A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled - Ruby Wax (2016)
Chapter 1. Why Frazzled?
We are all frazzled, all of us … well, most of us … well, some of my friends are. When I say ‘us’, I’m referring to the ‘us’ in the free world who live relatively scot-free of invasion, hunger, plague and the raining-down of frogs; the lucky ‘us’ who’ve won the jackpot by being born in the right place at the right time. And yet we, the winners, complain of stress. Why can’t we enjoy the fact we can live to 109 and still keep our own teeth? We should be popping the champagne cork for the simple fact we’re breathing. I, too, am guilty of creating stress where there doesn’t need to be any. While I’m writing this book, I’m incredibly stressed: paranoid that I’m spelting everything’’s rite. I should be stressed when a bomb is about to drop on my head, not because I don’t know where, commas, go ir indeed ani punktuation? It’s the thinking about stress that stresses us out, not the incidents themselves.
When I say that we are in a state of emergency, I don’t mean the terror, both real and imagined, that lurks, about an impending Third World War triggered by anyone from the nut-job who runs North Korea to the endless other nut-jobs in charge of their countries. No, the emergency I’m talking about is that unless we wake soon from our sleepwalking state, we’re on a downhill slide of our own making; in terms of evolution – emotionally, anyway – we’re heading back to being on all fours. We have sent rockets into space to explore the cosmos but have for some reason neglected to explore ourselves. We just keep trying to achieve and compete, with absolutely no insight as to why. We need to set an alarm clock to shake ourselves out of this stupor, to get us out of the mindset where we brood and worry, and bring ourselves, literally, to our senses. That’s the only way to experience life: not through words, but through sight, smell, sound, touch, taste … how many forkfuls have you shoved into your mouth today and actually tasted? I don’t know when, historically, we fell asleep at the wheel, because we definitely began our existence awake; as primitive beings, we were awake to the sound of every cracking twig and every twitching bush. Now, however, we just tunnel our way through life on autopilot, as fast as we can, to get our stuff done and neatly put away in drawers.
We should be struggling to evolve towards living a peaceful life, not just finishing the next chore on the list, believing that, when it’s done, then we’ll start living. No more postponement: it’s getting late in the day. Either we learn how to wake up now or we sleepwalk into death.
The Evolution of Our Brains
Like it or not, we all started as a tiny individual cell. In order to understand who we are today, we need to give a nod to our protoplasmic past. It wasn’t even all that long ago when we began; only for the last 200,000 years have we been truly modern, erect humans; before that we were fish, lizards and an assortment of apes. (Not the most sophisticated of lineages.) Most of us are hopelessly unaware of the extent to which we’re held hostage by our moronic beginnings.
In some ways, we’ve achieved a lot (i.e. being able to make devilled eggs), but as far as our emotional development is concerned we’re still swimming with the pond scum. My opinion is that we need to take into consideration the influence of our roots in our prehistoric past. We can pretend to be civilized, with our teas and our scones, but, underneath, the primitive still beats its drum.
The very first thing to develop, and something we share with other mammals, is a brain that ensures survival. This means that we, like other mammals, are always on the lookout for danger. There’s this endless search for happiness, but let me ruin your day by telling you that we are in fact natural-born pessimists because, that way, we keep the species going. We have to be ready for danger. This is why we have a leaning to the negative rather than the rosy. Someone once said that for every five negative thoughts we have only one positive one. But in this culture it’s not the unexpected meteorite that’s going to nix us but things like deadlines and mortgage repayments; you can’t run away from the national deficit.
The problem is that we’re unaware that part of our brains still plays by the rules of 500 million years ago. I’m talking about the ‘kill and mate’ school of thought. As evolved as we think we are, we’re still cave folk with Stone Age brains, but now we’re trying to deal with the complexities of the twenty-first century. This could be the reason why we need so many shrinks and so much medication.
In the beginning, things were fine: we lived in tribes with our family members. We all shared the same genes, so we trusted and protected each other. The bad thing about that is the bit about all being related to each other, which caused infinite mutations; some of our cousins had more fingers than they needed, others had feet that grew backwards. The problems began when tribes started to expand, cities grew up and civilization developed. Then we had to make rules to control our deeper, darker desires, i.e. don’t sleep with your sister. Freud tried to help us rein in our ids, but our baser, primordial selves are still sliming around under the surface. Repression doesn’t help; that savage inside is always lurking, ready to let it rip.
