Pursuit of Happiness

I was just perusing facebook when I can across a friend’s post, “Life can be amazing and miraculous one minute and horrible the next, here’ to waiting for the next amazing moment”. And it got me to thinking – We hear a lot about the pursuit of happiness and our right to it. What we fail to see is that it is precisely our pursuit of happiness that causes our suffering – and thus keeps us from that “happiness” we are looking for. I have spent much of my life in that same pursuit – barely tolerating the less than pleasurable experiences in desperate search of the next happy moment. When that moment comes I cling, and maybe you do too, not wanting the feeling or experience to change or dissipate.

I remember the day I gave birth to my son Henry. It was the mist intense experience I had ever had – anticipation, joy, pain, absence of pain and pure joy. I felt each emotion as if I imagine it would feel like if I were born blind and one day was able to see. The visceral feeling of each moment of that day will never leave me. And while I was very focused on the moment and appreciating each second (with the exception of the excruciating pain of the last stages of labor of course) I was terrified for the experience to pass. I instantly started worrying that my 12 weeks of maternity leave would not be enough – and I mean immediately, as in hours after giving birth I was crying and anxious. So I clung to each day as if it were my last – and I cried each day anticipating the day that I would have to leave my perfect little boy at home while I went to work. That extreme clinging to the moment and anticipation of the future took away from my ability to just enjoy and cherish where I was.

And then one day, a month into my maternity leave as I was rediscovering my meditation practice and study I read a paragraph from Mark Epstein’s “Thoughts Without a Thinker” that jolted me into a brief glimpse of awareness. Awareness that I was causing my own suffering. It was around the idea that the pursuit of pleasure leads to dissatisfaction as pleasure itself is not sustainable, primarily because we become content with what felt “pleasurable” initially, so we seek more.

“When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are made so that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things. Thus our possibilities of happiness are already restricted by our constitution” – Epstein

It was an awareness that the contrast of my pain from labor allowed me to appreciate the absence of pain once he was delivered. And that if I continue to seek that moment, even if I have the moment again, it won’t be the same, it is not sustainable in a constant way. By yearning for my environment to not change I was not appreciating what I had in the now. So I slowly let go of clinging to the idea that this utopia we had created in Henry’s first few months would change, and pursuit of a constant state of anything only leads to discontent. We are not wired for contentment.

So if you are like me in any way, and are clinging to a moment, a feeling, a touch, anything – let it go and know that the next painful, frustrating, or even mildly annoying experience you have will only help you enjoy the next “good” moment that much more.

Looking outside of myself

I turned 35 yesterday.  Funny how some ages hit you and others don’t.  35 hit me.  I have always been an overachiever, trying to prove to everyone that I am different than my parents, that I won’t be a victim and that I can succeed regardless of my circumstances.  In most things I never had innate talent, just a will to be better than people thought I could be.  I measured myself on whether I was working harder than everyone else, because I assumed that was the only way to set myself apart.  For many years I was right.  I ended up playing Division 3 basketball, but not because I was talented, because I worked my ass off.  Unfortunately, once you hit college trying harder can only get you so far – talent in addition to effort will surpass you (and size).  So I was 6th or 7th off the bench when I was used to being the star of the team.  This was my first lesson what worked for me in the past may not work for me now.  Life changes, perspective changes and what you put in will not always get you the same results.

I am having a similar experience in my life now, turning 35.  I have always been the young one in my peer group at work, always.  It felt good, to exceed people’s expectations, to surprise them.  My gift has been my intuition for people, how to connect with them, how to motivate them, how to help them uncover their best self, and my insights. I live for the moment that I would be sitting in a room full of executives in some seemingly important meeting.   I would revel in the moment that I would wow someone with an observation or insight.  I especially loved the moment when someone was there that didn’t know me, and would make small talk after and ask me my age and the look on their face would make my whole day.  I felt special.  Wow, they would say, you are wise for your age, or you are an old soul, or, where did you learn how to do that at your age.  The point is, I felt like an overachiever, I felt different.  I stood out.

Now, I am 35, and for some time now the things I have accomplished are no longer special.  The job(s) or roles I have held are now what could/should be expected at 35.  So yesterday, more than any other time, it really hit me, I look to others to validate my success, my worth, my being.  Does being the age that others are make me any less.  No.

So it got me to thinking.  In what ways am I looking outside myself for validation?  So I did a sort of meditation on my life.  And thought through everyday experiences (big and small) such as my bike ride to work and whether or not I looked like a tourist or a local (I live in Amsterdam) compared to the person next to me, or to being at the park with my son and comparing myself to the other parents or comparing him to other kids, and to having friends over for dinner, what would they think of the wine, the food, was my cooking better or worse than theirs, was I serving better or worse wine, and when I am at work, do I find value in my work if others don’t praise it, or what if they are the same age or younger than me and doing a similar level job, do I feel less special or like I am less valuable?

