Tagged How to practice happiness

Guadalupe Procession California by Cristina Acosta

Guadalupe Procession to Celebrate December

I walked 25 miles yesterday with thousands of people marching for love. Despite walking the 25 miles, I did not finish the Guadalupe procession which zig-zagged it’s way around the Coachella Valley in Southern California to the Our Lady of Solitude Church in Palm Springs, California to it’s sister church in Coachella. I knew the distance from my house to that church was a bit over 20 miles, so I put myself in that headspace and filled a backpack with water and food. I set my orthotics into my best pair of walking shoes and prepared clothing for a day that would span from a cold desert morning across the hot sun of the day.

The Guadalupe Procession began at 6 a.m., about dawn in the town of Palm Springs, California. Six hours later I was walking against the nylon rope that shaped the serpentine line of thousands of people against the right curb of the concrete highway and wondered when we would arrive. I checked my smartphone and saw that we’d traveled about 15 miles (including my walk from home to the Procession) and thought the church must be about 7 miles ahead.

Despite beginning the Guadalupe Procession at the front of the group, bathroom breaks had put me at the back of the procession by the time I reached 15 the mile mark. Getting in and out of the porta-potty line was the time-suck dark side of proper hydration.

Guadalupe Procession California by Cristina Acosta
Guadalupe Procession California by Cristina Acosta

The desert sun was beating down surprisingly strong for a December day, reflecting back up relentlessly from the concrete road and my feet were starting to swell. I introduced myself to the man at the end of the line who was carrying about 20 pounds of coiled rope over his left shoulder as he walked the end of the procession. His name was Enrique and he smiled at the surprise on my face when he told me the procession was 36 miles long.

That was a surprise. Apparently the different Coachella Valley cities the Guadalupe Procession zigzagged through required a path that kept the procession of thousands away from the succession of stoplights on Highway 111, adding about 13 miles to the 22 mile journey. For the first time, I wondered if I would be able to complete the Guadalupe Procession.

I didn’t. The second stop of the Procession was in Indian Wells across from The Tennis Gardens. My smartphone told me I’d walked 25 miles. I’d been fantasizing about ibuprofen pills for the past hour and I knew that pushing my middle-aged body to the finish line, though possible, would exact more of a toll than I wanted to pay. So, I stopped.

cristina-acosta-2016-guadalupe-processionI sent prayers to all of those people in the world who don’t have the option to stop when they are miserable. Prayers to the people of Syria, trapped in a city they can’t walk away from and those refugees around the world who put their lives on the line to walk even one more step into the unknown.

Watching my fellow travelers in the Guadalupe Procession I was reminded of the humanity we all share. And I was overcome with the love that thousands of fellow travelers in the journey displayed for others. December 12th is the Catholic Feast Day for Our Lady of Guadalupe, a day of processions and prayer that can include a walk if you are so inclined. No need to be Catholic to join, anyone is welcome.Walking in the Guadalupe Procession was a beautiful way to celebrate the month of Christmas.

Woodland Series: Chickadee by Cristina Acosta 10" x 10" Acrylic and mixed media on wood panel

Free Your Inner Bird

Have you ever seen a songbird trapped in a house? It’s flown in through an open window or door and is panicked, slamming itself into walls and window coverings in an effort to escape. In my experience, it’s not until the bird has stunned itself after a headlong flight into another hard surface that I can gently catch it and carry it outside. Setting the bird down in a safe place, I will retreat and let it gently recover it’s equilibrium before it flies off again into the open sky.

We can be like the trapped bird. Life has somehow boxed us in and we throw ourselves bravely and valiantly against the barriers keeping us from freedom. If we are unable to escape we are often stunned senseless, and often we continue to participate in deadening our senses. All sorts of distractions and addictions  are at our fingertips.

There are a million and one ways to be trapped. This isn’t about those people who are culturally or politically dominated and imprisoned, but about those of us with the blessings of personal freedom who find ourselves trapped in the box between our own ears.

I’ve been fortunate to learn that my thoughts determine my happiness. That doesn’t mean I’m super good at being happy all of the time, I still get tired, frustrated, anxious, etc. But now, when I notice that unhappiness is dominating my feelings, I make an effort to step into a neutral place. I aim for a neutral place first, because sometimes, jumping to extreme positivity doesn’t seem the right and real response. And at other times, I’m just not ready to let go of my unhappiness.