The Evolution of Stress
Earlier in our existence, life was tough, but no one died of stress. They died of disease. They died because of old age (around twenty-two and a half), accidents, childbirth, bad teeth … but not from stress.
There was no word for stress, so no one complained about it.
My theory is that the concept of stress kicked in only when we came up with language. We could no longer just sling a spear, now we had thoughts with words that gave us internal reviews of how well or badly we flung it. Usually, they were bad.
Don’t get me wrong: a lot of good has come out of thinking. I’m thinking right now and probably you are, too, so that’s good. But with this new consciousness came stress.
Then the floodgates opened because we needed more space in our brains to fit in all that thinking, so around 100,000 years ago (I can’t give you an exact date), out of the blue, we found that our brains had grown about three times bigger in size. It could have been the weather, or a tilt of the planet, but we had a big mental-growth spurt. Probably the reason we had to get up on all twos was to keep all that grey matter balanced on our necks. As soon as we had our extra-large brain, we started to wonder what we could fill it with. One great thing about the leap in brain size was that we could stop grovelling in the mud like our cousin the ape and begin to invent things, like bubble wrap. Stress came with these great inventions because we had to repair them, insure them and change their batteries; no one was going to do it for us, certainly not our ape friends (who are still of no use, except to amuse us with what they can do with a banana).
Our big brains pushed us to conquer new frontiers; we filled up the Earth with shopping centres and nail bars, but then what? So we became pioneers of thought, using technology instead of the Conestoga wagon to raise our flag in new and far-off lands, hurtling out our opinions, political stances, our likes and dislikes, no longer on foot but through the Internet.
We were lulled into thinking that, with the dawn of computers (thanks, Bill G.), they would do all the boring stuff and allow us to chase butterflies or flower-arrange. It turns out we’re now stuck with doing the boring stuff, while the computers are having the time of their lives: hacking into the World Bank, giving Stephen Hawking an American accent. I predict that we’ll eventually be so redundant that we’ll all be replaced and devolve into a technological accessory.
The Crammed Brain
No one is addressing the exhausted elephant in the room: why are we making our lives more difficult? Why do we stuff ourselves full of so much detritus? We put all that garbage in there – why can’t we just scoop it out again? There’s not going to be some test at the end of our lives, so why are we cramming so much? I know I’m at my limit. I’ve had to send my memory to the cloud now, and I don’t know how to get it back down again.
Zillions of bits of information downloading into computers with more processing power than Apollo mission control are coursing up to your brain through your fingertips. David Levitan writes, ‘Today, just to communicate with friends, not counting work, each of us produces on average 100,000 words every day, there are 21,274 TV stations and it will take 17 lifetimes, if you live to be 158 in each life, to get through all the channels on your TV’ – and most of them are crap. We take in all that information at a cost; it’s exhausting to try to figure out what we need and what is trivia. We’re so clogged up upstairs it’s difficult to make sensible decisions: should I worry about Iceland defrosting or about getting the right toothpaste? Our brains are not computers, they don’t need charging; they need to rest, and there is no rest. Who has time to rest? … It’s become a dirty word. The only time you can legitimately rest is when you’re in the restroom. Every tweet, Facebook entry and text is sucking out your energy. That’s why you always forget where you parked your car.
While we complain that our ‘to do’ lists are endless, let us not forget that we begat those lists; no one from outer space came when we weren’t looking and implanted ‘the list’ in our brains. Okay, let’s say we really do need to jot down a few things of importance, like needing to buy milk or to have a colonoscopy, but when that ‘things that must be done’ list goes into the hundreds per day, we should be concerned. Maybe we keep adding new things in the fear that, if we ever got through our list, we’d have no purpose, no reason to take another step. If you were suddenly list-less, would you just grind to a halt? What happens when that happens? Even though everyone complains about how much stuff they have to do, what would they do if they had nothing to do? ‘To do or not to do, that is the question.’ People who haven’t got a single open three-minute slot in their day because they’re dashing from meetings to lunches to workouts to appointments to cocktails are thought of in our society as great achievers, they are role models, but in my opinion (and I say this with compassion) they should be burnt at the stake for making many of us feel inadequate.
