― Dalai Lama
Someone asked me, “Are you happy?” I didn’t know how to answer. What I know about happiness is the best kind feels more like contentment than the fleeting context of pleasure. And that quiet type of happiness feels accessible in any moment I become aware of all that sustains me and all my senses. I often feel happy while doing routine tasks, and most often when immersed in Nature.
This summer I am gifting myself an online course offered by Pema Chodron on the occasion of her 80th birthday. To that end, I am reading a thoughtful interpretation of a 13th century monk, Tokme Zongpo’s verses written as reminders to himself of how to be in the world. They are amazingly resonant to many people seven centuries later. It’s an awesome thing to encounter expression universal enough that it reaches people’s hearts through time. Like the verses of Shakespeare or any writer who understands the human condition.
I find myself resisting some verses like this one that feels foreign to the culture I was raised in. In fact, the inverse of it is written into foundational documents of my country.
All suffering comes from wanting your own happiness. Complete awakening arises from the intention to help others. Therefore, exchange completely your happiness for the suffering of others.
I experienced this precise awareness when living for a year communally among families with hospitalized children and recognized at the time that the greatest happiness I could experience in this life was in service to others suffering. That year was my spiritual awakening.
A decade later I find it necessary to work 7 days a week, except for family obligations and medical appointments. So nearly all my time is used in service of self and child. It can feel stiflingly selfish, yet necessary in order to meet my obligations.
Because my work is solitary and involves 100% intense listening to a broad spectrum of voices and views in media, tears actually came to my eyes when reading this verse:
Listeners and solitary buddhas, working only for their own welfare, practice as if their heads were on fire. To help all beings, pour your energy into practice: It is the source of all abilities.
Tonglen is (as crudely described by me) a practice of breathing in venom and suffering, then breathing out peace and well-being a person experiences now and may experience in the future. Reading Zongpo’s verse gave me the idea of doing my daily work this way, expanding my solitary efforts by remembering to exhale peace, well-being, compassion. If I can do this even in the midst of all the venom I listen to in my country’s political and social upheavals expressed through media, on some level I feel I may contribute more than my job allows.
I am recommitting to my meditation practice, but I am also doing walking meditation to compensate for all the seated hours. I do not expect myself to be a monk or live up to a standard that feels impossible.
Instead, I appreciate being reminded to start wherever I am, be fully there, and plod forward steadily. Someday I may have more freedom to do more with my life and dreams, but until then I can practice brave moments of happiness.