Happiness Is A Choice: Personal Note
Years ago, following the publication of my first book about the uplifting journey my family took to heal our special child (once neurologically impaired and dysfunctional), I spoke with a man who had written quite a different saga. He documented what he experienced as the difficult and damning reality of parenting a “less-than-perfect” youngster. He declared without apology that he hated people like me.
“You take something that’s terrible,” he said flatly, “and make believe it’s beautiful.”
I considered his point of view for a moment. “Did you ever consider,” I asked softly, “that you might be taking something that’s beautiful and making believe it’s terrible?”
At that moment, I realized that neither one of us held the truth, only a vision we had each created and then used to embrace our situation. I had decided to see my son and his difficulties as an opportunity to grow, learn and love. He regarded his situation as a curse. Our different experiences had followed from those distinctly different visions.
Wanting to reach out to him, I told him that I, too, would have once been overwhelmed and devastated by such an event. I remember, in grade school, watching a group of mentally retarded students trying to master the simplest aspects of a baseball game without success. I turned away, confused and uncomfortable about what I had witnessed. In high school, a boy in one of my classes walked with a limp, his left hand and arm contorted awkwardly. When he tried to speak, he had tremendous difficulty forming words and drooled uncontrollably each time he labored to verbalize even the shortest sentence. The teacher told us that Douglas had been born that way. Sometimes, other students mimicked his movements and laughed at their pantomimes. For one semester I tried to help him by carrying his book-bag, though I felt somewhat awkward, embarrassed and scared each time. I never knew what to say to him, so we walked together from the bus to the school building in silence.
Before the arrival of our first child, I thought about Douglas and how his life seemed like torture to me. I remember lying in bed one night, staring at the huge abdomen of my pregnant wife and thinking, “Oh God, what if … just what if what happened to Douglas happened to us and our child?” I remember praying for a healthy baby. Indeed, our first two children, both daughters, arrived as healthy and energetic little people. Our third child was very different. However, by the time of his arrival, my wife and I both had changed dramatically from the frightened and uncomfortable people who had greeted those first years of marriage and child rearing.
I tried to explain how the world had changed for me, in significant and irrevocable ways, once I had changed my own vision of life and had begun to make happiness and love priorities. As a result, my wife and I could greet our special child as a wonderful opportunity. The man with the different point of view listened to my sharing without comment. Finally, he laughed at my unending enthusiasm. He decided I had been well-intentioned but, nonetheless, naive and unrealistic in my hopefulness and happiness. He questioned the validity of my attitude. Ultimately, he preferred what he called his sanity.
During a question-and-answer segment immediately following a class I had conducted on developing attitudes of self-trust, a participant raised his hand tentatively. When I nodded at him, he withdrew at first, then leaned forward cautiously.
“My question is, um, somewhat related to what we’ve discussed, but in a bit of a different direction, and, er, more personal. I am having so much trouble with my asthma. I’ve gone from doctor to doctor. I take all the medication they’ve prescribed, but nothing really helps. I just can’t stand it. I wonder if you could say something, well, anything, that might be useful.”
I hesitated for a moment and considered sharing with him several scientific studies that would lay a foundation for what I knew would be my answer. However, the class had only minutes left. Finally, I smiled broadly and said, “This may sound silly or crazy or both, but I’ll do my best to give you a useful response. Be happy with your asthma! Instead of treating it like an enemy, embrace it like a friend. If you change your attitude about your condition you’ll change the chemistry in your body. Every thought we have is a physical event. Neurotransmitters and neuropeptides pop into existence throughout the body each time we activate a belief. Change the belief (the thought, the perspective, the judgment) and we change or, at the very least, influence the physical event we call our ‘bodymind.’ Your attitude and intelligence exist everywhere in the 50 trillion cells of your body. This is a marvelous and concrete opportunity for you, not just a pie-in-the-sky game. Give yourself and your asthma a different message and see what happens. So, when you have the tightness in your chest, the shortness of breath, the wheezing or coughing, you could first welcome it, talk to it, even play with it. Then open yourself, ultimately, to loving it, really loving it!”
He seemed amused, intrigued and skeptical. “I thought you’d say something like that,” he replied, chuckling. “Well, what do I have to lose? Okay, I’ll try it.”
