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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Embrace YOUR Problems

That Nazarene guy said some pretty important stuff, but some of it is hard to grasp because of archaic translations. Take this one:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.
(From Matthew Chapter 7)

He's talking about a nearly-universal human tendency to focus on the problems of other people while ignoring our own.

Why do we do this? Are other people's problems more attractive than ours? Or maybe we find our own problems too intimidating. Or could it be that we don't want to change?

Anyway, take his advice. Own your problems, embrace them, and get to work on them. If we spent half as much time on ourselves as we do carping on the shortcomings of others, we'd probably all be fixed up in no time.

And we'd be happier.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Take the 66

To get from my home to the nearest subway station, there are two relatively direct buses.

The first is the 392. It makes a beeline from my front gate to the station's underground garage. It seems like the obvious choice.

But it's nearly always standing-room-only, and it only comes once every 15-20 minutes.

The 66, on the other hand, meanders gently toward the station, wandering into out-of-the-way neighborhoods to pick up passengers. It takes about 10 minutes longer to reach the station than does the 392.

On the other hand, there's almost always a seat available, and it departs at about 10 minute intervals.

Which one would you take?

I routinely take the 66. It's less stressful (and, with its frequent departures, the timing probably evens out).

Lesson: the direct route may not always be the best route.

So take the scenic route. Relax. Be comfortable. And you may even get there on time.

But for sure, you'll be happier.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Read Spiritual Books

A few weeks ago, I stepped boldly into the 21st century (about a decade after it started) and bought a Kindle.

Cheapskate that I am, the first thing I did was load it up with free books.

And guess what's available for free?

Classics. Lots of them. So I have myths and fairy tales, Greek drama and Aesop. Robin Hood and Beowulf.

I also have The Autobiography of a Yogi, Dante's Divine Comedy, Hindu stories, Olcott's The Life of the Buddha, psalms, Walden, Whitman, and Siddhartha.

And all of these, from Plato's dialogues to Shakespeare to Nietzsche--all were chosen for their spiritual benefits.

(OK, the first thing I read was a purchased copy of Dan Brown's latest book, but hey, I'm only human.)

The amount of spiritual writing on the internet is staggering. The materials at Project Gutenberg, Bartleby, and especially Sacred Texts (.com) would take a lifetime (or two) to get through.

And now, with my Kindle, I can read it all, anywhere, comfortably. This is definitely an example of "making technology work for me"!

So do whatever you need to do to work a little (or a lot of) spiritual reading into your day, every day.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Live by the Serenity Principle

Are you familiar with the "Serenity Prayer"? It was (probably) written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the middle of the 20th century, and has been popularized through its use by Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs.

It goes like this:

God, Grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Psychologist and author Joseph Bailey expanded this into a book back in 1990 and called it The Serenity Principle. I like that, making it a principle to live by, using one's own inner strengths, rather than a cry for help.

Notice again the three parts:

  • Peace needed for acceptance of fixed conditions
  • Inner strength needed to change what we can
  • Wisdom needed to know what to do

So starting today, nurture your own serenity, courage, and wisdom.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Remember, There's No Place Like Home

According to both of my astrological signs (Chinese and Western), I'm supposed to be home-loving. (Both of them also say I should have a weak stomach, which is sorta true.)

Why, then, would I have chosen the wandering life of a perpetual expat?

The truth is, wherever I sleep is home. It could be my dorm room here in China, a motel in middle America, or a friend's guest bedroom. When I close that door, I'm home. I love being home--wherever it is.

Once upon a time, I was a homeowner. And because there was something uncomfortable going on in the house before we moved in, we asked our (Episcopal) priest to come out and do a blessing (sort of an exorcism for spaces).

One line from the ceremony stands out in my mind. As we processed through the house, swinging incense and splashing holy water, the priest intoned: "Fill the space between these walls with angels."

Isn't that awesome?

This was a claiming of the space, a redeeming of it, making it a comfortable place for us to live.

Learn to savor your home. Be comfortable in it. Move around in it. Claim it. Fill the space between its walls with angels.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Love

Do you know eden ahbez's song, "Nature Boy"? (It was featured in the remake of Moulin Rouge.)

The final lines of the song read:

"The greatest thing you'll ever learn
"Is just to love, and beloved in return."

Interestingly, ahbez (a hippie long before the sixties) later said he regretted that sentiment. It sounded, he said, too much like a negotiation.

Better, he said, just to love. Period.

