Coping into Happiness 1-26-2020

In the dream I was sleep-walking down a rickety wooden boat dock and fell into the water. Instantly I woke up. Still groggy and feeling the coldness of the water and the echo of the fear of falling I was relieved to know it was only a dream.

When I was just fourteen my mom died in an auto accident. We were very close to each other, beyond any words I can write. Part of the inside of me was ripped out. There was no coping with her loss that I can recall, other than just waiting. Waiting for the next and then the next moment of thinking that she would return. That my mom would somehow reappear. That she would be just around the next corner. There was no relief. I was told time would heal. For me at fourteen that made no sense at all. This one was not a dream to wake up from. But in time and with the wisdom of the Jewish ritual of attending morning services for the loss of a parent, three times a week for a year, something shifted.

At nineteen within a few months of each other my grandmother Anna and my dog Brownie, at my side for 14 years both passed. My grandmother from natural causes and Brownie from illness. Brownie was suffering both before and after the surgery that did not help her. At that time I was older and saddened but more accepting of the inevitable.

I fell in love got married had two children and had a thriving dental practice. However, the loss of other relatives, a friend and additional disappointments of life over the years paraded a roller coaster of happy and unhappy emotional responses.

It turned out that due to circumstances and conditions some days were happy and some not so happy. Soon after I started jogging in the morning I discovered that on the days I went jogging coping with the routine stresses of working did not seem as trying. Actually on the jogging days these same stressful conditions did not create the same responses in me. Sometimes even though I was not getting the results that I expected it did not affect my mood. I remained contented or even happy regardless of it. I lost much of my habit of becoming frustrated. This was a good loss as I had lost something I did not want to have. My old habits of coping by analyzing, wishing and waiting were gradually fading away.

To some extent I was able to step off the roller coaster with its happy to unhappy ups and downs that had been fueled by my habitual mechanism of coping with whatever came up. It was time to step aside and move along to the next ride in the amusement park of life. I wandered into the hall of mirrors. I began to see that all of the different images, or differing emotional moments were merely reflections. Each emotional moment was due to the causes and conditions that created it. They came and went. I was the one thing that did not change, the viewer of the images. Often I was able to step off and watch the roller coaster as I remained unaffected. However, at times the image or emotional response was so powerful its echo persisted and remained, even blocking other emotions from coming into my awareness. At these times the bully pulpit of my old habits of coping had grown too loud to resist. That is when I found a full night’s sleep was the only reset button available.

Coping with loss and life continued. From my father’s side I had adopted that I wanted to be right and from my mother’s side I wanted to be happy. I sided with happy. But could I find a way to be able, at times, to give up being right just to remain being happy?

It seemed reasonable that if I could increase the causes and conditions that supported happiness or if I could decrease the causes and conditions that supported unhappiness I would be happier.

I came across an ancient Zen story of two arrows. Being struck by the first arrow caused physical pain.   The pain of the second arrow came from the emotional response that would reverberate and linger carrying the pain unnecessarily; long after the physical pain has passed. With practice I learned to let go of the pain from the second arrow.

Mindfulness of mind, our thoughts and mindfulness of body, our sensations became the instruments and the coping tools I began to use, to dissect and modify the causes and conditions of happiness and unhappiness. Being mindful allowed me to catch the building waves of thoughts and sensations or emotions long before they had a chance to trigger my old habits of the second arrow. I started to remain happier.

Four months ago I lost my wedding ring of 49 years. I had made the ring from scratch in dental school. It was in the 60’s and I designed it as a circle of five connected peace signs.

One day it was gone. I routinely took my ring off to play golf. I kept thinking, “It must be on the golf course or in the parking lot. This only happened to others, not to me.” But here I was deeply stung by the first arrow. “Okay,” I thought, “no panic it will turn up.” However, my finger felt naked and this extended to my entire body.   Suddenly I realized I was experiencing the pain of the second arrow. I now had a choice, to continue to drown in the sorrow of loss or embark on an adventure of a new ring.

Although I am progressing with my new coping mechanism I am glad my old habit of looking around the corner returned. Over the weeks of my ring being lost I continued searching the parking lot and path on the golf course. Even though I had looked throughout the area multiple times to my amazement and wonder I found the ring three weeks later lying within 10 feet of where I must have lost it.

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