Sunday, March 30, 2014

Moments Of Transcendence


First of all: a million and one thank yous to all of you who have supported our campaign by donating, spreading the word and sending prayers and love. I don't really have words for how grateful I am for it all. It makes me so happy to know that so many sweet good people stand behind our dreams and hopes for our future. Know that I hold the same for you all. Thank. You.

These last few months, I've actually been thinking a lot about happiness, how elusive it can be, not as a whole, but the feeling of it; how hard to define, how fickle and unpredictable. How it can be absent in the most obvious moments we should feel it, and how sometimes it makes its appearance in the unlikeliest of situations.

How some people seem born happy, with positive attitudes and open arms, while others wear their permanently bruised hearts on their sleeves and knit their brow in fury as a default.

I've certainly been a little bit of both in my own life; a naturally sunny person, who's been worn down  by outside forces. For the last ten years, I've been working on the more positive side of my personality, but I  do feel that I've grown to be a more anxious, more melancholy and certainly less open than my original countenance.

Maybe it's because of this, but I'm often surprised by my own happiness, the way it comes and goes unannounced. What small things evoke it.

Often the things I think should make me happy, don't. Big life events, adventures, excitement… I frequently find myself setting up potential future happiness around concrete life goals; "when I do this", "when I get that". From new books, to garden spaces, to learning something, to traveling, to successes, I often center my hopes for joy and fulfillment around one heavenly body of expectation, only to discover when I reach it, that though I may be richer in skills, experiences, or even material goods, any happiness I achieved in the process was, at best, fleeting.

I'm not alone in this. Most research into happiness shows that beyond basic needs of food, shelter, and companionship, people in general achieve happiness through slow build-up, that happiness comprises not of concrete events, or possessions, or even relationships, but something less tangible.

There are two kinds of "happiness" in my mind. The actual experience, and the kind that is there even when we ignore it. The latter doesn't necessarily always manifest as a feeling, but in the long-term builds a happy life. In other words, we may be happy, but not constantly experience happiness.

Human-relationships, partnership, friendship, community, are all important building-blocks of this tangible, more constant happiness. People living in tight-knit, mycelial communities with many connections of various strengths, seem to have more room for happiness and interestingly, this communal feeling encourages people to do things selflessly, one key way to promote lasting contentment and joy. That the feeling of belonging, to a place and to a people, even under the worst of circumstances, creates a framework onto which we weave ourselves in and which catches us when we're feeling down.

According to much of "happiness research" there are certain concrete habits and experiences that help create that sustain the flow of endorphins, as well as build long-term effects in the brain, that are consistent throughout most populations. Exercise produces and promotes happiness in most folks, as does meditation, and the experience of "flow", the sense of doing something well and fluidly, in one's work, or other endeavors.

What's interesting about these happiness-inducing behaviors, is that they often have little to do with the material realm, possessions, inter-personal relations, feelings, or in fact, the self itself, the entity which experiences happiness. In fact they often involve the temporary suspension, or even momentary erasure of "self". A point when we seize being a psychological-physiological-social-entities (as one definition of human selfhood goes) and simply…well, be.

It is telling of the power of meditation that our happiness often appears when we are "not thinking of anything", that it resides in being "present in the moment" (a phrase ruined with overuse by so many self-help books and mommy-blog blurbs), something that's grown increasingly elusive and difficult in our society.

It's also fascinating how much we as a society seem to struggle with trying to be happy. For people, who by and large, have everything, we are also remarkably unhappy. In a world that's constantly tuned in and turned on (all puns are the product of your own mind here;) and busyness has replaced hard work as a value, it can be overwhelming to even think about reaching this state of "mindless" being.

The more one practices happiness inducing behaviors, the more often one feels the emotion of it, which in my mind is, bigger, more all encompassing, than other emotions. The feelings of grief, or anger, or hate, are not an antidote to anything, but love and happiness can unmake all of them.

For myself, I'm discovering that that while I don't have a lot of power over the things that make me stressed out, bummed, exhausted, sad, I have some say in what the final outcome of those feelings is; whether I'm able to shrug them off and keep moving, or whether I choose to dwell on my unhappiness. What I've found is that I'm almost always able to shake off a bad, or a blue mood by moving my body, going outside, or emptying my mind in meditation. There are days and weeks though, when those feelings get the better of me The time spent sitting still seems, to my busy mind, time wasted, even though I know better.

