Posts Tagged ‘Satisfaction’

Picking and choosing

October 2nd, 2007    -    6 Comments

If you wish to know the truth, then hold to no opinions for or against anything.
– Seng-tsan

A reader wisely pointed out in yesterday’s comments that the things I identify as my sources of unhappiness are probably also my sources of happiness. Exactly! I alone choose how to view them: as a plus or a minus, a keeper or a weeper. That choice changes all the time. I’m forever judging every aspect of my life. As I make those determinations, I’m using what we in Zen call “the picking and choosing” mind. The deliberative, evaluative, ruminating mind. I’m particularly fond of this mind. This is the mind that each of us calls “myself” because it is the mind that we use to talk to ourselves.

This is the voice that pipes up and says, “This is good. I like this. I’m happy.” Or that might say, even about the very same circumstance that once gave me pleasure, “This is not good. I’m tired of it. I’m not happy.” Very often, nothing has changed about the circumstance but my determination of it. One time my mom let me eat a whole bowl of whipped cream to my heart’s content. (I think she knew what she was doing.) I ate myself sick and I never liked it again. The whipped cream didn’t change. My view of it did.

In Buddhism, we call this endless cycle of like, dislike, good, bad, up, down, happy, sad, hot cold, in, out samsara. There’s nothing new about it, even though it might seem like we’ve become particularly aggrieved with our lives lately. There has never been a human being who lived anywhere else but samsara. But we can escape it, and we do, whenever we don’t pick or choose. Now I don’t mean that we go brain-dead. That we can’t tell right from left or our arms from our legs. I just mean that we stop blaming the whipped cream.

There’s a survey published every year by the very smart people at the Harris Poll that tells us The Most Popular Places People Would Choose to Live. Reading the poll, you might surmise that – no surprise – the most popular places to live are California, Florida and Hawaii. But then I noticed the question that they ask people. They don’t ask, “Where would you choose to live?” No, they ask “Where, except where you live now, would you choose to live?” At first I wondered why they asked it that way. Then I realized that if they asked the first question they might not have a poll at all. Perhaps people would say, “You know, I’m just fine right where I am.” I’ve lived a lot of places, and the thing is, my home is always my home. The poll question is nothing but a grass-is-greener question. It’s a pick-and-choose question. It’s a “Gee, come to think of it, I’m sick of whipped cream” question.

My first teacher Maezumi Roshi was famous for saying simply, “Appreciate your life.” He didn’t mean conjure up some contrived sentiment of gratitude, or humility, or abundance about your life. He didn’t mean count your blessings. He meant don’t count anything. He meant don’t pick and choose. Make your life your life and swallow it whole. When you do that, things have a way of getting happier right quick.

The happiness question

October 1st, 2007    -    9 Comments


Last week the Times reported on a growing “happiness gap” between men and women. Women are increasingly unhappy. Then came the earful of opinions about the many reasons for this. Why are women unhappy?

I can think of three very persistent reasons right off the top of my head. My husband. My kid. My dog. And then, the neighbor’s dog, the neighbor, money, not enough money, my work, my lack of work, my belly, my age, my wrinkles, the dust, the pollen, dog hair, the shoes in the hallway, the cooking, the laundry, the kitchen sink, the race, the chase, the nights, the days, the fleetingness of days.

What interests me is not why women are unhappy, because we each have ample, intimate knowledge of the reasons. What interests me is why women say they are unhappy. What interests me is not the answer to the question but the question itself. Could the answer be rooted in the question? Do we say we are unhappy because we are asked? Do we grow unhappy by thinking about it? By hearing about it? Does unhappiness exist outside our ruminations about it? Where does it reside? And if it only resides in our minds, as it does, do “external” circumstances have anything to do with it?

We can rationalize that circumstances keep changing and growing worse for women. More work, less help, higher prices, fewer husbands, less time, more isolation, less community, more stress, fewer options, higher expectations. But I spent a summer reading each of the nine Little House on the Prairie books to my daughter at bedtime, and I had a glimpse of how hard life used to be. No money. No help. No heat. No food. No medicine. No roof. No floors. No windows. No water. No crops. Plus flood, fire and pestilence. And these were on the good days!