That's certainly more in line with the world's greatest teachings. It's not, "Love your neighbor so he'll love yourself." We don't show compassion to get something in return (except, perhaps, good karma--and there are actually ceremonies for giving away whatever good karma accrues from our noble deeds).

As Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross put it, "In the evening of life we shall be judged by only one thing, how well have we loved."

So just love, love, love, without expectation of reward.

You'll be happier.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Compartmentalize

A Zen joke:

When you eat, just eat.

When you sleep, just sleep.

When you multitask, just multitask.

But seriously, you know how you feel when you’re in the middle of a big meeting at work, and suddenly a call comes about a problem at home?

Or when you're enjoying family time, and the boss calls?

But do you realize how often we do that to ourselves?

Playing with the kids, and thinking about a project at work. Working on a project, and worrying about the kids.

So when you work, just work.

When you play, just play.

Compartmentalize.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Seek Contentment in the Everyday

That's a funny word, "the everyday." Synonyms: the ordinary, the commonplace, the mundane.

More synonyms: the ho-hum, the dreary, the humdrum, the boring.

Look around you. You're probably in a familiar space: at your desk at work, or in your home. (A very few of you may be in net cafes in foreign climes; goodonya.)

For those in the humdrum: can't you see just how amazing everything is?

You are part of a sliver of humanity, of all the people that ever lived, who live like this. Modern human beings emerged 200,000 years ago (give or take). The widespread use of electricity is less than a hundred years old. Less than a third of those alive today are on our side of the "digital divide," with access to the internet.

You are one of the few. How cool is that?

Blessings without number!

And what about all the other stuff? The smell of coffee in the morning. The way the sunlight glances off of water. The sound of the wind in the trees. The feel of carpet under bare feet. The taste of strawberries.

Yup. There's so much joy to be found in the everyday. Pay attention to it.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Go Natural

Trite, I know. But connecting with Nature feeds us in ways nothing else can.

A week in the woods or a walk in the park are ideal, but not always possible.

So, if you cannot go to Nature, bring Nature to you.

How about a bubbling fountain in the corner of the room, or a spray of flowers on the table?

How much wood is in your home? Natural fibers? "Soft" surfaces? And how much is synthetic, plastic, chrome, glass?

Are there plants in your room? Animals (such as fish, or a bird)?

Do you maximize any good views out your window? If you face a brick wall, by all means close the curtains. But if there are trees, grass, birds out there, let the sun shine in!

There's so much more to think about. What do you eat? What do you wear? Where do you spend lunchtime, and breaks?

So get in touch with your Mother. Bring more Nature into your life.

You'll be happier.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Make Technology Work for You

Long ago, a wise young man told me that the computer was a tool, something that should work for us. We shouldn't find ourselves working for it.

More recently, I had a friendly argument with a young woman because I told her that I only answer my mobile phone when I want to, not feeling compelled to respond to its demands.

The point is, all of this technology is good when it feeds the mind, enlightens the soul, lightens our load, and keeps us connected with others.

It's not so good when it becomes a time suck, or forces us to do things we'd rather not.

Take a few moments to examine your interactions with technology. How many of them are for your benefit? And how many of them work against you?

You may have to revise habits, and even turn the dang thing off.

Make technology work for you.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Induce Sweet Dreams

"Sweet dreams," we say to each other at bedtime. But do we mean to influence the quality of dreams, or are we just encouraging the other person to "Sleep well"?

Actually, there's probably not much difference. Good sleep brings sweet dreams.

So how do we induce good sleep (and the resulting dreams)?

There are lots of things you can do. Here are a few:

  • Start relaxing before bedtime. Don't go to bed keyed up. That might mean turning off the computer, or minding what you watch on TV.
  • Live a healthy life-style: exercise appropriately, eat healthy, stop smoking, and all that.
  • Check your sleep environment. How's the lighting? Temperature? Air quality? Noise factors?
  • What about your bed, bedding, pillows, etc?
  • Even room decor and usage can matter. Make your bedroom a "sleep sanctuary," not a work or study space. (You may even have to move that TV elsewhere).

Some of us (I'm one of them) are blessed with the ability to sleep soundly, anywhere, anytime. But even I notice that the sleep I get on an airplane doesn't refresh me like the sleep I get in a bed (any bed).

So check it out. Do what you need to do to sleep better, and induce those sweet, sweet dreams.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Remember, Tempus Fugit

Some things are always there (at least from our limited perspective): the mountains, the sea, traffic jams.

But others are more fleeting, especially the people in our lives.

Remember that your children won't be children forever; your aging parents won't always be there.

