On the Joy of Living

So, after a few weeks of wallowing in a lot of drama, I finally got exasperated enough with myself to do something else besides whining philosphically (even if it’s philosophical, it’s still whining).

Since I’d lent out nearly all my Pema Chödrön books, I was wondering what could possibly get me out of my funk until I remembered a book that my friend Saar had given me on the studio’s opening: Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness.

It took me about around four hours to devour the book, which I unabashedly endorse as one of the most lucid, compelling and accessible manuals to being happy that I’ve come across.

(Just to be clear, the literature I’ve gathered on the subject tends to focus on Buddhist accounts of happiness or pyschological/sociological/ neurological research on happiness. I tend to stay away from what popular magazines or most self-help literature have to say about it, which invariably consists of tired old cliches with no phenomenological or scientific backing whatsoever.)

In any case, Mr. Yongey’s book was a much-needed reminder of things I’d previously learned from reading Pema Chödrön, Anthony de Mello and Matthieu Ricard, while also being a charming combination of the best traits of the former. Like Mr. Ricard, Mr. Yongey provides a detailed scientific account of precisely why Buddhist techniques for achieving happiness are effective to begin with; like Ms. Chödrön and Mr. de Mello, he provides constant reassurance to the reader by generously sharing his own personal experiences and failures.

A lengthier exposition of the book’s contents will probably be the subject of another blog post, but for now, let me just say that I’m definitely out of my funk.

And I have Mr. Yongey (and Saar) to thank for that.

Happy, serene sigh.

On the Travails of Sensitivity

So, I logged into my Facebook account today for the express purpose of writing a long litany of my sorrows to my very good friend J. When I checked my inbox, I found a message from J. that contained, in eerily clairvoyant fashion, the response to the letter I hadn’t yet written.

The message contained a link to a blog by a friend of hers who has bi-polar disorder.

After reading two posts, I already felt better. Not really because of the perspective engendered by reading about someone whose troubles far exceed my own, but mostly because I felt…well…understood.

It’s not the first time that I’ve entertained the notion that I might be bi-polar. For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered from intense bouts of melancholia that had no discernible cause. Family and friends dismissed these episodes as temperamental inclinations towards seriousness, introspection, morbidity, melodrama or just a plain incapacity for happiness. While not particularly pleasant, I nevertheless appreciated these episodes because I found them to be supremely helpful to the process of writing (ah, yes, the portrait of the artist as martyr).

On the other hand, I’ve never needed medication, and dark, Byronic moods aside, have managed to function quite well in society. Which got me thinking: if I’m not bi-polar, what am I?

The answer, quite possibly, lies in a direction pointed by J. herself years ago, when she told me that I was, “perhaps, a hyper-sensitive child.” I never bothered to investigate the statement then, but now, prompted by a sudden curiosity, I’ve looked up a few references online and discovered the following in an article written by Sharon Lind (http://www.sengifted.org/archives/articles/overexcitability-and-the-gifted):

(1) “Overexcitabilities are inborn intensities indicating a heightened ability to respond to stimuli. Found to a greater degree in creative and gifted individuals, overexcitabilities are expressed in increased sensitivity, awareness, and intensity, and represent a real difference in the fabric of life and quality of experience.” (Okay, I take it for granted I’m creative. I’ll happily take the gifted label as well.)

(2) “Dabrowski identified five areas of intensity—Psychomotor, Sensual, Intellectual, Imaginational, and Emotional. A person may possess one or more of these. ‘One who manifests several forms of overexcitability, sees reality in a different, stronger and more multisided manner’ (Dabrowski, 1972, p. 7). Experiencing the world in this unique way carries with it great joys and sometimes great frustrations.” (No kidding on the part about great frustrations.)

(3) “Emotional [overexcitability] is often the first to be noticed by parents. It is reflected in heightened, intense feelings, extremes of complex emotions, identification with others’ feelings, and strong affective expression (Piechowski, 1991) . . . Emotionally overexcitable people have a remarkable capacity for deep relationships; they show strong emotional attachments to people, places, and things (Dabrowski & Piechowski, 1977) . . . Those with strong Emotional [overexcitability] are acutely aware of their own feelings, of how they are growing and changing, and often carry on inner dialogs and practice self-judgment (Piechowski, 1979, 1991). Children high in Emotional [overexcitability]‚ are often accused of ‘overreacting.’ (Italics mine. And, yes, I have often been accused of being ‘OA’ as Filipinos like to put it.)  

(4) “It is often quite difficult and demanding to work and live with overexcitable individuals. Those who are not so, find the behaviors unexplainable, frequently incomprehensible, and often bizarre.” (Yes…I’ve been told I can be difficult to be with for long periods, because my moods are as mercurial as a cat’s.)

In another article written by Carol Bainbridge (http://giftedkids.about.com/od/gifted101/qt/emotional_oe.htm), this is what I’ve found:

(5) “As sympathetic as [the emotionally overexcitable] are to others, they seem unable to feel sympathy for themselves.  Instead, they tend to be highly self-critical.  They can also feel a deep sense of responsibility, which can lead to feelings of failure and guilt.” (Amen to being highly self-critical.)

