By Jon Berry
I'D JUST TURNED THE CORNER ONTO ELLIOT ROAD ON an 8-mile run from my Dad’s farm to the Indiana High Point Wednesday evening when that strange sensation returned. I did a quick inventory. Nothing actually wrong. No pains or strains. Just a feeling of lightness. Then it hit me. Right. I was experiencing happiness.
Sealing the conclusion: I’d started singing along with the Springsteen song on my iPod (“I ain’t here on business, baby, I'm only here for fun…”). And my hands jet-winged out as I turned the corner, then started keeping time like a backup singer in an old Motown video.
My mind drifted to wondering if Shakespeare had, in fact, gotten it right in the sonnets, that in midlife, with its attendant maturity, sadness, and clear-eyed realism (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun. Coral is far more red, than her lips red…”), happiness does not recede but grows more precious and real.
How I got to this point, I don’t know. Eight months ago, hitting one of those emotional bottoms that come in middle age, I’d made a vow to get myself to a better place. We blew up the TV (OK, not exactly, more like canceled the cable service, but I’ve always loved that line from the John Prine song).
I cleared the pantry of all the foods I reflexively reached for when I felt what the Buddhists call shenpa, that “tightening, tensing, closing-down,” poisoning, hooked sensation, in the words of the author and teacher Pema Chodron, of wanting to withdraw and “not be where we are” that can be set off by an event (“someone criticizes you”) or just unease, restlessness, or “insecurity of living in a world that is always changing.”
I recommitted to meditating, and, moreover, to doing anything I could to keeping it fresh – including creating a guided meditation playlist of Motown songs. (Amazing, when you listen, how Psalms-like certain songs are – “As I walk this land of broken dreams, I have visions of many things…” What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted?) I started reading more; started training more – running, biking, swimming; tried yoga (ha); stopped drinking; tried to reach out more to friends and family...and other things.
But I can't honestly say whether those resolutions were cause-and-effect to my running up Elliott Road, smiling first at the miles of rolling farmland stretching to the horizon in all directions, then at the friendly black Lab who came out to greet me, then at the cow that wandered into the road, while I occasionally snatched a lyric to sing (“you were only waiting for this moment to arise”).
Nor can I really explain the other similar feeling running a 10k in Central Park in New York the previous sunny, bloom-filled Sunday with a friend and his daughter, then joining a larger group for a walk. Or going to concerts, museums, and dinners recently. Or, back in November, running two miles of the NYC Marathon with the “running priest” of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (who eventually sped ahead to make his commitment to lead a 5:30 Mass).
Which is the problem with happiness. We can do all we can to make a place for it in our lives. We can follow the self-help advice to “choose happiness.” We can pray for it. But in the end, it’s ephemeral. It comes. And it goes. There’s good reason “happiness” is so close “happenstance.” Both share the Middle English root “hap” which means “luck.” More than “pleasure,” “satisfaction,” or “joy,” happiness means “good fortune.” We can create space for it, but not expect it. When it comes, it is a surprise. One friend says he feels “attacked” by happiness. Rather than take credit, we can only give thanks.
I’ve recently started reading In the Valley of the Shadows, the new book by James Kugel, a Biblical scholar and Harvard professor. The subject is far from happiness. It’s a meditation, set off by the author’s treatment for cancer, on the meaning of religious belief. The book is strikingly self-aware and beautifully written, perhaps most memorably for its depiction of how the author describes, when he receives his diagnosis, “the background music” of life suddenly stops. Life grows silent. He experiences a primal feeling of being very, very small.
Turning to Ecclesiastes, he realizes anew that we pass through seasons of life (which, he says, translates in Ecclesiastes as “Everyone is in a season, [for] there is a time of [doing] each thing in this world” – not “for everything there is a season” of the Byrds song). But we “never quite succeed” in understanding life. There is always “something hidden.” Life, to quote the original Hebrew, is “hebel” – not so much “vanity” (“all is vanity,” as Ecclesiastes is usually translated) as a quality of being “fleeting” and “ungraspable.”
To the list of “To-Do’s” for happiness that I’ve worked through these past eight months, I’d add one more, then: try to have faith. In her book, Faith, the Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg says that in Buddhism, hard times are considered “the proximate cause of faith.” If we open our hearts and minds to take in suffering, there is healing –“not because the suffering itself is redemptive or healing” but because if we open ourselves fully in the face of suffering, we let in all life – including the capacity for healing, love, joy, and happiness. One of the meanings of saddah, the word for faith in Buddhism, she notes, is hospitality.
I’ve been wondering if – in contast to the drawing inward of illness that Kugel describes, there’s a centrifugal force in happiness that propels us outward into connection. My friend who describes happiness as an attack says one of his first impulses, when he experiences happiness, is to tell someone. I wonder if it’s an impulse in all creatures. I’ve always loved how my dog, about 15 minutes into a walk, turns back and smiles. “Isn’t this great?” he seems to be saying to us. I wonder if the same thought goes through his mind when running toward a tennis ball we’ve just thrown, he suddenly breaks stride and, for no reason beyond the joy of it, leaps through the air. “Isn’t this great?”
After 40 minutes of running, I reach Hoosier Hill. In truth, while it’s the highest point in Indiana, the "peak" (1,257 ft. elevation; pictured throughout) is only an ever-so-slight incline higher than the surrounding woods and farmland. I always stop to read the logbook where “summiteers” record their impressions. There’s usually some wry humor. “Not as hard as Mt. Whitney,” note Carol and Jim from Baltimore, who have now summited 35 states' high points. “Raining. Morale low. Rations lower. But summit gained! Looking for safe descent,” quips Brooke, from Palo Alto, CA. “Failed in our first attempt to reach the summit 2 years ago. We needed help from Garmin GPS to locate,” jokes another person. “Meet me here when the levy breaks,” writes C.S.
But then I come across a different kind of message, speaking directly to happiness, and it puts a goose-bumpy coda on the week. “Happy to be here today. Tomorrow makes 2 years clean. I am truly thankful for my life. Life ain’t so shitty.” He signs his name, and then writes “Indiana boy,” then “p.s. Thanks, God!”
I’ve lab-tested this 20-minute Motown guided meditation recently, and personally have found it happiness enhancing. Who knows, you may start the day with a dance move. Here’s the list: “What Does It Take (to Win Your Love)” (Junior Walker); “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted” (Jimmy Ruffin); “Mercy Mercy Me” (the marvelous Marvin Gaye); “Tracks of My Tears” (Smokey Robinson); “What’s Going On” (Gaye); and, to end with uplift (hey, this is Motown), “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” (Marvin Gaye and Tammy Tyrell) and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Marvin & Tammy). All can be previewed on YouTube.
For more on James Kugel’s In the Valley of the Shadow, or to buy a copy, click here.
For more on Sharon Salzberg’s Faith, or to buy a copy, click here.
The Puma Chodron quote is from the Shambala Sun article, “How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked.” To read the article, click here.