MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Posts Tagged ‘Happiness

What Makes a Good Life: Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness

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What makes a good life? What truly makes us happy? Is it wealth? Is it fame?

The psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, director of a 75-year-old study on adult development, who has an unprecedented access on data about what makes people happy, reveals that money and popularity doesn’t enter at all in the equation.

He says that what makes us truly happy and healthy is the quality of our relationships.

If you’re interested in what matters most in life,  listen to his talk.

–Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

July 13, 2016 at 6:28 pm

The Joy of Less

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“The beat of my heart has grown deeper, more active, and yet more peaceful, and it is as if I were all the time storing up inner riches…My [life] is one long sequence of inner miracles.” The young Dutchwoman Etty Hillesum wrote that in a Nazi transit camp in 1943, on her way to her death at Auschwitz two months later. Towards the end of his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “All I have seen teaches me to trust the creator for all I have not seen,” though by then he had already lost his father when he was 7, his first wife when she was 20 and his first son, aged 5. In Japan, the late 18th-century poet Issa is celebrated for his delighted, almost child-like celebrations of the natural world. Issa saw four children die in infancy, his wife die in childbirth, and his own body partially paralyzed.

I’m not sure I knew the details of all these lives when I was 29, but I did begin to guess that happiness lies less in our circumstances than in what we make of them, in every sense. “There is nothing either good or bad,” I had heard in high school, from Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.” I had been lucky enough at that point to stumble into the life I might have dreamed of as a boy: a great job writing on world affairs for Time magazine, an apartment (officially at least) on Park Avenue, enough time and money to take vacations in Burma, Morocco, El Salvador. But every time I went to one of those places, I noticed that the people I met there, mired in difficulty and often warfare, seemed to have more energy and even optimism than the friends I’d grown up with in privileged, peaceful Santa Barbara, Calif., many of whom were on their fourth marriages and seeing a therapist every day. Though I knew that poverty certainly didn’t buy happiness, I wasn’t convinced that money did either.

So — as post-1960s cliché decreed — I left my comfortable job and life to live for a year in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto. My high-minded year lasted all of a week, by which time I’d noticed that the depthless contemplation of the moon and composition of haiku I’d imagined from afar was really more a matter of cleaning, sweeping and then cleaning some more. But today, more than 21 years later, I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack.

I’m no Buddhist monk, and I can’t say I’m in love with renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I’ve written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did. And it seemed quite useful to take a clear, hard look at what really led to peace of mind or absorption (the closest I’ve come to understanding happiness). Not having a car gives me volumes not to think or worry about, and makes walks around the neighborhood a daily adventure. Lacking a cell phone and high-speed Internet, I have time to play ping-pong every evening, to write long letters to old friends and to go shopping for my sweetheart (or to track down old baubles for two kids who are now out in the world).

When the phone does ring — once a week — I’m thrilled, as I never was when the phone rang in my overcrowded office in Rockefeller Center. And when I return to the United States every three months or so and pick up a newspaper, I find I haven’t missed much at all. While I’ve been rereading P.G. Wodehouse, or “Walden,” the crazily accelerating roller-coaster of the 24/7 news cycle has propelled people up and down and down and up and then left them pretty much where they started. “I call that man rich,” Henry James’s Ralph Touchett observes in “Portrait of a Lady,” “who can satisfy the requirements of his imagination.” Living in the future tense never did that for me.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend my life to most people — and my heart goes out to those who have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted. But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down. The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.

Being self-employed will always make for a precarious life; these days, it is more uncertain than ever, especially since my tools of choice, written words, are coming to seem like accessories to images. Like almost everyone I know, I’ve lost much of my savings in the past few months. I even went through a dress-rehearsal for our enforced austerity when my family home in Santa Barbara burned to the ground some years ago, leaving me with nothing but the toothbrush I bought from an all-night supermarket that night. And yet my two-room apartment in nowhere Japan seems more abundant than the big house that burned down. I have time to read the new John le Carre, while nibbling at sweet tangerines in the sun. When a Sigur Ros album comes out, it fills my days and nights, resplendent. And then it seems that happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued.

If you’re the kind of person who prefers freedom to security, who feels more comfortable in a small room than a large one and who finds that happiness comes from matching your wants to your needs, then running to stand still isn’t where your joy lies. In New York, a part of me was always somewhere else, thinking of what a simple life in Japan might be like. Now I’m there, I find that I almost never think of Rockefeller Center or Park Avenue at all.