Other creatures know what they’re doing. Birds, for example, migrate thousands of miles to lay an egg and then fly all the way back to where they came from for more random sex; no one complains. We, who don’t have to swim, fly or canter a thousand miles, are dropping from exhaustion for no other reason than that we are trying to keep up with the next guy … who’s keeping up with the next guy, who’s heading toward a full nervous breakdown. To be human is to stand up and claim your weakness. If you do that, others around you will feel compassion and empathy (little-used qualities), and that’s how the world will recover from its diseases of greed and narcissism.
We need to wake up and notice the signals that our minds and bodies are giving us; to slow down sometimes and notice the scenery. I don’t mean for ever, just to stop for petrol once in a while before going back to the race we call life. I know a neuroscientist who recently had a severe heart attack. You’d think he’d know something about brains. He’d know that they don’t run for ever on two hours’ sleep and 400 hours of work a week. He announced after only three days that he was not going to take a single day off work and would resume his lectures from his hospital bed, plugged into a lung machine and nasal feeding tubes, thus proving that neuroscientists can also be idiots.
Another thing that is frazzling us is that we constantly compare ourselves to other people, always sniffing around to find out who’s top gun. In the natural world, a female honeybee larva can grow up to be either a queen or a worker, depending on what food it’s fed. Hives are complex social structures with different kinds of workers, such as harvesters, nurses and cleaners; there are no footballer-wife bees or celebrity bees. Everyone gets fed and there is no competition; the cleaner bee wouldn’t dream of being a nurse bee. We, however, feel we need to do it all: be the queen, lay the eggs, clean, breed, and learn to hula-hoop at the same time. This is why we end up on Xanax and bees don’t. Anyway, I know about comparison: it’s one of the ingredients of my neurotic soup.
I’m in Edinburgh feeling miserable, and I’m trying to figure out why. On the surface, everything is running smoothly – my show, my life, my work – so what’s wrong? I finally come up with a reason.
I am at a dinner, sitting next to Brian Cox. I am sick to my stomach because he is a molecular geneticist, astrophysicist, seeker, particle physicalist, quantum-electro-hydro-collidist.
He’s beautiful and looks ten years old. This is hitting one of my triggers: comparison. I try to pull out something from the empty space called my brain, giving it my best shot. I say, tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth, ‘If there are infinite parallel universes, which means that there are zillions of “me”s, how am I able to put food in my mouth with one fork?’
Maybe he thinks I have a point, so he continues telling me that 600,000 years ago, when there was finally enough oxygen, a cell filled with mitochondria (I nod as if I know what this is) from some piece of fungus started to breathe in oxygen, while another cell breathed out methane. I have no cards to play. I think I might pretend to faint.
The gap of silence grows too long, and he refocuses, on to a guy across from us, and tells him that scientists can determine how far a cell can migrate from central Africa to Egypt. The guy doesn’t respond, so I’m thinking he’s as stupid as me, but then Brian tells me he’s the world’s leading cosmologist. I shrivel. Carlos Frenk (look him up on YouTube; I did and almost choked to death). The evening doesn’t end well. I might have drunk too much. No one asked for my phone number.
It’s that old chestnut ‘comparison’ that drives us mad. Some people are satisfied with their lot – I know they’re out there in the country somewhere, among the trees, growing their own chickens, pulling udders for a living and sitting around the fire roasting marshmallows. As for the rest of us, we’re assaulted by messages from the ether, about what we don’t have but should have if we want to be cool. It’s no longer just about keeping up with your neighbour but about leaving that neighbour in the dust, seething with resentment.
Comparison goes way back. ‘Why isn’t my cave dress as nice as Fran’s?’ ‘Why don’t I have a bigger codpiece?’ It’s always the same – ‘Why? Why? Why?’ – and that’s what makes us stressed. We strive, we strive, and we strive some more. It’s always been the way: we suffer from conceits and illusions that tear us apart; we’re like hungry ghosts, always seeking, wanting, yearning for something. Soon there will be epitaphs that read: ‘She died of envy’ or ‘He croaked because his car was too small.’
The title of my theme song is ‘Never Good Enough’. When I’m with the highly brainy, I turn into my thirteen-year-old moron self. I’m suddenly in the back of the class, useless and gormless, with my protruding teeth. The longer I’m with these people, the less able I become to articulate anything, which makes me feel that I’m even lower down the ladder of intelligence. I usually try to keep them talking so they don’t find out that I know nothing.