Pay attention to the things that are "here today, gone tomorrow." Appreciate them, savor them, knowing that they will someday be gone, leaving only memories and photographs.

Seize today. You'll be happier.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Conduct a Daily Review

Roman Catholicism has an interesting exercise called an "Examination of Conscience." In order to prepare for the sacrament of confession, a faithful Catholic will go through this list of questions centered around applications of the Ten Commandments.

Not a Catholic? Then why not make your own?

Make a list of the things that are important to you. (You may remember mine: Mindfulness, Compassion, Gratitude, and Peace). You might add "issues" that you’re dealing with, like anger, or procrastination.

Then, create a list of questions as a sort of "checkup" on how you're doing.

For example, under "Compassion," you might ask:

Did I listen compassionately to all who came to me today?
Did I help those who asked for it?
Did I seek opportunities to help even before being asked?
Did I contribute concretely to the happiness and well-being of others?

Now, go through your list every day. This might be done at the end of the workday, or at bedtime. As you do, note places where you can do better tomorrow.

Little by little, you'll find yourself doing better and better.

And when you do, you'll be happier.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Develop a Happiness Monitor

There's an old story (whose veracity I kind of doubt) that says that Chinese bankers gave their kids money to play with. The idea was that the kid would become so familiar with the feel of real money that he would be able to spot a counterfeit bill immediately.

Yeah, it sounds fishy. But the idea is a good one.

Learn to tell the real from the fake.

Can you recognize sources of real happiness? Can you tell deep, lasting happiness/joy/bliss from the fleeting experience of temporary, "mere" happiness?

If not, you may need to develop a "happiness monitor."

Here's an example: Most everyone agrees that "Money can't buy happiness." Yet I've never seen anyone upset at a windfall, like an unexpected bonus at work, or winning the lottery.

"Oh, shoot! Extra money! Bummer!"

At some level, we still equate money with happiness, despite all the wisdom to the contrary.

This is just one case where a "happiness monitor" would help us distinguish the real from the fake.

So put your mind and heart into recognizing what really makes you happy, and what sets off a "happiness reflex" based on fleeting externals.

Develop a "happiness monitor." And you'll know when you're happier.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hit the Pause Button

When I was a school principal, a fourth-grade student once said to me, "Oh, Mr. B., I wish life had a 'fast-forward' button."

"Well, Harmony," I replied, "when you get to be a little older, you'll wish it had a 'pause' button."

It does, you know.

Pause throughout the day and remember what's important.

Pause and look around.

Pause and listen to somebody.

Pause and savor a cup of tea.

Pause and listen to a cricket.

Pause and remember a long-gone loved one.

Life moves fast enough. But that doesn't mean you can't hit the 'pause' button whenever you want.

Do it. You'll be happier.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Don't Equate "Happiness" with "Stuff"

Here's a bumper sticker you'll never see on my car (if I ever have a car again):

"The one who dies with the most toys wins!"

Yes, I realize that some who sport it are being sarcastic. But when it's on a 40-foot motor home, or the trailer of a speed boat, it's hard not to see it as a statement of personal philosophy.

In contrast, these lines from the Tracy Chapman song, "Mountains o' Things," kill me:

I won't die lonely
I'll have it all prearranged
A grave that's deep and wide enough
For me and all my mountains o' things

I've just spent a few days in America dealing with a small part of my "mountains o' things," trying to sort and shed the excess that has lain in storage all these years. At times like these, it's easy to see "stuff" as a burden rather than as a source of happiness. (Those of you who have ever moved know what I mean.)

"You can't take it with you," they say; and, "There are no pockets in a shroud." The stuff we accumulate won't go with us, and won't ease our journey on the way. On the contrary, it can drag us down.

So appreciate what you have, but stop thinking of "stuff" as happiness, or security, or contentment. Realize that the real "stuff" is all inside you.

You'll be happier.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Touch and Be Touched

While living in Japan, I was privileged to be in the presence of a great teacher, a Mahatma named Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better known simply as "Amma" or "Ammachi," meaning Mother.

Seated at the back of the room, I watched as the "Salary Men" and "Office Ladies" that I saw on the train every day underwent an amazing transformation.

Stripping themselves down to basic clothing--removing watches, glasses, rings, etc.--they would approach Ammachi with a gift of flowers, then experience her unique gift. Coming away, they would be in tears, reduced by the simplest of human interactions.

What was Ammachi's gift?

She hugged them.

