That is what I hear when I think about starting this project for real.
“For real,” I say- like I haven’t been carrying the message of Heart, Mind, Body, and Soul with me for over twenty years, like I haven’t been living by it’s framework for the past two as I try to understand, control, and live with my depression and anxiety. But even though I feel compelled to explore this concept and what it means to my healing and overall sense of well-being, I have been hesitant to share what I find, to write it down. Because that’s scary.
Even though it’s the only thing I really want to do.
So I tell myself there is magic in beginnings, and then decide to find out where that phrase even comes from. Did I hear it from Gretchen Rubin or Elizabeth Gilbert or Oprah? It’s likely. When I say I am a fan of these women, this is no shallow praise. I dig the message they are all selling. It all comes together like a recipe for me: combine heaping cups of eudaimonia with dashes of self-acceptance and forgiveness, season with the Secret to taste (optional), and add creativity, boundless like garlic; there is always room for more. I can hear “There is magic in beginnings” in any of their voices, voices now familiar because I hear them on podcasts and Ted Talks.
Maybe they all said it.
But none of them said it first.
Turns out, the words echoing in my head are a paraphrase of Meister Eckhart, a 14th-century mystic, philosopher, and theologian whose origin sounds so badass I feel the need to include it here: dude’s from “near Gotha, Landgraviate of Thuringia in the Holy Roman Empire,” now known as Central Germany.
Also turns out, the real quote is better than the one I was using:
“And suddenly you know: It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.”
The pursuit of happiness is a human obsession. It is written into our Declaration of Independence as an “unalienable right.” Even the Dalai Lama posted on his Facebook page that the “very purpose of our life is happiness”:
Yet we tend to go about obtaining happiness in the wrong way. We look for it outside ourselves, in vacations and junk food, in parties and Netflix binges. We often mistake material and fleeting happiness for the only way to get the positive boost we’re seeking. These quick fixes work well as distractions yet actually detract from our overall level of joy.
We can take a look at dopamine and other chemical explanations later, but for now, we turn to ancient philosophy. Socrates and his students, including Plato and Arristippus, debated the ethics of happiness. Arristippus put forward hedonism, a method that concentrates on pleasure and self-indulgence. It’s an extremely tempting option, but it often excuses selfish behavior. At its worst, hedonism is figuratively consuming a steady diet of empty calories and hoping to stay healthy.
Aristotle discussed a more moderate method. Eudaimonia is like eating a well-balanced meal that also tastes great. Translating into English as “well-being” or “human flourishing,” eudaimonia encourages finding joy in contentment and accomplishment. While happiness is subjective and will vary from person to person, the act of pursuing your happiness in everyday activities will put you on the right path.
Here are a few ways to incorporate eudaimonia into your life:
Get stuff done. Flourishing has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with effort. You don’t need to cross an entire project off your to-do list to feel accomplished. Break your goals into subgoals and tackle away. Each time you’ve completed a milestone, allow yourself to feel success. Use that glow to propel yourself forward to the next step, or the next goal.
This is harder than it appears and that’s okay. I recently realized that effort doesn’t feel effortless and it isn’t supposed to, which seems obvious given the suffix, but no. My dark voices insisted I was not suited to the task and I believed them. For years, I thought I was weak when anything felt hard or required practice.
Turnsout, effort is meant to feel deliberate and potentially challenging.
2. Believe in yourself. It’s okay to tackle the hard things even if you don’t believe you have the skills required. You can learn or you can ask for help along the way. The point is, in the end, you are capable of putting in your best effort. Eudaimonia relishes the journey more than the destination. In fact, you can track your progress by time spent instead of goal achieved. We can’t always predict how long a task will take and often feel discouraged by our own expectations.
Despite Yoda’s sage advice to the contrary, there is “try,” and “trying” is a great start.
3. Explore your purpose. Remember how happiness varies? That’s because we are all individuals with different interests, gifts, and aversions. Fortunately, there is a place for your unique talents in this world. By following your heart and accepting who you are, you will be that much closer to creating a life that suits you. Here’s another secret: accepting yourself is crucial to happiness. Take an honest assessment of who you are- your values, your talents, your challenges, and resolve to be your best self. Be honest and recognize when you’re not. Make a different decision next time.
4. Give yourself a break. You can’t be perfect all the time. In fact, you probably can’t be perfect at all. Flourishing doesn’t mean working yourself into a state of exhaustion. It means taking care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. It means meeting your deadlines and relaxing with your friends. It means setting yourself up for success and keeping your options open.