~ Pico Iyer

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March 7, 2016 at 9:03 pm

The Art of Living Well

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Top 5 Regrets

God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.

~ Voltaire

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October 24, 2013 at 8:04 pm

The Happiest People

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Make the Most

The happiest people don’t have the best of everything, they just make the best of everything.

~ Unknown

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July 19, 2013 at 9:39 am

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There’s More to Life Than Being Happy

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Man's Search For Meaning

It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.

~ Viktor Frankl

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”

As he saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Frankl worked as a therapist in the camps, and in his book, he gives the example of two suicidal inmates he encountered there. Like many others in the camps, these two men were hopeless and thought that there was nothing more to expect from life, nothing to live for. “In both cases,” Frankl writes, “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” For one man, it was his young child, who was then living in a foreign country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of books that he needed to finish. Frankl writes:

“This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'”

In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listed Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book’s ethos — its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self — seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. “To the European,” Frankl wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'”

According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high — as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word “happiness” in their titles. At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”

***

This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors write.

How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.

Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior — being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.” The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire — like hunger — you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.

“Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need,” the researchers write.

What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, was named an ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003.

The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” For instance, having more meaning in one’s life was associated with doing activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.

“Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy,” Baumeister told me in an interview.

Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.

Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. “If there is meaning in life at all,” Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.”

***

Which brings us back to Frankl’s life and, specifically, a decisive experience he had before he was sent to the concentration camps. It was an incident that emphasizes the difference between the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit of happiness in life.

In his early adulthood, before he and his family were taken away to the camps, Frankl had established himself as one of the leading psychiatrists in Vienna and the world. As a 16-year-old boy, for example, he struck up a correspondence with Sigmund Freud and one day sent Freud a two-page paper he had written. Freud, impressed by Frankl’s talent, sent the paper to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis for publication. “I hope you don’t object,” Freud wrote the teenager.

While he was in medical school, Frankl distinguished himself even further. Not only did he establish suicide-prevention centers for teenagers — a precursor to his work in the camps — but he was also developing his signature contribution to the field of clinical psychology: logotherapy, which is meant to help people overcome depression and achieve well-being by finding their unique meaning in life. By 1941, his theories had received international attention and he was working as the chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital, where he risked his life and career by making false diagnoses of mentally ill patients so that they would not, per Nazi orders, be euthanized.

That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.

As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, “Should I leave my parents behind?… Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?” Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a “hint from heaven.”

When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.

The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”

Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

~ Emily Esfahani Smith

Written by MattAndJojang

January 11, 2013 at 9:57 am

Celebrate Who You Are

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Having a low opinion of yourself is not ‘modesty,’ it’s self-destruction. Holding your uniqueness in high regard is not ‘egotism,’ it’s a necessary precondition to happiness and success.

~Bobbe Summer

Written by MattAndJojang

October 15, 2012 at 10:44 am

Does Money Buy Happiness?

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Photo: Flickr/RoBeRtO!!!

A key assumption in consumer societies has been the idea that “money buys happiness.” Historically, there is a good reason for this assumption—until the last few generations, a majority of people have lived close to subsistence, so an increase in income brought genuine increases in material well-being (e.g., food, shelter, health care) and this has produced more happiness. However, in a number of developed nations, levels of material well-being have moved beyond subsistence to unprecedented abundance. Developed nations have had several generations of unparalleled material prosperity, and a clear understanding is emerging: More money does bring more happiness when we are living on a very low income. However, as a global average, when per capita income reaches the range of $13,000 per year, additional income adds relatively little to our happiness, while other factors such as personal freedom, meaningful work, and social tolerance add much more. Often, a doubling or tripling of income in developed nations has not led to an increase in perceived well-being.

In his book The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser assembles considerable research showing “the more materialistic values are at the center of our lives, the more our quality of life is diminished.” He found that people who placed a relatively high importance on consumer goals such as financial success and material acquisition “reported lower levels of happiness and self-actualization and higher levels of depression, anxiety, narcissism, antisocial behavior, and physical problems such as headaches.”

The bottom line is that there is a weak connection between income and happiness once a basic level of economic well-being is reached—roughly $13,000 per year per person. To illustrate this point, the World Values Survey of 2007 revealed that people in Vietnam, with a per capita income of less than $5,000, are just as happy as people in France, with its per capita income of about $22,000. The cattle-herding Masai of Kenya and the Inuit of northern Greenland expressed levels of happiness equal to that of American multimillionaires.