Last week, I came home from a particularly long day, at the end of stretch of long days and nights to find this enigmatic note on the kitchen table.

I dropped my bags, adding them to the mess of the kitchen, leaving behind dishes and laundry and groceries to be put away and followed its instructions.

Outside, in the gentle afternoon sunlight, it occurred to me that this was probably the moment when the plum trees were at the peak of their bloom. That I had almost missed it, because i was to busy to go stand in my own backyard. I walked slowly. The air smelled of blossoms and sunlight and all around it birds were calling each other, in an absurdly melodious and beautiful cacophony.

As I approached the biggest of the plum trees, I could hear it hum, as though an invisible breeze was moving through it. Straining my eyes against the sun, focusing on one of the lower branches, there it was. Suddenly and inexplicably, the world fell away, with all its chores and complications. I was alone with hundreds, maybe thousands of honeybees, drinking in the first nectar of the spring. The whole tree was alive with moving, dancing, sugar-drunk bees.

Now, how do I explain this, something that you can't really put into words? That sense of having the world reduced to the simplest of terms, so simple that they are in fact beyond words. I'm sure you've had experiences like that, looking at the ocean, a small child, the perfect fruit you grew, a good sentence you wrote, a bird landing close enough to touch, something you built, the night sky, when the world contracts and expands all at once, with you standing in it's center, seeing, hearing everything, yet forgetting that you are a separate body, an independent nervous system from it. Moments of transcendence.

I don't know how much time passed, but after a while I turned, walked back in, put the groceries away, did my chores. Though the experience had passed, the feeling of joy and contentment remained, for the rest of the day.

This sense of belonging, of time suspended, of the self shifting away and becoming part of the landscape, is happiness. When you loose yourself to a task completely, when after trying long and hard, you suddenly find yourself effortlessly doing what was difficult or tedious before.

When you suddenly look around you and realize that you're content to be where you are, doing what you're doing, or see some small detail that reminds you that you're part of a bigger whole. Moments when small simple things, suddenly fill you with a joy much bigger than they seemingly ought to.

The reason why they can sometimes be hard to catch, is that they are often infinitely small in all the hubbub of our lives, that we barely have time to notice them. Since I first started thinking about this, I've haphazardly been keeping track of that which makes me truly happy and the notes I have seem almost insignificant: the moment right before falling asleep, finding a small, hidden place in the trees, reading my book while everyone else sleeps, a room full of people silently working on art projects, mixing the perfect color, being able to correctly recite a favorite legend, a cat curled up on the inside of my knee, the perfect chain of stitches coming off my needle, that Julie bought me a currant from the plant sale, seeing the sun light up an eagle's wings...

There are bigger sources of happiness of course: our love, our health, having food on the table, having a roof over our heads, having friends and family who love us, but it seems to me that they exist to make room for these smaller joys, that the like the devil, the divine is truly in the details...

Each day, I try to remember to notice at least one of them and when it appears stand still enough to hold it for a brief while.

What is your happiness?

39 comments:

  1. i am always so excited every spring when my trees plum. they do it one after another, like they are doing the wave at a football game. first the one in the middle, then the one to the right and finally the tiniest one on the side of the year does the finale. the bees get so loud i can hear them from inside my room with the window open. it's my favorite part of spring, every year!

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    1. I know it's the best. I had no idea that these old trees would be so gorgeous.

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  2. This is absolutely beautiful, Milla. "That sense of having the world reduced to the simplest of terms" resonates a lot with me. I felt it today when I was potting a little mystery bromeliad, like a total focus without any actual effort put into focusing. Or, put into better words, [insert the exact way you described it]. :)

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    1. Thank you! I love these little moments of clarity they just "put me in my place" in a really good way. I love it.

