One of the most-quoted (often illustrated) inspirational bits hanging about on the Internet platforms and in assorted posts and books is this one:
“Happiness is a journey, not a destination. For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin—real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. This perspective has helped me to see there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way. So treasure every moment you have and remember that time waits for no one.”
It’s apparently a one-off, almost always attributed to one Alfred d’Souza (sometimes called “Father”) or alternatively, Alfred D. Souza, who was, they say, an Australian writer-philosopher.
The guy died in 2004, it says here. Nothing else seems to be known about him.
As a springboard for riffs about tackling problems, you have to admit the quote is stellar. The advice that follows afterwards – using happy-face mindsets and memes (aka gratitude, appreciation, cherishing, savoring and so on) as an antidote to life’s trials and tribulations – is often very useful as well.
The quote is used a lot by the bliss-meisters. Thoughts that arise out of this stance do work, up to a point. You can live a very good life in your happiness bubble….as long as you can ignore that wave of Visigoths coming over the hill.
You also have to refuse to look at the possibility that there are other happinesses that you may not able to access when your old ones get stale.
And you have to refuse to consider the seemingly heretical idea that true happiness may be a side-effect of a way of walking rather than a for-real goal. (If you’ll notice, this idea is a part of the quote. Most people seem to leave that part off when they use the quote, however.)
LIFE IS PROBLEMS
It does seem to me that for the rest of us who don’t reside in happy-bubbles there are likely to be some problem or other coming at us every time we turn around.
- Sometimes the problem is specific to you – the results of your own ill-made life choices.
- Sometimes it’s a physical malfunction or a glitch (either in your body or in the physical world around you). This is usually brought on by entropy ignored or unbound.
- Oftentimes it’s somebody else’s problem that is getting in your face or it’s some circumstance beyond your control that is the result of a widespread consensus-world catastrophe.
All of that can be enough to grind you down to a nubbin.
SOMETIMES YOUR ONLY PROBLEM IS THAT YOU DO NOT HAVE ONE
I did run across a very interesting thing. It seems that having no real problems at all can lead to a condition very much like this one:
There you are sitting all grumpy, floating in the middle of a peaceful lake in a very leaky boat. You’re on the verge of sinking, but for some reason you just can’t (or won’t) try to figure out how to start bailing out the water that’s filling up that boat.
I have a young friend who has beaten “the game.” An extraordinary business woman, she is now independently wealthy at a relatively young age through her own efforts. She has made more money than she is likely to spend any time soon and she has a really good support system that helps her stay on track with that.
She is beautiful. She is massively talented. (Her artwork is sublime.) She is personable and has no problems forming satisfying relationships with others. She likes herself just fine. She can do pretty much anything she wants.
And her life, she says, has gone flat somehow. She’s in the middle of trying to figure out how to deal with that. (If she hears one more person tell her how “lucky” she is, she says, she is going to throw something horrible at them.)
I told her to go get some problems. She threw a pillow at me.
SOMETIMES YOUR PROBLEMS ARE YOUR HOBBY
Of course, there are also the ones who have nothing BUT problems.
When they don’t have a problem to work on, these folks go find another one and then another one and then one more. They pile up mountains of problems. They turn their problem-solving into a pastime.
I’m not exactly sure why they do that. (I wasn’t really sure why I did it my own self.)
Maybe they think Life-Its-Own-Self is broken and they feel obliged to fix it or something. Perhaps they like feeling like a super-hero when they whittle their problem collection back down to nothing. (I do understand that one. I’m a recovering wannabe super-hero my own self.)
This YouTube video, “The Last Knit,” was directed by Laura Neuyonnen in Finland in 2005. It is a funny (and, for me, more than a little poignant) look at this do-bug sort of mindset. It was uploaded by annekeAnna in 2006.
SO, WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH ALL THOSE PROBLEMS?
We know there are all kinds of difficulties and challenges and struggles and so on and probably as many ways of dealing with them as there are people. Some ways work; others, not so much.
In his 1993 book, A PATH WITH HEART: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, Buddhist teacher-philosopher and author Jack Kornfield had an interesting take on it all. He divides up the complications and issues, the set-backs and hitches, and all of the other sorts of quandaries and predicaments we encounter in our lives into two distinct categories.
Some of these messes, Kornfield says, are clearly just regular problems that need to be resolved somehow. They are situations that call for compassionate action and a direct response from us. They are puzzles that actually have solutions that really do work.
(These problems are relatively easy ones. If you make good moves, they tend to go away.)
But, Kornfield points out, there are also those muddles that we create for ourselves by trying to make life radically different than what it is or by becoming so caught up in our own point of view that we become blinded to whatever is right there in front of us.
(These snags are never easy because they always have more than one “right” answer and, perhaps, a dozen different possible solutions that maybe-could be-might work well.)
Kornfield points out that when you’re confronting some difficulty or other of the second kind, you are likely to deal with it in one of three different ways. Each one of these styles of walking produces markedly different results. (Since I’ve tried all three of the styles he describes, I feel I can report on some of the diverse results that tend to happen when you employ these methods.)