The world is a very different place now than it was when Socrates engaged in long debate with his students. Not everything about their ideas will transfer neatly into modern society. However, the idea that happiness is not only attainable, but within your grasp, within your control, is timeless.
My daughter is 22 months old and changing everyday. Everybody says that the time moves so quickly, blink and she’ll be eighteen and out. My husband even said that just last night, something along the lines of, “We have 16 years with her and then she’s just, poof, gone,” and I reminded him that 16 years is actually a very long time. And when I’m mindful, time stretches. It’s easy to be happy. I’m catching everything, and when I am present, my daughter shines with the attention. Until yesterday, I would beat myself up for all those times I miss, when I am in my own head and far away, when I am inattentive.
Tan changed that for me. Mindfulness is like a muscle, he says, and the more you flex it, the stronger it gets. Each time you recognize you have drifted into daydreams, ruminations, or worries and have left your body behind on autopilot, you can just come back and start over, no big deal. In fact, good job for noticing. It will only get easier from here.
So far, Tan has used this compassionate approach in his description of awareness in meditation, but I’m extrapolating from the tone of the book and what I’ve seen from the table of contents, and slapping on my own ideas of radical-self-forgiveness. I’m only on page 65. But I think that’s the point: I am only on page 65 and I can already tell my worldview has shifted for the better. I have read a third of the book and I am changed.
The book I’m referring to is Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan. Here’s a sample, and I will leave you with the same disclaimer I made in the original post:
I’m not getting paid to endorse it, or to provide opinions, or profit in any way. It’s simply that good so far. But fair warning: don’t let all humble-bragging get in the way of its message.
I wrote a blog post for DateNight.ly, a website dedicated to helping married couples find the inspiration to take time for themselves. I wrote about attending a charity event:
(I have to say, in advance, though no one else in the world cares but me: The ellipses aren’t mine. They were added by the editors. To each, their own.)
Date Night for A Cause
A typical date night doesn’t have to contain food, drinks, and stilted dialogue as you two try to remember how to be romantic and connected.
Imagine, instead, that you’re holding a specialty cocktail, something containing Elderflower liqueur or jalapeno-infused tequila… Your partner holds a frothing ice cold craft beer… The two of you chat with fascinating people who care about the issues that you do.
You’re relaxed, shining. You’re bantering, flirting with your partner. You catch each other’s eyes in silent communion, reconnecting effortlessly. Surrounded by your people, yet it’s still the two of you.
You are the team you’ve always wanted to be.
For a date night like this, you’re looking for a charity night to support a good cause.
I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, which I can’t recommend enough, and I vaguely remembered she had written whatever source Coyote Ugly was based upon. I probably had something else important to do, so seeking it out became First Priority. I found it easily, and as I read, the silver screen and written word jumbled around in my head. I realized: Violet Sanford is Elizabeth Gilbert.
I knew Eat, Pray, Love had been followed by a second memoir, Committed. Turns out both books are technically sequels to Gilbert’s 1997 article for GQ, “The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon.” Nobody seems to mention this. I did a quick web search, polled friends, heard only crickets. I carried the knowledge inexplicably; I have no idea how I knew. Maybe it’s because I tend to read the trivia of movies I like on IMDB.com? It’s mentioned there briefly, but Gilbert gets no writing credit. When I started looking for it, I thought I was searching for a short story. It’s not.
If you’ve seen the movie Coyote Ugly, “The Muse” will feel awfully familiar. Imagine Violet without all the catchy-song writing stuff or the endearing family in Jersey, but keep all the singing and dancing on the bar. Remove the romantic subplot, almost entirely; manage to keep most of your favorite lines of dialogue. And then realize everything that remains actually happened. The same woman who spent months in an ashram in India scrubbing floors and failing to meditate poured tequila from the bottle straight into the throats of her acolytes. I love it.
By the end of “The Muse” she’s met and married her first husband. Fast forward in time a bit. Cue Eat, Pray, Love, which starts with a painful, difficult divorce. Her happy ending in one medium became the devastating catalyst of another.
