On Grief

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By Dave Hood

The loneliness without you
is beyond belief
I can’t come to terms with
this feeling called grief ~Paul Brown

Loss evokes grief. And grief expresses itself as mental pain and suffering, sorrow, depression, mental anguish. The most powerful form of loss is death of a loved one. Some other types of loss that will cause grief are the ending of a marriage, the loss of a job, death of a pet, end of a friendship, loss of financial security.

Loss often alters one’s sense of self and their way of life. For instance, when a person is fired from a job, he or she loses his identity (if identity is linked to work), status, interpersonal connections, and regular routine.

“The death of a beloved is an amputation”, wrote C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed.

***

Grief is universal—Everyone experiences one or more episodes of grief in the lifetime. And so, grief is a feature of the human condition.

Grief is also personal. People react differently to loss. Some people become angry, expressing their rage irrationally, perhaps screaming at a spouse. Some people escape the pain and suffering by getting high on booze or illicit drugs. Other people dedicate their lives to busyness. Instead of taking time to grieve, the person dedicates themselves to work. Still others engage in magical thinking, a form of irrational thinking in which a person believes that something is caused by a false cause.

***

Susan Berger, author of The Five Ways We Grieve, suggests that after a loss people who are grieving cope by developing a new identity. She identifies five possible new identities:

Nomad. The Person expresses a range of emotions, such as anger, denial, confusion. The person’s grief remains unresolved, and the person fails to understand how the impacts their lives.

Memorialist. The grieving person focuses his or her time and attention and energy on preserving the memory of the deceased, such as channeling his her per emotions into creating art, creating as memorial, writing a poem, writing lyrics for a song.

Normalizer. The grieving person attempts to replace what her or she has lost by focusing on maintaining or strengthening social bonds with family, friends, a significant other, or community.

Activist. The grieving person finds meaning from the loss by using his or her own experience with grief to help others, such as engaging in volunteer work or finding a new path of employment deals with helping others.

Seeker. The grieving person looks outward, beyond self, to make sense of the loss. The person often experiences existential angst. To answer his or her questions, the person turns to faith, philosophy, spirituality.

***

Loss has inspired many artists to create various forms of art embodying the emotion of grief. Many have created art as a social commentary about the human condition or used art making as a method of healing. “Art washes from the soul dust of everyday life” wrote Cubist painter Pablo Picasso.

Poets have written countless poems about loss. For instance, W. H Auden wrote Funeral Blues, inspired by the death of a loved one:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

***

Writers have penned countless stories on grief. In 1888, Anton Chekov wrote Misery, a short story in which the protagonist, a sleigh driver, is grieving the loss of his son. The man attempts to share his grief with others who board his sled, but none of them will take the time to listen. The story shows how many people are indifferent to the suffering of others.

In recent years (2005), Joan Didion wrote memoir about the impact of the loss of a loved one in The Year of Magical Thinking. Her magical thinking is like wishful thinking. If a person hopes for something enough or performs the right actions, an unavoidable event can be prevented. Didion’s memoir recounts her grief following the sudden, shocking death of her husband. The book went on to become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography/Autobiography.

Many songwriters and musicians have composed music that deals with grief. In 1991, after his son’s tragic fall from a high rise to his death, Eric Clapton wrote the lyrics for and performed the tribute song Tears for Heaven.

Throughout the history of Western art, from the classical Greek to the religious paintings of Christianity, many painters have used the emotion of grief or their observations of loss to create memorable visual images, such as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Gustave Courbet’s Burial at Ornans, and Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

***

In her classic book, written in 1969, Elizabeth Kubler Ross studied people who were terminally ill and discovered that many passed through five stages of grief.

Stage 1- Denial. “I feel fine.”

Stage 2-Anger. “Why am I having to experience this grief. It’s not fair!”

Stage 3- Bargaining. “God, if you stop the pain and suffering, I will return to church….”

Stage 4 – Depression. “My mood descended into the dark depths of depression. I’m not inspired to do anything.”

Stage 5- Acceptance. “Though I felt sorrow, and grieved her loss for several months, I’m now at peace.”

Not everyone experiences all five stages of grief. But everyone experiences one or more of them.

***

There is no timeline for grief to depart from one’s life. Some people grieve a few days or weeks; Others feel the sense of loss for many years. For most people, grief vanishes like fog in sunshine. Each person who suffers from grief must discover their own path back from the abyss.  The grieving person turns to friends for emotional support. They share their sadness with a trusted friend who provides comfort and encouragement. Other people turn to faith. The grieving person answers his or her questions about loss, finds comfort, and learns to accept the loss by reading scripture, talking to a priest, and praying to God.

Art has also become a popular method of coping with grief. Many people turn to art as a form of therapy.  Mental Health professionals are also using Art therapy as a treatment for coping and recovering from grief.  There are many types of art therapy, such as making a grief mask with clay; drawing or painting your emotions, thoughts, memories, experiences of grief; or making a scrapbook of memories of a person who has passed away; collecting images and making a photo album.