I recently asked Lord, Professor, Dr, surgeon and all-round genius Robert Winston to have tea with me. He has honorary doctorates from sixteen universities; I have half a one. When I was in a particularly cocky mood, after he’d seen my show at the Hay Festival and complimented me on it, I asked, and he agreed and suggested we meet at the House of Lords. On the day itself I started to panic, wondering what exactly I was going to talk to him about.
Okay: jump cut. I’m sitting with Lord R. in one of those holy of holies, a wood-panelled room lined with oil paintings of old politicians, and I’m being served tea by bowing men in tuxedos. It is at that point I realize I have nothing to say. I ask Lord R. what he is up to, and he graciously tells me about his worldwide research on epigenetics. I’ve heard of epigenetics, but it’s not my specialty, to say the least. I’m now sweating, and my stomach has left the building; I’m going to have a seizure if he asks me anything about anything. I’m thinking of going into the loo and Googling ‘epigenetics’ so he’ll like me and not think I’m brain-damaged. I don’t remember much after that, except trying to be funny (that’s a card I throw to lure in the opposition), but when I try too hard to be funny it always backfires badly. It’s an act of sheer desperation.
On our way out, we grind to a halt and stand frozen while some guy in a red suit with gold buttons walks down the Addams Family hallway carrying a gold septum (I know that’s not right, but I don’t know how to spell the word for that gold baton someone really important uses to beat on the floor before a session is about to start in chambers … or whatever).
Once he passes and we move on, Lord R. introduces me to other lords and ladies; I made small curtsies and bows in a below-stairs-servant, Downton Abbey kind of way. I am introduced to a Lady Somebody, who, I am told, changed the divorce laws in the UK. She is obviously brilliant, and again I lose my ability to speak a single word of English. We move on, and I say to a passing lord (who I happen to have met before), ‘I’m not worthy.’ When he’s about twenty feet past me he shouts back, ‘Yes, you are.’ That got me out of the building without wetting myself in shame. Life is full of small miracles.
Here’s another fly, or bee, in the ointment of why we’re so … antsy all the time: choice. When I came to the UK, I would have killed for ice cream that wasn’t strawberry or vanilla. Even then, the US was making thirty-one flavours; now it’s 1,310. It started slowly – chocolate, mint, bubblegum, bacon with egg, alfalfa, no calories, no fat … no ice cream. Now, the UK has not only caught up but has overtaken the US. Choice is ruining our lives, taking up precious moments. I’d say that 99 per cent of our lives is now taken up by the act of deciding (and not just about ice cream). We suffer from decision overload: we forget we have a limit, and if we push it too much we hit neural fatigue. We should have stuck with vanilla.
Some of the above ‘frazzlers’ are contemporary problems that come with our Western culture whether we like it or not, but there are certain evolutionary human features we’re born with; they’ve worked brilliantly for us in the past but are now backfiring down the street of life like an old banger.
A great feature of the human brain is that we’re able to string together numerous actions and bung them all into one activity. You don’t have to think: pick up toothbrush, open cap, squeeze tube, grimace, move toothbrush up then down, then up again and down again, then spit. Each separate action would take up a big chunk of your lifetime.
Thanks to human mutations, cruise control enables us to perform without our needing to use conscious thought. This is the benefit of being on autopilot: being able to daisy-chain all those separate actions into one. The flip side of this gift, however, is that, because we’re creatures of habit, we end up staying in automatic gear and not noticing anything around us. Before we know it, our whole life begins to be a series of events all clumped together and so we end up missing the ride. Holidays, weddings, Christmas, the day you lose your virginity (though it wasn’t the most pleasant experience for me and is better forgotten) – all are done on automatic, to get them over with so we can move on to the next mission. Most of the time we need to watch a video to remember any sort of occasion.
I’m aware how much of my life I’ve lived on autopilot, spending my days elbowing my way through a career and worrying, whenever I got what I wanted, that someone would take it away and so elbowing some more. I can’t recall much of a normal life outside of pushing. I sometimes meet men who tell me we once dated, and I have no recollection of it. Where was my mind? Perhaps they laced my drink with some date-rape drug.
You won’t recognize you’re on autopilot when you’re on it because that’s the point of it: to not think, just do.
