“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles, and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?” ~Lao Tzu
I don’t know why, and I don’t know when it exactly begins, but somehow, we are socialized to believe that happiness depends on the stars aligning, and we subscribe to the notion of a happily-ever-after, whereupon life is supposed to be smooth sailing.
It sounds ridiculous just saying it out loud, but yes, we do this. I’m guilty.
If we could only get into this school, have that job, find a partner, have a family, own a house, get a better car, have a different body. It’s usually something beyond our reach—that over there. That’s what we need. That’s what we think would make us happy. Always that, never this. And once we get that, it turns into this, and this is okay for a while, but eventually it isn’t good enough, and we are back to searching for the next shiny thing we are sure will make us happy.
The problem is we have an insatiable appetite for more. Our desires exponentially multiply, and we become blind to what is right in front of us. We are caught in a cycle of suffering, chasing our tails trying to catch an elusive happiness.
I remember being in a new relationship, thinking if only I could be married with children, then I would know the happiness I had dreamt about since girlhood. My longing could be cured with an engagement ring and the happily-ever-after many of my peers were already having.
In marriage and three children later, I still had an empty feeling lingering inside of me. There was a kernel of desire that swelled with each longing, searching for something more.
Maybe a nicer car or a fancier home would have filled the void and made me happier. I had a laundry list of things I was sure my husband needed to change about himself, which would surely make me happier. There were personal goals to achieve beyond my domestic life. Weight to lose. Always something more. If I could only buy those things, reach those milestones, make those changes, I would finally be happy.
Then, when my husband unexpectedly died and left me a young widow with small children, I longed for the banality of my married life. I would take it back without hesitation and never complain again, even the silly marital squabbles and socks on the floor. I wanted that, not this.
In the middle of a pandemic, now a single mom with school-age children and social distancing cutting me off from society, I longed for those other years, even the ones where I was a sad widow who was terribly self-conscious about the life I didn’t choose. At least I could be sad in a gym, or eating in a restaurant, traveling around the world. Now I was stuck at home and lonely. If only I had those pre-pandemic days back, then I could be happy.
Epicurus said, “Remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
Admittedly, I’ve spent my fair share of time dwelling on what I don’t have. I’ve pined for many things and ignored the dreams that already came true for me.
I’ve had some good reasons to feel wronged by the universe and to feel robbed of my happily-ever-after. Yet none of that time spent complaining and being angry ever made me happier.
This is exactly why our happiness should not be conditional. It is impossible to fulfill every desire at every moment. We can not eliminate human suffering, and circumstances are often not within our control. Life happens. If we wait until the conditions are perfect to be happy, we waste precious, limited time.
On the rare occasion that the stars do perfectly align, the moment will be ephemeral. Life is a shape-shifting, formless experience in a constant state of flow. It is never the same.
Greek philosopher Herclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
I wholeheartedly agree. I am not the same person I was fresh out of college. I’m not the same woman my late husband married. I’m not the same widow I was five years ago, and I’m not the same person I was before this global pandemic.
I remember an aunt telling me that she made it her practice to never spend the work week counting the days until Friday. She didn’t want to get caught up with the negativity of constantly watching the clock, living for the weekend while suffering through her job on weekdays.
“One day I’ll be retired and closer to death, and I’ll want to go back to the days when I could work and still had my youth,” she explained.
I never forgot that.
One day this is all going to be over.
I try to make a conscious effort to be present on my journey, for the good and the bad. It’s easy to identify what we don’t have, but it is transformative to redirect our focus toward what brings us joy, finding the bits of happiness on any given day, no matter our circumstances. Gratitude is embracing happiness in spite of our suffering.
When life is dumping on you, I know it feels like your pain will be eternal. It can feel hopeless. All of the cliche advice in the world doesn’t help.
When my husband died, I thought I’d be broken forever. I was overwhelmed, numb with grief, and consumed with anger at the unfairness of my situation. It did not go away in a month, a year, or even a few years. I’m five years away from those darkest days, and sometimes I still feel stung by my broken dreams.
Yet, I have also had so much good happen in my life since that fateful day. There have been innumerable reasons to smile and enjoy life. When I look back on the past five years, I see myself continuously growing into a better version of who I was. I can be sad about my loss, and also incredibly thankful for my gains.
My grief helped me understand that the intensity of any feeling does not last. Just as happiness does not continue forever, your suffering won’t either.
If you don’t believe me, look no further than every historical event in history. World Wars. Economic depressions. Celebrity mishaps that were once fodder for the media, no longer talked about.
Trying to conceptualize tomorrow during your struggles can feel impossible. We tire ourselves out swimming against riptides. I think in these moments, it is important to give yourself permission to float. The currents won’t always be pushing you in the wrong way. For your own self-preservation, take a deep breath and let yourself float, knowing it won’t last and you’ll find your way again.
Likewise, when you are fortunate enough to have good times, you should float in those moments too. You should remember that the good times are also fleeting. We have a tendency to want to race off to the next great thing. Enjoy what you have deeply, even the most ordinary moments, because you really don’t know how much they will matter to you in the future.
When I think about my late husband, I remember the little things. How he used to make me coffee in the mornings. The way he called from the grocery store ten thousand times, asking where he could find items on the shopping list like cumin and flaxseeds, driving me absolutely nuts. Years later, those memories are endearing. I wish I could go back and tell myself to relax. I wish he could call and ask me another stupid question.
I wonder if it would be easier to cope with suffering if we were socially conditioned to embrace impermanence at a young age—if we were trained to understand it like we are taught to know the invisible force of gravity. Maybe it would have softened the rough edges of being human.
Today, I try to talk to myself as if I were the younger version of me. I tell myself things like, “This won’t last forever,” “You’ll get through this,” “This too shall pass,” and “You’re strong!”
When life feels insurmountable, I try to focus on microsteps. I tell myself the things I might say to a child.
I ask myself: what is the next right step for today?
On a beautiful, sunny day.
During a storm.
No matter what the conditions are, because the conditions are mine. Each day. This is what I have to work with, this is my journey. Now or never.
It was never supposed to be perfect. If I am committed to maximizing the quality of my life, then I have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. So what is that next tiny step?
Melody Beattie said, “Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
I remember having a realization after my husband passed away. I had always wanted to be a mother, and I became a mother. But I never thought I would be a single mother—I didn’t ask for that version of motherhood. I felt ashamed of being a single mother.
I wallowed in a lot of self-pity during those first few years of widowhood, agonizing over my circumstances. Meanwhile, my children kept growing. They were my dreams come true. I had them right in front of me, yet if I spent my days focused on what I had lost, I would lose my chance to enjoy their childhoods. One day they would be grown, and I would be full of regret.
That’s when I started to embrace it all. The parts I chose, and the ones I didn’t choose. All of it was mine to make meaning out of, to find the joy in, and to be grateful for.
I think it is important to feel everything—good and bad. It is all a part of your journey. Identify your feelings, but do not get attached to that reality. Circumstances will change. How we feel today is not necessarily how we will feel tomorrow. For me, understanding this was half the battle to cope with personal challenges.
Mooji said, “Feelings are just visitors, let them come and go.”
Sometimes a deep breath, a stubborn refusal to give up, and the realization that you have survived 100 percent of your previous challenges is enough to get us through a difficult time.
“Life is a tide; float on it. Go down with it and go up with it, but be detached. Then it is not difficult.” – Prem Rawat
This is it..
About Teresa Shimogawa
Teresa Shimogawa is a human being trying to do good things in the world. She is a teacher, storyteller, and currently studying to be a Shin Buddhist minister’s assistant. She writes at www.houseofteresa.com.
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