“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.”
– Guillaume Apollinaire
Almost all of us know the above quote to be true on an intellectual level, even if we sometimes have a hard time translating that knowledge into practical action. We’ve been programmed by natural selection to seek—to find our next meal, to find and defend a safe place to live, to find a lasting sense of belonging. As a result of eons of this “search imperative,” it goes somewhat against our evolutionary grain to simply sit down content with things as they are. However, if we fail to find ways to hit the “pause” button from time to time, we’ll find Apollinaire to be right: we’ll never simply be happy.
Human beings have evolved countless rituals and methods to achieve this elusive goal. As social animals whose survival very much depended on being part of a tribe, our ancient ancestors learned that engagement with others of our kind provided a deeper, more satisfying result than simply looking after themselves.
When hunter-gatherers first came together to bring down big prey like the mastodon, it became possible to have a much longer-lasting food source than any lone hunter could achieve. Later, when we discovered agriculture, the division of labor amongst several tribes together ensured a more plentiful harvest. This “abundance through cooperation” principle became hard-wired in Homo sapiens, and remains with us today. Our cooperative ventures still bring us a great deal of enjoyment, even though they may not be directly related to survival.
Nonetheless, ever since human beings became settled through agriculture, there has been a strong solitary component to our happiness as well. If you arrange flowers too close together, none of them will thrive; they each need a certain amount of space to absorb nutrients and sunlight. Like flowers and other plants, we also need space to thrive. There has always been a strong bent within us human beings to go off on our own and enjoy periods of solitude. Indeed, striking a balance between belonging to a collective and enjoying solitary moments seems to be a universal requirement for optimal mental health.
Novelist Peter Straub writes on his Twitter page, “My profession obliges me to enjoy solitary confinement.” Most writers—myself included—have discovered that they come down a bit more heavily on the side of the solitary side of the solitude-belonging continuum of needs. Every human being needs both; the more gregarious of us tend to fill nearly every available hour with social interaction, while we introverts tend more toward the solitary. For many of us, our meditation and yoga practices define both ends of the continuum: we may do both in groups or on our own.
When we meditate, we learn to focus and to pay attention to our inner and outer experiences as they arise; to observe them without passing judgment on them. This represents one of the best opportunities to stop pursuing happiness and just enjoy the present moment. Even if that moment contains pain or discomfort, sitting in deep awareness can be a very rooting experience. It enables us to resist years’ worth of “habit energy” that may be blocking our enjoyment of life. Bridging the gap between what is happening and what we believe should be happening is one of the most important components of finding and maintaining a positive outlook.
We are pattern-seeking primates; our minds are used to being in a perpetual state of judgment, experiment, and analysis. To occasionally just sit down content with the present moment as it arises is as essential to our mental health as belonging to a family, tribe, and collective.
Copyright © 2013 by William K. Ferro, All rights reserved
Photo courtesy of what-buddha-said.net