The modern American lifestyle is rife with the illusion of success and plenty but the spell is breaking. All it takes is a little hard reality. You lose your job, a friend gets devastated by a health emergency that isn’t covered by their insurance, etc.
In my book, Awakening from the American Dream, I included a quote from University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener: "Materialism is toxic for happiness." No wonder increasing numbers of Americans are unhappy! This country is all about materialism and the pursuit of happiness. Hermann Hesse offers a contrary point of view in his poem, called Happiness.
As long as you chase happiness,
You are not ready to be happy,
even if you own everything.
As long as you lament a loss,
run after prizes in restless races,
you have not yet known peace.
But when you have moved beyond desire,
become a stranger to your goals and longings,
and call no longer Happiness by name,
Then your heart rises calmly
above the ebb and flow of action
and peace has reached your soul.
The popular interpretation of, “land of the free,” customarily relates to being free to pursue happiness and becoming happy when you catch it. But, as we can readily see from Hesse’s poem, true happiness arises for a very different reason. Moving beyond desire, goals, and longings does indeed allow the heart to rise above agitation and imbues the soul with peace. This is something that no pursuit can gain and no amount of money can buy, but it is an experience that the blessing of living in America can support.
For all the illusion we must navigate, this country still does provide a remarkable opportunity to awaken to peace. Most of us aren’t dodging bullets. We may complain [accurately] that many of our politicians are corrupted and incompetent. But this is true in every government and our system is no worse than many others.
Peace, like happiness, emerges from the inside. Efforts to achieve world peace will fail, until this principle is honored. Allowing peace to live within us doesn’t render us impotent in terms of activism. Quite to the contrary. Mystic Andrew Harvey advocates sacred activism and in his book, Radical Passion, quotes Rumi:
Passion burns down every branch of exhaustion.
Passion is a supreme elixir and renews all hope.
Run far away, my friends, from all false solutions.
Let divine passion triumph and rebirth you in your self
This doesn’t sound like apathetic navel gazing! No, peace is a dynamic state characterized by inner stillness and outer, passionate, expression. I used a particular metaphor in one book chapter to describe this, suggesting that we need two wings to fly - one called grace, the other called effort.
Grace is the experience of inner peace. Effort can either be the appropriate expression of spiritual power from the inside out, or it can be a frustrating ego battle to manipulate circumstances and others.
Most people are frantically efforting to make the Dream work. Whatever grace they experience is random. The efforting I recommend relates to dismantling illusion. This increases grace. When enough disillusionment has occurred, grace increases and you begin to enjoy balance. The two wings equalize, so you can soar in the heavens!
This is the true land of the free, a state of life experience that is not restricted by futile and exhausting manipulation. Imagine that, right now as you read. Experience yourself coming into full presence in this moment, and this one, and this one. Here you are. As you focus on the simple meaning of these words, can you feel the immediate–if subtle–increase of grace on the inside? Can you detect how peace is rising in your soul?
When Americans speak proudly of the land of the free, referring to the physical country, they are ignoring the opportunities to explore this inner landscape. That’s a tremendous loss. Peace, or grace, deserves daily, passionate, exploration. There are countless levels and dimensions, colors and tones, moods and scents to this inner world. This is the blessing of meditation, the opportunity to travel within, culturing an experience that is far richer than simply turning off the thoughts. There’s a whole world in here, and it’s a living world that longs for your return.
Many people feel lonely, even in the midst of a big city. Why? They are feeling their own absence from the sanctuary that lives within them. And, just as we cannot find happiness by pursuing it, we will never heal loneliness until we return to the land of the free inside.
The expedition awaits and now is always the best time to begin.