Once a person or family reaches a moderate level of income, here are the factors that research has shown contribute most to happiness:

  • GOOD HEALTH  Physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
  • PERSONAL GROWTH  Opportunities for learning, both inner and outer, and giving creative expression to one’s true gifts.
  • STRONG SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS  Close personal relationships with family, friends, and community in the context of a tolerant and democratic society that values freedom.
  • SERVICE TO OTHERS  Feeling that our lives contribute to the well-being of others.
  • CONNECTION WITH NATURE  Communion with the wildness of nature brings perspective, freshness, and gratitude into our lives.

When we look over this list, it is clear that happiness does not have to cost a lot of money. A tolerant society does not cost a lot in material terms, but the rewards to the social atmosphere in civility, congeniality, and happiness are enormous. Feelings of communion with nature and the cosmos come free with being alive. The quality of relationships with family and community grow from the quality of the time and attention we give to them. Personal growth requires nothing more than paying attention to the experience of moving through life. Feelings of gratitude for life are free.

Happiness is a nonmaterial gift that can spread like a contagion among family, friends, and neighbors—rippling out to touch people who do not even know one another. This is the striking conclusion of a study of more than forty-seven hundred people over a twenty-year period. The study found that one person’s happiness can affect another’s for as much as a year. Researchers also found that, while unhappiness can spread from person to person like an infection, that emotion appears to be far weaker, and does not spread as far or as powerfully, as happiness. The study also explored the importance of friends and social networks as a source of happiness as compared with the importance of money. The study’s coauthor states, “Our work shows that whether a friend’s friend is happy has more influence than a $5,000 raise.” In the face of economic difficulties, his message is “You still have your friends and family, and these are the people to rely on to be happy.” Happiness is a social network phenomenon and can reach up to three degrees of separation (the friend of a friend of a friend), which means that your happiness can involve persons you have not even met.

Happiness is largely a networked social phenomenon once a sustaining level of material well-being is reached. If we worried less about material appearances and thought more about soulful connections with others, we could put our life-energy into creating robust, healthy, and rewarding relationships. The more we learn about the “science of happiness,” the more we see that focusing on material acquisition and status is not serving us well and that it would be enormously helpful to redefine progress.

~ Duane Elgin

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August 6, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Happiness is Like Jam…

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Happiness is like jam, you can’t spread even a little without getting some on yourself.

~Vern McLellan

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July 5, 2012 at 7:26 pm

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Speaking of God

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Photo: TrueLight Expressions/Flickr

As we begin talking about God, I need to sound an important warning: We must be careful how we speak of seeking God. It is not the same as seeking some object, say, a new car or a new house. We must not reduce God to the status of an “object” or a “thing,” as if God were something that could be grasped or possessed in the way we possess riches or knowledge or some other created entity. Nor must we seek God outside ourselves…

For God is not an “object” or “thing.” God’s infinity, as the word implies, knows no boundaries; hence we cannot “define” God as we define things in the world… If we are to line up all the beings that exist or ever have existed, God would not be one of them. This is to say God is not one of the beings God created. Rather God is the Source from which all beings derive and the ground in which they are continually sustained.

In a letter to a young Indian student in Cracow, Poland, Merton writes of the naive atheism of nineteenth-century scientism:

“They think that religious people believe in a God who is simply a ‘being’ among other beings, part of a series of beings, an ‘object’ which can be discovered and demonstrated. This of course is a false notion of God, the Absolute, the source and origin of all Being, beyond all beings and transcending them all and hence not to be sought as one among them.”

As soon as we verify God’s presence as an object of exact knowledge, God eludes us.

Now if God is not to be sought among the beings we know in this life, it follows that we cannot know God as we know created things. This makes sense does it not? Yet at the same time it is true that what we know about God we can know only through created things. For created things, insofar as they are real, participate in a limited way in the qualities and perfections of the One who alone is Absolutely Real. There is, as it were, “something of God” in every creature that exists. In experiencing creatures, we experience that “something of God.”

The words we use to describe creatures, therefore, can serve as metaphors or symbols that enable us to have some knowledge of God. As I write this, I can look out the window of my office and through that window I can get some very limited understanding of the universe. Compared to the immensity of the universe, what I know by looking out that window is practically nothing. Even if I looked through many windows and in different directions, the knowledge of the universe I would attain will be skimpy at best. Modern technology has made it possible for astronauts  to see the earth from out in space. Even that is meager knowledge compared to the entire universe, and while their knowledge increases quantitatively (they see more), it decreases qualitatively (they see less clearly). They cannot from their place in space see the earth in detail that I can see through my window.

