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happiness

Establishing Right Human Relations

The following article was published in the summer issue of The Beacon.

The effort to establish right human relations is helpful, indeed essential, in integrating the personality with the soul. The lack of “right relations” comes most often from a selfish attitude and an emotional body that is not held steady in the light. It is disharmony in personal relations that very often causes a person to decide that he or she must get hold of him- or herself and make some changes. Our relationships are indeed our greatest teachers.

The desire and the need for harmonious relationships is quite often the thing that puts us on our Path. The pain we feel as a result of disharmony is a real pain; brain imaging studies show that physical and emotional pain “light up” the same regions of our brains. What’s worse, the pain we feel when we are the perpetrator of disharmony is like added salt in our painful wound; we feel embarrassed, ashamed, or guilty, in addition to our angers and fears. This is a powerful combination that makes most eventually decide that Something Must Be Done.

The work, once committed to, involves a complete reorientation of thinking – away from oneself as victim, toward oneself as creator. When taking stock, we learn to reframe our point of view to include perspective-taking and empathy for the Other. We begin to practice “not taking it personally” and to recognize that when our emotions are getting riled up, it is not actually about the Other person, but about some wound in our own Self that is needing to be healed. We begin to have compassion for ourselves and to forgive ourselves ― that is an essential piece of personality integration. No longer can the mind spend oodles of energy denigrating the emotional body; instead the ego learns to befriend the inner child and to work with it, to heal it and create peace rather than continuing disharmony.

As we practice detachment, not taking things personally and not assuming that we know what the Other is thinking or feeling, we begin to task ourselves with cultivating Right Speech. We begin to be careful with our words, which slows down our emotional reactivity. Our relationships increase in harmony. With more harmony, we are able to create a spaciousness that allows us to strive for utter harmlessness and self-forgetfulness. The body relaxes; health ensues. The seven points of light begin to radiate and we become a fit vehicle of expression for the Soul.

When we have committed ourselves to a spiritual path, our lives change in incredible ways. The old emotional reactions and underlying assumptions give way to a light and peaceful experience. The very intention to bring more “spirituality” into our lives does indeed invite light, and love, and goodwill. These are the cause and effect of establishing right human relations.

A constant reorientation to spiritual values changes a person. At the moment we decide that there Must Be Something More, and determine to find it, our lives change course. A meditation practice may be the single most important tool for self improvement, and such a practice can be hung on the scaffolding of just about any religious or non-religious tradition. Whether we are searching for Peace through mindfulness or are devoted to the Buddha-nature, the Christ, Ishvara, the Divine, or the Beloved doesn’t matter. We begin to ascend the mountain and as we climb, we find that all of our paths converge.

With this awakening of inclusiveness, there can be no denigration of another spiritual tradition, no room for thinking “my way is the Right Way, and yours is, say, a ‘political ideology’”. From our place of inclusiveness we gain empathy and search for the reasons why people behave, often badly, the way they do. Rather than condemning and judging, we seek to understand and to aid, even as perhaps we wish that the reins of power were held by more-evolved hands.  Yet we find solace in knowing that we all learn through pain – individuals and groups alike,

As we work to invoke the Soul, not only do our worldly views become larger and more inclusive, our close personal relations do as well. We cannot but feel hypocritical if we make a fuss about a spiritual practice and then yell at our kids and criticize our spouses. Any momentary experience of mystical union rings hollow if followed by a fight at home.  The Love of the Soul has made its healing felt in every level of our personality-being and we begin to love and forgive ourselves, and from that peaceful place it is impossible to not-love or non-forgive others. And incredibly, when others criticize us we are far from defensive but rather seek to understand and find common ground. Exuding peace and love, others want to know how did we do that? Having sought the Light, the Light of the Soul has made its presence known and we are changed, and we are agents for change. Our seven centers begin to blaze and light our way, and light the Way for others.

Happy in the New Year!

As you are thinking about your goals for the new Year, have you considered adding “be happy!” to the top of your list?  Perhaps you should. There has been a lot of talk about happiness recently, and researchers are finding out about the many benefits to happiness-besides just feeling, well, happy. Happy people are also healthier, more successful, and have better relationships and greater job satisfaction. The pursuit of empty pleasure does not make for a happy life. Happiness comes from a blend of a positive outlook with meaning in life. Here are some mindset changes that can help increase your happiness:

