Saturday, January 31, 2009


In the continuing pursuit of my happiness project I've been doing some reading. Yesterday I was leafing through a short compilation of the writings of Marcus Aurelius who was a Stoic. These days the word stoic conjures up a stone faced guy with a stiff upper lip and no discernible emotions in the face of tragedy. In fact, the Stoics were really the Buddhists of the West. For example, Buddhism embraces the idea that nothing is permanent, and that forming attachments and giving in to cravings creates suffering. Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Why should anyone be afraid of change?
What can take place without it?
What can be more pleasing or suitable to universal Nature?


Of the life of man the duration is but a point, its substance streaming away, its perception dim, the fabric of the entire body prone to decay, and the soul a vortex, and fortune incalculable, and fame uncertain. In a word all things of the body are as a river, and the things of the soul as a dream and a vapour; and life is a warfare and a pilgrim's sojourn, and fame after death is only forgetfulness.


Everything existing is already disintegrating and changing... everything is by nature made but to die. The length of one's life is irrelevant, for look at the yawning gulf of time behind thee and before thee at another infinity to come. In this eternity the life of a baby of three days and the life of a Nestor of three centuries are as one. To desire is to be permanently disappointed and disturbed, since everything we desire in this world is empty and corrupt and paltry.

Buddhists (and yogis) use meditation and mindfulness to heighten awareness and turn the mind into an ally. Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Concentrate on the mind, your ruler: you are old; it's time to stop your mind acting like a slave, pulled puppet-like by the strings of selfish desires.


Stay here in the present. Recognize what is happening to you.

I think Stoics and Buddhists would have gotten on very well.

One of my favorite thoughts so far:

Not becoming like your enemy is the best revenge.

I wish someone had told the former White House administration.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Commandment 2

You'll like this one.

2. Never take anything too seriously (especially yourself)

I often tell people that I have to make a wise-ass remark periodically or I start to feel uncomfortable. It's true. Humor is a necessity, right up there with breathing and eating. I can joke about pretty much anything. If you find someone who can't laugh at themselves, look out. Every now and then I catch myself falling into seriousness, into the kind of mind set that creates maudlin journal entries and can generate self-pity making life much harder than it needs to be. It's only life for goodness sake, lighten up. If people laughed more the world would be a better place. And I don't mean giggling or evil mustache-twirling or a polite little chuckle. I mean the full-on, tears-down-the-face, belly-shaking laughter. Never mind fiber, we are not getting our full RDA of laughter. I work in a place that is all about self-discovery, peace, and enlightenment. People expect serenity and flower-power thinking. I don't really fit those expectations. One person who comes there told me she really liked the juxtaposition of my black, cynical humor with this place of serious peace. Excellent (hands rubbing together). This commandment should be pretty easy. Which is good because most of the others are Herculean. Really. Would I kid you?

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Part of Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project is a list of commandments she created for herself. This seemed like a fine idea so I am adopting it. Furthermore, I am co-opting her first commandment as my own. The rest of my list is not in any particular order but this first one is definitely the most important.

1. Be Plaid Sheep.

Seems simple enough, be myself. But it isn't simple at all. I don't know about you, but I sometimes wish I could be different, that I liked loud crowded parties or that I didn't feel responsible for every last damn little thing. But it's never going to happen. Sure, I might develop a taste for the occasional Bacchanalia or walk away from a problem without solving it but I'm never going to turn into Mame. Nor would I really want to. (Well, maybe just once in a while.) The only sensible thing (and lord knows I'm sensible) is to just be me as well as I can. Wish me luck.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

New Project

I found a new blog today. New for me, that is. It's called The Happiness Project and is written by Gretchen Rubin. I recommend it. Today's entry is particularly good - it's a quote from Simone Weil. I've had an abiding interest in the topic of happiness. It seems such an elusive thing. The Oxford English Dictionary has 4 definitions.
The main one: The quality or condition of being happy.
1. Good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair, success, prosperity.
2. The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from attainment of what is considered good.
3.Successful or felicitous aptitude, fitness, suitability or appropriateness, felicity.

Their definitions of happy are:
1. Coming or happening by chance, fortuitous chance.
2.Having good "hap" or fortune, lucky, fortunate, favored by lot, position or other external circumstance.
3. Characterized by or involving good fortune, fortunate, lucky, prosperous.
4.Having a feeling of great pleasure or content of mind, arising from satisfaction with one's circumstances or condition. Glad, pleased.
5.Successful in performing what circumstances require, apt dexterous.
6. Slightly drunk.

It's also a verb, to make someone else feel good-to happy.

I think that's quite interesting. Many people would put #4 as the primary definition, with outside circumstances being important. Buddhists would say that's the wrong way to look at it. They view happiness as something that comes from within, that you create it by giving up attachment and aversion, by coming to see that the self is not real, that one is part of the whole and that working for the good of others before yourself is the way. And Aristotle would like #5 best. He thought one could not call oneself happy until reaching the end of life and seeing that it was well and virtuously lived.

I reject the simplistic view. I think happiness arrives by many roads. Some internal, some external. It's not that I think that money can buy happiness. But money is important, it is. I don't need mountains of it, 4 houses, 3 cars and a yacht. But money is necessary to maintain oneself. To eat, to wear clothes, to have a roof over ones head. I have always rejected the notion (popular in many religions) that this earthly existence is not important. To me that's just silly. If it's not important why have it at all? Is God the first producer of reality TV? I don't believe it. If the physical world is just a way station why are orchids so beautiful, why does fresh bread smell so wonderful, why can music transport us? Nor can it be that it is only a test, a job to complete. I also reject the reductionist view that we are nothing more than a bunch of cells determined to reproduce and that all our feelings and dreams and struggles with faith and happiness are nothing more than evolutionary by-products.

Recently I had a short conversation with a practicing Catholic. I didn't know she was until part way through the conversation. I admit, I was surprised. She is a museum educator, sophisticated, liberal in her convictions. Her husband is a well known physics professor and though he is not as involved as she, he does not see a contradiction in his study and his faith. I was forced to look at my own prejudices, my own ideas about what a Catholic or Christian is like. She told me that she had grown up Catholic, had tried other Christian churches and found them wanting. She missed the liturgy, she said and though she did not accept everything it was the best place. She asked me what I believed. I told her I believe the universe is a living thing, a giant organism that we are all part of, like cells in the body. There is no real thought here, no ultimate purpose but there is connection, cause and effect. The butterfly's wings may indeed cause a storm. Can we ever really know? I also agree with Shakespeare that there is more to the universe than is dreamt of in our philosophy. I avoid certainty. I think it's dangerous. I prefer the person who has doubts, questions, an open mind. Look out for those who are certain, they are full cups, unwilling to bend or admit the possibility that there is more than one way to see things, that many roads may lead to the same place.

I've digressed a little, just a little, from the topic of happiness. As you probably surmised from the title of this post I am beginning my own happiness project. I'll keep you posted on how its going.