modernity and it has taken 25 years of internet exposure to bandage the disparity.
So after very gently disagreeing with my son about the source of happiness my daughter piped in with her wide smile and good timing to ask, “So what can we do to be happy?” Not being a morning person I adlibbed something sketchy about healthy routines and time spent with family but the truth is that I did not have a prepared answer to give, even though the answer is simple. In order to achieve happiness there must always be an element of surprise in our lives. The trick to extracting happiness from surprises, is to welcome the bad moments as equally as the good.
This is not easy to do I know but it is a state of consciousness on par with attaining the state of Nirvana. Nirvana means to blow out, but it is more easily thought of as a state of consciousness in which one ceases to cling to reality as if we had some way to control it. We learn early on how to clench our bodies so as to graduate from diapers and it is in that frame of mind that we continue to brace ourselves for accidents every waking moment of the day. Think about how often we unconsciously curl our toes, clench our fists or teeth together. In this way we fool ourselves into believing that we can prevent ourselves from losing jobs or loved ones but no matter how much we prepare there’s always going to be bumps, bruises, shattered glass, spilt milk or sudden delays in flight plans.
There are routines we can adopt that help lower the anxiety that leads to clinging. These involve changes in diet and the adoption of exercises such as walking, biking, swimming, Yoga and Tai Chi. More importantly one should unplug from the internet as often as possible. Take mini-vacations from the news, politics or discussions about politics. Unplug Wi-Fi routers whenever possible, especially while you’re sleeping because they emit low level microwaves which are dangerous to your health and destructive to sleeping patterns. Learn about the dangers of stray voltage and take steps to avoid it and all electric devices in general. Read books, take up hobbies such as woodworking, gardening, fishing or even riding a motorcycle. Just don’t buy a boat or a motorcycle because you think it will make you happy. Both are great ways to have fun but if you try to turn a hobby into a lifestyle it’ll only take about 2 years to suck all the joy out of it.
Some more extreme measures to let go of clinging are to become a student of Taoism or Buddhism. Hinduism is fine if that is an inherent part of your culture but when Westerners adopt Hinduism it is important that they question their motives. Hinduism is a religion that developed over thousands of years to provide guidance for every single aspect of your life. If you are a young Westerner and have not yet learned about your persona or your ego, the adoption of Hinduism will equate to little more than playing a game to avoid self-discovery, shame or judgments about your lack of progress in life.
Too many younger people believe they can cheat the system by dropping out of conventional life to live like a wanderer. They’ll maybe live in a van for a few years or travel the world on a small budget and it might seem romantic for a while. Eventually however these hollow pursuits inflict the mental and physical scars of living as a gypsy. Their appearance becomes gaunt and their clothes shabby, a fashion they embrace to drive away prying eyes. Tattoos and piercings that started out as decorative badges of courage are elaborated upon to the point that people are no longer recognizable. In this state of mind a Westerner can lose grip on reality and end up looking like a Sadhu covered in ash and dreadlocks, except that they won’t be holy, they’ll merely be failed actors of a performance no one ever heard of or paid to see. Yet by that point the show must go on by any means possible including drugs, theft or prostitution. That is not the way to happiness. The freedom to do as you wish must be earned.
The Taoist way is much simpler, one need only follow the course of nature. To learn how, you can read the Tao Te Ching, (an easy read,) and learn how to practice Tai Chi, (possibly the easiest martial art to learn.) Taoism is an ancient philosophy that was intended to be a guide for rulers as well as a pastime of reflection for more elderly people. There are Taoist religious practices that you need not concern yourself with. If Tai Chi doesn’t appeal to you, you could substitute it with Hindu styles of Yoga. In that case it is fine for Westerners to immerse themselves in the history of Hindu gods and the Vedas as long as it’s for the purpose of education and facilitation of Yoga. Or if you’d like to get your feet wet in Buddhism you can start by studying its history as well. There are a few different branches of Buddhism so rather than trying to decide which one is right for you I suggest that you first become familiar with The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path. In this way you can best understand the concept of letting go.
If you prefer to do none of these because it all seems too strange to you, I suggest practicing ways to let go of control on your own. If that means purposely spilling a glass of milk every day until you can finally laugh about it then so be it. You should do whatever it takes to eliminate the anxiety of maintaining control because that is the only way to sustain happiness. So you bought a motorcycle to have some fun but you’re too busy with work to ride it and now it’s broke down. Big deal, learn how to fix it and let that be the new adventure. The hardest part will be to separate yourself from the anxiety of being stuck in a rut. Whether it’s a job or family responsibilities, doing the same routine day after day can be mind-numbing.
There’s never a solution to all the hardships of life but we can try to remind ourselves that nothing is permanent. The job you hate today might be teaching you something that you could still take pride in and use later on. The feelings of being trapped in a marriage will likely seem insignificant compared to the payoff of having grandchildren. There wouldn’t be a way to measure our triumphs if we didn’t experience failures or hardship. The key is to just keep plugging away and take life as it comes because that way you’ll know in your heart that you did your best and earned the right to make your own choices. Never yearn for surprises but be accepting when they come whether good or bad. In this way you can program your mind to exist in a state of happiness regardless of whether you’re a Buddha or a butcher.
Conan De Moe 2/19/2020