Other people put pen to paper and write down their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and memories of loss in a grief journal. Writing can be cathartic, like sharing your sorrow with a therapist.

Some people engage in rigour exercise, such as jogging or cycling or swimming.  Physical exercise reduces tension and helps eliminate the emotion of anger. Many embrace yoga and meditation. These spiritual practises calm and clear the mind of stress.

Still others distract themselves from grief by taking up a new hobby or interest. After my mum died suddenly, I immersed myself in taking photographs. Each weekend, I would journey out, stroll the streets of Toronto like a hiker, and capture the people, buildings, fleeting moments that passed before my eyes.

Many people turn to work, and focus on it rather than allow themselves to grieve the loss. This is so often true for the workaholic, the person who has no work-life balance.

For other people, grief plummets them into depression. To climb out of the pit of melancholy, these people require anti-depressants and/or talk therapy.

***

Grief is part of the human condition. We can never escape from grief.  Grief lurks in the shadows of our precious lives, waiting to assault us when we least expect.  No matter how much we prepare ourselves for loss, we are never fully able to defend ourselves from the blows of grief, nor overcome the grief without giving ourselves time to heal from the pain and suffering caused by significant loss.

“Grieving is a necessary passage,” wrote Dodinsky, “and a difficult transition to finally letting go of sorrow—it’s not a permanent rest stop.”

Resources

  • Recovering from Grief. Com
  • The Five Ways We Grieve by Susan Berger
  • A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  • On Grief and Grieving by Elizabeth Kubler Ross
  • Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
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Poem: Silence

wbwinter-at-the-lake

Dave H

Often a deafening scream
for those tormented
by loneliness.

A painful reminder
for those who’ve experienced
the loss of a loved one
who’s departed unexpectedly,
where there’s “no goodbye,”
no “I will see you later.”

Who now must endure
an existence of emptiness
and ponder the question: “Why?”

For those isolated, alienated,
detached from society,
silence is a haunting ghost,

in an inescapable nightmare
An aberration whispering:
“You are all alone.
Nobody will save you
when your good health
unravels.”

Yet, for others, who’ve learned
a life lesson
on dealing with foes
who’ve aggrieved them with neglect,
or spewed venom like a snake,

Especially, for those who’ve wasted effort
to the right a wrong, retaliate to indignation,
frittered away precious time
with words of wrath,
or vindictive deeds,
“Silence is the ultimate form of scorn.”
For it requires no energy, no words,
no action.
.
Yet, for others, silence is like
a kindred spirit
when the world has turned
against them.

Silence calms, it soothes,
it empties the psyche of refuse,
It provides sustenance
for a yearning soul.

In the quietness of a place,
One can also listen to their soul
speak softly,

express hidden desires of tomorrow,
perhaps an epiphany,
or truth about the human condition,

A revelation from the divine,
perhaps an insight about themselves,

Or illuminate a dream of what one
desires to achieve with the remainder
of their transient existence
in this earthly world.

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Jogging through the Woods

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On Kindness

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Dave H

“No one has ever become poor by giving,” Anne Frank wrote. Yet, when I read the history books or gaze at the outer world, I notice an utter lack of kindness in humanity. There is a lack of generosity of spirit. Far too many people are focused only on themselves, their own wants and needs,  the safety and security and well-being of their own tribe.

If you watched the Presidential election, you were stunned by the utter lack of kindness by Donald Trump. Yet, ordinary Americans overwhelmingly elected him to become the next president. And so, I argue that kindness is not one of the values nor virtues many Americans admire.

In my own experience here in Canada, I witness the utter lack of kindness among strangers. I observe way to many people lost in thought or self-absorbed about their own lives, and in behaving in this manner they fail to be kind to others.

You only have to drive your car at rush hour to experience the madness of the commute.

When mum declined and died in hospital, I witnessed first hand the indifference of healthcare workers.

Whenever strolling downtown, I observe countless people ignoring the homeless plea for pocket change.

Watch the news on television, and all you see are the evils of humanity, such as terrorism, war, murder. You’d think that we have learned how to be civil by studying history. But we haven’t.

Watch a film at the theatre, and you quickly discovered how these elements are often glorified or key features of the Hollywood narrative. Witnessing the lack of kindness on the big screen socializes us to become indifferent to the obligation to behave in a kind way towards others, whether friend or stranger.
….

The antithesis of kindness is cruelty, nastiness, and selfishness—or thinking only of one’s self.

Imagine what kind of world we’d inhabit if everyone was nasty, cruel,brutish, selfish? It would be hell on earth.

…..

kindness is not a “quid pro quo endeavour.” The person who believes in and lives the virtue of kindness expects nothing in return.

One could argue that kindness is an act of altruism.

Kindness is certainly a selfless act of generosity, generosity of spirit.
….

The easiest way to make kindness part of your life is to practice ” random acts of kindness.” Essentially, each day, you make a point of being kind in some small way to another person.