  1. Adopt a “glass-is-half-full” attitude. There is plenty wrong in the world, for sure, and nobody’s life is easy. But focusing on the negatives breeds discontent. Instead, focus on what is right–and see it grow.
  2. Don’t compare. No matter how tempting it is when you pass a Ferrari, a mac-fabulous house, or a person with a rockin’ bod, don’t compare your life to anyone else’s. You are on your own journey, learning the things you need to become the person you are becoming. You can’t really know what anyone else is going through but you can be sure of one thing: We all have pain. It’s part of the human experience.
  3. Be mindful of your words. Words have power and we should use them wisely. Make it a practice to avoid hurtful words. One all-too-popular form of hurtful speech is gossip, which is like a boomerang: you won’t avoid being hurt by it if you engage in it. We can also fall into the trap of hurtful speech during conflict. Instead, use your words carefully and thoughtfully to convey your point of view, but never to hurt another.
  4. Let others in. Allowing yourself to trust is one of the bravest things you can do, and one of the most rewarding. If it seems scary, consider this: people are basically good. We don’t always behave that way, but most of the time, most of us do pretty well. Besides, as they say, no man is an island. To think that we can do it all on our own is illusion; humans thrive in groups. So get socially engaged, spend time with friends, and allow yourself to love and be loved.
  5. Give back. There is probably nothing that increases happiness—real happiness, not the “I just got a lollipop” kind of transient happiness—more than giving back. So give back—to the people in your life or to strangers; to animals, to plants, to the earth. Find a cause you enjoy and get involved. Make someone’s day. Make a contribution to the welfare of something beyond yourself. There is absolutely nothing can make you happier.

The Cinderella of Health

Of all the things we do for our health, one of the most important is probably the least respected. We know about healthy eating. We don’t always do it, but we sure hear a lot about it. We know about the importance of exercise, and there is a whole industry built around our need for it. We don’t always do it, but we all know we should. We hear more and more about the importance of meditation, which may be on its way to being as routine as brushing our teeth—which is another thing we do for our health. We get regular physical exams, have our eyes checked, and go to the dentist.

What we don’t do, as a culture, is get enough sleep. And that is a shame, because sleep is a cornerstone of health and a pillar of good mental health. When we get enough sleep, our brains operate efficiently. This improves both our cognitive skills and our moods. Our reaction time is better, we are easier to get along with, we even eat less.

But as a culture, we adore staying up late, getting up early, and applauding ourselves for being so busy.

When Edison invented the light bulb, he rejoiced that human beings would no longer “waste” so much time sleeping. Before electricity, people slept when the sun was down. In the winter, that could be a very long time. Now we do have electricity and we certainly won’t be in bed for 14 hours on December 21st. But the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. We have plenty of light, and illuminated screens, to guide us through endless and, contrary to Edison’s hopes, often mindless activity. We do this to the detriment of our health and wellbeing.

Even one night of poor sleep causes irritability and moodiness, and decreases our inhibitions. Over time the consequences can be severe. Research shows that chronic sleep deprivation leads to increased mortality risk, weight gain, moodiness, irritability, accidents, heart disease, and decreased immune function. And the consequences for teens are grave: sleepy teens have trouble with weight gain, moodiness, and learning, and sleepy-driving accidents are most prevalent in drivers under age 25.

How much is enough? You probably have heard that adults need seven hours of sleep. In reality, while individual sleep needs vary, we need about eight hours of sleep each night. Teenagers need more, about nine and a quarter hours of sleep each night. Unfortunately, 85% of teens report getting less than the recommended amount, and 15% get fewer than 6.5 hours. Adults do a little better, but still 30% of us sleep less than seven hours a night and increasing numbers of us are getting fewer than six hours of sleep per night.

So what can you do to get more sleep?

  1. Make sleep a priority.
  2. Keep a regular sleep/wake schedule.
  3. Avoid heavy meals and alcohol before bed.
  4. Turn off “blue screens” (TV, iPad, monitors) two hours before bed.
  5. Decrease caffeine consumption and don’t drink caffeine six hours before bedtime.
  6. Keep your bedroom dark and cool.
  7. Restructure your day so that you can get eight solid hours of sleep.

Try it for a week and see how you feel. Try it for three weeks and create a new habit. Model it for your children, and make sleep health a priority in your home. You will find yourself slimmer, more alert, easier to be with, happier, and healthier!

Shifting out of criticism

I’m starting off with a bold statement, and it’s one I stand by: Nobody is going out into the world every day determined to screw up. Nobody gets up in the morning and says, “Today I am determined to make people mad and make as many mistakes as I can.” People make all kinds of mistakes, for sure. In fact, none of us is immune. One of our biggest mistakes, I believe, is to criticize others for making mistakes!

When we fall into the trap of criticism we are taken away from our inherent oneness. The heart center is taking a backseat to the little ego and we make the mistake of reinforcing our separateness from others rather than focusing on our interdependence.