When Autopilot is Useful
· On a long train ride through Siberia with people sitting on your head it’s so crowded
· When you have to go shopping with your mother
· When you have to watch a school play your kid’s not in
· When you’re plucking a chicken (I haven’t, but I’ve heard)
· Being at Glastonbury and needing to go to the toilet
· Being a dinner guest in Japan and your host is serving pufferfish (not to be confused with puffin). It can kill you
When Autopilot isn’t Useful
· During sex (sometimes)
· When you’re eating in a Michelin five-star restaurant
· On any holiday with your children
· When you’re tightrope walking
If we were anatomically equipped to deal with the requirements of the twenty-first century, we’d have 476 hands, 75 ears, 451 mouths and 16 orifices. Multitasking is another fabulous ability humans have that animals don’t. No other animal comes with the ability to spin so many plates. Have you ever seen a gazelle listening to headphones, tweeting and smoking a joint at the same time? I don’t think so. We pride ourselves on our ability to multitask, boasting about how many activities we can cram into a second, and yet it’s not only what keeps us from being in the present but also what burns us out.
When our computers overload we know to switch them off and boot them up again a bit later. Why can’t we do that to ourselves without feeling like a failure? I’m not suggesting we all ‘chill’ (God I hate that word and all who use it), but if we could just know to put our fingers to sleep after an orgy of emailing so that we can concentrate on the cheeseburger we’ve just ordered, life would be a bowl of chips to go with it.
Past and Future Thinking
I’ve said this before, but just to remind you: stress and a high level of vigilance worked for us in the past because we had to figure out quickly what was safe and what wasn’t. If there was a rustling in the bushes, was it something with big teeth looking for lunch or was it a friend playing a prank? (If so, it wasn’t funny.) You need to imagine the past in order to predict the future outcome.
This ability to time travel enables us to stay on Earth another day. Many animals do this, recalling what’s dangerous and what isn’t, but they don’t worry about it. Obviously, a mouse recalls that an elephant will kill it and, faced with another one, knows to run away. But the mouse doesn’t worry about it, it doesn’t stay up all night fretting that it might happen, it just skedaddles off. The mouse has it sussed. We don’t.
The fact is our memories give us very unreliable feedback of what really happened during any incident and, each time we recall it, the images get fuzzier and fuzzier. So when we go back to our memory files we’re working from some pretty shoddy evidence. This means that past and future thinking is taking up our valuable airtime and energy, and to very little advantage.
When Past and Future Thinking is Helpful
· Oh, I remember, this is the man who tried to mug me last month; maybe I should cross the street
· Oh, this is where the hole in the pavement was that I fell into and broke my skull; maybe I should walk around it
When Past and Future Thinking isn’t Helpful
· I ate a really bad snail when I was nine so if I see anything that looks like a snail I have to kill it, even if it’s a hat that looks like a snail
· I reported a man who was wearing a badly fitting toupee for sexual harassment. Now whenever I see someone with a bad toupee I scream, ‘Rapist!’ and run away
Past and future thinking causes us endless angst because we’re constantly caught in a trap of remembering so many imagined disasters that no longer have anything to do with survival and this leads to rumination; one negative, self-focused thought snowballs into the next, into infinity. ‘Why did I flunk the exam?’ ‘Why didn’t I get the job/ the boyfriend/ girlfriend? Probably because I’m a loser. If only I was smarter/ had a better personality/ was better-looking … I’ll probably never amount to much because I’m too stupid/ ugly/ overweight … Was I born this way? Can I get surgery? …’ (It never ends.)
You’ll never know why you feel the way you feel; thinking will never get to the bottom of your thoughts. These negative thoughts feed negative feelings, and the cycle of despair deepens. Operating like this is like taking poison to kill the poison. That theory of ingesting something toxic to fight something toxic might work with homeopathy, but it doesn’t when you apply stress to stress. When we scramble for an explanation, whatever we come up with is usually wrong, because we’ve only got a few thousand words and over 50,000 feelings. It’s like trying to speak Spanish when you only know the word ‘tapas’.
The human brain – specifically, Einstein’s – can come up with the equation e = mc2 (that’s how smart we are), but what our mind can’t do is come up with the solution to something like ‘Why don’t people I have sex with ever call me again?’ Even Einstein probably couldn’t answer that one.
Being on automatic pilot, multitasking and using past or future thinking are all techniques for ensuring survival, but they can also be at the heart of our unhappiness. (In the next chapter, on mindfulness, I’ll discuss how all three can be revamped and made to work for us, rather than against us.)