The ideas, the concepts, the images, the symbols, the metaphors we use to describe God are like those windows through which we look out through the universe. They are images of created things  which, because there is “something of God” in them, can tell us something about God. Thus, in the image we have of a person we call “father” we can see something of God and hence can speak of God as “father.” (though some people have poor experiences of  “father” and for this reason find it difficult to describe God as “father”). In someone we call “mother” we can also experience “something of God” and, therefore, we can use the name “mother” to describe God. And there are many other images we can use, lover, spouse, guide, helper, to name a few. In a certain sense we can say “the more the merrier,” since each image, each concept, can give a different insight into God we can never know in any total sort of way.

Our language about God, then, is always inadequate. One way of putting this is to say that our experience of God is continually outstripping what we are able to say about the experience. Listen to Merton:

“As soon as we light these small matches which are our concepts: ‘intelligence,’ ‘love,’ ‘power,’ the tremendous reality of God Who infinitely exceeds all concepts suddenly bears down upon us like a dark storm and blows out all their flames.”

At the same time we must not underestimate the value and importance of the rich imagery that the Bible and our culture offer us. The richer the imagery, the more deeply will we be able to know about God through God’s creation. But let us be very clear: there is a huge difference between knowing about God through God’s creation and knowing God as God is in the divine Self. Knowing about God is “mediated” knowledge, that is, we know God through an intermediary. This normally is what we think of when we speak of God. And some would say: This is enough. Short of heaven and the beatific vision, we can only know God through the medium of creatures God made.

But there is a long tradition, the contemplative or mystical tradition – a tradition that was most congenial to Thomas Merton’s approach to spirituality – which claims we can know God immediately. This is to say that we can know the divine reality as It is in Itself, and not simply through the medium of images, metaphors, ideas, concepts. But to do this we have to turn off the lights of our mind, that is, we have to go beyond concepts and ideas. This means going into darkness. For when you turn off light you are in darkness. It also means going beyond words that would try to describe God. But to go beyond words is to go in silence. In darkness and silence the only light we have is faith, whereby we grasp God or rather we are grasped by God. Thus, when all of our concepts and images admit that they cannot truly know God, love cries out: “I know God!”

To put this another way, in contemplation we come to know that our very being is penetrated through and through with God’s love. God is the hidden ground of love in all that is. Hence as Merton puts it:

“Our knowledge of God is paradoxically a knowledge not of God as the object of scrutiny, but of ourselves as utterly dependent on his saving and merciful knowledge of us… We know him in and through ourselves in so far as his truth is the source of our being and his merciful love is the very heart of our life and existence.”

Knowing God in the darkness of a love that goes beyond all that human reason can know is the greatest joy and happiness  possible in this life.

~ William H. Shannon

Written by MattAndJojang

March 12, 2012 at 12:35 pm

The Joy of Quiet

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Photo: alex_joffe/Flickr

About a year ago, I flew to Singapore to join the writer Malcolm Gladwell, the fashion designer Marc Ecko and the graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister in addressing a group of advertising people on “Marketing to the Child of Tomorrow”.

Soon after I arrived, the chief executive of the agency that had invited us took me aside. What he was most interested in, he began – I braced myself for mention of some next-generation stealth campaign – was stillness.

A few months later, I read an interview with the perennially cutting-edge designer Philippe Starck. What allowed him to remain so consistently ahead of the curve? “I never read any magazines or watch TV,” he said, perhaps a little hyperbolically. “Nor do I go to cocktail parties, dinners or anything like that.” He lived outside conventional ideas, he implied, because “I live alone mostly, in the middle of nowhere”.

Around the same time, I noticed that those who part with US$2,285 (S$2,965) a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in “black-hole resorts”, which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.

Has it really come to this?

In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them – often in order to make more time.

The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight.

Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China try to save kids addicted to the screen. Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago.

Even Intel (of all companies) experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers. (The average office worker today, researchers have found, enjoys no more than three minutes at a time at his or her desk without interruption.) During this period the workers were not allowed to use the phone or send email, but simply had the chance to clear their heads and to hear themselves think. A majority of Intel’s trial group recommended that the policy be extended to others.

URGENCY OF SLOWING DOWN

The average American spends at least eight-and-a-half hours a day in front of a screen, Nicholas Carr notes in his eye-opening book The Shallows, in part because the number of hours American adults spent online doubled between 2005 and 2009 (and the number of hours spent in front of a television screen, often simultaneously, is also steadily increasing).

