A student of mine, knowing of the mostly solitary life I have lived here in the northern Berkshires, recently asked me if I was happy. I have thought of that very often and very deeply since the asking. I have revisited much of my writing over the last several years published on these pages to see if happiness was a thread that ran through it. I found it in that revisiting, if not by word.
Most of the essays I have written for my students have both stillness in the title and stillness in their prose. We use the skills of qigong, taiji, and meditation to cultivate it for the purpose of bringing us into present moment awareness. A full engagement with each moment is the hope, taking advantage of the magic of creation in every breath and with every step along our path.
My answer to the student’s question was that I do not necessarily seek happiness per se. I try, quite earnestly, to greet each moment with eyes wide open and mind empty, with what one of my Zen Buddhist teachers referred to as the before-thinking mind, and respond correctly to what I am being presented with in that moment.
Some moments will bring joy, and others will bring sorrow. That is life, and If we are lucky they come to us in equal measure. When joy comes, I embrace it fully, experience it fully, and then let it go in order to greet the next moment with that before-thinking mind. When sorrow comes, I embrace it equally as well, experience it equally, and then let it go in order to greet the next moment again with that before-thinking mind.
Each moment, whether filled with joy or sorry, is also filled with love. Examples? Sure.
Last fall, 2021, my best friend of 53 years died. Such sorrow as I have not felt in a long time overcame me – for him, for his family, and for me. Great joy, too, in remembering the times we had spent together over those 53 years. I embraced it all, experienced it all. Love was at the heart of both.
This spring, 2022, nearly 18 years my junior, my youngest sister died. Sorrow even more profound – my little shadow in her youth, the only person I never minded calling me anything other than Michael. To her, I was Mikey, always. There was such joy, though, in recalling all of her life, one well-lived fully in each moment. Love, also, was at the heart of both.
Even in the moment, as brief as it might be, there is plenty of room for love. Love fills each moment to overflowing, in fact, whether it is bringing us joy or sorrow. And in that love, there is happiness to be had – at being alive, and at having engaged fully with the magic of creation in that moment.
The Abbot of my temple in China tells us to live a life of forgiveness, compassion, and love. He tells us to be present in each moment, to use our skills to cultivate the stillness needed to weave ourselves into each moment’s fabric so as to live that fully engaged life.
He tells us that spiritual growth is the purpose of life, and that love is essential to that growth. In his book The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck defined love thusly: “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth” While I have read many definitions of love that I find meaningful, I know of no better one than this.
My daily practices and devotionals are all for the purpose of cultivating stillness. The present moment awareness that results from it allows us to grow spiritually, and to give our life meaning by the way in which we choose to live it.
What’s more, it is in that stillness that we find love. Of love, Laozi wrote:
Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength,
While loving someone deeply gives you courage.
In that love lives happiness. So, if you wish to live fully, love. If you wish to find happiness, love.
I am at a crossroads in my life as I write these words. My path has crossed with another’s and I find myself with an opportunity to commit to ”nurturing another’s spiritual growth”. I do wish to live fully and to love, and I have offered that commitment.
Whether the next moment at that crossroad will bring joy or sorrow remains to be seen. In the meantime, I must continue to cultivate stillness and the present moment awareness it brings, knowing that love thrives there, and with love, an ample measure of happiness.
Such joy in holding hands as we walk a shared path, oh my.