My own recent experience of coping with ill-health, paradoxically, has brought me to a realisation of my own understanding of happiness.
For the past 4 years I have suffered from Fibromyalgia/Chronic Fatigue Immune Disorder (CFID)/M.E.
It initially began as an extreme case of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) caused by overuse of the computer. I was unable to shower and dress myself unaided, hold simple objects, read, write and even sleep for more than half an hour at a time, without waking up in agony.
Then the constant fatigue set in. My body ached, all over, as though I was suffering from a bad bout of the flu. Consequently, I had to spend long periods in bed. I could do nothing except watch TV, as I no longer had the use of my hands and arms. House-bound and unable to work, I could hardly function, let alone participate in life’s daily activities I had up to then taken for granted. The years crept by, slowly.
Oddly enough, the experience has brought me many ‘gifts’. It has and continues to be a long and arduous journey. Over the course of these ups and downs, I have come to an understanding that it is ‘shadow’ that makes things more defined: it is contrast that brings meaning to life. I have found that when something negative occurs, once I am open to the possibility that there is learning to be gained, I have often found the experience to be more empowering than an apparently altogether positive one.
My concept of happiness is composed of many elements. For me, happiness is a state of mind. It’s a complete awareness, in any given moment, of my connection with the Universe and the Divine as well as an inter-connection with all forms of Life. The source of this connection is Love, which I believe, is the basis of all energy. This ‘connection’ is heightened and maintained through a process of Mind/Body Dialogue, Trust, Acceptance, Forgiveness, Appreciation and Living in the Moment. It’s a fine balancing act and for me is still very much a ‘work in progress’. Maintaining the connection – that is achieving a constant state of happiness (if such a thing is indeed possible) – requires tremendous self-awareness as well as constant vigilance of one’s thoughts and reactions to one’s inner and outer worlds.
So, the first thing I learned on my journey to understanding what happiness means for me was Get out of your head! Until then, I had been a serial collector of certificates and diplomas, a ‘life-long learner’, the eternal student. My advice is: by all means, read materials, learn and open your mind to knowledge! However, remember that not all knowledge comes in the form of books.
Learning can come in many guises: listening to and interacting with others; sharing ideas and experiences; observing; spending moments in meditation or quiet reflection; developing one’s intuition and emotional intelligence; appreciating silence; cultivating a love of nature and the natural world; nurturing a healthy relationship with the Self; being open to viewing things from a different perspective; and, last but not least, being in tune with our mind/body dialogue.
Before I became ill, I was someone who placed great emphasis on endless ‘to-do lists’ and goals – all of which focused my attention on the future. Subsequently, I found myself with plenty of time on my hands as I literally had to suspend most, if not all, activity. The result was that I was forced to realign my focus. I had to listen to my body and allow myself to live in the moment. What was my body trying to tell me? Why, up until then, had I not allowed myself to be present?
My body responded: Slow down! It wanted me to simply ‘be’. And then what? I wondered. Then what do I do? Nothing! came the reply. I was bemused – how could ‘doing nothing’ be productive? Quite the contrary, it’s been one of the most productive things I’ve ever done! It’s allowed me to focus on and identify the most important things in my life as well as to love and appreciate them.
I suspect that placing our attention on ‘what is’, rather than on what ‘could’ or ‘might be’ is a tough feat for most. We live in a society where ‘more’ is always better: why appreciate what we have now, when there’s so much else on offer that we could desire?
So, appreciate the moment! Learn to love the ‘now’ and what it has brought to you and the person it has enabled you to become! Everything that has happened in our lives has culminated in this precise moment!
To be honest, before my illness, I wasn’t so good at appreciating, most especially appreciating myself and my own achievements. However, I’ve discovered that appreciation is to be found in the small things – gratitude for a smile, a friendly voice, the light glistening on the leaves after a spring shower…It’s opened my eyes to a world I had been too busy to acknowledge and that I had allowed to slip by.
I’ve also come to realise that one’s relationship with oneself is of fundamental importance. Indeed, it is probably the most significant relationship we will ever develop throughout our entire lives. It defines not only who we are, the person we are in the process of becoming, but also the people, events and things we will ultimately attract into our lives.
Acceptance, on the other hand, of who we are and what happens in our lives has nothing to do with passivity (as many seem to believe). We have no power over what occurs (or doesn’t occur) in our lives but we do have the choice of how we react to those particular set of circumstances. Acceptance enables us to work from the present, from what is, rather than seek to impose our view of how we think it should be.
So, I accept the way things are in this specific moment, in the knowledge that change is possible for the future. This was a huge breakthrough for me! Once I surrendered to the reality of my illness, I was able to cease the struggle of trying to make things different – a square peg trying to fit itself into a round hole. The energy I expended on trying to make life conform to how I thought it should be had been tremendous! Its release has brought me more serenity than I’d known before.
What also brought me peace, but has proved by far among the hardest to achieve is forgiveness. Forgiveness of myself has been my major stumbling block. One day, when I was finding it particularly trying physically – it seemed as though I was walking in molasses and I kept dropping things – in one single moment, I came to the realisation: Give up, Amanda! It’s time to give up! You just have to! You’re never going to do it! Let go and forgive yourself! Forgive yourself for not being able to fulfil your dreams! Hard as it was, it had come to the point where I was almost no longer able-bodied.
Letting go of everything I’d ever hoped for, my most cherished desires and forgiving myself for doing so, seemed like the only option that remained…Here it was, I’d struggled for so long, but now was the chance to ease the pain, the burden of expectation I’d placed myself under, and finally surrender to destiny. In that moment, behind the burning tears, I suddenly glimpsed what I’d been searching for all along: freedom!
Having got the ball rolling with ‘acceptance’ and ‘(self) forgiveness’, love – in its truly unconditional sense which I believe includes non-judgement – didn’t seem as though it would prove to be too big a deal! Or would it? Self-love – that has been the tricky part! Quietening that self-critical inner voice – that gremlin – that remains my harshest critic continues to be the challenge. However, it’s a process. I find that the more accepting and forgiving I am of myself and my world, the easier it becomes to be loving and non-judgemental of myself and others.
Once I began to realise that each one of us is doing the best s/he can with the resources s/he has (including me!) life flows with greater ease. My own physical constraints and resultant mental frustration (Why can’t I do it?!!) has and continues to make me aware of the need to have infinite patience with myself. It’s nurtured my understanding of the fact that we all face limitations in life which can bear down upon us harder in some moments more than in others. Furthermore, no-one – not one of us – can ever truly appreciate the suffering of another until we walk in their shoes. How else can we understand their world and the sense they make of it?
And finally, we come to Trust, the real ‘biggie’! All you control freaks out there will know what I mean when I say that this is by far the most difficult – from one control-freak, albeit ‘in remission’, to another!…
Having Trust in the Universe, the process of life – that it will provide for me in every moment – is a practice I admit I have to work at very hard. I conceive of Trust as a flow of energy. It begins within me – as Trust in myself and my innate ability to rise to and conqueror life’s challenges – and emanates out into the Universe. Some days, it’s not easy… Nonetheless, whatever trust I give, it is returned, manifold.
Trust, however, also involves an element of letting go of the need to have all the answers in life – who said it’s necessary? Let’s be clear: natural curiosity is healthy, but there will always be something(s) for which the answer will elude. And what would life be even if we could pin down everything? Where would be the magic, the mystery? Surely, at the end of the day, these lie at the heart of any concept of ‘happiness’?