TWO COMMON WAYS OF DEALING WITH PROBLEMS, ACCORDING TO KORNFIELD
- SUPPRESSION OR DENIAL. You can suppress or deny that there are any difficulties in your life and try to fill your days up only with light and beauty and ideal feelings, Kornfield says.
The biggest lesson I got from doing this one, I’ve found, is that it actually does not work very well.
For one thing, if you take it too far into the hap-hap-happy, you end up looking and acting like some kind of demented Pollyanna-clone. It is really not a good look.
Also, some things are just NOT OKAY, all right? Some things do need to be faced, addressed, and corrected in order to have a life worth living. You’ll have your own list, I’m sure. Pay attention to it.
Acting like everything is hunky-dory when it really is not can sometimes lead to very bad consequences that could be devastating or even fatal.
It’s sort of like shoving stuff under a big old rug in the center of your studio-apartment rather than actually sorting through it all and putting things away properly or doing what you need to do to get rid of all the junk.
You invariably end up tripping over the big hump that forms as you keep shoving stuff under that rug. Eventually it gets hard to walk across the room to get to the door.
Kornfield makes the point that your mind and body are connected and if you suppress “non-approved” thoughts and feelings in your mind, you will probably get some kind of body reaction – ulcers, for instance.
He also says that if you clench those problems in your body, making all your muscles tight because you’re trying to keep them from escaping into the world out of your control, then your mind fills up with all of the fears you refuse to face. They can stack up into a really huge and scary pile.
You tend to get a lot of sore muscles and a low-grade sort of malaise when you walk around all tensed up like that. I notice that my chest caves in on itself and I get dumpy-looking after a period of intense suppression or denial of some issue or other. Often I catch a really cramped expression on my face when I go past a mirror. Yipes!
Did you ever notice that people who are not for-real happy seem to have smiles that start looking an awful lot like snarls?
Somehow faking happiness just doesn’t work really well. I guess if you’re not truly convinced that you are happy, nobody else will be either, so what’s the point of doing that?
2. LET IT ALL HANG OUT. This is another common practice, Kornfield says. You can choose to let all of your strongest emotions and heart-burnings out, freely venting about every situation and acting out every feeling that arises in you, no matter how contradictory or confused or just plain tiresome they become for you and for the people around you.
Tantrums, whining, moaning and other expressions of high drama can become your default modes of expression.
However, if you do it often enough you may start to notice that very few people want to hang around with you. YOU may not want to be hanging around with you either.
Also not so good.
AND THEN THERE’S DOOR NUMBER THREE
3. TURN THE STRUGGLE INTO YOUR PLAYING FIELD. Take a look at this short 2020 YouTube video featuring best-selling author and blogger extraordinaire Mark Manson, “How to Overcome Any Problem Life Throws at You”. It was uploaded by The Outcome, a motivational YouTube channel that’s fun to explore.
Manson, in the video, is speaking from a stance that incorporates Kornfield’s third way of walking. It delineates the practical effects of learning how to transform your relationship to the outside world in a very useful way. He says, “…the point that I make is that…what we should actually shoot for is…let’s just find the problems we enjoy having.”
In his book, Kornfield talks about a Tibetan Buddhist tradition explained by Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, one of the first of the most influential modern-day teachers of the tradition to come out of Tibet and India to the West.
This life-strategy is called “making difficulties into the path.” What you are supposed to do with it is take all of the sufferings and sorrows in your life and use them to develop your own kind of meaningful walk through the world.
Manson’s video gives a succinct step-by-step process that is very clear. If you can get your head around it, then the problems in your life turn into a valuable resource. By working your way on through the situations that are in your face and by improving the quality of the dilemmas in your life, you can build up and refine your ideas of what life means to you. This can help you work on constructing your own best self and build your own best life.
It does work. (Otherwise all those wise guys wouldn’t keep recommending that you do this stuff.)
The cool thing about this one is that you don’t actually have to go searching for problems to work with. They just come. It’s what you do with them that makes them such valuable resources.
ONE LAST TAKE
The next video, “Miles Davis According to Herbie Hancock” was uploaded by SafaJah in 2014. It features a story by Hancock (who is a warm and sparkling raconteur as well as an iconic jazz pianist).
The story Hancock tells highlights the improvisational genius that Davis was and contains a pertinent life-lesson.
I especially liked one comment from a fan that quoted Davis as saying, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note. It’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”
Uh-huh. That’s jazz, all right. It’s also another way to turn your problems and challenges into a part of the way you play.
Here’s a poem:
My loves have always been
The mavericks and rogues,
The ones who blithely walk
Down paths that others shun,
The ones who touch the wind,
And hear the laughing of the sun.
They called to me, these ones, and
I am not one to turn from
Challenge and double-dare.
They made me want to spread
My wings to fly among the stars,
Dissolving fences built by dread.
And, maybe, in all this,
There is some lesson or other
That again I have to learn:
That to dare is all that’s real,
That surety sinks you into muck
And fear is the seventh seal.
By Netta Kanoho
Header Photo credit: “Obstacles” by Riccardo Cuppini via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
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