These random acts can be expressed in several ways: Giving of your time, such as volunteering. Giving of your presence, such as visiting an elderly parent. Giving someone less fortunate your money or food or possessions, perhaps pocket change to the homeless man on the street. Being courteous, (something I have been working on) to everyone, whether they deserve it or not. Interacting with a warm, accepting heart, not with nastiness or cruelty or selfishness. Not being indifferent to the plight of others. ( not easy to do when you are burdened with your own despair.)

….

We can learn to embrace kindness by acknowledging that it’s an endeavour we value, just like we have learned to value non-violence when there is conflict: we ought not kill, commit sexual assault, punch another person in the face….

Another way to inject kindness into the soul is by being compassionate. When someone is in need, we come to their aid, with the intention of eliminating or minimizing their suffering.

….

The person who is living their faith embodies kindness to both people and animals. True kindness is not strictly helping or being generous to one’s own tribe.

The person who values kindness for the sake of humanity believes it must be a universal spiritual practise—without exception.

The Dalai Lama said, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”

Proverbs 3:3 of the Holy bible states, “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck; Write them on the tablet of your heart.”

Sometimes, it’s not easy to determine if a person lacks kindness. They say all the right things, such as please and thank you. They hold the door open for others. They wait their turn while driving during rush hour. They give their pocket change to the homeless man on the street…Yet, they have still not learned what it means to be kind.

One of the easiest ways to determine whether a person embodies kindness is to observe them interacting with their pets. Any man or woman who is cruel to their cat or dog lacks kindness.

Kindness also requires that we stop blaming or finger pointing. When you are filled with resentment or anger, the soul is poisoned, and we are unable to be genuinely kind to others.This mind-set , triggered by our hostile emotions creates obstacles, which make it more difficult to be kind. The Buddhists have it right when they tell us to ” let it be” and “let it go.”

….

Unfortunately, kindness is a spiritual practise that seems to be in decline. We can blame Western culture, the business ethic of rugged individualism, the capitalist notion of maximizing profits at any cost, and the decline of religion as a spiritual force that can nurture kindness.

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Personal Essay: On Self

wbself and Francis Bacon

Painting by Francis Bacon

By Dave Hood

What is “self?” For most people, self means personal identity. Self answers the question: Who am I?

Self is also part of the psyche or mind. It is a collection of experiences and memories, thoughts and emotions, self identities, sensory perceptions, and one’s ego. Self often refers to “self concept.” If you study psychology, you learn about self. It is a human construct. It is immaterial, having no matter, and so you cannot see it.

When we are asked “What is self?” we  come up with a variety of answers. We think of self-concept, existential self, self-awareness, self-identity, self- image.

Self-concept and self-identity and self-image are synonyms. Each refers to how a person views himself or herself. One person might say, “I am a writer.” Another person might say, “I am a mother, caregiver, wife.”

Existential self  is the most basic part of the self-scheme or self-concept; the sense of being separate and distinct from others and the awareness of the constancy of the self” (Bee, 1992).It begins at a young age, perhaps in infancy, when the baby realizes that he or she exists as a separate entity from others and the outer world. For instance,  the infant smiles, and the mother smiles back.

Self-awareness is conscious knowledge of one’s own thoughts, feelings, motives,  desires, personality, likes and dislikes, memories, perceptions of the external world. The person is able to think, recall, perceive, judge, be aware of “self-talk,” as well as “self-image”, experience sensory awareness, such as sights, sounds, smells. Self-awareness allows a person to become aware of “ego” and “soul.” Self-awareness also enables a person to construct a self-image.

In part, self-image is constructed from our personality traits, our life experiences, what others tell us about ourselves, what we say to ourselves (self-talk) , our successes and failures, achievements and misfortunes.

Self is also constructed from the various roles we play in society.  Most people have jobs, so they play the role of employee. They get married, so they play the role of husband or wife. They have and  raise children, so they play the role of parent. If the person performs well in a particular role, their self-worth becomes elevated in that particular role.

One’s sense of self contributes to self-esteem. A person’s level of self-esteem depends on whether the person has a weak or strong sense of self-worth, which answers the questions: Do I like myself? Do I value myself? Am I a person worthy of respect, dignity, and love of another human being?

The sense of self evolves as we pass through life— from infancy, to childhood,  to adolescence, to adulthood, into old age, and finally death. You are not who you were 10 years ago, and you will not be who you are now the day you pass into oblivion.

***

 

To become aware of “self”, we must have a functioning brain, which enables consciousness. It enables to think,  to remember, to introspect, to ponder the question: Who am I? The philosopher Descartes said, ” I think, therefore I am.”

Self can be compromised by disease, such as dementia, mental illness, brain cancer, ALS. And it can be torn apart by mental disorders, such as Bipolar psychosis, drug abuse, alcoholism, brain cancer.