You can follow the breadcrumbs further if you want. Committed picks up where Eat, Pray, Love leaves off, at least in terms of the characters and gorgeous descriptions of travel. Committed is a thorough meditation on marriage, a union she is hesitant to enter again. I don’t blame her; in 2015, she wrote an article for the New York Times called “Confessions of a Seduction Addict.” In it she writes:
“You might have called me a serial monogamist, except that I was never exactly monogamous. Relationships overlapped, and those overlaps were always marked by exhausting theatricality: sobbing arguments, shaming confrontations, broken hearts. Still, I kept doing it. I couldn’t not do it.”
In 2016, she announced on Facebook her marriage had ended.
Don’t feel bad for connecting all the dots, finding the overarching narrative, noticing discrepancies, for deliberating which source is more likely to be the most true, the articles or the memoir (I say articles)– she’s putting all this out there for a reason. Writers like her, like me actually, put slices of our lives out there for the world to read, not even veiled as fiction. It’s an invitation. Permission. You’re allowed to try and get to know her by paying attention to what she tells you and to what she doesn’t. Somewhere in there is the real woman, and you can get as close as she’ll let you. Honestly, she wouldn’t have published it if she didn’t want you to read it.
Once, I envied her. Now I simply admire her. I admire the messages she seems to be peddling, like the one that insists we all have something creative to give and that it’s worth it to try. I find it comforting when she assures me that the Universe loves me as I am. To me, she’s a reminder that nobody is the sum total of a first impression, that it’s okay to be liked and disliked, and that a human being is a beautiful-if-flawed conglomeration of experiences.
I don’t have a job right now. I’m occasionally terrified by this. But then I find Big Magic, and it says I’ve fucking got this. Eat, Pray, Love tells me something literally awesome wants me to be who I am, and “The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon” proves that we all start somewhere. These are solid forms of inspiration, scattered throughout her portfolio. Leading me somewhere I’m following.
I still have a tough time talking about my dad. The fourth anniversary of his death was last week and I let it pass, unacknowledged. I don’t like to remember that day, and I do my best every year to fog over the knowledge of the actual date. I prefer to remember Veteran’s Day, four days earlier, when I called him to tell him how much I loved him, and unwittingly said our final goodbye.
Brad and I believe that my father met Kenzie before we did, that he has loved her all along, the proof of which materializes suddenly and often, and always seems to be reflected in her eyes. My father called me Blue Eyes, my whole life. A trait we shared, the light-eyed Mackenzies among the dark-eyed Parkers. Kenzie’s eyes are the bluest I have seen, she has sky eyes. Mine are more like the sea, greener, grayer, and I’ve passed the name down to her.
Kenzie recognizes my father in every picture we show her. The close up of he and I dancing on our wedding day, his face and my hair. “Papa,” she says, every time. She named him herself, pure coincidence that it is the name I called the only grandfather I knew. She sees his picture on the mantle, he looks 20 and proud in his military uniform, and again, “Papa.” None of us taught her that. Sometimes she gestures to the air and says “Hi Papa.” This briefly chills me. I usually pause and say, “Hi Daddy. I love you.”
Brad unearthed this picture tonight. We asked, “Kenzie, who is this?” The picture has been in a box for over a year, she has never seen it.
I first felt her spirit’s breeze shortly after the honeymoon, a whiff of brine and caress of ice. We’d returned to the kingdom and castle in that glorious parade, the one with the rose petals like confetti, with music and laughter in every direction. The air was scented with sizzling meat, strong and welcoming, rather than the stench of emptied chamber pots and poverty that had pervaded my home. This was a prosperous, happy village, ruled by my new husband’s father. I remember the heat of the sun- it was high summer, glorious– and in truth, I was beginning to wilt a bit under its heavy attentions. I had been standing for a long time, and my legs were tired, and my face ached from smiling for the last several hours.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I was deliriously happy. This marriage was going to benefit my grandfather’s kingdom, which had suffered during his tumultuous reign. The man had no spine. He lived, but he was weak, bedridden and as incontinent as he was incompetent. My mother had stepped in as acting sovereign. This marriage to my handsome prince was one of her first attempts at restoring something close to dignity. I was radiant.
I was also terribly hot and perhaps teetering toward irritability. That first touch of breeze was a welcome relief, a gift from the gods. The chill that ran along my skin may have caused actual faint steam to rise from the sheen of sweat I’d been trying to ignore and I felt like I could breathe. Honestly, I would have followed that breeze anywhere, but it trailed away like a sigh, or maybe that was my sigh, because I missed it instantly.
I had no idea it was trying to kill me, even then.