Why, if there are 7 billion people on Earth, do I feel so alone? I do so much with my fingers to keep in touch with people that I’ve forgotten that what I really need to do is get up and go somewhere to meet them. I sometimes get a wake-up call and think that I haven’t spoken with my mouth or seen the flesh of a real friend for twelve years. I panic that I might be forgotten because I haven’t spoken to someone so I send a vague message, but I don’t know how to write something from the heart, something personal, because I’ve only been using my computer to order things online. I know how to order a Danish superior goosedown-filled duvet and I’m quite proud of that talent, but how to say, ‘I miss you,’ without typing an emoticon of a stupid grinning circle and a pumping heart is beyond me. I’m now so used to using these things I put a heart and a kiss symbol on emails to my bank manager and my plumber.
This is the problem: all this interconnectedness and we still feel lonely; and the less we feel the need to emotionally connect with each other, the more we’ll lose our ability to. You can spend the rest of your life online but it will never make you feel the same way as when someone covered in skin smiles at you. We might just have lost that human touch of togetherness because sending a smiley face doesn’t say it all.
We use our phones now to feel connected. You see people pincered between headphones, laughing, screaming and crying, with full arm-waving gestures, into a plastic rectangle. They’re probably talking to their iWife or iHusband, complaining about something that’s happened in their iHome.
Recently, I was in Ireland and went to the tiny town of Westport, where everyone acts like you’re a long-lost relative and is thrilled to welcome you, giving you a ‘Top o’ the morning’ greeting even when it’s not morning. They talk about having a ‘crack’, which I didn’t get until I left. (I thought they were on the stuff.) And just when I was thinking the town is so provincial, and I was getting snotty, they take me to a pub: and there is the reason we should all live in Ireland.
In the corner of the dark, smoky, wooden-floored pub are several fiddlers, three flautists, a singer and someone banging a drum. They’re playing that Irish music that makes your heart bleed; it all sounds the same, but it’s fantastic. One guy from the Chieftains (a brilliant Irish band) was playing along with them and I was told this music goes on most every night. Everyone in there was dancing – old, young, totally plastered – and everyone was completely happy. I was thinking how much we’re missing out on in London. Here, the whole community gets together and they have these evenings like they’re one big family. I was told that when someone dies in the town everyone piles into the house of the bereaved and they take care of the cooking and cleaning, and there’s music and crying and drinking. How much would I love to live there in my next life!
The Search for Happiness
This is what we’re all after, but one of the problems with the ‘H’ word is that we can’t agree on what it is and how you hold on to it.
We share all our other emotions because we all come with the same equipment. When you bang your elbow on something hard, even if you’re a member of some isolated Amazonian tribe the response is ‘Owww!’ (but in Amazonian). Sadness is fairly universal, too: the reasons for it change, but we all get the same sensation of water dripping out of our tear ducts and our chins wobbling.
Happiness is the big banana we’re all after, and yet we have no idea why or how the other guy feels it. There are not many books written about the feeling of what actually happens when you bang your elbow, but there are billions on happiness.
What is known is that, if you make it through a life-or-death situation, you get that feeling of feathers tickling your insides and the sides of your mouth turn up into a smile.
The situations below may create a feeling of happiness.
· You just crossed the Himalayas with no food for two weeks and suddenly see a rabbit
· After fifty years of searching, you found your birth mother … and she’s rich
· You’ve just been told the diagnosis was wrong: you haven’t got something terminal
· You were blind and now you can see, and you live in Barbados
Some of these experiences may be more the ‘R’ word, as in ‘relief’, rather than full on the ‘H’ word, but let’s not get caught up in semantics; you get a big zing! if you’ve experienced any of the above.
If you are in an emergency situation, happiness is more elusive. I’d just like to remind you that I realize I’m only addressing about 5 per cent of the people in the world in this book: those who have enough food in their mouths, and clothes on their backs. Most people on this globe don’t have the time to contemplate happiness; whether they live or die is just a flip of a coin. I apologize to them – not that they’d be reading this book, but if they happen to be using some of the pages to build a fire and read any of this … I’m sorry.
Some big names have talked about happiness, and they’re no dummies.
Seneca: ‘The only thing we own is our mind, everything else is a gift.’
Epicurus said that there are only three important ingredients to happiness: friendship, freedom (not to be owned by anyone), and an analysed life. The more you lack these three things, the more you’ll want power and money, and they always lead to unhappiness.
Aristotle wrote that happiness is the goal of goals.
Nietzsche wrote that great happiness requires great suffering.