As we journey through life, self is forever changing, evolving, transforming like the four seasons. There is the spring of self in which we bloom; the summer of self in which we further develop our identity, experience joy and pleasure, challenges and achievements. There is the autumn of self, in which we reflect and use wisdom and life experience to answer questions about life, such as “Does self exist after death?” By the time we are in the autumn of self, self identity is well- defined. Often, the mind begins to decline from the effects of aging, and so the sense of self erodes. Finally, in the winter of self, there is the death of self. The moment we take our last breathe, the “self” is obliterated, annihilated.

***

Self is different from soul, which is our essence. Soul is the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being.  Christians believe in the immortality of the soul. Once you die, your soul lives on for eternity.

Soul has different meanings, such as spirit, or life force, or ineffable energy. Soul is like the burning flame of a candle. When the wind of death blows out the flame, there is darkness.

***

Some religions refuse to accept the concept of “self.” The Buddhist faith/philosophy argues that there is no self. Self is just a delusion of the mind. It is a human construct. Instead, we are conscious beings in which thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, hopes, and dreams are forever flowing through the mind like a raging river.

I have learned from meditation the truth about self. If you meditate on a regular basis for 10 or more minutes each day, you gradually realize that your “essence” is not “self” and that self is just something you have constructed in the mind from your ego, your desire to be right, to be respected, to be liked, to be loved. Your essence is a peaceful state of bliss. And so, I would agree with Buddhist thinking that “self” is a delusion. There is no self.

***

From a sociological perspective, our self-concept evolves through a process of socialization. It is our interactions with the social environment that create our self concept, much like an artist sculptures a work of art. We are the product of our interactions with people and institutions, including family, education, work, friendships, love, faith, trauma, hardship, mental illness, the stages of human development

***

In exploring self concept from a psychology perspective, we must consider personality. It’s a collection of personality traits. These personality traits, which we inherit, also shape our “self concept.” Personality is a blend of characteristics that make each of us unique. For instance, some people are extroverts, while others are introverts. Some people are naturally confident and explorers, while others worry and are nervous. Some people are naturally open-minded and desire new experiences, while others are closed off from others and the world.

***

There have been many theories of personality defined by Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, and other psychologists. Carl Jung has constructed one of the best theories of “personality.” He suggests that personality consists of three elements: ego or conscious self, unconscious self, and collective unconsciousness, which is inherited and part of human evolution.

Jung’s theory divides the psyche into three parts. The first is the ego, which Jung identifies with the conscious mind. It answers the question: who am I?

The second aspect of personality is personal unconscious, such as dreams and memories, which are forgotten or repressed.

The third element of Jung’s theory of personality is the collective unconscious. It is “psychic inheritance” or “DNA of Personality.” It is part of the psyche that is not part of conscious personal experience. The collective unconsciousness consists of what Jung called archetypes, which are inherited through human evolution, part of the collective DNA of humanity. These are Archetypes include self (who am I), shadow or dark side (alter ego),persona (the various masks we wear on the stage of daily life), and anima/animus (the mirror image of our biological sex, that is, the unconscious feminine side in males and the masculine tendencies in women.)

We can never introspect and become aware of our collective unconsciousness. It is manifested in myth, religion, film, art, writing, music, fairy tales, the mystical. literature.

And so, I believe that collective unconsciousness assists in defining “ self.”

Carl Jung’s theory of personality also focuses on four basic psychological functions:
-Extraversion vs. Introversion
-Sensation vs. Intuition
-Thinking vs. Feeling
-Judging vs. Perceiving

Therefore, we can also define “self” in terms of these psychological functions. Some people are thinkers, while others feel. Some people are judging, while others perceive….

***

From a psychological perspective, we must also explore intelligence and how it molds our “self concept” or “self identity,” as well as self-esteem. In 1983, Howard Gardner proposed the multiple Intelligence model of IQ. Gardner chose eight abilities musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal (emotional intelligence), intrapersonal (ability for introspection). Each individual possesses a unique blend of all the intelligences, and they shape self concept. But the person must discover and develop these inherent intelligences.

***
Achievements and failures also define self-concept and self-esteem. Self esteem answers the question: What do I like about myself? Some people loathe themselves, while others are like narcissus, the Greek God, who looked in the mirror and fell in love with himself. When we achieve or accomplish our goals, we enhance our self-esteem. When we fail to succeed or accomplish a goal, our self-esteem deflates like a flat tire.

***

Mental illness also plays a role in self concept. The person who suffers from depression or anxiety must constantly deal with “negative self talk,” which erodes a positive sense of self.  Negative self talk creates cognitive distortions or irrational thinking, such as catastrophic thinking, believing the worst possibility will become a reality; or mind reading, believing you know what another person is thinking;  or fortune telling, which means that you can predict the future; or emotional reasoning, feeling pessimistic about life and disliking one’s means that it must be true. The mentally ill must struggle to like themselves, often by seeking therapy and taking medication and implementing techniques of self-love.

***

Countless artists have also explore “the self” in their art work, These creative thinkers, share their personal view of self in their writing, such as memoirs and poetry, in their paintings and photography, through their lyrics and musical sounds…I think of the paintings by Francis Bacon, who depicted a tormented psyche rooted in his existential view of life. I refer also to the melancholy poetry of Sylvia Plath. She writes: “I desire the things that will destroy me in the end.”I recall the lyrics Freddie Mercury and the melancholy sounds of music by Philip Glass. I point to the various personas or masks in self-portrait photographs by Cindy Sherman.

