I was waiting for the journal prescription–keep a journal, they all say it–and it came in Dr. Andrew Weil’s third tip for achieving happiness. (It’s on MSNBC, under “Happiness Tips with Andrew Weil.”) The journal is the mother of all prescriptions for chronic conditions–overweight, underweight, depression, sciatica, bad stomach, backache. Keep a journal, they say, so you can know the “triggers.” Dr. Weil turns the standard prescription around, and urges us to keep a journal and write down the names of all the people who help us achieve contentment, and in the doing express our gratitude for their presence in our lives. But, let’s face it, if you turn the act of gratitude into a little, well-lubricated machine, it’s not gratitude anymore, is it, Mr. Spontaneous Happiness?
Now I have nothing against Dr. Weil; I have consulted his website from time to time, though less so in recent years. There is good material there, and useful. I also agree with him that happiness is a ruse, a mirage, a manufactured destination. But, truth be told, he should stick to his vitamin regimen and his promotion of “healthy living” though he has written a book, Spontaneous Happiness, the irony of whose title and its book-length format should not be lost on anyone! I say this because despite his integrative approach to health, his tips for happiness (or that other thing which he says is better than happiness) are based on the medical/psychological model.
The first thing to do is discard that model–the doctors, the integrative medicine persons, and the psychologists and quasi-psychologists–you know those types who have a default half-smile plastered on their face, an all-knowing glow in their eyes! Turn off PBS when another man or woman from the “helping professions” stands in front of an audience, in that serene state of being, and doles out the wisdom of the ages about brain plasticity, or good sex after seventy, or healthy interpresonal relations. Even the tai chi and yoga contigent have that all-knowing look. You’ll be spending a lot of time turning off the television set, I tell you, because the network seems to live on the abundance of that type of public personality whose aims are noble, whose teachings are spawned by some miraculous moment of revelation. Much of it is hogwash, of course, so turn off the television set or the radio; discard the brochure.
Once you exiled those types out of your life, once you’ve walked away from the health paradigm–physical and psychological– embrace (ah, that word!!! It’s also always there, but in its old, pre-helping profession days, it was a good word, for romantic situations) literature as your teacher and intimate. You can add philosophy, too, the sister of literature. Philosophy of the East and the West, though you’re slipping into the fashionable territory again, because with those smiling, serene people, the Dalai Lama always slips in somehow, though I cannot remember one sentence of his wisdom. And if you want to keep a journal, which is not a bad idea, keep one in which you write down, by hand, quotations which strike you as poignant, or resonant, or opaque but interesting, or simply outrageous and irreverent.
I am no expert on happiness, far from it. Often, I get more mileage out of my melancholy than my moment of joy, but I have recorded over the years, from literature, or from individuals associated with literature, or from everyday situations which are tinged with something literary, all of deep relevance or consequence or so I thought then. As these words and figures and narratives from literature–literate and vernacular, of the book and the street–have become intimates, they have also lost some of their distinctiveness perhaps, changed by and adapted to the crises or ruminations of the days. But that’s fine, really. Words on a page, the voice of someone from the past–sullied, weathered but infinitely alive to the present, receptive to the moment’s encounter, because in the end, as that gem of an essay by Jose Manuel Fajardo, that I read some years ago,”The Lost Art of Encounters” (whose starting point is the figure of Julio Cortazar) it is the encounter that matters, that opens us to change, to receiving change.
[Cat on a Paris roof/Photo:@csdickey on Twitter]