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  3. That 'flow' feeling really hits me in the school's restaurant kitchen. I'll arrive with a knot in my stomach, nervous about my day - we get graded on our work, hygiene and the food we put out to our paying customers - but by the time prep is mostly done and I find myself dashing across the kitchen to get a strainer for my sauce, or piling up pans to fry pork orders I catch myself feeling stress-free and happy and then I smile and my 'work' isn't really work anymore and I know I'm doing the right thing.

    I have to agree that it's mostly the little things that really bring me great happiness. My cat sniffing at my eyes early in the morning when he wants some love, the smell of spring coming in the fresh air and melting snow, the way sunlight dances its way across my floor, or a really good cup of coffee and a snuggly spot with a book. A lot of that has to do with slowing down I think, being able to take a breath and notice the details we're usually in too much of a rush to ever see as we run around trying to find happiness when it's right under our noses.

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    1. There's this movie, I think it's called "Happy" where one of the people they passingly film works in a kitchen and just has this amazing flo. What struck me too that it seemed like he just had this kind of run-of-the-mill job in a greasy spoon but he LOVED it and made it his happiness. Talk about a lovely attitude.
      Happy days to you m'dear!

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  4. This post brought tears to my eyes...and that note - the sweetest. Such beauty.

    M.

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    1. Oh love and yes, sometimes little notes trump big love letters easy! Lovely happy spring days to you, m'dear.

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  5. My days are always better when they start with a morning meditation. When you get into that space where you transcend...it is so quiet and still, and you feel so beautifully and infinitely connected to everything around you. My senses are heightened for the rest of the day, and I tend to notice the smallest of things that seem so beautiful. Happiness is within, and in the present moment.

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    1. Mine too! It is so much easier to not get rattled and to stay in a positive, flowing mindset when I remember to meditate. And yet. It is one of the hardest things to do for me. I don't quite know why. Happy Days to you m'dear and thanks for your comment!

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  6. Howard's End. Howard's End is about what you're trying to get at. Mrs. Wilcox has it. "Newspapers and motor-cars and golf clubs" on the one side don't, and neither do "Art and Literature" on the other. Because it's can't be sold or written about, it's... elusive.

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    1. Cool! I haven't read Howard's End since high school.Happy Spring!

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  7. What a beautiful moment, under the trees with the sugar-drunk bees :)

    Often times I think will only be happy in the future sometime when this happens or that happens or when certain conditions are realized. But this attitude postpones happiness forever, because the ideal conditions can never be met. Why not recognize the divinity in the details, as you so elegantly put it, and take happiness here and now? Why not recognize the wabi-sabi of the present moment and delight in its imperfect beauty? All the ecstasy of the world can be held in the buzzing of one sugar-inebriated bee, if only we can see it.

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    1. Oh, love, because it's really hard. The immense weight of the world is on us all the time and it's hard to shake and it only happens on a few, miraculous occasions. But we can try and perhaps if we do, someday it'll become second nature to us. Thank you always for your words and happy happy springtime to you.

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  8. I read this yesterday and today I came back to reread it because, damn, damn, so many important ideas. Sometimes I worry that I place too much importance on my own happiness and maybe need to start putting more thought into my wholeness. I think sometimes I want to turn every emotion into happiness, and it leaves me frustrated, because there are all sorts of emotions flooding me and I need to respect them each.
    I might need to read this again tomorrow too.

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    1. Thank you so much for your thoughts my dear. I agree with sometimes just needing to rest in the emotions you actually are in. It's important that we recognize all of them and honestly I think that too is happiness the knowing of the range of one's feelings and respecting. Happy Spring!