You get the idea.  Once I catalogued all these situations in my mind, I stripped the outside people the “others” away.  I started to imagine each scenario without someone else to compare to or someone else to praise or criticize me.  And I found that in most of my life I am looking outside as opposed to inside.  The funny realization for me is that I felt like i have been doing this work for years, uncovering neurosis, building self awareness, following my intuition, having a strong sense of self etc…and have been coaching others to do it themselves.  I laughed.  Sometimes you can convince yourself you are living the work you do, but really you aren’t.  Awareness is everything, almost.

Clearly the journey is never ending, what we think we know we can know again, in a different way.  The uncovering of self and who we are with others never ends.  So my new practice these days is to visualize a situation in which no one else had an opinion or judgement, and it was just me.  What would I do then?  What would I think of myself if there was no one to compare myself to.  Who am I, really?  I pick one a day and journal about it or just meditate on it, or sit with my coffee and think alone.

I encourage you to try the same.  In what ways are you defining yourself compared to others?  Who are you when there is no one?

Now, I realize that this is the other extreme, it is just an exercise, to create more awareness, to create more space for other possibilities.

“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”   Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

An unexamined life

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I just finished a lengthy discussion with an old friend of mine about life and labels and sexuality.  The last time we saw each other we were talking about what it may have been like if she ended up with two daughters and a wife instead of two daughters and a husband.  She has been in the middle of the sexuality spectrum since I have known her, and it was a toss up as to if she would end up with a man or woman.  Her husband is significantly older than her and it is likely that someday she will end up back in the dating pool, and may end up with a woman.  It would be such a pity if people jump to the conclusion that her marriage was a sham, or that she has been dishonest with herself or them all those years.

Because if there is one thing I think humans love to do it is label people, and put them in a box.  It is safe, predictable, comfortable, that is if they stay in that box.  By like me and you, most of us don’t.  Sometimes even the box we agree to be in is defined differently by you than it is me.

For example, I came out as a lesbian just as I was finishing my freshman year of college, I was about to turn 19.  Unlike many people I know, I came out before I ever had a girlfriend.  That isn’t to say I didn’t have a crush.  At the time I was dating men, and I had a lot of first and second dates, but rarely more.  I had met a guy, let’s call him Dan.  He was great, a school nurse, smart, funny, handsome.  I went out with him a dozen times.  But something was missing.  Parallel to dating Dan I was fantasizing about my best female friend, we will call her Sarah.  For all intents and purposes we were having an emotional affair, but nothing physical.  So, like many times before, I just told myself it was a fleeting crush, a phase and that it happened to everyone.  One night Sarah and I had plans to hang out just the two of us.  I was really looking forward to it.  It had been a long week of school and work and I only wanted to hang out with her.  Go to a bar, drink a few beers, talk and laugh all night.  Just as we were getting ready to leave her phone rang.  It was Joe, the dud of a guy she had a crush on that had been stringing her along.  Suddenly he wanted to go out.  “Do you mind?”  Sarah says…”He hasn’t called in weeks and I really want to see him.”  I knew that they would get drunk and have sex.  Gag.  So I slumped off and pouted and decided to call Dan.  He had just gotten back from the city teaching sailing lessons and yes, he would love to go out.  He picked me up and we went to Fridays, I guess that was a big deal when I was 18.  I shudder at the thought now.  I decided that I was going to do the same.  Get drunk and have sex, after all, maybe I would feel better and Dan was a great guy, nurse, sailing instructor, he had a JEEP!  We drank the night away (he was 21 to my 18 and the server didn’t seem to think I needed to be carded) and ended up at his house.  Halfway through the “adventure” I started crying, got up, got dressed and went home.  Immediately upon arriving my friend Sue was sitting in the kitchen.  “what’s up K” she asks.  “I am gay.”  As you can imagine that led to a few hours of talking and more crying and a few more beers.

At that moment I had never been more sure of anything in my life.  I was gay, that was it.  I am now a few days shy of 35 years old, married over to a wonderful woman (together 9 years last week) and we have a two year old son.

So what does this have to do with examining your life and labels and such.  Well, it wasn’t always so cut and dry.  I have struggled as a gay person, as many do.  It is damn hard sometimes.  Other times I forget, because I am really just a married person with a beautiful family.  So I moved from one label, straight, to another, gay.  And people have a whole different set of expectations of you depending on which you are.  Everyone in my life expected I would have children from a very young age, I always adored them and am a natural caretaker.  The minute I came out almost every person’s response was “but I thought you wanted kids?”  Hello, I didn’t give up my uterus!  I am the same person, same values, same everything, except now I want to date women.

My wife is more feminine than I am.  So of course once everyone got over the fact that we still both had our uterus’ they assumed she would give birth.  When in fact she wasn’t sure about being pregnant and I knew it I wanted to with every cell in my body.

You get my point.  As humans we label people and we expect them to behave according to that label.  And when they don’t we may question their authenticity, their honesty.  When in fact we may have no idea who they are or what they set out to think, feel, or do.

As long as you are self aware, and examining your own life and living as authentically as you can, screw what others expect.  It is your life.

As a practice I try to end my thoughts about other people with “maybe”.  Maybe there are this, or maybe there are that…or maybe not.  Nothing is certain.

As Socrates said, “an unexamined life is not worth living.”