We all have our own back-stories. We all have wounds to heal and lessons to learn, as well as a contribution to make. So, just as you wouldn’t get angry with a toddler for not understanding a philosophical debate, or a person who speaks another language for not understanding yours, isn’t it inappropriate to get angry with others for simply being where they are on their path?

Here’s the real kicker. The things that make us really upset at someone else are always a projection of something we are not comfortable with in ourselves. Do “stupid people” really push your buttons? Check your internal dialogue for self-criticism about being stupid. Enraged when someone is being selfish? Ask yourself how often you criticize yourself for being selfish, or see if you have a martyr complex.

And so it goes. What we criticize in others, we criticize in ourselves. The more we criticize others, the more we are criticizing ourselves. Once we realize this, and start to work on ourselves, we come to a place of acceptance. We find ourselves engaged in criticism and judgments less and less. When we do the hard work of healing our own wounds, it is easier to accept the mistakes of others.  We’re in this together, doing the best we can with the personalities we have.

Five affirmations to help get you through difficult times

All of us have to go through tough times at some point in our lives–it’s part of being human. When the going gets tough, it’s helpful and even important to remember that this too shall pass. Until that happens, here are some affirmations to help you keep the faith:

  1. I will fully accept that which is for the highest good of all. And then trust that what is happening is really for the highest good. In every situation, there really exists that which is for the highest good of all. The universe has the ability to “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”, as the old saying goes. In time, just about every experience we meet has an upside. When we can transcend the limits of this lifetime, that silver lining exists in every single Bar none. Find it.
  2. I trust that everything is in divine order. This bears repeating and so makes a good affirmation! Everything is in divine order. Sometimes we can’t see that from our limited perspective and because of our desires and attachments to particular outcomes. But our personalities aren’t in control. Surrendering to the divine order of things helps ease the pain when our desires don’t align with what is happening.
  3. I vow to learn my lessons well. Every difficult situation comes to us in order to teach us something important. And as we have heard and even experienced, when we don’t learn the lesson, the lesson gets harder. With this in mind, consider your role in the difficulty and try to find out what your lesson is. Once you’ve learned it, the lesson will be over.
  4. I strive for detachment in all things. Attachment leads to suffering, as the Buddha taught us well. When we are able to detach, suffering ends. It is a practice, which means it won’t be perfect. But practice now.
  5. I surrender to the guidance of my Higher Self. Your Higher Self is that part of you that connects you to the divine. When you are centered in your heart, peaceful and loving, you are connected to your Higher Self and you radiate that peace and love to everyone and everything around you. It is possible to remain heart-centered even when going through challenging times. Doing so makes those times much easier to bear.

The physiology of the brain

Meditation has many benefits, and the practice actually changes our physiology. Researchers have conducted studies to find the chemical changes that occur inside our brains when we meditate. Here is what they’ve found:

Meditation reduces cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenaline is the “fight-or-flight” hormone which increases heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone which increases blood sugar, suppresses immune function and digestion, and acts on brain regions connected with mood, fear, and motivation. Chronic stress has been linked to depression, anxiety, heart disease, weight gain, digestive problems, insomnia, and problems with learning, concentration, and memory.

Meditation increases DHEA. This chemical is known as the “anti-aging” hormone; its levels begin to drop at about age 30, and this decline is related to a host of conditions including weight gain, cancer, and heart disease. Because of its link to ageing, people are experimenting with DHEA supplementation. But meditation alone boosts DHEA levels. Feeling younger already?

Meditation releases dopamine: Dopamine is linked to our ability to focus and acts on the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. Because of its involvement in pleasure and reward, dopamine is implicated in addiction. ADHD is believed to involve decreased dopamine levels. Healthy dopamine levels seem to help us feel rewarded, experience pleasure, and to focus.

Meditation boosts serotonin: Serotonin helps us feel calm and happy. Serotonin deficits are linked to depression, anxiety and insomnia; in fact, the SSRI antidepressant drugs such as Prozac are designed to boost serotonin levels. Serotonin is such a big part of good moods that it is sometimes called the “happiness hormone”.

Meditation boosts oxytocin: Known as the “love hormone” or the “monogamy hormone”, oxytocin makes us feel calm when we are with loved ones, especially when hugging or cuddling. It is released by mothers during childbirth and causes the production of milk in mammals. It is also released during orgasm and is thought to explain why we tend to feel close to partners after we have had sex. It has an inverse relationship to stress and stress hormones. And the more oxytocin we have, the more we are likely to trust others.