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  9. This is wonderful! Can I just say the way you write, and the topics you choose, are so refreshing. Sometimes I save your posts to read when I'm in the right mindset, or need to be, ya know? Anyway, coincidentally, just this past Saturday I signed up to do a 100HappyDays challenge and yesterday I posted on my blog about it. But I don't think I've really started to even grasp what it means yet. Or I mean to say, I'm starting to, but very gradually. The premise comes off a bit shallow first, "take a picture of something(?) that makes you happy and post it to social media with hashtag #100HappyDays" BUT they do go on to say that it isn't a competition (which I appreciate). The other interesting thing is they say that 71% of people who sign up don't end up completing it, because they "don't have time to be happy." Really I think a lot of those people do have time to be happy they just fell out of the routine of the challenge, which is what part of it comes down to, just remembering to do it / share it. So I'm only on Day 4 but what I've noticed so far is that as I go about my day I'm looking at things, actions, moments, etc. and going "hey, does this make me happy?... should I take a picture of it just in case?" And sometimes I'm thinking, well yes, drinking this tea does make me happy, but I do that almost every day, so maybe I should save that to share for some other day and see if something even better comes up today that is more uniquely happy to today... and then I'm like, whoa now you are working too hard at it! EXCEPT is working too hard at trying to find more than one everyday happy things a bad thing?! Girl, are you actually turning having several things a day that make you happy a day, into being a problem? Ha! So who knows, I might start sharing more than one picture a day if I feel like it, and repeating the same things too if I feel like it... or maybe I'll just share one picture a day but write the other things down, eventually finding a pattern of things that consistently make me happy. I actually think the challenge would be better called 100 Happy Moments because just because drinking tea made me happy at 12:45 pm does not mean the whole day was a happy one. Except I guess the idea is that as long as you are recognizing ONE happy thing a day, then the whole day is not lost? And the more happy things you begin to notice over time, then the higher the chance your whole day will be a happy one! Thanks so much for making me think a bit more on this!

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    1. Thank you for your awesome comment! My friend Nichole is doing this too and I keep seeing those posts on Facebook and loving the little things she comes up with. I did not know that most people don't complete the challenge because "they're too busy", too busy for what? The statement in and of itself would make me want to complete it. Happiness is all that matters in the world, ours and others, the baseline for our lives. In fact, I'm tempted to do my own version of it, after reading this comment.

      I do try to write down things that amazed me on my journal, the birds I've seen, the kind words people have said, but all too often they slip away and give away to slights and hurts and exhaustion and anger. I think this could be a totally wonderful practice for all of us. A happy thing a day, big or small.

      Thank you for being here and for bringing your thoughts, they make me happy. Excited to check out your blog/insta to see more of what makes you happy. Hug!

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  10. Today my happiness comes fleetingly. I'm searching for my sukha.
    Thank you for this post. Your words warm my heart. I needed it badly. x

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    1. Thank you for your thoughts and your posts. I love the happiness we share.

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  11. While there are many small things that can bring a smile to my face, true happiness for me is perfectly summed up in your one, very good sentence, "This sense of belonging, of time suspended, of the self shifting away and becoming part of the landscape, is happiness." I feel this most acutely when I'm quietly paddling my kayak through the clear water, feeling the bigger rhythm and movement of the sea beneath me... ahhh. So glad you took the time to go commune with the blossoms, and that you have a wonderful mate to remind you to do so! xo

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    1. I agree, so much, Jodi. I'm a pretty novice kayaker yet, but already, it is something where my body forgets my mind, my mind goes into my body and for once, I'm all put together and solely focused. I wish I could retain more of that feeling in my day-to-day life. It is one of those things where it's all too easy for me to be like "oh I don't' have time to go put a kayak in the water". I hope maybe someday we can go on the water together. That'd be fun! Happy Springtimes to your hilly rock, m'dear!

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  12. Oh, Milla, this post was just what I needed today!

    I think you said it all with this one. Such joy in the small, simple things- I have found it easier to feel the welling-up of joy and gratefulness since having such a killer of a time in the hospital. But even there, I would feel the happiness well up and surge, and pass, but if I noticed and allowed it to take over, I could call on it throughout the day when I wasn't feeling so great.

    And just this morning, while driving to get donuts for my boys as promised last night in a moment of weakness, Oliver & Milo were asking two-year-old Emil about his dreams from last night, and he replied "Yellow! Dreams were yellow!" and they started guessing all of the lovely yellow things they could imagine- Oliver, "Like a yellow field of daffodils, I would be so happy lying in one of those!" Milo, "A flock of yellow canaries!" And right then and there, I teared up and felt so happy.

    Picturing you there under your sugar plum trees all abuzz, that brings me happiness too. Be well, Milla, and thank you for shining your light on me today!

