Last night I watched the very moving documentary Crooked Beauty* about Jacks McNamara’s life, art, music, poetry, and activism – threaded through her experience of mental illness. I’ll watch it again. I was reminded of something I’ve been thinking about, when she said this:
“A voice not quite my own rises up through my chest and whispers that despair is only a habit not a truth” She added, “and sings something imperturbably gentle about the power to resist. Quiet and unyielding it insists instead that I create”
She said, so beautifully, what I try to talk about in my own less poetic way: the “habit” of despair – and the opposite, the “practice” of happiness.
I spent far too much of my life depressed, sad, or generally believing there’s not much reason to live. Over the decades I lived in a chronically self-defeating way, and went through a variety of therapies, encounter groups, hypnosis, anti-depressants, and so on. And the roots of it all don’t matter – the change does.
Much of how I experienced living, is beautifully summed up in her phrase, “despair is only a habit”. The way I put it these days is that one can actually “practice happiness”. While I’d be shocked if it worked for everyone, it might be worth experimentation for some.
I believe we practice – and therefore get good at – feelings like sadness. And anger. And resentment. I insisted for decades that these things were ‘done to me’. And maybe in a sense they were, in the beginning. But actually, the feelings were a habit, associated with habitual triggers. For example, if I was in a situation of personal powerlessness (e.g. “couldn’t” say what I was really feeling in case it would offend), that would trigger depression — a classic “stimulus-response” situation. In any case, I was chronically reinforcing my own miserable responses.
I had begun thinking about this just the other night while a friend led a beautiful meditation for a small group of us. The ‘getting into it’ reminded me of how I feel when I ‘practise’ being how I want to be: peaceful, happy, perhaps even energized. I don’t think these practices have much impact on my unconscious, but they sure have changed my conscious, everyday life. The way I live in and interact with the world is healthier, and feels so much better – sometimes downright fabulous.
The process: get into deep consciousness of, and literally memorize, the tiny physical details that ‘relaxation’ consists of, like how your body parts behave when you meditate or just relax – the completely flaccid muscles and joints, the slow deeper** breathing, the very slight feeling of lightness in my diaphragm, and so on. It’s mainly because of our choice to consciously improve these physical elements, that meditation can benefit our health: lower blood pressure, reduced compulsion to over-eat, and so on.
Eventually, I learned how to bring on peace and contentment, etc. Of course it took a lot of concentration (probably the hardest part).
The same rich imagination that can give us ‘the terrors’ or depression, can also give us some of that happiness we crave. The more we practice, the faster it works. Just as our experiences have trained us into negative feelings, so can our creative mind train us into relaxation and contentment.
Sometimes, just for the hell of it, I do the same process to practice what I call ‘elation’ – as if something wonderful and exciting were about to happen. Of course to do all this, we have to be able to remember the details of what that feeling is like. I once tried this with someone close to me, and asked her to remember in detail the experience of happiness. She couldn’t remember such an experience at all.
Some people are trained to associate these positive feelings with some physical trigger, like a tap on the shoulder. I’ve practiced so much that just saying “Relax” lovingly, to myself, brings on the peace, like snow falling on branches in a quiet wood, where only chipmunks and little birds visit. Ah, imagination can be so gentle and sweet…
*- a short documentary that has been winning film festival “best” awards… Have a glimpse at: www.crookedbeauty.com/
**- meaning lower in the body, as opposed to shallow breathing associated with panic, anxiety, etc….