Let all peoples be happy, weak or strong, of high, middle, low estate, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far away, alive or still to be born. May they all be entirely happy. Let nobody lie to anybody or despise any single being anywhere. May no one wish harm to any single creature out of anger or hatred. Let us cherish all creatures as a mother her only child. May our loving thoughts fill the whole world above, below, across without limit of boundless goodwill toward the whole world, unrestricted, free of hatred and enmity.
Early Buddhist aspiration, quoted by Karen Armstrong in her lecture Faith after Sept 11
The heart receives many conflicting messages about how to relate to the world and what brings happiness. In the US Thanksgiving leads into Black Friday, and the influence of this notion is now reproduced around the world, including here in Ireland.
For many people in our culture, the heart fills up with joy, with gratefulness, and just at the moment when it wants to overflow and really the joy comes to itself, at that moment, advertisement comes in and says “No, no, there’s a better model, and there’s a newer model, and your neighbor has a bigger one.” And so instead of overflowing, we make the bowl bigger, and bigger, and bigger. And it never overflows. It never gives us this joy. It’s affluent, this affluency side that means it always flows in, it doesn’t overflow. It flows in, and in, and in, and in, and chokes us eventually. And we don’t have to deprive ourselves of anything, but we can learn that the real joys come with quality, not with quantity.
David Steindl-Rast, Anatomy of Gratitude, Interview with Krista Tippett, On Being.
It must be said that things do not always work out as we would like. This teaches us patience and trust.
However, sometimes we get news of reward after long effort that is richly deserved. We don’t expect it, find it hard to believe, and yet – as Heaney says – it is like a gust of wind that can catch “the heart off guard and blow it open”. This teaches us the unforced nature of joy:
Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about giving up from work.
Water is there somewhere.
Keep knocking, and the joy inside will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.
Today the Christian Liturgy starts to sing the O Antiphons – ancient prayers and aspirations, used over the centuries in the days before Christmas. The first of them wishes that we may grow in wisdom at this time of year around the Winter Solstice, when the days are shorter and nature quietens down, and we reflect on the priorities in our lives. In many old traditions, wisdom was a quality in the person which was so desired and special that it was seen as coming down from above. It was greatly treasured – the best gift one could get in these days – because it gives a perspective and purpose to life and led to contentment.
It is good for us to remember these things when the talk is all about gifts, and getting, and happiness. Mindfulness meditation has two aspects – it grounds us first and then leads us into a felt insight into the marks of reality, namely, that it is always changing and that even the importance we give to ourselves is a constructed, fluid one. This wisdom or perspective is worth cultivating, as it tunes us into a deeper happiness, helping us to maintain our personal boundaries and not overstretch ourselves. It helps us to not link busyness or constant doing with our sense of worth, and stops us filling our days with so much activity that we have no space to sense whether we are truly fulfilling our deepest needs. Real contentment comes from within – from getting a balance in our lives and seeing things clearly.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
and softly putting order in all things:
Come and teach us the way of balance.