***

The sense of “self” requires a functioning brain. Once we die, the brain, which requires oxygen to survive, stops functioning, and consciousness ceases. It would seem that our memories, dreams, awareness, ego, thinking, perceiving, and self identity are obliterated the moment we take that last breathe.

Based on logical thinking—using both deductive reasoning (to prove) and inductive reasoning (to show probability), I believe that the”self” is annihilated by death.

And so, I wonder what eternal life or rebirth really means, perhaps just wishful thinking. Nobody has returned from beyond the grave to share their experiences from “the other side.”

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On Happiness

wb attitude.

By Dave Hood

“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe that bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback or a challenge, that its causes are just confined to this one case.”~ Martin Seligman, Positive Psychologist

The desire to be happy is what motivates most human action, such as the desire to purchase a BMW automobile, take vacation to slumber poolside in the warmth and sunshine, purchase a lottery ticket or new pair of designer blue jeans, to experience the pleasure of a passionate kiss. Pascal said, “Happiness is the desire of every action of every man, even those who hang themselves.” In his bestseller The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama writes: “I believe the very purpose of life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not…we are all seeking something better in life. So, I think the very motion of our lives is toward happiness….”

***

Happiness is a feeling of contentment or satisfaction. I am not referring to fleeting enjoyable moments or short experiences of pleasure, but an enduring sense of contentment and satisfaction with one’s life. This desire to feel happy is what motivates most people. To be happy is the meaning and purpose of human existence. Most people, don’t say to themselves, ” I am going to do this or that or some other thing so I can be happy.” Instead, the pursuit of happiness is carried out indirectly in one’s quest for pleasure or satisfying experiences.

***

According to the research in positive psychology, we have control over much of our happiness. To do so, requires us to take steps to enhance our sense of satisfaction and pleasure. Writer and psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the How of Happiness, tells us that only 10% of our happiness is determined by circumstances, such as a having a job we enjoy, experiencing the love of a soul mate, possessing an abundance of money in a bank account and material pleasures such as sports car. Another 50% is genetically determined, inherited, and beyond our control. For instance, the person who has inherited the DNA for schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression will have a more difficult time experiencing satisfaction and pleasure in life than the person who is born with an optimistic personality. Positive psychologists refer to this genetically predetermined level of happiness as our happiness “set point.” The remaining 40% of happiness is in our control. We can choose to do nothing or work at elevating our sense of happiness.

***

Before we can enhance our level of happiness, we must make a conscious choice to become happier. Neil Pasricha, author of the bestseller, The Happiness Equation, points this out. He writes: ” What’s the first thing you must do to before you can be happy? Be happy. Be happy first.” In other words, you can improve your level of happiness by altering your attitude. The problem is our predisposition to think negatively. We are genetically programmed to think negatively about the future–imagine the worst, worry about what might go wrong, engage in negative self-talk. According to evolutionary psychologists, our pessimistic view of the future is rooted in human evolution. To think negatively is part of our survival instinct, which enables us to be on guard for unknown adversity or hardship. How do we alter our negative attitude?

***

There are many ways we can begin choosing to be happier. Neil Pasricha shares this wisdom in his book. He writes that the first decision must be to alter our attitudes and decide to work at enhancing our level of happiness–our sense of pleasure and satisfaction. It must be a conscious choice rather than like strolling mindlessly through life, wondering why we are not happy.

One easy step you can take to alter your attitude is to focus on being content with what you have. In other words, be grateful for the blessings you already possess, such as good health, a job that pays your bills, someone who loves you. By focusing on what you already have reduces the desire to always be seeking something new, something different, something more pleasurable, which often results in dissatisfaction. Positive psychologists suggest you establish a gratitude journal. Several times a week, you write down those things you feel grateful for possessing. Each week, I remind myself how beneficial it is to have good health.

***

Another step you can take (a Buddhist practise) is to live mindfully. Instead of focusing your mind on the unknown future, perhaps worrying or imagining a catastrophe, or focusing on a sad memory from your past, you focus your attention on the here and now. The philosopher Seneca points out that “true happiness is to enjoy the present.”

To live mindfully is not easy. You must train your mind. The best way to train your mind is to practise mindfulness meditation. You can also tune into your senses–the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, and feeling. For instance, if you sit down, turn on the stereo, listen to inspirational music, you are living mindfully. But if you sit down, turn on the stereo, begin reading the newspaper, you are not. And so, another way in which you can become mindful is by doing one thing at a time. If you do more than one thing, you are distracting your attention. This is not mindfulness. To be mindful requires you to focus all of your attention on what is unfolding in the here and now.