The very next day, he came to the morning session of the program visibly rested and alert. “I had a special experience last night,” he told the group. “I greeted my nightly wheezing with a smile instead of my usual annoyance or depression. I actually did say hello out loud and laughed. I talked to my asthma like a friend. Wow! I told my asthma, we sure have a lot of history together.” He smiled shyly, then continued, “I even thanked my bronchial tubes each time I coughed. At first, I felt … well, absolutely ridiculous, but soon something magically freed up inside and I really felt loving and loved.” His eyes filled with tears. “You know, in no time at all, I fell asleep. Right now, I feel more comfortable and peaceful in my body than I have in months.”
This man had eased himself into being happy and loving toward a condition he had previously viewed as intolerable. He had created a powerful attitudinal advantage for himself. His play, his talk and his laughter helped him to change his vision of asthma from enemy to friend, and his new vision in turn changed his experience.
I never knew I could just claim happiness, at any time, as my birthright and not be limited by the condemning evidence of my own personal history and the past. That awareness, which I previously resisted as preposterous, has been a blessing and changed my life profoundly, allowing me in my own imperfect way to be so much more loving, peaceful and useful to myself and all those I touch.
During this past summer (as in many previous summers), my teaching staff and I lived and worked for two full months with a group of forty-two adults who had come together as strangers for eight weeks to form what became an instant family. This diverse group included a physician, a farmer, a lawyer, a social worker, homemakers, an engineer, a psychotherapist, a nurse, an artist, a carpenter, an actress, a computer programmer, a textile designer, several business executives, some entrepreneurs, teachers, college students, retirees and the like. They ranged in age from late teens to mid-seventies and hailed from urban and rural centers across the United States as well as from other countries. Together, we created an intention to explore completely the very substances of who we were and to recreate ourselves in accordance with our own individual designs. We dared to experiment with ourselves and then to live in ways that others might easily dismiss as “unrealistic” or “impossible.” Ultimately, the members of this amazing group (“amazing” tends to be my consistent reflection about all the groups, families and individuals I have had the privilege to facilitate) resourced and taught each other, crashed through the walls of limiting beliefs and constructed what we called “a vision to live by.”
Each day we gathered together for experiential interactions, discussions, intimate sharings and segments for self exploration. We laughed. We cried. We shouted. We whispered. We challenged each other. We loved and hugged each other. Eventually, we forged a respectful and honoring family of dear and supportive friends. Finally, we turned to an easel at the front of our meeting room and composed guidelines for an intentional lifestyle and then, in the weeks that followed, we put those guidelines into action with great energy and enthusiasm. We not only created a prototype of interfacing with other people in a happy, loving, accepting, stimulating and harmonious way, but also re-created our personal belief systems so we could be continuously open, self-accepting, energetic, embracing, joyful and yet unflappable (not vulnerable) in the face of judgments and criticism of others.
Even though we tripped and stumbled over old beliefs and judgments at times, we could not contain our awe and delight in what we had accomplished. No one could ever take that experience and learning from us or diminish the inspiration of what could become a possibility for everyday living on this planet. We did more than just dream that dream … we lived it, challenging and tickling each other until everyone had endless opportunities to experience their own momentous changes.
In response to their own appreciation for creating rapid, even instant, change in themselves, some members of this group returned to our teaching center (as did members of similar groups before them) with their entire families and helped loved ones quickly establish more open, intimate, supportive and loving relationships. Others brought friends and coworkers who wanted easier, sweeter and more nurturing life experiences and were willing to experiment by translating what they wanted into action. One man came back with the key executives from his company for a special program designed to help them create and live a common intention which encouraged open, authentic energetic, creative and fearless interaction.
“A vision to live by” has not only become the backbone for the staff and volunteers at our teaching center, but also the wellspring of inspiration for the individuals, families and groups we teach as well as an essential frame of reference for this book.
We now witness people implementing in hours what took us years to understand. The ideas contained on these pages can become a simple blueprint into which anyone can breathe life and thereby make profound, immediate changes. Oftentimes, we limit our perspective to past references, citing the evidence of yesterday as proof of what’s possible. But evidence tells us nothing about what we can be and do if we choose to walk a different path. When we have mentored people confronting catastrophic illnesses or situations and watched them triumph, defying the statistics and the predictions of experts, we are awestruck by people’s ability to reclaim their personal power and sense of self-trust. Suddenly, anything seems possible.
Now I would like to take your hand and guide you through a few hours of reading which, I believe, will enable you to make the most important decision of your life … to seize an attitudinal advantage by becoming happy and more loving right now, this instant, whatever your circumstances.
Remember, as you read, there will be something to decide and something to do … an easy, but amazing adventure.