The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day, though one girl in Sacramento managed to handle an average of 10,000 every 24 hours for a month. Since luxury, as any economist will tell you, is a function of scarcity, the children of tomorrow, I heard myself tell the marketers in Singapore, will crave nothing more than freedom, if only for a short while, from all the blinking machines, streaming videos and scrolling headlines that leave them feeling empty and too full all at once.

The urgency of slowing down – to find the time and space to think – is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context.

“Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

When telegraphs and trains brought in the idea that convenience was more important than content – and speedier means could make up for unimproved ends – Henry David Thoreau reminded us that “the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages”.

Even half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan, who came closer than most to seeing what was coming, warned, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” Thomas Merton struck a chord with millions, by not just noting that “Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest”, but by also acting on it, and stepping out of the rat race and into a Cistercian cloister.

LESS AND LESS TO SAY

Yet few of those voices can be heard these days, precisely because “breaking news” is coming through (perpetually) on CNN and Debbie is just posting images of her summer vacation and the phone is ringing. We barely have enough time to see how little time we have (most Web pages, researchers find, are visited for 10 seconds or less).

And the more that floods in on us (the Kardashians, Obamacare, Dancing with the Stars), the less of ourselves we have to give to every snippet. All we notice is that the distinctions that used to guide and steady us – between Sunday and Monday, public and private, here and there – are gone.

We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And – as he might also have said – we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.

So what to do? The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual.

All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.

‘INTERNET SABBATH’

Maybe that’s why more and more people I know, even if they have no religious commitment, seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi; these aren’t New Age fads so much as ways to connect with what could be called the wisdom of old age.

Two journalist friends of mine observe an “Internet sabbath” every week, turning off their online connections from Friday night to Monday morning, so as to try to revive those ancient customs known as family meals and conversation. Finding myself at breakfast with a group of lawyers in Oxford four months ago, I noticed that all their talk was of sailing – or riding or bridge: Anything that would allow them to get out of radio contact for a few hours.

Other friends try to go on long walks every Sunday, or to “forget” their mobile phones at home. A series of tests in recent years has shown, Mr Carr points out, that after spending time in quiet rural settings, subjects “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper”.

More than that, empathy, as well as deep thought, depends (as neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have found) on neural processes that are “inherently slow”. The very ones our high-speed lives have little time for.

BENEFIT OF DISTANCE

In my own case, I turn to eccentric and often extreme measures to try to keep my sanity and ensure that I have time to do nothing at all (which is the only time when I can see what I should be doing the rest of the time).

I’ve yet to use a mobile phone and I’ve never Tweeted or entered Facebook. I try not to go online till my day’s writing is finished, and I moved from Manhattan to rural Japan in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot, and every trip to the movies would be an event.

None of this is a matter of principle or asceticism; it’s just pure selfishness. Nothing makes me feel better – calmer, clearer and happier – than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music. It’s actually something deeper than mere happiness: It’s joy, which the monk David Steindl-Rast describes as “that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens”.

It’s vital, of course, to stay in touch with the world, and to know what’s going on; I took pains this past year to make separate trips to Jerusalem and Hyderabad and Oman and St Petersburg, to rural Arkansas and Thailand and the stricken nuclear plant in Fukushima and Dubai. But it’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.

For more than 20 years, therefore, I’ve been going several times a year – often for no longer than three days – to a Benedictine hermitage, 40 minutes down the road, as it happens, from the Post Ranch Inn. I don’t attend services when I’m there, and I’ve never meditated, there or anywhere; I just take walks and read and lose myself in the stillness, recalling that it’s only by stepping briefly away from my wife and bosses and friends that I’ll have anything useful to bring to them.

The last time I was in the hermitage, three months ago, I happened to pass, on the monastery road, a youngish-looking man with a three-year-old around his shoulders.

“You’re Pico, aren’t you?” the man said, and introduced himself as Larry; we’d met, I gathered, 19 years before, when he’d been living in the cloister as an assistant to one of the monks.

“What are you doing now?” I asked.

“I work for MTV. Down in LA.”

We smiled. No words were necessary.

“I try to bring my kids here as often as I can,” he went on, as he looked out at the great blue expanse of the Pacific on one side of us, the high, brown hills of the Central Coast on the other. “My oldest son” – he pointed at a seven-year-old running along the deserted, radiant mountain road in front of his mother – “this is his third time”.

The child of tomorrow, I realised, may actually be ahead of us, in terms of sensing not what’s new, but what’s essential.

~ Pico Iyer

Written by MattAndJojang

February 21, 2012 at 8:19 pm