Waking Up to Happiness
coughing, blowing her nose — NATALIE GOLDBERG was awfully sick yet she
was happy. Happiness is available to everyone, she realized, but we can
find it only when we’re still.
summer I was sick in bed. I could write “flu” and be done with it, but
that would be a generalization. My eyes were blood red and caked shut in
the morning—the doctor said it was conjunctivitis. “Isn’t that what
little kids get?” I asked. A lump was developing in the bottom of my
mouth. I coughed up green phlegm. My ears were ringing and I heard
things as though I were under water.
Why do I feel the need to state all this? While sick, I read The Makioka Sisters by
Junichiro Tanizaki. The book was long, slow, magnificent, and included
everything—many details about the main characters’ colds, allergies, bug
bites, and intestinal problems. But as I read I didn’t cringe or back
away. We are in human bodies and sickness is natural, a part of this
took extra delight in the book’s last line. The third sister was
finally going to be married—one of the strong narrative drives
throughout the book—and the result: “Yukiko’s diarrhea persisted through
the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo.” And so the
book ends. We are left with the ginger hesitation of a woman in her
thirties—late for marriage in mid-twentieth-century Japan—riding to her
destiny, her body engaged and nervously pumping. Now don’t be a prude.
You have to love it. The honesty alone. No one else tells us these
things. Thank the writer for being honest.
While I was sick, lying in bed reading, I’d occasionally look up through my
bedroom window and watch the pale green on the distant willows and near
lilacs. And sometimes I’d pause to sneeze, cough, blow my nose, take a
sip of tea. Friends would call to commiserate. Yes, I was awfully
sick—it did seem a long time to be in bed—then I’d return to the dream
of the book in hand.
truth is I was happy. Happier than I’d been in a long, long time. Yet I
knew that as soon as my energy returned I’d plunge back into mad
activity, full of passion. I was lucky because I loved most of what I
did in life, but as I lay in bed I realized passion was different than
happiness. You don’t do happiness.
You receive it. It’s like a water table under the earth. It’s available
to everyone but we can only tap it, have it run up through us, when
we’re still. A well that darts around can never draw water.
misinterpret success, desire, enterprise, and the things we love as the
state of happiness. Usually, we don’t even consider happiness because
we’re too busy dashing after life, defending, building, developing, even
fighting, asserting, arguing. We’re in the scramble—lively, engaged. So
where does happiness come in? It’s a give and take, a meeting of inside
and outside. Even enlightenment is a meeting, a relationship of the
inside and outside. The Buddha was enlightened—his whole nervous system
switched gears—when he glanced up and saw the morning star. We don’t
wake up in a vacuum. We can’t be at home with ourselves in a cubicle. To
be at home with ourselves is to be at home in the world, in the
interaction with others—and trees and slices of cheese and the broad,
sad evolving of politics.
I was sick, I was settled down. I didn’t have a lot of energy for
engagement, the daily tending to a hundred details. I am not saying the
ideal state is a sick body, but when I began to aggravate about
something I knew I was getting better. When the bite of concern and
worry snapped in, I was reentering the pale of human life. At that
moment, where was my happiness? I lost my connection to home plate, to
the core of reception, patience, the bottom of my belly, to the ground
next day I dragged myself out of bed and crossed my legs, sitting up
straight for half an hour to anchor my wandering mind in the breath. To
keep coming back to the present moment. To regain the contentment I’d so
I sat, I was lost for a long time in a memory of Auschwitz, where I’d
meditated for five days the previous summer, then I was lost in the
thought of turning over the compost out back in my yard, then in
considering maybe buying some granola. Thoughts have no hierarchy. The
mind jumps from the serious to the mundane in a second. Then snap. I
came back to myself. If I want happiness I have to understand it and
then dedicate myself to it moment by moment. I can’t stay in bed sick
all the time to attain it. I have to commit myself to it when I’m also
thing I love about the Zen koans, those terse, enigmatic teachings from
the Chinese ancestors, is that they include sickness in their
presentations to realize original nature.
Master Ma was not well. The director of the monastery stopped in his
room and inquired, “How is your health? How are you feeling?” The Great
Master replied, “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.”
could speculate on meaning here but the important thing right now is
that sickness is included in the realm of realizing peace,
understanding, and happiness. Nothing left out. How can we stay
connected to contentment in the dentist’s chair? How can we be with
peace as we listen to the news? Sometimes happiness is being in the
center of our grief.
my friend’s husband died in his thirties and she was bereft, her
therapist said, “Enjoy your grief. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.” Can
you imagine that? To be in the heart of your life whatever your heart
am not saying there is a prescription for happiness. Just that the
trained mind examines situations; it does not simply fall apart. If you
are sick in bed, it’s an opportunity. If you continually have a hard
time with a friend, look deeper than the bickering and
misunderstandings. Maybe the relationship died years ago and you
neglected to notice it, hanging on to old ideas of love. Maybe it will
take root again—maybe not.
college, the single class that caught my interest was an ethics class
in the philosophy department. We studied Descartes, Bergson, James,
Kant, Socrates, the full gamut of white dead Western men. The essence of
each reading was the question of happiness. What is it? How to attain
I studied with my Japanese Zen teacher he said, “Whatever you do, let
it be accompanied by dharma joy.” He lifted his dark eyebrows in an
expression of inclusion. Yes, you, too, Natalie, are capable of this. At
the time I was thirty-one years old. No one can hand over happiness on a
silver plate—or on a doily. Especially when we don’t know what it is.
Our job is to pay attention and examine it. Can we have happiness and
peace at the same time as joy, fun, pleasure, anger, and aggression? How
do we learn to abide in ourselves?
ended up staying sick in bed for five weeks. That’s a long time. My
ears, the Eustachian tubes, became congested. The middle of my head
filled up. Finally, on a Wednesday, I had some energy and went out.
Eagerly I plunged into life again. How foolish I was. I must have done
thirty different tasks, including going out that night with friends. I
enjoyed it all, but just as I was falling asleep, I asked myself the
question, “Were you happy?” Quickly the answer came: only the half hour I
was planting tomatoes and strawberries in the backyard.
next morning I woke with the black stranger loneliness sitting beside
me. Certainly I’ve been lonely before but this time it manifested
heavily beside me. I’d lost paradise, my time in bed.
the next days at different intervals I asked myself, “Are you happy?”
Head deep in my active life, I didn’t know how to find happiness again. I
couldn’t make it happen. Then just seven days out of bed, standing in
line at the bank, like a cocker spaniel or possum, I felt happiness, for
absolutely no reason, ringing my bell. After I made my deposit, I sat
in the car wondering what had happened. I was almost “bursting with
happiness” as they say in romance novels but I was not particularly in
love, only swimming in my own being.
this morning, as I dressed to go out, I again asked myself, “Are you
happy?” I was darkly blue from allergies and constant May winds and a
drought that made my skin almost crackle, so I growled no but I wasn’t
convincing. Some defense had been smashed. Even in misery there could be
happiness. And then it bubbled up, clear and full, for no reason. But
there was a reason. I was paying attention.
is shy. It wants to know you want it. You can’t be greedy. You can’t be
numb—or ignorant. The bashful girl of happiness needs your kind
attention. Then she’ll come forward. And you won’t have to be sick to
Illustration by Katherine Streeter