This has been a year of transitions and over the last couple months a few things have happened that have caused me to rethink a big picture goal. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that a general life goal, prior to now, was to just be happy. However, I am starting to realize and embrace the idea that happiness is ephemeral and too much of a mercurial state on which to hang one’s hopes and ambitions.
It seems that many of us, in our attempt to be happy, create more unease in our lives. We are so committed to being happy, we seek to eliminate the experience of any other emotion. It has been interesting reading people’s reactions to a film I produced and edited, that was written and directed by my wife, Mississippi Damned. The story is based on my wife’s experiences growing up and deals with the cycles of abuse, addiction, and despair that fester in impoverished areas. While well received by audiences, a common response of first time viewers is that the experiences explored in the film are too much, have viewers too much in their “feelings,” and some even have to watch the film in parts because it is so depressing. Reading people’s reactions on social media has been enlightening. For me, it highlights our general human propensity to avoid any and all difficult emotions. At first I was surprised by some of the reactions to the film. Perhaps because I tend to lean into uncomfortable and uneasy emotions, the film never affected me like I’ve seen it impact others. While my life experiences were the polar opposite of my wife’s, I certainly grew up knowing that many people experienced sexual, physical, and emotional abuse; struggled with a variety of addictions; and witnessed the debilitating effects of poverty in my community. Since Tina’s story is not unfamiliar to me, I became very interested in and thoughtful about why it would be hard for others to process. I came to realize that the film is a trigger for many viewers, reminding them of past traumas they experienced in their own lives. For some, the film agitates and brings to the surface difficult emotions that have been buried and never dealt with or processed.
In our society, it has become popular to talk about and identify our triggers in order to avoid them. However, I wonder if it may be more constructive to focus on how to deal with and confront our triggers, instead. How do we break destructive generational and cultural cycles if we aren’t even willing to explore and address their manifestation in our personal lives? Avoiding things that trigger us (and the feelings that result from being triggered) only allow the underlying issues the opportunity to turn septic in our lives, often ballooning out of control. Instead of turning away from our triggers, what does it look like when we explore them? What happens to their control over us when we tune into how they affect our body? If we let go of trying to achieve a constant state of happiness and are able to sit with the unease that our triggers make us feel, what is the result?
As I continued to think about the effects of avoiding difficult emotions, I began to explore how the pursuit of perpetual happiness affects my relationship with my wife. Often times when I approach my wife to talk about looming bills we can’t afford or a relationship issue that is bothering me, a familiar response is, “I just want us to be happy. Why do we have to talk about this?” In an attempt to hold on to feelings of happiness as long as possible, we push away anything that can interrupt it. However, is it possible we are only doing ourselves a disservice? While we try to grab hold of a fleeting emotion, we are ignoring things that need to be addressed. Just because we’re talking about difficult subjects, it doesn’t mean we have to live and wallow in that emotion either. We can address it, feel whatever way we feel, and let that emotion pass. Just like that “negative” emotion will pass if we don’t feed it with unnecessary negative thoughts and stories, we must realize that happiness and “positive” emotions will come and go, also. Secondly, if we strive to live in the present and not let past experiences or future expectations color and influence the now, perhaps we can achieve a sense of peace in our life. This is my new goal; peace with whatever emotion I’m feeling at the time and a wish for a deep rooted understanding and acceptance that any emotion will pass if I allow it.
I certainly struggle with achieving this new goal. However, it shows up in my life differently. For me, I can replace “happy” with “comfortable.” While I don’t have an attachment to happiness, I do have an attachment to comfort because it is safe, what I know, and more importantly, I know how to control it. However, repeating the same, often destructive, behaviors just because they are familiar also causes unnecessary suffering. I often find myself in an unhealthy cycle of reliving the same stories instead of creating new ones because I find a false sense of security in knowing how it is going to end. The solution seems easy, but it is amazing how difficult it is to choose a new path. Often times the traumas extend beyond our existence and timeline. This only complicates matters. While on retreat at Spirit Rock this summer, DaRa Williams (whose insights and authenticity have been instrumental in my awakening) had this to say to me about my struggle with wanting to control everything: “Of course you want to control everything, you’re a Black woman in America. You are just trying to survive.” The path to change is difficult because there is often a historical and generational pain that influences our experiences. However, realizing this does not absolve us from doing the work. Changing and establishing new habits requires a constant commitment to remaining awake and present to whatever emotion may arise. It requires the ability to recommit to staying awake when you doze off. It requires allowing yourself to be human and recommitting to the work without judgment or expectations of perfection. The energy that we put into trying to grasp the ungraspable (whether that be happiness, comfort, or some other emotion) can be better spent meeting ourselves in each moment, accepting where we currently are in our journey, and taking the often fearful step forward into the unknown. In each moment we can choose to see what’s on the other side of any emotion, including happiness, by remaining in the moment. We can continue to cultivate compassion and wisdom so that when we find ourselves hiding because of fear, the detour won’t last long.
Who knows if these are the musings of someone lost in the trapping of their own thoughts or that of someone finally waking up. The jury is still out. However, I want to end with this passage from Pema Chödrön’s Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change as it provides me with encouragement that I might indeed be on the right path. May it, and this blog entry, provide those who read it with some food for thought as they forge their own path in life.
“Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the ground is always shifting. Nothing lasts, including us…So what does it feel like to be human in this ambiguous, groundless state? For one thing, we grab at pleasure and try to avoid pain, but despite our efforts, we’re always alternating between the two. Under the illusion that experiencing constant security and well-being is the ideal state, we do all sorts of things to try to achieve it: eat, drink, drug, work too hard, spend hours online or watching TV. But somehow we never quite achieve the state of unwavering satisfaction we’re seeking…But it’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness.” – Pema Chödrön