In this 3rd and final search for happiness, again inspired by the November 2017 National Geographic article by Dan Beuttner, I'm reminded that from an individual perspective, love is the key to happiness. I also know that real happiness is more than just being 'happy'. It's being content with myself and my surroundings, letting that joy flow to others, and experiencing the flow of that connection. I know this because "God is love" and the teachings of Jesus tell me to love God and to love my neighbor and even to love my enemies. I also know that Jesus' life exemplified those teachings. But I can be a little slow. Sometimes I don't learn so well from words or examples. Maybe I find it easier to 'worship' Jesus than to 'emulate' him.
Perhaps a good beginning place for this topic is to explore why happiness can be elusive. Practically speaking, maybe I'm not happy because I'm angry or have been hurt. I could also be unhappy because when I look in the mirror, I see someone who's not thin enough or smart enough or rich enough. Maybe I see someone in that mirror who is old or inadequate or struggling on my best days, and someone who's a fraud and failure on my worst days. I need a practical tool to help me to learn how to better love and thus experience happiness.
I found that tool when I recently stumbled upon a recording of a 9 part presentation on meditation by Pema Chödrön, the Buddhist teacher, writer and nun. In the presentation, she introduces the Metta Practice: The Seven Stages of Loving Kindness. What follows is a summary of my copious notes of her audible words.
The meditation should begin in a quiet place, like most meditations, with a focus only on your breathing--concentrating on nothing else each time you inhale and exhale. When your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath. After a few minutes, when you're ready, move to
Stage 1: Start where you already have a feeling of loving kindness. Recall and draw from what it feels like to deeply love a child, grandchild, spouse, loved one, or your dog. Recognize the feelings of gratitude, tenderness, warmth and openness. Encourage and dwell on these feelings for a few minutes, repeating, "May _____ know joy and the source of joy" for a few minutes, until you're ready to move to Stage 2.
Stage 2: Now move the meditation to yourself, connecting back to the one who was the first object of your feelings of love in Stage 1. Try to experience those same feelings toward yourself, focusing on that same love with each breath for a few minutes, repeating "May I know joy and the source of joy" until ready to move to Stage 3.
Stage 3: In this stage you want to awaken loving kindness for a close friend or family member in the same manner. This might bring up conflicting feelings. If so, realize what kindles these feelings, while responding with love. Do this for a few minutes until ready to move to
Stage 4: Now awaken those same feelings for someone you feel neutral about--no aversion or attraction yet. This is probably the majority of people in your life. In doing so, you may realize you have feelings about that person, but again respond with love. After a few minutes, when ready, move to Stage 5.
Stage 5: Now you want to extend these same feelings to a difficult person. In doing so, inevitably you will close down toward this person. When that happens, embrace the anger, hostility or hurt. In the midst of those feelings, simply repeat the mantra, "May _____ know joy and the source of joy". Do this for a few minutes, then move to Stage 6.
Stage 6: Take all 5 of the above and send feelings of loving kindness to all. This may be challenging at first, so as a Recovering Baptist, I like to picture this as a pot-luck meal with all 5 at the table enjoying mass quantities of fried chicken and fresh vegetables. After a few minutes and the chicken is consumed, you can move to the final stage.
Stage 7: Expand these feelings toward all sentient beings--everyone. Include the hungry, the lonely, the addicts, the terrorists, even democrats.
I was amazed by how just repeating the mantra through the 7 stages of the meditation impacted my feelings. As you work through the stages, sitting with the fear, the irritation, the hostility, numbness and hurt, don't run from it. Instead, respond with loving kindness. Remember, no feelings are inappropriate, because that feeling will ultimately be the object of loving kindness.
I realize this could easily take 45 minutes to complete, but I encourage you to do this daily during the last week of 2017. Give it 7 days and see if your life is more joyful. If it doesn't work, give it 70 times 7 days.