How strange is that? Realizing that I am holding onto unhappiness when I don’t have to has been sobering. The first time I became viscerally aware of this truth was during a meditation retreat. Though I’m not Buddhist, I admire the compassion and kindness espoused by the Dalai Lama and other prominent Buddhists, so I was open to attending a Vipassana meditation retreat opportunity about four years ago. I didn’t investigate it fully and was rather surprised to arrive and realize that I had signed up for 100 hours of sitting meditation over 10 days, along with a vow of silence that included minimal eye contact, no touching, journaling or listening to music.

I was there and my schedule was clear, so I decided to stay at the meditation retreat as long as I didn’t discover I was been brainwashed into a cult. I wasn’t brainwashed. It wasn’t a cult. The retreat didn’t involve dogma or much of anything except instructions and the environment necessary to sit with my eyes closed while concentrating on my breathing and the physical sensations I perceived while mentally “flowing” my attention up and down my still figure. That was it. Ten hours per day of sitting still with my eyes shut.

It was tedious. It was boring. It was difficult. It was a lot of things that for me, were challenging.  And it was illuminating. Gloriously, painfully illuminating. During that retreat pain surfaced from the layers of past suffering and broke to the surface of my consciousness, popping like huge bubbles of fetid sewer gas. For a few days I was a hot mess. I also learned that the up-side of silence and no eye contact or touch is that there is a particular kind of privacy and non-judgement that is possible among fifty strangers in a large room when one breaks into a sobbing, snot draining mess.

Where the pain had been, I had clarity. I realized in that moment that while I had been injured at the hands of others, the ignoring, suppressing, re-living and analyzing I had done to evade the psychic pain of those injuries had only increased my suffering. Like the bird trapped in the room, I had dulled my senses while wildly trying to evade the pain.

During the four years since that retreat, I often think about that moment and use it as a reminder to find my mental and emotional equilibrium as soon as I can when I am stressed. I open the door for the bird that is myself and I gently set it outside where it can take to the sky, unburdened and without self-imposed barriers.




The Mysterious Practice of Happiness

Random, serendipitous happiness is a blessing. Learning how to be happy consciously is a practice. Like the potter sitting with a pile of mud, it takes courage, clarity, imagination, stamina, attention and more than a few attempts to turn that muddy clay into a beautiful thing.

Most of us don’t notice very gradual changes, good or bad. That’s how those “last” five pounds return so easily. Unhappiness, like those pounds, can be such a gradual change that it can sneak up on a person. You’re doing whatever it is you usually do, nothing seems to have drastically changed, then it hits you, you’re not happy. (Or, your pants are too tight.)

Sit around and wait to be happy again, tell yourself you’re happy, create affirmations of happiness, insist to others that you are happy, act happy when you’re miserable, those actions will cloud your clarity and create denial. And you’ll still be unhappy. I’ve been there, done that and got the t-shirt. More than a few times.

What I’ve learned  is that happiness is a daily practice. Life can be hard, painful and exhausting. It takes conscious effort, courage and clarity to transform the muddy muck of living into the shapes of a happy life. And it’s a mysterious, creative practice, filled with moments of frustration, joy, difficulty, cluelessness, purpose, tedium, effortless flow or dissonance.

Like playing an instrument, painting, dancing, writing, working out, training for a sport, meditation, prayer, singing, any consistent practice takes conscious effort. Some days are good, some days are not. And the practice of happiness is the same. It’s not filled with only happy moments. But when you stand back after practice and look at what you’ve done you will often feel happy. Not all of the time, but I bet you will more of the time.

Because by practicing happiness you will create open places in your heart and in your life for more happiness. And you also increase the likelihood that random happiness will enter your life.

Determining how to practice happiness is up to each of us. And the same action won’t always have the same reaction. In other words, what made me happy yesterday isn’t necessarily what I look for today to make me happy.

Here are some of the things I do to practice happiness: I choose gratitude. I  practice compassion towards myself and others. I pay attention to what brings me joy (at no one else’s expense) and then I do more of that. I practice mindfullness. I practice listening to myself. I examine my values and pay attention to when those values support happiness and when they don’t. I keep trying.

The practice of happiness is a mysterious and powerful practice. May you be blessed.


Comparisons Can Steal Happiness

“Comparisons are odious”, is an old English proverb. Though that’s not always true, comparisons are often inescapable. Ask if one person, place or thing is better or worse than another and a comparison is underway.

Comparisons can focus on the strength of differences, or they can slide down the slippery slope into value judgements. And value judgements always reveal more about the values of the person making the judgement than they do about the reality of what is being judged.

