Some lucky souls do seem to live the good life, according to the American Dream. They don't miss a meal, they don’t worry about a sudden health problem draining their savings, and the prospect of being downsized doesn’t keep them awake at night. They have enough money for their kids’ college funds and their own retirement. They can vacation where and when they want, for as long as they want.
That’s paraphrased from what we wrote in Chapter Eleven of our recent book, Awakening From the American Dream. We went on to question just how happy those lucky souls really are, arriving at a self-evident conclusion – not so much. Just ask them, if you know any.
Despite experience and statistics, many of us continue to labor under the delusion that money will make us happy. Not so. And, Americans are no longer the most economically mobile. That is, we aren’t bootstrapping ourselves to riches and supposed happiness better than anyone else. Here’s one of the many “proofs” we enumerated in the book.
… many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe.
Yes, we are proud of all our Horatio Alger stories. This is the land of opportunity, isn’t it? Yes and no. While it may not be what it once was in terms of economic opportunity, we do have a very different opportunity – provided by the relative stability of most living environments – for spiritual development. Why bother? Well, instead of insisting on proving to yourself that money can’t make you happy, how about proving that knowing yourself more deeply can?
Someone who champions this approach and certainly models it in his own demeanor is the Dalai Lama. We quoted him, poetically describing the change in values that’s required:
It is clear that something is seriously lacking in the way we humans are going about things. But what is it that we lack? The fundamental problem, I believe, is that at every level we are giving too much attention to the external material aspects of life while neglecting moral ethics and inner values.
By inner values I mean the qualities that we all appreciate in others, and toward which we all have a natural instinct, bequeathed by our biological nature as animals that survive and thrive only in an environment of concern, affection and warm heartedness, or in a single word, compassion. The essence of compassion is a desire to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being.
So, the Dalai Lama is identifying a particular strategy, the way of embodied compassion. To repeat his instructions:
The essence of compassion is a desire to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being.
Imagine if, instead of chasing the carrot of self-improvement – whether it be added external wealth or increased internal
enlightenment– we joined the Dalai Lama in his compassionate approach and genuinely worked
to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being?
We don’t have far to look, nor do we have long to wait. Opportunities to help others surround us in every moment… if we can only see them. I was reading an article in Harper’s magazine featuring a dialogue between experts in Israel and Palestine commenting on the conflict there. One man spoke sadly about how they lived so close to each other but didn’t really know each other. Such is the case everywhere. Who knows their neighbors? Who cares to? We rush from home to work to entertainment, often glued to a mobile device en route, ignoring those around us, not to mention nature!
To buck this trend takes as little as paying attention. Remember, that was one of the verbal messages Aldous Huxley’s parrots were trained to speak in his classic book, Island. Paying attention can change everything. But what do we pay attention to? The world we live in, pressing up on all sides of us and within us, or a world of ambitious imagination, steeped in denial and unrealistic hope for a future that will never come, at least not the way we hope it will?
The carrot we chase takes innumerable forms, as does the vacuum cleaner that sucks up our real wealth along the way. That wealth isn’t just the money we waste as we scurry after happiness, it’s the lost connections with friends and family. Here is a different kind of bank account… friendship! Sadly many people today report not really having one best friend. They don’t have time for it. Really?
How about you? Ask yourself right now:
Who is my best friend? You might name a few. Think honestly about how “best” they really are. How deep do you go with each other? There’s a difference between a bowling buddy and someone you can share your heart with.
So, let’s give up the chase. Let’s care for each other today. And let’s start by noticing each other, seeing, hearing, being present with undivided attention. A wonderful exercise in a seminar I heard about invites participants to stand, find a partner (usually a stranger), lock eyes and say,
I see you. This is a traditional Zulu greeting. After a moment, the other says,
I’m here to be seen. Then they too say,
I see you. Their partner completes the communication:
I’m here to be seen. Then it’s off to the next exchange.
What a soul nourishing process, and what a wonderful reminder of how simple it is to solve the worst of our social problems: loneliness. That’s at the bottom of it all, right? Those who feel seen, appreciated, and loved don’t become serial killers. They don’t cheat and steal. Why not? Because they feel welcomed in their communities; they are stakeholders, they belong. They are at home.
Reach inside. That’s where the gold is. Reach inside for the currents of compassion that are always flowing in your heart. Share that wealth. There are hungry people all around you. Feed them, and nurture yourself. Generosity rewards both giver and receiver and, lo and behold, all of us wake up together!