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    1. This is the dearest ever! My goodness, those boys of yours are so sweet. How lovely to have a daily reminder (however exhausting it may be at times) that your happiness lies both within and outside your own self. And how swell that they can bring it to your heart just like that. Also donuts.
      Love ya! Happy Yellow Springtimes!

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  13. Milla, this post is simply wonderful. The pictures of these amazing blooming trees, so ancient and giddy with flowers at the same time, Charlie's note, and your own musings and findings are a true delight to savour and ponder...

    Just like you I guess, I have a feeling that happiness is my natural state, and that if I give myself the right environment, I can experience it freely, most of the day (unless I have too much work for a while). Moving into my current flat, which my friends call "ta cabane dans les arbres" ;o) a few years ago, quitting my tedious job in September, and finding a part-time one in a lovely yoga centre, have been tremendously helpful in that regard...

    I find myself overflowing with a deep sense of happiness so many times each day - which has been filling me up slowly, from so many simple things, from cooking, to playing with Lola, thinking of my loved ones or washing the dishes :o)

    As for moments of transcendence, I love the way you describe them, and this particular one - I am trying to evoke such a moment for my next post, and it's both humbling and tricky :o)

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    1. Speaking of little things: I just love what you are wearing! All of it. Très jolies bottines rouges :o) and the skirt is particularly lovely.

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    2. Merci, mon petit chou ;)

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    3. Oh, I thought I could reply to these comments separately…
      I love that you're moving more towards happiness in your daily being. It's a step a lot of folks are afraid to take, yet so easy and gratifying once you do go there. It's so important to both shed the things in your life that don't make you happy, and find joy in that which you can't shed. It sounds like your doing a wonderful balance.
      Thank you always for your thoughts and beautiful writing. It makes me happy. Lots of love.

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  14. This post resonated with me so profoundly. Thank you for putting such a fleeting, elusive concept into beautiful words. The happiness-scientists ain't got nothing on you!

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    1. Thank you m'dear. Blush…
      Happy spring days to wherever you are!

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  15. Such a beautiful post Milla. Thankyou.

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    1. No, thank you. I hope your spring is gorgeous and full of the most happy days!

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  16. Oh how I love this! I have so often got caught up in thoughts of "If I could just get this one thing, it will be the key to my happiness". Or if I just had a different job, house, bank account balance.... Sometimes I will look back on my life and realize with surprise that I am fortunate to often have obtained some of those things that I once thought would be the key to ultimate happiness, but like almost every human ever: I want more.
    However, another thing I love to meditate on sometimes are those times of complete happiness I have experienced. As you said, they are rarely because of a material thing. They are a moment where the sun reflected off of something at just that perfect magical angle, a dinner out that ending up spanning a whole evening of deep beautiful conversation with a loved one, a moment of being somewhere breathtaking and losing myself entirely in my surroundings.
    It is the sense of dissolving into something greater that has lead to my most happy moments. One of my favorite books is My Antonia by Willa Cather. The following passage is one of my favorite paragraphs ever written. It is about the thoughts of a little boy sitting in remote garden in the middle of the prairie:
    "I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”

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    1. Oh, I'm gonna go and re-read that book as soon as I get home!

      It's so interesting to reflect on past moments of happiness. Sometimes, from a muddle of memories these strange, perfect moments surface and shine like diamonds and you're taken aback by their utter ordinariness. Which is all the more reason I think to just observe the world as it is, because it, and not the big impossible dreams is the true source of lasting joy. Thank you always for your thoughts and for reading. I hope we get to spend some happy times together soon.

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  17. Oh Milla, I don't know how you do it, time and time again, to write these pieces that take bits and pieces from my own thoughts and weave them together into something coherent. It always feels like you're teaching me something new that I already knew. Truths that I've forgotten. This post does that especially well, since I think about happiness often, especially when it's not there and I've forgotten what it means to me in the first place. But it's true that I'm most happy when I'm not thinking and feeling (so much) and can be in the moment or simply be, which indeed most often occurs during exercise, yoga, or that wonderful thing called flow. I find it reassuring that research shows that this is true for most people, that it's not wrong to focus on those things, but that actually we as a society are doing it wrong with all our busyness. Thank you for this post, I will come back to it when I need another reminder, as often as needed until I stop forgetting. xoi

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