Trigger – no not that kind

It happens to all of us, you may not even know it is occurring when it does. Your heart rate increases, your face may flush, maybe your palms get sweaty, if you have a nervous twitch it may show itself, and likely you get defensive, that is if you are like me. It is that moment when someone says something that irritates you, sets off an alarm, or otherwise triggers a reaction in you that likely stems from some set of experiences from growing up.

If there was ever a trigger in my life it is my mother. She has been visiting my wife, son and I for the last two weeks. What that means for me is I have been in my version of hell for two weeks. Culminating in last night’s conversation that started with:

“I feel like you constantly have a wall up with me. I thought we were going to be close again” quickly followed by, “what did you think of your childhood”. Now, of course she waited to have this conversation until my wife was safely out of the country (home for her brothers graduation) and of course not until she had a good two or three glasses of wine topped off by a few tokes of hash. I think I should provide some context here.

We all have a story, mine may or may not be like yours, to some degree. I grew up the oldest of three, (sister than brother) in a small house in a wealthy suburb in Illinois. We, however, were poor. My dad was a train conductor (ticket taker) and my mom stayed home. Not because we could afford for her not to, but because my dad did not allow her to work. My dad looked like a guy who worked on the railroad. A little over 6 feet tall, balding black hair, mustache, about 50 pounds overweight, all in the belly with a loud voice you could hear booming even down the street. The funny thing about his job is that he would take the commuters in and back on the morning ride, and then hung out at the station until rush hour that evening. During that time he drank beer, smoked and played poker with his buddies. For 5 hours! And somehow was paid to do this. What that meant for me is he always came home drunk, before the night even began. My mom had her own addiction issues, pills, coke (though not ever day), a smoker and light drinker, at least at the time.

We lived in a tiny bungalow on Brandon Avenue. I shared a bedroom with both my brother and my sister. There was puke dried on the carpeting in the hallway to our upstairs bedroom from the previous owners dog, I think it was permanent. Most of my friends came over one time to play and then weren’t allowed over again due to the daily screaming matches in my house and the never-ending flow of drugs, booze and cigarettes.

And that is just the beginning, really just a light-hearted set up to what was to follow. So you can imagine the trigger reaction I had when my mom challenged me as to why we weren’t close, and what I thought of my childhood. I mean, I have been in therapy for 12 years and have had my own executive coach for five, I coach people for a living to further help me get away from the childhood that I never stopped running from. So much so that I am 34 on the very cusp of 35, a Global Manager of Organization Development for a multi-billion dollar global company, have moved 4 times in 9 years, all for promotions and each time happier that I wasn’t living near my mother. In case I haven’t mentioned it, my dad has been missing for 18 years, so I didn’t have to work to get away from him.

She really didn’t know what that question was going to get her. And I am certain now she wishes she never asked.

One of the quotes that I use to remind myself that life is just life, and with it comes both suffering and joy is below:

“Pain is not punishment, and pleasure is not reward.” Pema Chodron

I don’t think my mom found it helpful when I ended our conversation with that. But it helps me realize life isn’t out to get me, or reward me. It just is.

Great Expectations at the Jumbo (pronounced Yumbo)

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I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time worrying about expectations,  my wife’s, my boss’ my friends’, my son’s, the check out lady at the grocery store, the woman behind me who I think is in a hurry and worry that I may not be bagging my things quickly enough.  In Amsterdam it is all self bagging – the belt is about 2 feet long and the bagging area the size of your bathroom sink…so whether you have 50 items or three you have the same amount of space.  What usually happens is as I am rushing as quickly as I can to bag the items as they come through, which is not very quickly, I scramble to keep up but inevitably my items pile up on top of each other and over the side smashing each other.  And as I am scrambling it is time to pay – and pay quickly…I fumble for my wallet, because I forgot to have my pincard ready, and get the “f’ing hurry up you idiot” eyes from the cashier, the social norm is to have your pin card out and ready to go, items already bagged.   Once I have paid and before the receipt is even done printing she is checking out the person behind me…their things start to pile up onto mine and I quickly have to decipher whose is whose and immediately assume the woman thinks I am stealing her things.  I eventually get most of the items into the bags, toilet paper or tampons always somehow end up under my arm and I scramble out as quickly as I can.  aah, i am having a small anxiety attack just writing about it.

I digress.  What all this means to me is that I create so many stories in my head as to what others are thinking or expecting, some of which may be true, or maybe none of it is, I will never know.  What I have realized is that I create my own hell/suffering in my mind.  I create stories about what others are thinking or feeling, about their intentions and usually it is a negative assumption. If I instead assumed the woman behind me was feeling empathy as she too dreads the checkout line routine, walla, I wouldn’t be stressed or anxious, I may feel relieved and connected instead.  So next time, that is just the story  I will tell myself.

The time I spend making negative assumptions could be spent giving myself a break and changing the story, relieving stress instead of creating it.

So next time you think the person in the car behind you who is riding your tailis annoyed at you for going slow, change the story.  Maybe they have some medical condition and don’t have depth perception, or maybe they are rushing to the hospital for the birth of their child, or they have IBS and really need a bathroom…it may have nothing to do with you at all.

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