(6) “The depression that those with emotional [overexcitability] often experience is  existential depression, which means that they become depressed over issues concerning the basic questions of life: death, poverty, war, and disease, for example.  Bouts of existential depression can be caused be some specific experience, but they are just as likely to arise spontaneously.” (Amen to the spontaneous generation of existential depression.)

(7) “Children with emotional [overexcitability] also have a hard time adjusting to change and can experience high levels of anxiety when they are put in new situations or unfamiliar surroundings.” (Yes…my life for the last several months, exactly.)

And, this is the killer:

(8) “Children do not grow out of this sensitivity.  A child with intense emotional feelings will experience the same depth of emotion as an adult.”


Oh well. At least I know what it is.


On the Commonality of Humanity

Over the last year, I’ve been assiduously following the blogs of my two friends J. and K. Both are devoted yoginis and gifted writers: highly introspective and startlingly lucid about the objects of their introspection. I love reading them not just because of the quality of their prose, but because their writings reveal the commonalities that bridge the chasms separating our lives. One is a postgraduate student completing her dissertation; the other is a yoga teacher and practitioner traveling the world. Our lives and our attendant concerns couldn’t be more wildly different, but the themes are much the same: finding love, keeping love, living with fear, letting go of attachments, letting go of old identities, trusting ourselves, trusting others, trusting the universe.

There are times when I read them (or listen to them), and I wonder if I wouldn’t trade my fears for theirs. (Isn’t this the ultimate form of hubris? Thinking that the significance of our concerns outweighs those of all others?) Then I read them again (or listen to them again), and I really get that we all have our respective buttons: love, money, security, certainty. Fill in the blanks with anything really (I am afraid of ______. I worry about ______.), the attendant feelings are much the same.

So I suppose we’re all in the same boat (or in the same boats), paddling heroically with our little oars, praying desperately for a little wind, scanning the sky, scanning the horizon, wishing fervently for sight of the distant shore (hoping that the distant shore even exists), not knowing that beyond the swell of the adjacent wave are hundreds of other tiny crafts (that remain just as oblivious of all the other tiny crafts), and therein lies our salvation: recognizing that we don’t need land, recognizing that we don’t need that distant shore, realizing that our shared humanity provides all the solidity and anchoring that we really need.

We just need to see beyond the trough.

On the Convenience of Reposts

So, my friend Ceres shared a link to a New Yorker post that gave me a much needed dose of high-brow hilarity. Because it’s terribly funny, and also because I’m out of ideas today, I’m sharing my favorite bits of the aforementioned post: (The full article can be found at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/shouts/2012/10/le-blog-de-jean-paul-sartre.html.)


Wednesday, 22 July, 1959: 10:50 A.M.

This morning over breakfast S. asked me why I looked so glum.

“Because,” I said, “everything that exists is born for no reason, carries on  living through weakness, and dies by accident.”

“Jesus,” S. said. “Aren’t you ever off the clock?”

Monday, 27 July, 1959: 4:10 A.M.

Lunch with Merleau-Ponty this afternoon in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. I was  disturbed to hear that he has started a photoblog, and skeptical when he told me  that although all its images are identical—a lonely kitten staring bleakly into  space as rain falls pitilessly from an empty sky—he averages sixteen thousand  page views per day. When I asked to see his referrer logs, he muttered evasively  about having an appointment with an S.E.O. specialist and scurried away.

So this is hell.

Thursday, 20 August, 1959: 2:10 P.M.

If Man exists, God cannot exist, because God’s omniscience would reduce Man  to an object. And if Man is merely an object, why then must I pay the onerous  fees levied on overdue balances by M. Pelletier at the patisserie? At least this  was the argument I raised this morning with M. Pelletier. He seemed unconvinced  and produced his huge loutish son Gilles from the back, ominously brandishing a  large pastry roller. The pastry roller existed, I can tell you that.

Friday, 2 October, 1959: 5:55 A.M.

My sleep continues to be troubled by odd dreams. Last night I dreamt that I  was a beetle, clinging to the slick surface of a water-soaked log as it careened  down a rain-swollen stream toward a waterfall. A figure appeared on the horizon,  and as the log drew closer I could see that it was Camus. He held out a hand and  I desperately reached for it with my tiny feeler. Just as the log drew abreast  of Camus he suddenly withdrew his hand, swooped it through his hair, and sneered “Too slow,” adding superfluously, “Psych.”

It is my belief that the log symbolizes the precariousness of Existence,  while the tiny feeler represents Man’s essential powerlessness. And Camus  represents Camus, that fatuous ninny.

Tuesday, 10 November, 1959: 12:05 A.M.

It has been over a month since I have updated my blog. I am seized with an  urge to apologize. But to whom, and to what end? If one truly creates for one’s  self, why then am I so disturbed to find that my unique visitors have dwindled  away practically to nothing, with a bounce rate approaching ninety-five per  cent? These twin impulses—toward reckless self-regard and the approbation of  others—neatly negate one another. This is the essential paradox of our time.

I will start a podcast.