Excerpt from Whole Happy and Healthy: A Revolutionary Approach to Understanding and Thriving with Mental Illness http://amzn.to/2mUjVRK
The concept of mindfulness has become popularized in recent years as a result of the work of many teachers, writers, and practitioners. And I am very grateful! Being more aware of who we are and what we do, living in the moment, and being intentional about our thoughts and actions are all integral to leading a meaningful and purposeful life.
But it isn’t enough. Without a full and open heart to center and connect our mind to something greater than ourselves, whether it be communal or spiritual or both, the practice of mindfulness can become esoteric, and sometimes egocentric.
I don’t think many mindfulness practitioners would disagree with me. At least I hope not. Indeed, the way mindfulness is typically taught and practiced, at least in my experience, promotes the fluid integration of mind, body, and spirit.
But something about the term mindfulness seems deficient to me. It begs for a companion to demonstrate that the mind alone does not fully represent our human experience.
Heartfulness is a complementary concept that builds on the idea of mindfulness. It focuses not on the thinking and feeling of mindfulness, but on being and doing instead. It is a process through which we can create resilient hearts, leading to more peace and love in the world. Heartful means to be full of curiosity, acceptance, understanding, responsiveness, forgiveness, and hope. It is to be our most beautiful selves despite the challenges and turmoil we face. When we practice heartfulness, we don’t need to think about being intentional because we consistently connect with and express the pure love in our hearts. It is to be who we are meant to be, a continual expression of our deepest desires and dreams.
Happiness is something we all seem to want more of in our lives, but what exactly do we mean when we say that we want to be happy? The way each person interprets the meaning of happiness is as unique as every manifestation of life on the planet. When you think about the word ‘happy,’ it likely invokes a certain emotional response which I can assure you is quite different from what your neighbor might be feeling when this particular word is used. It might make you think of other words such as joy, peace, contentment, pleasure, bliss, or amusement. Perhaps it provokes pleasant memories or inspiration for a better tomorrow. The definition of happiness is complex, dynamic, and even nebulous. While there are many ways of defining and understanding the meaning of happiness, all of them are valid and complementary. Together, they create a full picture of something which all of us want more of in our lives in one way or another.
Happiness is sometimes thought of as a trait. A trait is something with which we are born; in other words, some people have a lot of it and other people don’t have very much at all. We don’t have a lot of choice or control over our traits because they are gifted at birth. We can make the most of what we have, but the traits that have been entrusted to us are for the most part fixed and can’t be further developed over time. While situations and our behavior may influence our traits, ultimately they are automatic set points to which we return after these stimuli end.
Conversely, happiness can be understood as a part of our personality. Our personality emerges from within but can evolve over time. It is shaped by relationships, circumstances, and choices. When our personality reflects an intrinsic sense of happiness, it shows through our word choice, tone of voice, body language, and ways of connecting with others. A person who has a cheerful disposition or a positive attitude is emanating her or his happy personality. Thinking of happiness as a component of our personality rather than as a trait offers two advantages: it connects this aspect of ourselves to the whole of our character, and it offers us some degree of flexibility and control over how we adapt to, and function in, the world.
Happiness can also be identified as an object, or a thing that exists outside of ourselves. According to this view, happiness is something we chase and try to both acquire and achieve. It becomes a possession, or something we grasp and claim as a part of our personal identity. Because it is an object, happiness can be accumulated, hoarded, and leveraged. The more happiness we have, the more power we possess. Unfortunately, when we chase after things they typically evade us and when we hold on too tight we can suffocate them. If happiness is a thing, then it is one which should be appreciated and savored rather than pursued and used.
Happiness is also a feeling or emotion. As a feeling, it is something we experience in the moment while as an emotion it is something felt on a much deeper, more sustained, level. Either way, like all feelings and emotions, it can be difficult to understand and to describe to others. Although much of our emotional response to the world is innate, it is heavily influenced by our circumstances, choices, behavior, and relationships. Our emotional framework can shift and expand over time by intentionally becoming more aware of our feelings and making ongoing choices that redirect our emotional response in a way that creates more happiness, or less, in our lives.
