I originally wrote this sermon on September 15, 2010. It has been well received by several UU congregations in Northern California.
The act of living our lives every day is, for many of us, a tough proposition. We have bills to pay, rent or mortgages to deal with, jobs that provide us with money - but little else, and on it goes. So, when we encounter people who seem to be genuinely happy most of the time, our natural instinct is to think of them as somehow abnormal. I’m not saying we all walk around with the idea that life should just be difficult and anyone who doesn’t understand that is a freak. I mean that we are generally suspicious of people who are just so damned happy all the time. We make up kinds of justifications for them; “They’re young – wait until they get out of college. They’re in love – wait until they’re past the infatuation stage. They’re skinny – wait until they can’t fit into those clothes. They’re rich – wait until they lose their money and have to work like the rest of us.” You get the idea. Have you noticed that we often describe happiness as a fleeting state? There is definitely a time element to our descriptions, as indicated with phrases such as “.... wait until”, or “someday”, or “when the time comes”.
Can you live in a state of happiness all the time? Is that desirable? Is that a good thing? Can too much happiness ruin your life? And, what is happiness? Is it the same thing as contentment, or peace? In this sermon I will examine the question of happiness from both a spiritual and practical perspective.
One could argue that spirituality is, in essence, a search for happiness - or at least –meaning in life. If bad things are going to happen to us, at least a spiritual perspective helps ease the inevitable pain of existence. Of course, the converse is true. It’s nice to have a “spiritual” perspective to account for all the good things that happen. Some spiritual or religious-minded people among us feel sorry for those others who claim to be agnostics or atheists. Can they truly be happy without a God to provide that happiness, or sense of purpose?
A central component in most spiritual practices is the concept of faith. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew means essentially steadfastness. Faith is the confident belief or trust in the truth or trustworthiness of a person, concept or thing. The English word is thought to date from 1200–1250, from the Latin fidem or fidēs, meaning "trust".
In a religious or theological context faith many times refers to belief, ranging from confident to absolute without evidence or even in the face of contrary evidence, in the existence of the supernatural and in religious teachings being true. However, the atheists and agnostics among us consider the term to be a euphemism for religious superstition. Anyway you want to look at it, as applied to everyday happiness, faith is a powerful tool in your arsenal.
Buddhism comes the closest of religious systems, in my mind, to a good workable and practical understanding of faith. Faith in Buddhism derives from the pali word sadd ā, which often refers to a sense of conviction. The Sadd ā is often described as: a conviction that something is, a determination to accomplish one's goals, and a sense of joy deriving from the other two. Notice this is very different from the traditional Western and Christian definition of faith. Faith in Christianity is based in and on the work and teaching of Jesus Christ. In this way Christianity declares not to be distinguished by its faith, but by the object of its faith. Faith is an act of trust or reliance. Whether trust or reliance is placed in God, Jesus, or both, the Christian assumes someone other than yourself is in firm control of the faith-related events of your life.
In Hinduism, Śraddā is the word that is synonymous with faith, as in Buddhism. It means unshaken belief and purity of thought. Faith is recognized as a virtue throughout all schools of Hinduism, although there is a variety of interpretations of the role of faith in one's daily life. Some traditions more strongly emphasize reason and direct personal knowledge, while others more strongly emphasize religious devotion.
A clear distinction emerges from a study of various faith systems as practiced in the world. Faith is either, essentially, an externally facing activity or an internally derived pursuit. In other words, faith can be in a God that is external to us and our everyday experiences, or it can be in our own abilities and convictions that are rooted in direct personal knowledge and experiences. In the context of happiness, faith in that happiness persisting... a sense that things will go right for us... is either provided by a God outside of us, or provided by ourselves through what the Buddhists would say is a joy derived from conviction and determination to accomplish our goals.
This aspect of gauging happiness through the achievement of goals corresponds with the work of Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, (me-high chick-sent-me-high) who coined the word “flow” to describe the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.
I’ll get to the concept of “flow” a little later, but now it is important to delve into the notion of whether happiness can, or should persist over long periods of time. Some might say such a thing is an abnormality... that no one can achieve a persistent state of happiness, and that such a pursuit is, at best, a “fool’s errand”, and worst, just downright dangerous (presumably because the world is not a nice place).
For most of us success in life is not measured by fame, fortune, or our profession, but rather, by our degree of overall happiness. Indeed, there is a strong movement within psychology toward "Positive Psychology" and new research being done to better understand happiness. Positive psychology researchers use theoretical models that include describing happiness as consisting of positive emotions and positive activities, or that describe three kinds of happiness: pleasure, engagement, and meaning.
Whether you subscribe to the notion that happiness is fleeting or that it can be a persistent, sustainable, and repeatable occurrence, you can’t deny the fact that it is vitally important to all of us. Some people, however, become angry at entities they perceive as supposedly providing happiness when that happiness is not forthcoming, or in jeopardy. Whether the thing to provide happiness is another person, a religion, a philosophy, or a bank account, it seems human nature is to want to blame others for any lack of happiness. I can’t tell you how many times I talk to people who complain about the book and film called “The Secret” as being a disappointment.
“The Secret” is based on science of mind classic books, quantum physics, metaphysics, and findings in neuroscience. It claims that our life is determined by what we think and how we feel. The main premise of the book and movie, written by Rhonda Byrne, is that one can attract or manifest health, wealth, relationships and happiness by thinking about it, then taking inspired action to achieve what is to be manifested. It’s that last bit critics seem to miss... they complain that “The Secret” just concentrates on the “attracting” and no “doing”. Other critics say the “Law of Attraction” purported in the “The Secret” is just pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo elevated to a new metaphysical realm.