Whatever may be said about comparisons, the comparisons that can be especially undermining and harsh are those that happen between our  own ears. And as I realized recently, the comparisons that I make between my current self and my past self that stem from my negative value judgements, can make me unhappy.

Mid life naturally invites comparisons. Half of life is behind us and we were younger then, so some things were undeniably better “back in the day.” My knees included.

This past few years I’ve been dealing with many life changes that included deaths of friends and family, the ending of my twenty-plus year marriage, an empty nest, moving and a few other things. I’ve experienced quite a bit of loss, a situation which invites comparisons.

As I was doing my morning yoga practice, I was thinking about how much I loved my old house and how much I miss it and how much better my old house was than…..Whoa there!! I stopped in the middle of those thoughts and realized that I was covered in sweat, in the middle of a crowded yoga class and heading down a slippery slope.

I was standing on one leg, stretched out, reaching, twisting, turning  and shaking from my effort. That yoga pose seemed metaphorically representative of my life this past year. In that moment I had an epiphany. It became glaringly obvious to me that the comparisons I was making between my past situation and my current situation were stealing the happiness from my present life.

Despite the personal effort of that moment, and the past year,  I was ok.  Yes, I didn’t have the comforts of my past, but basically, I am fine. And despite the fact that many things in my life still aren’t settled or secure, I’m getting happier and more at peace every week.

Until that is, I start comparing my present to my past through the lens of my own negative value judgements. There I was; safe, healthy, strong and feeling cute in my new yoga pants. Then my mind began scouring my internal landscape, looking for those familiar limp latex balloons of lack and loss. And when it found them, it blew them up. Big time.

Blowing new breath into the limp old balloons of lack and loss wasn’t bringing happiness into my life. I was unintentionally and unconsciously filling the sky of my internal landscape with dark balloons that were blocking the sun.

Comparing my present moment to my past in that way, wasn’t helping me, it was re-injuring me.

But here’s the good news. I stopped. I was in the middle of those thoughts and in that moment of epiphany, I just stopped. I re-focused on the difficulty and discomfort of the yoga pose that I was actually in during that moment. I realized that my past and my losses were discomforts and difficulties that were over. They are past, and I am now somewhere else, in a new world.

To stop my thoughts, I consciously took a breath, concentrating on the sensations of that breath alongside the other sensations brought on by the yoga pose. That’s it. With my attention refocused, the dark balloons in my inner landscape lost their shapes and flattened onto the ground. With nothing in the way, the light in the sky was shinning brightly. The dark was replaced with light. That’s a comparison I love.

Leaning Into the Hill Helps with Balance

On a bike or a pair of skis, you quickly learn that big, steep hills can be scary whether you are going up them or down them.

This past few years I’ve been in the midst of some very big life changes. My twenty two year marriage ended, my nest became empty, I moved out of my home and I lost several significant people in my life to change and death.

In the midst of these changes I’ve sought to keep my balance.  I exercised and meditated most days, which helped. And on the days when I felt whelmed, I often thought about hills. Lately, my inner landscape has been full of steep mountains that go on into a misty horizon without a break.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be a lifelong skier. My dad had been a ski instructor in the 1950’s and taught most of his 10 children to ski. I was 9 years old when I learned.

I wanted to be good at skiing and realized that the only way to develop more skill was to push myself a bit beyond my abilities, balancing fear with possibility. I loved the sport and I would push myself to go down steeper and steeper hills. I certainly scared myself more than a few times.

One lesson that I learned from scaring myself while skiing was to “lean” into the hill with my first action. With my skis poised at the top of the hill, the front half of them off of the snow (because the hill was so steep), I would launch  myself.

If I let fear prevail and I held back with my launch, resisting the challenge, my skis would turn sideways and I’d often fall. But, if my first action was to embrace the challenge and I leaned forwards into the fall-line of the hill when I launched myself, I was often much more successful.

Of course, accidents can happen (nothing is fail-safe), but this method of leaning into the hill has been far more successful than not. And I’ve fallen a lot. A few of those falls were epic and scary, but I always got back on the snow eventually, even when I wasn’t able to get up right away. Some runs were tough. I’ve wondered when it would be over and gutted it out, but I’ve also had runs that were unexpectedly magical and joyful.

Resisting versus embracing. Embracing vs. resisting. Leaning into the hill when I am poised to move. Or, resisting the hill. These are my choices.

So, these recent few years, when the latest “hill” seems like just too much to go up or down, I think about my skis, poised on the brink of a mountainside, the tips thrusting into the empty air and pointing far beyond my current position.

I’ve learned that the best possibility for a joyful life is to embrace the hill. I lean forwards.