Yes, Ammachi is known as "The Hugging Saint," and by enveloping devotees in her ample arms, she brought about a transformation in their souls.

Unfortunately, I had arrived too late to receive a "hug ticket." Nevertheless, I was witness to the power of touch.

It is not unusual to see two men here in China holding hands as they talk (even two men in security guard uniforms!). They seem to have a different sense of body space. Overall, there is a warmth in interaction that belies the old "inscrutable" stereotype.

Have you touched someone, or been touched, in a comfortable way today? It seems a basic human form of communication, something we share with our mammalian brothers and sisters.

So touch, and be touched by, someone you care for.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Don't Be a Bartleby

Do you know Bartleby?

He is the protagonist of Herman Melville's "long short story" entitled "Bartleby, the Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street."

Bartleby has been hired as a kind of clerk in a law office. His duties include writing out documents and other, less-important, tasks.

At first a model employee, Bartleby eventually begins to refuse the lesser tasks, performing only his writing chores. When asked to do anything else, he replies with his signature phrase: "I would prefer not to."

Eventually, he "would prefer not to" perform even his main job. When fired, he "would prefer not to" vacate the premises, so his boss moves offices. The new tenant has him arrested as he still "would prefer not to" leave. Finally, in jail, he "would prefer not to" eat, and wastes away and dies.

Bartleby's mantra, "I would prefer not to," has been seen as a sign of depression--and as a summation of the human condition. Many of us "would prefer not to" participate in the wild adventure of Life, and so sit on the sidelines, watching as the parade passes.

That way lies death.

So roll up your shirtsleeves and get in there. Partake of everything Life throws at you, the great tasks and the small. Don't be a Bartleby.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Have Fun Wherever You Are

Fun is the opposite of "the blues."

I've seen lots of foreigners living here in China (and quite a few more in my five years in Japan as well) who get severely down in the dumps, for one simple reason: they're not making any effort to have fun.

Work. Home. Work. Home. They never make an effort to get out, dine with friends, go sightseeing, attend events, go exploring.

"But," many say, "I don't have time to have fun."

Are you kidding?

You can have fun at work, on the bus, in a mall, in your car. You can have fun even as you lie in bed falling asleep.

Because fun is a state of mind.

Sure, rubber band fights at work, playing peek-a-boo with a kid on the bus, playing an arcade game in a mall, singing in the car--these are all fun too.

But how about finding the fun in the every day tasks? As Mary Poppins sang,

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.
You find the fun and snap! the job's a game.
And every task you undertake becomes a piece of cake.
A lark! A spree! It's very clear to see...

So find that "spoonful of sugar," the fun in every task. And have fun wherever you are.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Try On Some Rose-Colored Glasses

You must know one of those insufferable optimists, right? The ones who never see the downside of anything, who think the whole world is wonderful all of the time?

How annoying.

We have a rather insulting way to describe those people. We say they're "looking at the world through rose-colored glasses."

And yet, aren't those people happier than most?

Try it for a day. See the world in positive terms, as though wearing rose-colored glasses. That grumpy guy at the desk next to yours? Picture him laughing. The nagging boss? He's a cheerleader! All that traffic? A chance to reflect. Your newspaper didn't arrive? No news is good news!

So put on your rose-colored glasses, if only for a day. See everything in positive terms.

You'll be happier.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Face Every Day Like Your Hair Was on Fire

I've written before that my late friend Robert Urich used to misquote a famous aphorism. Properly stated, it went like this: "We must seek enlightenment the way a man whose hair is on fire seeks a pond." In other words, head-first, full-on.

Robert's version, while twisted, has become of increasing importance to me. "Face every day," he used to say, "like your hair was on fire."

What he was talking about was passion.

  • Do you do something every day that gets you excited?
  • Do you face a stimulating challenge every day?
  • Do you have at least one daily "wow" moment?

If you don't, you may not be living life to the fullest. Your hair may not be on fire.

So join the "Hair Ablaze" club. Get out there and plunge in. Be enthusiastic. Live like your hair was on fire.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

If the Shoe Doesn't Fit, Don't Wear It

Poor Cinderella. Her whole future depended on the fit of a shoe.

But in the Grimm Brothers' version, the step-sisters suffer even worse. They try to fit into a too-small slipper by cutting off parts of their feet.

What a price to pay for "success"!

It reminds me of the repeated line of Billy Crystal as "Fernando" on Saturday Night Live: "It's better to look good than to feel good."

WRONG.