Happiness can also be a skill, or something we learn to do through repeated practice. Writing, for me and most others, is a skill. I may have been born with a flavor for words, but my ability to write well has been developed throughout my life by continually practicing and expanding outside of my comfort zone by trying new topics and styles of writing. Similarly, we can develop our capacity to experience happiness through practice and application in different situations. The more we practice applying happiness in moments of difficulty, the more consistently we will feel a sense of contentment and inner peace regardless of the circumstances in my life. Happiness is a muscle that grows when it is used. The more we feel a sense of happiness, the more we will want to experience it rather than something that causes us repeated pain and anguish.
Similarly, happiness can also be a repeated pattern of behavior. It is not just something we think or feel, but something we actively do in the world. Being happy means to act happy; not in a phony way, but in a sincere way that connects our innermost desires with what we do in our daily lives. When we allow our passions the freedom to grow by taking steps to share and nurture them, we become happier both in the moment and in general. People who are happy consistently act in ways that perpetuate a sense of happiness. When our actions result in more love and peace in the world, we are creating happiness not just within ourselves but for all others to enjoy as well. We are choosing to live in a happier and more loving world, and those behavioral choices are contagious.
In contrast to thinking of happiness as an object, or as something that can be acquired, happiness can alternatively be thought of as a process. It is something that emerges from moment to moment in our life journey. We experience happiness as we go about our daily lives; it ebbs and flows with our attention and intention. Happiness cannot be defined because it is always evolving, growing, and transforming. It is always with us as we search for meaning and for love. The happiness journey is traveled throughout life, until we completely give up or die.
Finally, happiness can be thought of as a sense of connection — to ourselves, others, the planet, and spirituality. It is knowing deep within that all of our thoughts, feelings, and actions have a magnificent consequence because everything is interconnected. When we are happy, we are connected to our planetary purpose and are able to discover and create abundant opportunities to share our special gifts with the world. Happiness revels in the curious joy of relationships, risking security to reveal the prosperity of love. We trust that we are loved, appreciated, and understood, and we easily love, appreciate, and understand others. Restoring internal and external connections and developing nurturing relationships feeds the happiness in our souls.
I sometimes think that I was happier when I was depressed. I recently found a journal from 2006 and 2008, with an almost two-year gap in-between. The pages contained subtle and not so subtle expressions of sadness, rage, loss, obsession, and shame. While I read my desperate words with compassion for the promising young woman who couldn’t see past her, my, immediate challenges, I also felt a sense of loss for the person I once was. Who knew that I would someday long for those dreary days with a sense of sentimental pride.
At the time, I knew exactly who I was — or so it appears on the page. My mental health diagnosis was enmeshed with my identity. It was who I was; it explained why I felt what I felt and did what I did. I defined myself through my diagnosis with religious rigor. Resistance to recovery is often rooted in attachment to our sense of self at a particular time in our lives — a self that we have, necessarily so, learned to understand, manage, and control.
But I really only knew one part of myself, and now I have opened up to so many other possibilities for my life. I am happy, or I should say happier, but not consistently so. And that is unquestionably good. But at the same time, I feel that my writing, a reflection of how I feel about life at the moment, has become, at times, fake, sterile, and dull despite moments of restless rumination. I fear that if I do not suffer, then my art will on my behalf.
I didn’t originally have the opportunity to self-identify as a person who experiences mental illness, pervasive emotional distress. From a young age, I was told you’re this. You’re that. I was medicated. I received harmful treatment that fractured my already fragile self-esteem and identity. Without realizing it, I conformed to those various labels that were attached to me and implicitly complied with the related assumptions about my feelings and behavior. In my heart of hearts, I never fully accepted other people’s interpretations of me, particularly those that were based on a simplistic diagnosis — because I am a unique, complex, dynamic human being— as we all are.
No, I really don’t want to go back to those more difficult days, but I wouldn’t change them either. I am grateful for what they, both at the time and in retrospect, have revealed and taught me about myself and about life. They have made me a stronger, more empathetic, and more resilient person.
(c) Jessica R. Dreistadt 2015-2019. All Rights Reserved.