The Happiest Day of My Life by Mark Peckett
My son got married recently. I mention this because of how I felt that day. You’d be surprised if I didn’t say I was happy. But what surprised me was the fact that I went through the day knowing I was happy.
There have been plenty of happy events in my life: getting married, buying our first home, the births of my children, getting my first dan aikido to name but a few. What made this event different was the knowledge that I was happy in the moment.
There is a lot of talk at the moment about mindfulness. Many American companies are using it as a way to reduce stress and boost productivity – Ford, Goldman Sachs, the Bank of America and even the U.S. Marine Corps to name a few. There is even a “Mindfulness for Dummies” with chapters on “Using Mindfulness in Your Daily Life” and “Using Mindfulness to Combat Anxiety, Depression and Addiction.”
The basic idea behind mindfulness is by paying attention to the present moment. The most common method of achieving this is through meditation on the breath (anapana sati in Pali).
The theory behind this is that the mind is never still. It is always talking to itself and commenting on what it sees, reflecting on what has passed and anticipating what is to come. To reduce or even stop this mental chatter, you should try to keep your attention on the breath, either by counting each breath or following the movement of the breath in and out of the body.
As the mind becomes still, so the theory goes, you begin to dwell exclusively in the present moment.
I have to say that I tend to look at that theory in the same light as I regard Alcoholics Anonymous – or any of the other Anonymous organisations that have modelled their programme on AA’s Twelve Steps.
Step One requires that the addict acknowledges that he/she is powerless over alcohol and that their lives have become manageable. Newcomers are not asked to accept or follow all of the Twelve Steps, but they will are asked to keep an open mind, to attend meetings at which recovered alcoholics describe their personal experiences in achieving sobriety, and to read AA literature.
Although I am not saying there is anything wrong with, it seems to me it is substituting a harmful addiction for a good one: attending meetings, making amends, conducting an on-going moral inventory instead of drinking.
And to a certain extent, I think mindfulness of breathing is the same: it substitutes the harmful chatter of the mind with one-pointed attention. The same applies if the attention is focussed on an object such as a candle flame or a mantra (a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation according to the Oxford dictionary). The object is to shut out things out rather than including then.
At a seminar I attended recently, zanshin was translated as “extended awareness” rather than the usual sense of being aware of one’s surroundings and enemies and being prepared to act. To me, this extended awareness would include what was going on inside my body and mind as well as the outside.
This is where I come back to the wedding. Throughout the day (and it started early and finished late) I felt engaged. From the arranging the place settings, putting up the decorations, sorting out the caterers to the ceremony itself and the meal and party afterwards, there didn’t seem to be a moment when I was “uninvolved”.
Of course there were moments when I was irritated, anxious and just plain grumpy but they came and went. The over-riding emotion throughout the day, and for at least a week afterwards was one of happiness.
But it wasn’t a state of being happy with something. To quote Stephen Russell who writes under the pseudonym “the Barefoot Doctor”:
… your heart is open, your mind is clear and your actions spontaneous, you cannot fail to treat yourself and other people with absolute care and respect to the best of your ability at the time.
The most interesting thing is that I didn’t feel a need to cling onto the feeling. It has certainly faded since and I exist in a much more mundane state now, but I can recapture it very easily by looking at the photos and video of the wedding. Obviously it doesn’t last as long, but I know the feeling is still there and accessible.
And finally to aikido. I have said before that there is a tendency when we are practising to live outside the present moment. Again to quote the Barefoot Doctor:
This has always been the only moment and always will be. This moment never changes. What changes is the scenery occurring around this moment … whatever the time on your clock or date on your calendar, this moment will never change.
When we are about to do a technique, we either project into the future worrying about what could go wrong (“I can never do this technique”, “I hate practising with this person, they always stop my technique”, and so on) which seems to fling us back into the past as we reflect on the number of times we’ve failed at this technique, or how much better we did it when we practised with someone else.
In fact, even before we do the technique we tend to move out of the present moment: “That’s not the way sensei taught the technique last time. Is he trying to confuse us?” “This time I am going to that technique so well that sensei’s going to look over at me and smile.”
Being absent from this present moment invariably makes us sad because we usually end up with an unsettling feeling of longing. To lose that feeling we need to enjoy the now a little more. It shouldn’t be a big effort and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up when we fail, but these words of the Vietnamese zen Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hanh sum it up pretty well:
People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.
And let me tell you, it’s a great feeling when you’re aware you are part of a miracle.