Monday, August 30, 2010

25 Steps to a Happy Life (part 1 of 2)

Walking on the Beach
(Photo credit: Steven Betts)
…or something like that.

Although my progression from a healthy person to a handicapped person was slow and steady, my transition from a working person to a legally disabled person was abrupt, like jumping off a cliff. One day I was working. The next I was retired, probably for life, at age 45. That’s just the way the system works. I’m reminded of the old saying, “It's not the fall that kills you; it’s the sudden deceleration at the bottom.” I was decelerating in a hurry.

But it didn’t have to be that way. This transition was an opportunity for me to reevaluate what was truly important, and consider how life should best be lived. I had a lot of time on my hands to ponder such intangibles, so naturally I came up with a list. I’d like to share this with you, not because I think I have it all figured out, but because I have the time for this type of introspection, and maybe you don’t.

I call the list my "pearls of wisdom," and I review it on a regular basis. I don't simply read down through the list, but instead pause at each item and ask myself, "How am I doing on this issue?" As you might expect, I'm doing well on some and not so well on others. This is a living, breathing list which I update frequently. It’s not perfect, and I know that it’s missing some wonderful pieces of wisdom, but I find it helpful nonetheless.

You may notice that many of these items are borrowed from Zen philosophy. I regard Buddhism as a bizarre religion, yet within it I’ve found many practical lessons for enjoying a happy life. Here's my list, with some commentary:

1.  Eliminate physical and mental clutter in your life. Simplify, simplify, simplify.
I surround myself with gadgets. I have computers and phones of all shapes and sizes. I have televisions and MP3 players and DVD players. I have stereos and indoor/outdoor thermometers and a robotic wheelchair and so many more things. I'm addicted to techno-crap. I know this isn't good for me, but like a heroin user, I crave my next fix.
    I don't know if I'll ever get better at this, but I put it on my list in hopes that one day I will.

2.  Live fully in the present moment. Do not dwell on the past or the future.
It is so natural for me, and I’m guessing for you as well, to replay past mistakes and regrets over and over in my mind. Also, I continuously look forward to the next significant event on my calendar- a trip, party, sporting event, etc. My mind shouldn’t be focused on events of the past or future. Instead I should be concentrating on the here and now.
3.  Work on being mindful all the time.
To be mindful means to be totally focused and engaged in what is happening around you at the moment- not distracted with thoughts about anything else. Take notice of everything- the sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and feel. Don’t let your mind wander from the task at hand (no matter how boring it might be).
4.  See each incident for what it is and don't carry any expectations forward to apply to any other incidents.
Human nature compels us to identify patterns, even where none exist. “Because he was mean to me once, he will be mean to me in the future.” Or, “Because this person of such and such heritage was lazy, all others of his heritage must be lazy too.” Well, maybe these statements are true, but quite likely they are not. Our tendency to over-generalize results in missed opportunities.
5.  You have already succeeded. You are where you are supposed to be. You have nowhere to go. You are already there.
This concept flies squarely in the face of modern American societal norms. We are all about self-improvement, identifying our weaknesses, re-inventing ourselves, etc. Yet, this item suggests a completely different tact. I can’t quite accept it as written though. Maybe there is some happy medium, where we are not totally complacent, but neither are we obsessed with self improvement.
Interestingly, this piece of Zen wisdom is inherently contradictory. If I am already where I need to be, then why am I studying Zen philosophy and seeking higher wisdom? Interesting paradox… 
6.  Live a life without apology (except when you truly have something to apologize for).
My friend Katja turned me onto this article:
This is a different way of stating the Zen concept in item 5 (You have already succeeded. You are where you are supposed to be…). In this case the author of the article talks about how we don't need to seek other’s approval, and apologize when we don't meet their expectations. Excellent concept.
7.  Give your feelings a chance to happen. Hear them out and then let them move on. Do not let them control you. Your thoughts and feelings come and go. They are not you.
This all makes sense to me, sort of. We can't be consumed by our thoughts and feelings. Yet, if we are not our thoughts and feelings, then what are we? I haven't figured that out yet.
8.  Practice moderation in all things.
Ya, right. I still watch too much TV, and surf the Internet too often. But I eat less and drink a lot less alcohol than I used to. Progress…
9.  When you are with the person you love just be there in total awareness. Be present in the moment without assuming or expecting anything.
This is the application of items 2, 3, and 4 to personal relationships.
10. You are not dependent on one another. You and the person you love are two self sufficient people who chose to travel through life together. One of you does not complete the other.
Ah, this is a loaded one. Modern romantic love concepts, which have not been around all that long in the grand scheme of human evolution, would have you believe that individuals are incomplete and lost until they find their soul-mate. Together, the two individuals merge into a single entity, and no longer exist independently.
At the risk of being labeled an unromantic person, and I have been more than once, I’m intrigued by the Zen approach to romance and love. “I am whole. You are whole. Let’s walk together, hand in hand.” Sharing your life’s journey with another, if it is the right person, can make life so much more enjoyable and meaningful. It has for me.
To be continued….

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  1. Hi Mitch,
    Enjoyed reading this post, the list is excellent think I will make a list too.
    Agree how good life is with the right person to share it with.

  2. :-)

    You have now inspired me to go clean up the bedroom (principle #1).

  3. Mitch, there's certainly a great deal to think about after reading your post. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Herrad, Katja, Muffie:

    Glad you liked the post. I'll post the next 15 pearls tomorrow.


  5. Outstanding, Mitch! Everyone should compose their own steps to a happy life. I see some similarities to mine; I guess we really are kindred spirits after all. :)

  6. Enjoyed the To Live Without Apology
    link. Thanks for sharing it.