***

According to Martin Seligman, the eminent positive psychologist who developed the theory of happiness called “Authentic Happiness” (later revised to Well-being) we can achieve happiness in three ways. First, we can seek pleasurable experiences, such as sexual climax or licking an ice cone or sipping a glass of wine. For many people, the desire to be happy by experiencing pleasure and satisfaction is the meaning and purpose of life. The desire to feel pleasure and experience contentment is also what motivates most people to take action. Sigmund Freud, a leading figure in psychology, argued that we have inherent desire to experience pleasure, and so that is what motivates us.

The problem with seeking the hedonistic life, one that is filled solely with pleasurable pursuits, is that pleasure is fleeting. We experience the pleasure for a short time and then it vanishes, and so we must continuously search for new experiences that inject pleasure into our lives. All pleasurable experiences have a diminishing utility–the more we have of the pleasurable experience, the easier it is to become bored, the less we desire it. Pleasure is also ephemeral—it vanishes. So, we must continuously search for new pleasurable experiences.

The other potential problem with pleasure is that it can inspire excess rather than moderation. For instance, after a long, stressful day at work, a person may begin to crave six or seven bottles of beer rather than refrain and enjoying one or two bottles of brew. After feeling the joy of sex and sexual climax, a person might desire to experience sexual pleasure from as many different beautiful women as possible rather than sharing his desire for sexual pleasure and gratification with one soul mate, perhaps his wife. A person might desire the taste of food and the sense of comfort it provides. Instead of eating in moderation, the person eats himself into obesity and then suffers a heart attack, which lives him handicapped. And so, seeking only pleasurable experiences will fail to generate a lifetime of enduring happiness.

***

We can seek the engaged life by participating in activities or experiences that create a mental state called “flow” When experiencing a flow activity or task, we become so focused on the task or activity that we lose all track of time. We are no longer self-conscious, focused inwards, worrying about the future or tormented by the past. We are mindful of what we are doing in the present. Time stops when we are in flow. We experience this mental state of flow from rewarding work/career and enjoyable leisure activities, perhaps creative writing or playing a musical instrument or taking street photographs.

Rather than live in isolation, we seek the engaged life by developing friendships. We do this for a variety of reasons, perhaps someone to share in life’s pleasures, someone who provides social support, someone to enjoy good conversation, someone to share a few laughs….

We also seek love. Love is an essential human need, like food and shelter and safety. The majority of humanity desire to be loved and to love. To experience the benefits of love, a person must engage in life, not live in isolation. Furthermore, love will rarely flourish and endure unless we nurture the object of our love. If we desire to be loved by another human being, we must give our time, effort, attention. We must practise the language of love, spending quality time, communicating words of affection, providing physical touch. There must be giving of self and reciprocation. Love withers and dies if their isn’t reciprocation. That’s way so many marriages fail the test of time.

***

The desire to experience pleasure and flow and love are not the only things that motivates us. Victor Frankl, a doctor and survivor of the Holocaust, believes that we are motivated to seek meaning in life. He states “striving to to find meaning is one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.”

According to the research in Positive Psychology, we can improve or level of happiness by creating a life of meaning and purpose. Meaning is often sought by embracing a particular faith. A person reads scripture, prays to a higher power, accepts a set of religious credos, takes a blind leap of faith, because it is nourishes his or her spiritual appetite, diminishes the fear of death, answers questions about the great mysteries of life, such as Does God Exist? or What happens after I die?

We also create meaning and purpose by setting goals and working at achieving them, perhaps to acquire a university degree, write a novel, run a marathon, be successful in a career. Michel de Montaigne, the French Renaissance philosopher, stated: “The greatest and most glorious masterpiece of man is to live with purpose.”

***

I have learned that when I have a purpose or goal, I have a sense of direction, which provides meaning and purpose to my life. So, I regularly establish both short-term and long-term goals and then work at achieving them. For instance, a decade ago, I made the decision to become a creative writer and professional photographer, and then dedicated much of my leisure time to pursuing these dreams. The experiences have been thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding, and enriched my quality of life and feeling of self-worth. I have also learned that the pursuit of the goal and not its achievement is what generates a sense of pleasure and enjoyment.

And so, we can increase our feeling of satisfaction with life, which will enhance our sense of happiness,  by shifting our attitude and deciding to be contented with what we already possess. And so, we must count our blessings.  As well, we must learn to focus the mind on living mindfully in the present moment. We can also improve our level of life satisfaction well-being by infusing pleasure, flow, love, friendship, meaning and purpose into our lives.

“The key to happiness, writes Positive Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky,  lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities.”

Additional Reading

  • The Art of Happiness by Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D.
  • The Happiness Equation by Neil Pasricha
  • The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky
  • The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
  • Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide by Frederic Lenoir
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Essay: On Compassion

Ignoring the Homelss

Dave Hood

“The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

We live in a world lacking in compassion. The sad reality of humanity is that the vast majority of people ignore the suffering of others. Perhaps many turn a blind eye for their own survival. Witnessing the suffering of another person can evoke raw emotion of fear or sadness or repulsion. Too often, people are detached or willfully blind.

