This Reflection was released on May 20, 2019, the evening of the Monday after the Victoria Day weekend (or May ‘two four', as we say here in Newfoundland). I hope you enjoy!
After the heavy nature of my last Reflection, Melancholy, I feel that it is necessary to perform a little rinse and gargle. The darkness has its place, but what of its opposite? The lightness, the joy, the exhilaration, the summertime of the soul?
There is no question that we like to feel good. After life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness is the third on the list for our neighbours to the south, branded deep into its soul. It was on the Declaration of Independence and it is the lifeblood of the American Dream. Whatever one might say about the current state of American life (political life in particular), these seem like universally cherished ideals amongst human beings on the planet. And with good reason: happiness is what we seek as a species. But I think that we need to be clear about things – the pursuit of happiness is the goal, not happiness itself. There is a distinction there. It might seem slight, but it is makes all of the difference in the world.
Normally when we pursue something, we aim to catch it. Game animals, a promotion at work, a romantic interest – any of these things have an ‘end’ point. The moose is dead and the sausage is on your plate. You now manage the people you once worked with. You are preparing to move in with ‘yer man’ or ‘da missus,’ as we say in Newfoundland. These are faits accomplis, in a sense. The pursuit is done.
Not so with happiness. At least, happiness in the sense that we all grew up with. Just think of the literal understanding of ‘happily ever after,’ that familiar trope at the end of a fairy tale. ‘Happiness,’ as a concept, might be viewed as constant pleasure. When we are happy, we are never sad, never down, never forlorn. We are on top of the world, and we are never coming down! I would wager that this is part of the reason why addictions exist, along with numbing the pain of a trauma that still has not started to heal. We might feel moments of ecstasy or contentedness, but these never last.
How can we ever really enjoy ourselves, if the point is to grab at pleasure and hold on tight? I mean, that is a reasonable response to the world. It’s the reason so many of us live for the weekend and dream of escape to the south. Of course, during the work week ‘grind’ or the sad parts of life, all we ever want to do is teleport ourselves to another point in time when we were ‘happy.’
What if there is another way? How can we enjoy life, even during the dark and sad parts? Just think of that word itself, ‘enjoy.’ ‘Joy’ is the feeling, and ‘en,’ well… ‘en’ is a prefix that means to put something into it, doesn’t it? Joy is not happiness. Joy is much more intense than happiness. You might put it up there with bliss. As for the prefix? ‘Entomb’ – put something into a tomb. ‘Enrobe’ - put something into a robe. When we ‘enjoy,’ we put something into joy. There is also ‘endear,’ which means to make something dear, or valuable. A transformation. But what is put in? Our own state of being. We put our feelings into something and transform it into joy. It is an offering, in a way. We offer up whatever we are doing into the state of joy and see it transformed.
I don’t know if any of you out there are fans of horror movies. I love them. They scare the crap out of me. I put my fingers in my ears and nearly shut my eyes at some points. I feel a rush of anxiety and sometimes leave the theatre with a prescription for disturbed sleep. Why in the hell would anyone do that? It certainly is not a happy feeling, being scared half to death. But it is a feeling that I would call ‘enjoyable.’ Myself and other horror fans would not watch the damn things if they left us feeling completely broken. By some magic, these feelings of fear and anxiety that people would classify as negative get transmuted into something positively joyful.
Sure, those are the movies. But that’s not the same as real life, you might say. Well, my response to that would be: it all depends on your perspective. So, how do we get to that point of perspective? Where we can transmute life, in all its pain and glory, into joy? Well, just look at the movie analogy again. What is the difference between a moment of pain or horror in real life and one on film? We aren’t the ones in danger, for one. So is it the experience of being a witness, rather than an actor?
There is good reason why many of the Eastern traditions, Buddhism in particular, focus on the idea of identifying with the witness, rather than the actor. The witness is undifferentiated consciousness. It is that part of us, deep below all of our identity and conditioning, that watches the Story of You unfold. It does not judge things as good or bad, it simply observes. And it is not present in either the past or the future. It is the present moment, utterly. And its nature – our nature – is bliss. When we encounter it, we know it and recognize it and call it home.