And the good news is that you don’t have to be a Zen master to receive these benefits. If you are interested in beginning a meditation practice, the most important thing to remember is probably that it is a practice. Be patient with yourself as you begin to try a new skill and remember all the benefits your brain will receive!

The power of the face

Your face reflects the emotions you feel. This is obvious: When we are sad we frown. When we are angry our eyes get smaller and everything on our faces becomes more horizontal and set. When we are happy our eyes light up and we smile. And we can instantly tell the difference between a real smile and a fake one. Did you ever wonder, or notice, what the difference actually is? In a real smile, the tiny muscles of the bottom eyelid move upward in a crescent. Before I learned this a few years ago, I couldn’t have told you what the difference was—I just knew it when I saw it. Our intuitive understanding of facial expressions is part of our empathy and ability to connect to others. Facial expression is a huge part of nonverbal communication.

So we know that our faces convey how we feel. But did you know that faces can determine how we feel? Or to be more precise, changing the expression on our faces can change the emotions we experience. Since the 1980’s, researchers have found the putting a smile on makes us happier. Sales trainers have been recommending for decades that we put a smile on our faces before picking up the phone, because it will make us sound happier and more likeable.

More recently, researchers have found that the smile doesn’t even have to be genuine. We can “fake it till we make it”. Mori and Mori of the University of Tokyo conducted a study, published in 2009, using rubber bands and latex bandages to force participants’ cheeks upward in a smile position, or downward in a frown. In the smile position the participants felt happier, and in the frown position they felt sad. A follow up study published in 2013 found that the smilers had a better opinion of others when they were smiling. Wow. We can plaster on a fake smile and not only feel happier, we’ll like people more.

And then there is the work of Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and researcher who investigates body language and facial expression. She presented one of the most popular TED talks ever; you can see it here. In her talk, Cuddy explains how our posture and facial expression affect our mood. She shares lots of tips on how we can use our bodies to feel more powerful and happy. One of her suggestions is to put a pencil in our mouth to force our cheeks back into a smile position in order to feel happier.

I used to love sharing this with my students when I taught at the local community college. I would sometimes ask them to put their pencils or pens between their teeth to see if they started feeling happier. Usually they wound up laughing, probably because we all looked a little ridiculous. I have also used this knowledge to my own advantage many times. When I start to feel unhappy, I try to remember to plaster a smile on my face. Soon enough, I’m back to feeling peaceful and happy.

If you decide to test this out for yourself, I’d love to hear how it goes—leave a comment below!

Top five go-to ways to stay peaceful and happy

“Be happy. It feels better!”

This has to be my absolute favorite quote from the Dalai Lama. It certainly is so true—of course it feels better to be happy! But is it really that simple? If we are not committed to happiness, it can be fleeting and difficult to find. And even when we are making happiness a priority (which it really ought to be for a number of reasons), sometimes things go wrong and we get derailed. What’s a happiness-seeker to do?

  1. Detach, detach, detach. It can be so much easier said than done, right? But we know that taking the long view is a key to maintaining inner peace. Our pain comes not from the event but our resistance to it. As my dad said to me a few years ago when I was upset, “these things have a way of working themselves out.” How often do we look back and, as the Garth Brooks song goes, “thank God for unanswered prayers?” We have all let go of important—really, really important—things. And as time goes by, we realize life moves on and we can indeed still be happy. When life gets you down, remember this.
  2. Put a smile on. Even a fake one. Seriously. A researcher in Japan did a study in which he put people’s faces into a smile or a frown using rubber bands and plastic bandages. Sure enough, the “smilers” became happier and the frowners got unhappier. Smile on!
  3. Regular exercise has been shown to boost not just our metabolism and strength, but our moods as well. Find a type of exercise you like and commit to it. Find a buddy to work out with, sign up for an exercise or yoga class, or set yourself an alarm to hit the pavement or the clothes rack –umm, treadmill. Just do it!
  4. Be friendly. Social engagement boosts happiness and is a great anti-depressant. We humans are communal creatures and do better in society yet modern culture often separates us from our pack. Get out there and mingle.
  5. You’ve heard it here before. Meditation boosts happiness and a whole host of physiological markers of happiness. Disconnecting from our busy thoughts and emotions and returning to our center, which is a wellspring of peace and happiness, takes practice. In fact, it is a practice. We need to be patient with ourselves and get to work with that practice.

These are my top five go-to ways to stay more peaceful and happy. I should point out, of course, that happiness doesn’t come from pleasure-seeking; it comes from things like authenticity, productivity, and service. When our work and relationships are satisfying and affirming, and our spiritual life is rich, happiness unfolds in wonderful ways.

What are your favorite ways to stay happy? I’d love to hear from you!