Welcome to day 17 of 28 Days of Have Heaven, a short month of posts about heaven, paradise, perfection and desire, perfect places, art, theology, gardens, and more, using the Enya song “China Roses” as a jumping off point. Each post will look at these elements in itself, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally be related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted
I’m participating in Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness Meditation Challenge this month. The meditations are short, simple, practical.
Yesterday’s was a sitting (or lying down) meditation exploring positive emotions. As Sharon states at the outset, “In order to have the resiliency to face difficulties, for example, friends who can’t be helped, or a day full of sudden changes outside of our control, we need to find and nurture the positive parts of ourselves, and make a point of paying attention to experiences that give us pleasure. Too often we focus on what’s wrong with us, or only on negative, unpleasant experiences. ” She emphasised that paying attention to other aspects of our day, noticing what’s good, “doesn’t have to be a phony effort, or one that denies real problems.”
She then suggested we bring to mind a recent pleasurable experience, something that inspired “happiness, joy, comfort, contentment or gratitude,” and as we sat with this experience, to notice how it felt in our body and what emotions it evoked, including “moments of excitement, moments of hope, moments of fear, moments of wanting more,” or uneasiness or guilt about feeling good.
“I equate happiness with contentment, and contentment with complacency, and complacency with impending disaster.” — actor Hugh Laurie to Gavin Edwards, in The New York Times, Sept. 2011
Here’s where I ran into trouble (in addition to equating contentment with impending disaster). I don’t exactly have jamais vu — the experience of feeling like you’ve never seen a situation before, even though you rationally know you have (I’m reading about it in Anna Burns’ dystopian novel Milkman, which is why it comes to mind as a thing) — but I do have (always have had) a marked incapacity to retrieve memories without a prompt of some kind, whether it just pops into my mind or is resurrected by hearing a song, smelling a scent, someone reminding me of it or asking me a question that unlocks it, looking at photos, reading something, or, the big one, being in that same spot again where the memory occurred. My memory-mind is as blank for “negative” as for “positive” memories — and that was the next thing I stumbled over.
I came up with a few recent “feel-good” experiences: sauteing leftover farfelle (bowtie) pasta with fresh arugula and soy sauce for dinner the night before, and eating it; finding those pussywillows; riding a bike on the Gordons Pond Trail between Rehoboth and Lewes DE last summer, or the one before; opening the door to the condo at Jekyll Island, over a sliding amalgam of 20+ years and seasons.
Obviously, the last two weren’t recent, but more, every memory that conveyed positive feelings also conveyed negative ones, some of which Sharon went on to mention: “… perhaps you find yourself falling back into thoughts about what went wrong in your day, what disappointed you. These thoughts can be more comfortable because they’re so familiar. … Does your mind try to build stories around the positive or pleasurable experience? Do you tell yourself, for example, I don’t deserve this pleasure until I give up my bad habits, or, I must find a way to make this last forever.”
Eating is allied for me (and many Westerners) with weight and body image issues, and with potential health issues (what doesn’t cause cancer?), so even foods that bring me pleasure also bring anxiety to some extent, though not guilt, and so does cooking by extension, though I really enjoy cooking and I really enjoy eating. It’s not that eating and cooking, alone or with others, are not often fun, comforting, happy times, because they are, and I look forward to them with warm anticipation; it’s that there is always alloyed with the cooking-eating happiness a slight somatic anxiety, and an oppressive, annoying awareness that food portions and choices and eating occasions often have to be limited, though I want more.
My next almost-happy memory, finding the pussy willows the other day, was exciting and satisfying but I was also aware, certainly in memory if not in the moment, of being cold, feeling grumpy about not being at the ocean, feeling bored with walking the same lake walk over and over because winter walking places are limited, feeling tired of winter (the monotony of bareness, the lack of green and flowering plants, closed windows). I couldn’t find happy sensations in my body around the pussy willow memory. And I couldn’t think of anything else lately that’s brought me happiness or joy or even gratitude stronger than my baseline gratitude for life, though in the intervening time some moments have occurred to me that didn’t occur then. And as I write this I’m looking out the window at snow falling and it’s magical, deeply joyful.