If we can grab a hold of that part of ourselves, if we can identify with the audience rather than the actor, we will lose much of our sorrow about the very experience of life. This part of us knows that the sad moments pass and the happy moments do too, that everything is cyclic and there is no end. It knows that change is the only constant in existence. It is wise and imperturbable, and it is laughter incarnate. This part of us, down below everything, is indeed everything.
All well and good, in theory? It seems all of us spiritual types are big on theory, not so big on communicating that theory in a visceral way. Well, that is because we each have our own lives to live, our own conclusions to reach, our own ways up the ladder of self-understanding. Looking for a universal solution to this issue is what practices like meditation and yoga are all about. But in the end, it has to be something that works for you.
My favourite recommendation on this matter comes from Joseph Campbell, renowned comparative mythologist (and dude whose praises are frequently sung on these pages). His idea was this: follow your bliss. If bliss is who we are, then it would make sense to seek it, to find the things that we do that get us in touch with that feeling. Now, there is a difference between bliss and pleasure. Pleasure is a simple thing, like switching a button on or off. It is the result of sex without meaning, or eating delicious food, or consuming alcohol or drugs of abuse. It is a form of gratuitous enjoyment. Bliss is something different entirely.
Joseph Campbell said, after some of his adherents had seen this as a call to hedonism, ‘I should have said follow your blisters.’ There is generally little gratuitous about bliss. You have to work for it. You have to actively pursue it and there are many pitfalls. In my case, I felt bliss after doing certain activities. I got into yoga, meditation, and writing. I have had so many battles with my will to engage with those things. How many times have I skipped a meditation or yoga session out of laziness, and how much have I regretted doing so? Writing has been something else – a true battle (there is a reason Steven Pressfield called his book about this topic The War of Art).
The thing about these pursuits, ones that are self-reflective or creative in nature and are in tune with your own desires and skills, is that they agglomerate. They build up. The more you do them, the more you feel the bliss. The more you feel the bliss, the more you want to pursue it. The more you pursue it, the more you feel it. It keeps growing and growing until…
Bliss itself is wisdom. It is understanding born of experience. There is a reason the Gnostic Christians revere ‘Sophia,’ the Greek word for ‘wisdom,’ as the ultimate attainment. The experience is the series of choices that you have made to follow your bliss. Bliss, and its grim opposite, are teaching tools. You make decisions that lead to bliss and avoid the choices that lead to suffering. By making these choices, which are all about selecting unity over separation, you are coming into alignment with your own true nature.
Joseph Campbell said, ‘the point of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the Universe.’ This is what he was talking about. This is what the Hero’s Journey is about. It is about choosing to believe in love instead of being afraid of life. It is about making the blissful – not the pleasurable – the guiding force in the way you choose to interact with the world.
So, what happens when you do reach that point? The one of no return? When you have completely and utterly surrendered to the bliss? It is enlightenment – a total and utter recollection of who and what you are, and what you are here for. And what is it that we are here for? Debatable, but I can tell you one thing: it’s not to solve a mystery and be transported into another dimension. My money is on the thrill of it all, with all of its ups and downs.
There is an old Buddhist saying that goes: ‘Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.’ Enlightenment doesn’t suddenly mean that you throw on a saffron robe, retire to the mountains, and stop playing the part. You still have bills, car trouble, mice that have somehow found a way into your walls. What it means is that you know your true nature – you don’t merely ‘think’ you do, you know it. You are the witness, watching the story of your life unfold. You have made a pact with yourself to only act in accordance with that nature, no matter where it takes you. Your fear of life – of making the choices that will see you follow this thing out until its ultimate conclusion – is gone. You still get sad, happy, terrified, ecstatic, bored. But what has changed is how you look at those things. The negative parts are less shoals to ground your vessel upon and more storms in the night that will pass with daybreak.
One of the virtues in Vedic philosophy is ‘viveka,’ which means ‘discrimination’ or ‘discernment.’ What enlightenment gives you is the ability to discern what is real and what is not real. You know the difference. And the only thing real is the love that you feel for it and everyone in it – all of it, in all its beauty and horror. You come to live in a dual world of constant transformation – feeling the feelings of the actor and knowing that you are witnessing the best movie ever written.
So forget pleasure. Grab ahold of that bliss and hang on tight – it is worth all of the joy in the world.