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.

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.

Queensday – or weeks for some

Today is Queensday, the day in the Netherlands that the Queen is celebrated – the ultimate matriarch. Unlike in other countries where there is much pomp and circumstance, the Netherlands celebrates with a giant party, drinking, music, and…wait for it…a giant tag sale. The entire city of Amsterdam empties out their closets and cellars and throws down blankets to sell the crap they no longer need. Walking through Vondelpark where the “children’s market” is reminiscent to walking through grant park on the 4th of July during the taste of chicago, but with used clothes and toys for sale.

On this particular day my mother is in town visiting, and has been for two weeks. While she is technically the matriarch of my family, since my father has been missing for 18 years, she doesn’t embody any of the traits. Pill addicted, on disability for “pain”, she has spent the trip like a raver from london, taking her pain pills, drinking, hash, weed, cigarettes, sleeping until 10, and more drinking (did I mention it was my good scotch and cognac???). My mother has been here for two weeks and has acted as if it has been her queensday every minute of it. While I mistakenly thought she was coming to visit her grandson and help out around the house a bit, she was here to party. If you are like me in any way, spending more than 4 hours with your mother triggers you into some moment in the distant past when you were 16 years old – my skin prickles at the sound of her voice, everything she does sets me off, crunching potato chips and talking so loud it indicates she is in desparate need of a hearing aid.

Now you may think I am a bitch, talking about my mother this way. I have always had a hard time with the idea that “blood is thicker than water” or the “come on, she’s your mom” – we all have heard it. However, in my humble opinion, getting knocked up and giving birth does not entitle you to a lifelong loving, close relationship with your children in which they in turn take care of you (yes, there is some resentment there). You have to earn that. We do not owe our parents for giving birth, putting a roof over our heads and feeding us. That was a decision they made when they decided to get pregnant and go through with it. My mother is still making my sister pay her back for when she was in rehab at 13. Not kidding. I digress.

It is this feeling of entitlement that gets people, including me, into trouble. As adults no one owes us anything and vice versa. We can make the conscious choice to particpate in this world and give of ourselves. Give by listening, being compassionate, loving, taking care of ourselves first (yes, i said first), at the very least, treating people as you would a campsite in a national park – in better condition than it was before you arrived.

So how does one survive a two week visit by someone who triggers the worst of you? Well, a good friend of mine reminds me ofter of the Prayer of St. Francis, particularly three lines:

Grant me the ability to comfort rather than be comforted;

to understand, rather than be understood;

to love rather than be loved.

I use these three lines to deal with difficult people, including my own mother. I try to have compassion for her, she is unhappy, so I manage my expectations and don’t expect of her. The trick is not to lose yourself in this. For another time.

Happy Koninginnedag!

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