Or I can recall my grandmother’s life. Up at dawn. Feeding the sheep and the chickens. Making daily bread and breakfast by the heat of the stove. Laundry in the washhouse. Curing meat in the smokehouse. The trek to the outhouse. Sewing, baking, canning, cooking, cleaning and raising five kids in four rooms during the Great Depression.

Was grandma depressed? I don’t think anyone asked. I don’t think she asked.

This news article on declining happiness appeared about the same day that Georgia walked into the kitchen for breakfast, still tousle-haired and sleepy-eyed. “Mom,” she whined, “can I get my ears pierced before I’m 10?” (Our pre-existing agreement.)

“When did you have in mind?” I responded.

“Nine,” she said, and thinking faster, “THIS SATURDAY.”

We were both upset by this exchange. It happened again a day later. I could say that my daughter woke up unhappy. But she didn’t wake up unhappy. She just woke up, her eyes blinked in the glimmering light. She cast a glance around her world, her sumptuous pink kingdom, her cotton candy life, and looked about for something she didn’t have.

I’m going to write about happiness this week. I want to examine that split-second between the waking and the finding, between the question and the answer, between the hearing and the speaking, between the being and the thinking, between the little girl with everything, and the one without holes in her ears, and see what’s there. It could very well be the happiness that eludes us, the contentment the pollsters can’t find.

Using what’s at hand

September 18th, 2007    -    5 Comments


Using what’s at hand, he finished up the yard. He could use it and know when to quit.

–Zen koan

In my aim to demystify time, I’m devoting today’s post to the magic of the plain, old, ordinary list.

1. Make a list every night before you go to bed.

2. Use whatever you have at hand: the back of an envelope, a scratch pad, even waste paper. You do not need a special system or calendar. You do not need technology. You only need discipline and a moment’s attention. Do not let anyone convince you this is more complicated than it appears, although many people are in the business of doing just that.

3. Keep your list simple.

4. Put the things on it you want to do tomorrow, even things you don’t need to list in order to remember. Scratching things off the list is a marvelous activity, and marvelous activities tend to be repeated. For instance, write “Do laundry.” Notice that I did not say, “Finish laundry” because that isn’t realistic and your reward would be too long delayed. See item 5.

5. Be realistic. For instance, do not write “Lose 10 pounds.” Write instead “Walk the dog.” Do not write “Become millionaire by 30.” Write instead: “Skip Starbucks.”

6. Do not list things to think about. Write only things to do. Contemplation is overrated.

7. Now the magic part. By writing things down, you take wandering thoughts and persistent anxieties out of your head and bring them out into the real world.

8. Things in the real world have form.

9. Things in the real world take place. You will be amazed at what you do simply because you wrote down that you would, even if you never look at the list again. But do yourself a favor and look at the list again. Keep it at hand and use it.

10. At the end of the day, be satisfied with what you did, and make a new list.

wash your bowl

September 13th, 2007    -    4 Comments

blue-bowlA monk said to Joshu, “I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me.” “Have you eaten your breakfast?” asked Joshu. “Yes, I have,” replied the monk. “Then you had better wash your bowl,” said Joshu. With this the monk gained insight.

Two days ago I had a letter in my mailbox from Seattle. I let it sit a bit before I opened it, while I percolated to ripe fullness with its fragrant possibilities: the gushing thanks, the unexpected accolade, the irresistible offer that it contained.

I live this way a lot, squinting around the curve, anticipating what I’m about to get. Don’t we keep expecting to get something? In particular, to get “it”? To figure “it” out? To reach a culminating resolution, reward, complete understanding, wisdom, clarity, closure, the right answer, the holy grail? That very expectation fills us up and weighs us down.