We often learn compassion only after we have suffered ourselves—perhaps experiencing sickness, accident, illness, job loss, marriage breakdown, death of a loved one, prejudice, discrimination, social scorn, bad luck….

Why is compassion so important to humanity? Without it, we would descend into a state of war. We would continually witness 9/11, the detonating of the Atomic bomb, the wicked deeds of the Holocaust. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said, “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.” I tend to agree. He also said that without government, “The natural condition of man is a condition of war. Everyone against everyone else. The Dalai Lama stated it best: “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”

Based on my observations and own personal life experiences, I am not sure that humankind is hardwired for compassion. I don’t believe the virtue of compassion is innate. It’s not an inherent human attribute. It is my view that compassion must be learned.

***
What is compassion? It has two components. First, compassion means to put yourself in another person’s shoes, and ask yourself the following: What if I were that person? How would I feel? So, compassion means to develop an awareness of the suffering in another person.

Compassion has a second component. Once you have an awareness of the suffering, you must respond appropriately. To do nothing is not compassion. So compassion also means to embrace the “Golden Rule”—treat others as you desire to be treated. “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” (Confucius) If you witness someone who is in pain, or requires assistance, or asks for help, you must come to their aid, you must lend a hand, you must offer assistance. In some small way, you must help the person alleviate his/her suffering.

And if you are unable to help, you must not make their plight worse.

***
On a more general level, compassion means to have genuine concern for all of humanity, not just your own tribe. It is my view that most people are compassionate to members of their own family, such as spouse, and children, but are blind or indifferent to the suffering of others, such as strangers.

Compassion also means to practise random acts of kindness and expect nothing in return. For example, If you see someone on the street, and that person requests some change, give it to them. Or give a donation to a worthy charity. Or donate your forgotten clothing to Goodwill..

Finally, compassion means to believe in the dignity, respect, equality, justice of everyone. It means to live peacefully and avoid engaging in violent behavior. We can agree to disagree, and still live peacefully. For instance, I am apposed to the wearing of the naqab at citizenship ceremonies in Canada, and have expressed my views to anyone who will listen, but I have no intention of engaging in acts of prejudice or discrimination. If a woman desires to wear the head-to-toe veil, this is fine with me.

***
Continually, I witness the suffering in my city, country, and in other parts of the world. Often when reading the paper, or watching the news, or perusing content on the Internet, I am continually reminded by the reality that the vast majority of humanity is suffering, and that most of us turn a blind eye. These unfortunate souls suffer because of war, poverty, disease, famine, religious extremism, environmental disaster, hatred, and more. Their suffering only ends the moment they take their last breathe. It rarely is extinguished by the compassion of the Super Powers, such as Russia, China, and the United States, who spend more money, time, effort on military hardware to defend the next enemy (real or imagined) than foreign aid to the poorest countries in the Third World.

In my own city, I have witnessed the lack of compassion. For the past four years, I’ve walked the streets of Toronto with my camera, documenting the homeless sprawled out on the sidewalks and poor who beg for a handout. They are completely ignored by 99% of the people— who somehow believe these unfortunate and unlucky souls don’t deserve their support. Sadly, it would seem that most strangers who pass the downtrodden blame the victim. “It is your own fault. You are a lazy $^&& sod who doesn’t deserve my assistance.” I work hard for my money. Why should I share anything with you?”

Over the year, I have witnessed first hand the lack of compassion by our public institutions. For instance, the Catholic Church’s shoddy treatment of homosexuals, wilful blindness to priests who were sexual deviants, opposing those who embrace same-sex marriage for love. The religious fundamentalism of Christians and Islamic extremists who express intolerance to anyone who doesn’t support their own narrow view of morality and faith. During our recent election, I read about and watched on television the indifference of Prime Minister Stephen Harper toward the refugee crisis in Syria. His apathetic response cost him his job. I look back into history, make note of how the Nazis treated the Jews, how an American President made the decision to dropped atomic bombs on innocent people, how Islamic extremists steered planes into the Twin towers, incinerating innocent people.

Most recently, I witnessed the general lack of compassion toward the elderly in our healthcare system. This past March, while mum descended into death at a particular hospital in Toronto, I witnessed first hand the indifference by several of the nurses and a doctor to her suffering. Their conduct was appalling, so shocking—- that I felt compelled to file a complaint against one doctor with the College of Physicians and Surgeons and another against two nurses at the College of Nurses. (I was told that the COPS receives 4,000 complaints a year against doctors.)
***
Why is there a lack of compassion in the world? Tribalism, individualism, secularism, religious extremism, social Darwinism, greed, envy, popular culture, prejudice, racism, hatred, revenge, indifference, the capitalist economy contribute to the general lack of compassion.

Some people are narcissistic. In fact, I have met more than a few. According to Psychology Today, “the Lack of empathy is one of the most striking features of people with narcissistic personality disorder. ” The narcissist in blind to the pain he or she inflicts on others. Nor does the narcissist take the time to understand the other person’s perceptions, feelings, view of the world. The narcissist is unable to imagine walking in another person’s shoes. Unfortunately, some people in power have narcissistic personality traits.