Dr Seuss: ‘Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.’
Kurt Vonnegut: ‘I urge you to please notice when you are happy and exclaim or even murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”’
Abraham Lincoln: ‘Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.’
Buddha: ‘Life is suffering.’ (I love that guy.)
Unknown Person: ‘If you think sunshine brings you happiness, then you haven’t danced in the rain.’ (This person has clearly never had depression.)
Dalai Lama XIV: ‘Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your actions.’
Basically, all these people agree with me …
Okay: here’s my stance on happiness.
We all (well, I do) get a volt of joy when we’re selected for the girls’ volleyball team (I wasn’t, but I can imagine the thrill if I had been … Clearly, I’m still very bitter) or fall in love … when the feeling’s mutual (which didn’t happen much in my early life, so I took up stalking).
The rub is that, however high the hit is, it doesn’t last; none of us can keep up that emotional erection for ever. Even if you hold on to the second feeling long enough to marry, some day you’ll eventually look at him/ her and think, ‘What was I thinking?’ The day will come when you’ll be sitting there, hating the way he/ she chews food. Everything ends. However talented, beautiful, intelligent you are, at some point you will be replaced, like an old toaster, by a newer model. So there it is: we spend our lives hunting for something that has a very limited shelf life, sometimes lasting only seconds. If orgasms went on for ever, we’d never get anything done.
If we can’t even describe happiness accurately, we really have a hard time with contentment. It sounds like you’ve retired and are smiling benignly in your incontinence pants. It sounds like that, but it isn’t. The problem is we have to learn to feel contentment. I know that when I’ve done something for someone else without expecting anything in return I get a warm, syrupy feeling in my veins. That’s how I would describe how contentment feels, but it only works if you do your altruistic act in private, and don’t shout it out from the treetops. If I announce, ‘Hey, everyone, I helped save a puffin,’ it wouldn’t feel as good as secretly saving a puffin … (I might be losing my thread here …)
I think my aim in life is to try for that state when you’re not too high or too low, to just be able to balance on the surfboard. ‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf’ – I read that on a T-shirt. This brings me back to why I practise mindfulness each and every day: to stay on that surfboard.
The Future of Humanity
As far as our evolutionary advancements are concerned, we don’t need any more thumbs in order to survive, or to be able to run any faster, thanks to the car industry. The way we’ll advance as a species in the future will be to psychologically catch up with our technology. Please believe me: I’m not whining about there being too much technology, no one is more thrilled than I that someday I might be able to get a virtual Brazilian – but we will have to learn to recognize when we’re running on empty and to pull over to rest and refuel.
I think a useful accessory would be a bleeper implanted in our brains that tells us when to pull up and stop for a breather; we won’t lose out because, when we join the race again, we’ll be quicker, more resilient and able to beat the competition. (Yes, you can use mindfulness to help you win the race without killing yourself in the process.)
I like it when people say, ‘I screwed up. I don’t know what I’m doing. I am scared. I’m lost.’ To be human is to stand up and claim your weakness.
We should admire people who can just stay in bed and not worry about it. We should say, ‘Wow, this guy can afford spare time, let’s give him a knighthood.’ In truth, when we meet someone who seems perfect, secretly, we can’t wait for his or her demise. If someone is flawed, I know I am immediately drawn to them, reassured that they are like me underneath. But because we never express our limitations for fear of being ousted by the tribe, we keep quiet and hide our imperfections while feeling doused in shame. This secrecy and refusal to be open makes us feel alone and isolated.
The next time we evolve, it won’t be at the whim of natural selection, it will be by our selection, and it will be a matter of consciously developing our emotional insight rather than inventing some other ‘thing’ that might be technologically jaw-dropping but won’t make our lives any easier or happier. We have enough smarts. Now we need more hearts.
I’ve noticed that when people are extremely successful they start to believe they’re invincible. They’re so busy being smart they forget they’re just a piece of meat with a sell-by date; they don’t even have a flicker of awareness about their own mortality. They forget that they, too, are biodegradable and must be handled with care, or they can kiss themselves bye-bye.
If we don’t develop our more human qualities then we’re doomed, evolution-wise, to become cyborgs, our cells replaced by silicon chips, steel pincers for fingers (but hundreds of them to do all the multitasking), and then we’ll be perfect, no flaws, only a shiny, silver carcass with an imprint of an Apple where our hearts used to be.