The letter was nothing I dreamed of. It was a note from a long-lost cousin lately relocated from Japan here to the States. She has adopted a daughter, a Japanese girl, and wouldn’t it be lovely for our sisterless girls to each gain a cousin?

I cried at the long circumference of the circle.

She told me that she had a woodblock print of a fountain at the inimitable Ryoanji Zen temple in Kyoto. The print reads, “I am content with what I have,” she wrote. No, not quite, she corrected herself, capturing the subtle depth of the teaching, “I am content with what I lack.”

 

Numbers game

September 4th, 2007    -    3 Comments

I know this seems afar from my usual field of dreams, so excuse me while I soapbox.

Sometimes I can barely read the paper without paroxysms of fury. Correction: I cannot read the paper without paroxysms of fury. The lies, the sorrow, the greed, and the crimes are so startling that I tremble in outrage. How can we abide this? Answer: I know why we abide this.

There on the front page of the Business section of the Sunday New York Times was the whole of it: the good and the evil, the up and the down, the victor and the vanquished. At the top of the page is the Eggleston family of Maple Heights, Ohio, the last family standing on a block of subprime foreclosures, in a sinkhole of a real estate market, in a good town going irretrievably down the tubes. They are living the life we most fear.

Three inches below is the story of a man enriched by his acumen and aggressiveness in marketing college loans. Not financial aid, mind you, but private, non-subsidized, high-interest-rate loans that regulators have now noticed bear a remarkable resemblance to subprime mortgages and the financial ravages they invoke. This fellow now lives the life we most desire: cashed out, piloting his racing yacht off the coast of Newport, R.I. He calls his yacht Numbers. I can only imagine what a shrewdly sweet upward ride those numbers have given him.

We abide this cruel dichotomy because success is our creed; more so, our religion. Just listen to the capitalist gurus co-opt the language of the church to articulate their values and their mission. Who among us hasn’t sung the refrain?

I confess: success is my religion too. Oh how I want to succeed by every conceivable measure. Oh how I want my ship to come in. Oh how I want to ride the crest of the waves. And then I see a page like the one in Sunday’s paper, inviting me to step off to the sidelines of this deadly, ceaseless, torment. I lift my arms in grief. Oh what have we become?

I’m going to say a service for the Egglestons. I’m going for broke, and the good news is, I’m almost there.

Worth it

August 5th, 2007    -    4 Comments

I made $318 on my garage sale on Saturday. All of it will go straight into my daughter’s savings account. Was it worth it?

I spent the better part of a week sorting out stuff, cleaning, hauling and pricing it. Was it worth it?

I spent $11 on a city license and $25 on a classified ad. Was it worth it?

I spent 30 minutes scraping petrified Elmo stickers off a hand-me-down Barbie SUV so I could sell it for $2. Was it worth it?

I spent 7 hours in 90 degree heat peddling piles of junk off the pavement. Was it worth it?

Of course it wasn’t worth it.

Is this man worth $252 million? Maybe today you think so.

Is this man even worth $400,000 a year? Hmmpf.

For that matter, is this woman really worth $260 million, no matter how much worthwhile work you might think she does?

Of course they aren’t worth it. Because nothing is worth it. Because worth doesn’t really exist. It’s just a figment. A fickle, fleeting, baseless phantasm of (usually) self-serving judgment. It’s an imaginary yardstick to measure the imaginary value of the imaginary differences between us. It’s one more way in which we separate ourselves, by a value judgment, from life as it is, from what we are.

Because there are no coincidences, today there was an article in the paper about a whole valley of impoverished millionaires, not one of them able to be satisfied, all of them blaming external circumstances for their relentless anxiety about not being worth enough. I’m afraid they’ll never find enough worth. They’ll never acquire satisfaction. It can’t be got.

That’s why all this talk about the worth of this versus that, child versus childless, working versus staying at home, work-life balance, the Mommy Wars (yeah, sure) and all the attitudes and platitudes about the various ways we live just wears me out. It’s simply another unwelcome invitation to kink up our wrinkles and knit up our britches, and that, dear readers, isn’t wor

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