Living in a secular society doesn’t help the cause to educate people on compassion. Traditionally, people learned how to be ethical and moral by attending church. Now, the vast majority don’t.

Living in a world focused on success, individualism, material possessions, fame, fortune, me…. doesn’t help the cause.

Living in a world where the corporation focuses on making maximum profit doesn’t help the cause. I read this morning that Telus is cutting 1,500 jobs in Canada to increase dividends for shareholders. My reaction: “Utter greed.” Where is the human touch? The sad reality of the free market, capitalist economy is that the corporation focuses on maximization of profits, too often at the expense of shattering personal lives.

Popular Culture socializes the masses to be self-focused. Purchase yourself a smartphone and take endless selfies, then post them to social media. Popular culture also glorifies violence in video games and blockbuster movies, which desensitizes us to suffering and acts of violence, such as killing.

When people are suffering, perhaps grieving a loss, it is often impossible to feel compassion for others. The person who suffers focuses on fulfilling basic needs, such as survival.

I am not sure we are hardwired for compassion. It must be learned. Unfortunately, many people don’t learn to be compassionate.

***

How does a person begin to develop compassion? Karen Armstrong explains in her book, “The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.”
We must educate ourselves about what it means to be compassionate. there are many ways, such as studying other religions or reading spiritual wisdom. If you are secular, read about spirituality. Learn what Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama have to say about compassion.

We must develop empathy-–become aware of the suffering in the world. We can Learn by watching film or television or the Web and by reading poetry, novels, newspaper, and magazines.

We must look at our own world. Charity begins at home. How does family nourish you? Is there compassion in the workplace? Are your friends toxic? Do they embrace a similar moral code and compassionate view of humanity?

We must develop compassion for ourselves. Each of us has a dark side. Be kind to yourself. Don’t blame yourself for things you cannot control.

We must become mindful of the suffering in our families, friends, community, country, and the world. In other words, we must become aware of other people’s suffering.

We must realize we don’t know everything, and that our way is not necessarily the best way. Too often, we fail to understand other cultures, other religions, other views and perceptions. Instead we gaze at others who are different through our ethnocentric lens. We too often believe our way of life is superior.

We must take action— help those who are suffering. We must discard the tribalism mentality, discard the ethnocentric view, discard the sense of moral superiority. Instead, we must embrace compassion as the highest of virtues.
We must practise Random acts of kindness, offering help to anyone who crosses our path and is suffering.

We must embrace the golden rule-Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.

We must love your enemies. (Not easy to do.) It’s best to ignore them. Don’t seek to defeat and humiliate them. This will only create hatred and the desire for revenge. Instead we must strive to understand and befriend. Karen Armstrong writes” Only goodness can drive out evil, and only love can overcome hatred.” (page 182) The supreme test of compassion is to love your enemy. “We must learn to see sorrow in our enemies.” (page 188). Jesus preached “Love your neighbor has yourself.”
***
How I learned about compassion? My own suffering educated me on compassion, such as job loss, illness, financial problems, marriage breakdown, death of loved ones. Attending church as a boy and young adult also educated me on the importance of compassion.

In recent years, I’ve re-reading the New Testament and many books on Buddhism and spirituality. Recently, I read Karen Armstrong’s splendid book of wisdom—“The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life”, which has provided both a definition and steps on how to live the compassionate life. Her book ought to be required reading in both the public and Catholic schools.

I also continually educate myself by visiting the http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ website on a regular basis. It’s a website that offers numerous suggestions on how to develop spirituality—quotes, different types of practise, films to see, music to listen to, art to view, books to read.

And like yourselves, I witness to the suffering of humanity. I’m mindful to the suffering in my city. Every time, I stroll with my camera taking street photos, I see the countless homeless on the street, requesting pocket change for a cup of coffee or a meal. Watching the news or reading the paper, I’m aware of the suffering around the world. Poverty, Environmental disaster, Genocide,Terrorism, Famine, Civil War, Collateral damage from drones dropping bombs. As a student of history at university, I read about the horrors of humanity. The world is drowning in suffering.
***
Human life without compassion is hell on earth– a state of war. It would seem that compassion doesn’t come easy for many people. It is difficult to be compassionate when you are suffering. It is difficult to be compassionate in a world focused on success, material wealth, fame, fortune, rugged individualism. It is difficult to be in a world ruled too often by “corporations” that has no conscience. It is difficult to be compassionate in a world where popular culture glorifies violence in video games and film. And so, we must continually work at living the compassionate life.

Karen Armstrong reminds us: “To become a compassionate human being is a lifelong project. It is not achieved in an hour or day. It is a struggle that will last until our dying hour. ”

Her best advice on developing compassion: “Look into your own heart, discover what it is that gives you pain, and then refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.”

Additional Reading
• The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong
• Spiritual Literacy by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
• How to Be Compassionate: A Handbook for Creating inner Peace and a Happier World by his holiness The Dalai Lama

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