Ill-fitting clothes, shoes included, are a ridiculous mistake. Girls in too-tight jeans, men whose t-shirts stretch across their chests--these are not fashion statements, they're cries for help.

When you take off your shoes, are your feet marked up from them? Are you really willing to pay that price for "style"?

No, no, no.

Wear clothes and shoes that fit. If they don't fit, don't wear them. Don't be a slave to fashion.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Remember Who You Are

The focal point of Disney's The Lion King is Simba's father telling him, "Remember who you are."

This is the central point of every religion, every philosophy, every psychological tradition.

But, how do we answer the question, "Who are you?"

We might offer a name. But that's not an answer to Who are you?, it's an answer to What's your name?

We might say our profession. But that's not who you are, it's what you do.

No, the question of who we are runs deeper than these mere outer attributes. Simba's father, after telling him to "remember who you are," adds, "You are my son, and the one true king."

All the religious stories, all the myths, all the fairy tales, are telling us that we are more than we think we are. But many traditions teach us that we have forgotten this.

As Marianne Williamson wrote:

We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? ... Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. ... [A]s we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

So remember who you are, and be who you are.

You'll be happier.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Stop the Gossip

Part of Buddhism's "Noble Eightfold Path" is called "Right Speech."

One definition of right speech is to "abstain from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter."

The one I want to talk about today is "divisive speech," and another word for that is "gossip."

Gossip can be a form of violence.

Here's one way to look at it: If you're not part of the problem, or part of the solution, and you're talking about it--that's gossip.

And don't forget: listening to gossip is as bad as repeating it.

So avoid listening to gossip. Don't repeat what you do hear. Check facts before passing information along, and only pass it along on a need-to-know basis.

Stop the gossip. You (and everyone around you) will be happier.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Take Back Your Life

Poor me. Poor me. Poor, poor, pitiful me.

Isn't that pathetic?

But we do it all the time.

Oh, not so obviously, not so pathetically. But we do it nonetheless.

"It wasn't my fault!"

"How was I supposed to know?"

"How could anyone expect me to do that?"

"What could I do?"

Every time we make an excuse, we're playing the victim.

Have you heard of the "Take Back the Night" campaign? Well, how about this: "Take back your life."

Don't give others the power to make you a victim. Don't live a life made of excuses.

Live up to your responsibilities. Do your best. Take blame where it's due. Stand up for yourself. Take back your life.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Make Peace a Priority

Confession: For months now, I've been writing about "happiness." But in fact, I'm not really that interested in happiness per se.

The truth is, "happiness" is a rather wimpy word for a far more powerful thing. Some might call it "heaven," or "enlightenment."

As for me, I like to think of it as "peace." I find that by focusing on peace--for myself, and for those around me--overall happiness increases.

What is peace, then? Is it merely "the absence of turmoil"?

Or is it, in fact, a positive force? I think it is, one that can be nearly tangible.

But, I think, it's something that seems unattainable to many. "There will never be any peace" is a sort of unspoken (even unthought of) assumption. So we feel that "happiness" is the best we can hope for.

Nevertheless, I think we all have a basic thirst for peace. All these tips that I've written about happiness are really about the promotion and practice of peace.

Don't be afraid of it. Embrace peace. Make it a priority.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Remember, Things Change

The "Four Noble Truths" are the core of the Buddha's teaching. The first of these is widely misunderstood, largely due to a confusing translation.

"Life is suffering" is how we usually hear it. But "suffering" isn't quite right.

One of my great teachers, Dr. Kottegoda Warnasuriya, put it all into perspective for us. He said that a better term would be the clear-but-nonexistent word "unsatisfactoriness."

At the root of this is another central Buddhist teaching, that of impermanence. Things change. Clearly, most of the time, things are not as we want them to be. Then, once we get things just how we want them, they change. So even when we "win," the win will become unsatisfactory in short order.

A further problem is "attachment": even if things aren't perfect, we get used to them, and resist change. I grew up in the Episcopal Church, where (as the newspapers these days will attest) tradition is strong. Here's a joke about it:

Q: How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?

A: The whole congregation. One to change it, and the rest to talk about how much better the old bulb was.

Don't be that way. Learn to accept the change that is a necessary part of life.

You may not be able to eliminate all suffering, but you will be happier.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Make New Friends, But Keep the Old

Lots of wisdom can be found in old songs. This one, though sounding like a simple folk song, was written by a great hymnist, Joseph Parry:

Make new friends, but keep the old;
Those are silver, these are gold.

Broaden your circle of friends, but don't neglect the center.

You'll be happier.