"Wonder in the Morning"
- Daybreak at the Desert Retreat House -
In a recent op-ed column in the New York Times, a “Baby-Boomer” suggested that many people in his “aging” generation have finally learned how to abandon their addiction to an all-encompassing “to-do list” that has held so many in its tyrannical grip for most of their lives. Since I am one of those aging “Baby-Boomers,” this observation struck me as being particularly true.
The Times’ article went on to suggest that the need to accomplish specific goals on a daily and on a life-long basis may be a particularly “American” obsession:
Maybe it goes all the way back to the Declaration of Independence.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But happiness is the only word that doesn’t stand alone.
It must be pursued.
It may not be clear what happiness is, but you better get hold of it
and it’s your fault if you somehow can’t nab it yourself.
The essential American word is not happiness, it’s pursuit.
This observation makes such great sense to me because all my life I’ve been pursuing happiness. Almost every day of my life was governed by some sort of “to-do” list, a list of tasks that had to be accomplished by evening’s end, always followed by a new list when the next day arrived. As I think about it, my “to do” list was never confined to the goals I had set for a particular day, my to-do list was my life-long ambitions, my career goals, the bigger and better job I hoped to land, more money I wanted to earn, the better house, nicer car, newer gadgets, the next vacation.
I have only now come to realize that there is a big difference between pursuing happiness and experiencing happiness and more often than not the pursuit of happiness gets in the way of actually being happy.
As I see it, there is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing a career or enjoying the pleasures of life. You don’t have to walk around aimlessly or dress in rags and live in a hovel to find happiness in life; but the secret to the experience of genuine happiness lies in the ability to not cling so tightly to this life. Genuine happiness comes when we surrender the need to control everything (and everyone) in accordance with our own agenda, genuine happiness lies not in the pursuit of happiness but in the ability to “let go” of it all and to enjoy the wonder that life has to offer.
I have come to embrace the wisdom of the Buddhist teaching about renunciation as a pathway to happiness: we come to experience happiness by letting go of our tight grip on anything in this life, even freeing ourselves from the tyranny of the to-do list.
Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, puts it this way:
Letting go gives us freedom
and freedom is the only condition for happiness.
If in our heart we still cling to anything-
Anger, anxiety, possessions, strongly held ideas,
we cannot be free and therefore we cannot be happy.
In the later years of his life, the renowned Christian monk and author, Thomas Merton, wrote this in his journal:
When ambition ends, happiness begins.
At this point in my life, I find great wisdom in these words.