My own feeling about “The Secret” is that it is generally a good attempt to bring the power of positive thinking to the masses. The relationships between that power and events occurring in your life are not provable, however, the book and movie leave an impression that they are. Also, I believe it is not the power of attraction that manifests positive events in your life... that is what I call the “Law of Attention” — and that is the subject of another discussion. The central point here is that you can radically improve the quality of your life by changing your attitude towards it. It is possible to be happy all, or most, of the time. It is possible... and you’re responsible for that. It’s not “The Secret”, or any deity, religion, or philosophy that will change your attitude about life to allow you to become a more happy person. These things can aid in the process, but they simply can’t magically make you happy.
People who complain about some aspect of spirituality or religion not working correctly are people who believe in what I call the “God Machine”. These people have been with us since we’ve existed on the planet. In the New Testament, they would be described as the Sadducees, because they were overly concerned with rules. God Machine practitioners are people who expect that if they pray in a certain way, tithe a certain amount, meditate enough hours, read the word of God, or engage in a particular spiritual practice then God automatically will supply them with whatever they feel God must do, by law. They are annoyed when what they consider spiritual laws are violated.
For refugees from “The Secret”, the God Machine must function the way the magic genie does in the movie. The universe is supposed to say, “your wish is my command”, then instantly manifest what they want. If that doesn’t happen according to their expectations, then something is wrong with “The Secret”, the universe, or God. If a Christian saves another soul for Christ, then shouldn’t they feel better about their own faith, if they have some doubts? If that Christian tithes enough to build an orphanage in Kenya, don’t they have a right to expect something in return from the God Machine? I’d imagine there are pretty pissed off Muslim suicide bombers somewhere looking for their promised 40 virgins from the God Machine too.
Before I go further I must, in the interest of full disclosure, confess that I used to be a God Machine practitioner. I must also warn you that I am one of those people who would describe my life as “Very Happy”. In fact, I’m afraid they’d have to invent a new category for me of “... being between ecstatic and full of joy most of the time”. How is this? Well it’s because I have been an artist my entire life. Before the term “Positive Psychology” caught on, before studies were made by researchers on happiness, and before Csíkszentmihályi’s book entitled “Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play”, was published in 1975, I was already a life-long “flow-er”.
As you may know, I am a composer... wrote my first symphony at the age of 17. When I was 13 years old, played the cello for the first time, and put my first notes to music paper. At that time, I became a God Machine junkie... not in a bad way. But, I definitely became a God Machine junkie. You see, I realized that if I approached my compositions with the right frame of mind, or performed in cello competitions from that space, I’d always be successful. I learned to transform blank paper into works of art. More importantly, I discovered over many years, that I don’t create anything — I uncover what is already there.
A long time ago, I left the God Machine behind because I realized that I am almost always in flow. I don’t need to approach God from a certain direction to be blessed all the time. I can tell you, the effect of creating something new - of working through the myriad challenges, and finally arriving at a piece of music an orchestra plays – cannot help but make you feel happy. You don’t have to take my word for this. The following is from David Gordon's compilation of factoids, trivia, and other gee-whiz stuff about JS Bach. Gordon is a distinguished musicologist who has made a particular study of what made Bach tick. Here is some of what he found:
For JS Bach, nothing in life, however mundane, was considered unspiritual. In a humorous poem about his beloved tobacco pipe, he wrote: "On land, on sea, at home, abroad, I puff my pipe and think of God."
Johann Sebastian Bach's compositions are filled with musical and graphic symbolism and numerology. Scholars believe he was simply amusing himself with his own private word and number games even as he was composing his greatest masterpieces.
Bach was a busy man all his life: organist, choir master, music teacher, court musician, and instructor at a boys school, father of 20 children. The mystery is how he found time to compose music at all, much less create great musical masterpieces.
Whatever can be said about J.S. Bach, it is clear, at least to me, he was a man immersed in the flow experience of his art. He made a constant connection with the source of that flow. Ultimately, he believed that music brought glory to God, as the initials SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, "To God alone be glory") were written at the end of most of his musical scores.
The point is, you don’t have to be a musical genius to experience the state of flow and derive benefit from it. I was lucky, at an early age, to have discovered it for myself.
Csikszentmihalyi explains “flow” in this way:
"This complete immersion in an experience could occur while you are singing in a choir, dancing, playing bridge, or reading a good book... It may occur in a social interaction, when talking with a good friend, or while playing with a baby. Moments such as these provide flashes of intense living against the dull background of everyday life... The metaphor of flow is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives... It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life. The happiness that follows flow is of our own making, and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness."
Saskia Davis puts this growth in consciousness that Csikszentmihalyi describes very nicely in one phrase from her poem called “The Symptoms of Inner Peace”. She wrote that one of the symptoms is “An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment.” Now for many of us, that seems to be quite a challenge... to develop “the ability to enjoy each moment.” I don’t believe you can develop that ability unless you learn to simply let go of expectations. Buddha said “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Meditation is a practice in how to let go of our thoughts, emotions, and opinions. Eventually, with practice, you are able to be simply be present, to let go of each moment, constantly moving into the next. In this way we come into direct contact with what really is, which could be called “nowness” or being awake in the eternal present.
Wake up to the fact that every moment is amazing. You can be in a constant state of what I like to call “walking meditation”. You can chose to enjoy every moment or you can chose not to. The trick is to chose, and not allow your subconscious desire to remain asleep to beauty of each moment dull this exquisite truth.
Truly being in the present does not require an act of faith. It doesn’t need a God to make deals with. You don’t have to be super human. Just being human, and alive, is a miracle. The joy of creating perception in each moment, or composing a symphony, or flying an airplane, or feeling the happiness of a child at play is always within your grasp.
So, to live in a constant state of “flow”, to relieve yourself of the need for faith, and to avoid that pesky God Machine, practice changing your mind like you would a pair of old shoes... just change your mind.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!