with Derek Handley
Derek Handley © 12 January 2020
Whichever way we get at it or try to describe it, it is the pursuit of happiness that has held centre stage for much of human history across centuries, sects and civilizations.
In Ethics, Aristotle holds happiness up as “the whole aim and end of existence”
St Thomas Aquinas described it as man’s “last end and supreme good”
The philosopher John Locke claimed that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness”
Freud said that “all humans strive after happiness”.
While in the founding of America, Jefferson enshrined the pursuit of it into the Declaration of Independence.
Today, Bhutan has adopted it as their national goal and interview after interview the present Dalai Lama has repeated that “the purpose of life is to be happy”.
We will never all agree on the answers.
Yet how to live and be happy?
A timeless question.
Especially in a generation where we are constantly dissatisfied with what we have or don’t have – it seems, there is never enough.
Never enough of the material things we want.
Never enough time.
Never enough attention.
Never enough love.
Never enough peace.
Never enough justice.
There is a space – where psychology, spirituality, religion, motivational coaching – all thrive in,
The space between our dissatisfaction with the present
– our reality –
and some form of an idealized future – our hopes –
no matter how big or small they are.
Hope is an idea out there – tarting just past our fingertips, wherever we can’t reach, stretching out as far as our imaginations can take it.
Reality is an actuality, in here – in this room, in this moment, in this space, and time.
The conversation between the two –
this frontier, is where life is really lived.
We can not live in the past – the moment just gone, or the one ten years back.
We can not live in the moment about to be, or the one ten hears hence.
But our mind travels back and forth, even though our presence deserves attention only at this frontier where hope and reality meet.
Let me tell you about some of the hopes in my home.
If you come to my house on an ordinary day, there will be Nerf bullets –foam bullets for a kids toy dart gun – strewn around. There might be a tea bag in the sink that I haven’t put in the bin. There might be some clothes around and little Finn’s bedroom is likely to look like a bombsite.
My wife Maya really hopes every day that Finn and I learn to tidy up after ourselves just that little bit better
- she comes home
- she has in her mind a hope
- that we close this gap, between what she sees and what she knows makes her happy, and the reality…which causes her frustration.
Let me tell you about some of the hopes in my day-to-day work.
Whoever I work with, whatever we are working on – In the present moment, my hope is that they are thinking ahead, about the things we need to do today, that will make the things we need to do tomorrow that much easier.
- planning in advance what we might need
- not forgetting to do things that if aren’t done delay all our aspirations
- that they imagine scenarios of risk and opportunity and figure them out before they happen
When we fail to bridge the gaps between our hopes and the reality that is is or follows, we can get anxious, frustrated.
These gaps are – when I look at it, and the more I attempt to build some philosophy and ideas of what it is to live a peaceful, happy, meaningful life in amongst all the chaos and choices –
These gaps – well they are what provide great joy and motivation when they’re bridged, but are the source of our disappointment and unhappiness.
You know, most of our unhappiness and anxiety I think comes from these gaps we create in our minds between hope and reality.
Which is why it is so fascinating for me as an idea – that our lives and our temperament are literally made from the gaps we create between these hopes and our realities.
We hope – to be on time, the reality is we are sometimes late.
We hope to do our best in everything – the reality is sometimes we let ourselves down and feel badly about ourselves.
We hope to find everlasting love – the reality is half of all Kiwi marriages end up in divorce
We hope for each family in Auckland to be able to afford a home, but the reality is that they are about a million dollars.
We hope for a country free of poverty, but the reality is people sleep on Queen Street not by choice but by circumstance.
We hope for a world of justice, but the reality is a plane load of innocent Ukranians and Iranians are shot out of the sky
We hope for the world to stop heating up, but the reality is it’s far too late to reverse it any time soon.
Wherever there is hope, there is a gap we must learn to live inside of.
Wherever we find hope, we must also face reality.
Hope is not a strategy, but it is a savior.
I found it interesting when I learned that the original names of both of the major schools of Buddhism today – Mahayana and Theraveda, come from the notion of getting from one side to the other, over a gap.
In this case, the gap being a river, and the name representing the vehicle for crossing that gap – Mahayana, “a big raft” and “Hinayana” – the original name for Therveda Buddhism- meaning a small raft.
Both rafts, nonetheless, existing to bridge a gap – to get to the other side.
From one side of one form or reality, to another side of embodied hope and being.
If we are Buddhist perhaps we would just accept that all of life is “dukkha” – suffering, and to cross that river in the raft – to bridge the gap –to try to dissolve into the greater All that exists in the world, to a place where we have no attachment to our ego and our hopes, or anything in it.
To a place where we understand that we exist only in “dependence” on all that is around us, to, in this way merge ours hopes into reality.
If we were Muslims we would perhaps submit and surrender to Allah who will – as the first surah in the Quran, Al-Fatihah says “guide you on a straight path.”
Acknowledging our own futility, we would focus our energies on the daily prayers and practices that have been prescribed to us, and bridge that gap ever closer through “dikhr” – acts of remembrance, closeness to God, as the 13th century Muslim scholar Ibn Arabi tells us “happiness lies in proximity to the Divine”.
If we were the great Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius we would, as he suggests in Book Eight of Meditations. …
”keep an untroubled spirit, for all things must bow to Nature’s law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augusus. Look things in the face and know them for what they are, remembering it is your duty to be a good man. Do without flinching what man’s nature demands; say what seems to you most just – through with courtesy, modesty and sincerety.”
To me, it’s an ever-changing combination of all three and more starting with simple awareness that my day is filled with gaps between hope and reality and how I feel about my life is based solely on how I respond to them.
To first understand that I am not really who I appear to be. I am just a temporary collection of ideas and thoughts here for just a short time.
To pause and get closer to the divine – which in my world is found in simple acts connecting me to the source of all life, like breathing, digging in soil, planting my vegetables or pruning my tomato plants.
And as Aurelius counsels, to accept things as they are, to build a layer of positive de-attachment –
To understand that ‘it is what it is’, and it isn’t what it isn’t – as long as I make my own decisions to play my own part.
For the meditation this morning, I invite you to reflect on the gaps that you create in your life between your hopes and your reality, and how you think you deal with them.
Because no matter how wide the gap – it is our choice
on how we respond to it,
how we deal with it,
how we live inside the gap.
that determines how we feel about ourselves and the world.
The meditation is my tailored synthesis of the Serenity Prayer incorporating Epictetus the Stoic, and the more commonly recognized Niebuhr version.
Let me make the best use of what is in my power,
and take the rest as it happens.
Let me know that some things are up to me
While others are not.
Let me live one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking the world as it is.
Give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to know
one from the other.