But then, while meditating, a little desperate for something to focus on, I cast my memory net farther afield and came up with bike-riding at Gordons Pond … which made me miss doing it, gave me longing for sunny summer and grassy marshes; and similarly thinking about arriving at my beloved Jekyll Island condo not only set up longing for it, and thus dissatisfaction with not being there now, but also reminded me of the “negative” feelings, about the chores — having to put on the bed linens, unpacking suitcases and never having enough hangers, unpacking the bags of groceries — that attend arriving as well as about the planning I do once there, mainly around weather forecasts and tides, so that we are able to spend time at the beaches when they’re walkable and in the woods otherwise, and doing mostly inside things when it’s raining — which reminded me that even in this blissful moment of arrival in paradise, I’m not entirely blissful, feeling burdened in small, detracting ways.
(I discarded memories that arose involving much interaction with other people, as those experiences are always multi-layered, alloyed, and complex for me, no matter how much I anticipate and enjoy them.)
Back to Sharon’s examples of “negative” thoughts or feelings that happy moments might collaterally convey (thoughts about what went wrong, what was disappointing; building stories around pleasurable experience, trying to find ways to make it last, telling yourself you don’t deserve the pleasure for whatever reason), I don’t review my days thinking about what went wrong or disappointed me, because of this memory issue I have; my thoughts most of the time are fixed firmly in the present or the near future, almost never in the past, recent or long-ago, unless I’m prompted by something external to me or unless something really “bad” happened and I’m puzzling my way through it.
To another of her examples, I don’t think I have ever considered whether I “deserve the pleasure” — I’ve never felt pleasure as something to be earned — but that phrase got me thinking about how some folks’ idea of heaven involves merit, the idea that heaven (in the sense of an afterlife) is for “good” people, whether good by nature or training, or made good and heaven-worthy through a religious manipulation like atonement, justification, redemption. It’s similar, I guess, to the prevailing sensibility of many about life on Earth: struggle makes you stronger; pain and suffering bring wisdom, compassion, meaning; adversity is good for us; no pain, no gain; etc. I’ve never understood this. My view is that there is pain and suffering, and trying to escape either is useless, but there’s nothing inherently good, meaningful, or character-building in them. One can survive suffering and gain insight and empathy from it, but they don’t go hand-in-hand for me. (I wrote at length about this in April 2008; some of the links in my essay don’t work anymore)
“[T]hat’s essentially how I feel about life — full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” — Woody Allen, Annie Hall
Tomorrow I’m going to write a bit about the Spalding Gray monologue, Swimming to Cambodia, but I’ll say here that in it he talks about sanuk, the Thai philosophy of having a good time:
“And the Thai waiters are running and jumping and smiling, and they can’t get to us fast enough, and there’s a saying that Thais are the nicest people money can buy. And it’s not a silly smile, it’s a deep smile, because they have a philosophy “sanuk.” Sanuk, loosely translated, means “fun,” pleasure. And they don’t do anything that isn’t sanuk. And they ask you first, and if it isn’t sanuk, they won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. Also, another idea that may have to do with a rather radical Thai Buddhism, after they have the sanuk, they don’t have to suffer for it afterwards.”
In the end, I latched onto Sharon’s suggestion that “If you can’t think of a positive experience, be aware of giving yourself the gift of time, to do this practice now.” I am grateful for the time to sit and meditate on these things, and in moments of meditation, when I’m not trying to dredge up memories, I’m not really aware of emotions, “positive” or “negative,” but just of being, breathing, a spacious emptiness of mind, a sense of connectedness to energy that’s clear, vast, supportive.
More on that tomorrow.
by Ellen Bass
Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat -–
the one you never really liked -– will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours. Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up–drug money.
There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice -– one white, one black -– scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.
Featured image: brown basmati rice, arugula, soy sauce