And I thought – hey, me too! I am fundamentally happy. My next thought was – When did that happen? Without going into a lot of detail, I can say that I have had a lot of pain in my life. I’ve lost people I love; I’ve been betrayed by people I trusted unconditionally. I have experienced catastrophic illness in my loved ones and in myself. I have been in material need. I have been in spiritual desolation. I have borne intense physical and emotional pain. Somewhere along the line, though, I slowly came to the deep realization that even though I cannot always control what happens to me, I can control how I relate to it. Even though I cannot control what feelings come up in me spontaneously, I can choose which ones to allow to stay. I can choose how I react to situations and feelings. “Feelings are not objective reality; they are our subjective reactions to objective reality.”
Ten or fifteen years ago I decided to make being kind to people my default mode of behavior. Aside from the positive results one might expect – more friends, people enjoying my company, better relationships in work and private lives – I noticed my inner world changing, too. As I began to be gentler with the people around me, I somehow started to become gentler with myself.
A few years after that, I began to realize that “feelings are not the boss of me”. I can feel like moldy bread warmed up on a rusty shovel over a cow dung fire and still smile at the person who comes into the room. I discovered that I am not unidimensional or monotonal and that I can feel sad about something, can feel grief and pain, and be honest about those feelings without letting them take over my essential being. My fundamental happiness takes nothing away from being sad or angry at a person or a situation, and the sadness or anger do not destroy the fundamental contentment.
I am a deeply spiritual and religious woman with an intense prayer life. This, I have no doubt, plays an important role in my fundamental happiness. My Creator created me as a human being with emotions, “and He saw that it was good”. I am grateful for the ability to feel emotions, because I have also known the flat, internal deadness of depression. But just as I do not have to allow myself to be ruled by my appetite for food or sex or exciting adventures, I do not have to allow myself to be ruled by my feelings.
Just as I choose to “live with” cancer, I choose to live with my feelings, knowing that they come and go, ripples on the pond of my contentment.
In the 13th century, Clare of Assisi wrote to Ermentrude of Bruge:
Our labor here is brief, the reward eternal; may the excitements of the world, fleeing like a shadow, not disturb you. […] Gladly endure whatever goes against you and do not let your good fortunes lift you up: for these things destroy faith and those demand it.
Living intentionally and being the master of our feelings are far from new ideas. Having found my center, my fundamental happiness, I can afford to take a couple of steps back from the “excitements” of my inner world and decide where to place my energy.