Stressed out? Take a breath, a break

June 06, 1999|By Lama Surya Das

WESTERNERS have known for centuries what the goal of life is. As the French philosopher Diderot stated in his 1773 conversations with Catherine II: "There is only one duty: That is to be happy."

But as the summer commences, Americans are asking: "How can I fulfill that `duty'? How can I rid myself of the stress and anger that my high-speed chase of a life is bringing to me? How can I make others happy, if I cannot be happy myself?"

In his 1731 autobiography, one of America's most inventive citizens, Benjamin Franklin, speculated that happiness is produced "not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day." The smile of a friend, the beauty of a flower seen in passing, a small good deed done easily and without hesitation -- all of these everyday "advantages" add up to the kind of happiness Franklin envisions.

Arthur Miller proposed this tongue-in-cheek analysis in his 1968 play "The Price": "The main thing today is shopping. Today you're unhappy? Can't figure it out? Go shopping."

Joyless lives

That seems to be modern-day America's dilemma. Instead of living, we are shopping. At the same time, we feel we are bypassing the joy that is meant to be the purpose and gift of life.

Americans have always admired people who work hard, make money and buy neat stuff. For early Americans -- think about the hard-working Pilgrims -- the work ethic was almost directly connected to religious principles.

America has never really placed a real value on such qualities as balance and relaxation. Commercial pitches today show an America that is always "connected." Whether on an airplane, on the road, or on the beach, we are always at work.

And there's nothing wrong with living the high-paced, high-energy life that Americans lead. It's like surfing: Either you drown, or you have a great ride. And if you can manage not to get carried away, then you can ride that wave.

Spiritual DNA

But just as an unexamined life is a life poorly lived, no life is complete without some effort to connect with the deeper meaning of our existence. We all have spiritual DNA. And whether Jewish, Christian, Buddhist or atheist, we all can enhance our spiritual side.

Enlightenment is not some grim chore we have to do. It's simpler than that. It's being wakeful and mindful. And work is not just a way to earn a paycheck. Work is what we do to make a better world and make ourselves better people.

No attachments

As practitioners of a philosophy famous for its handy advice about eliminating restrictive ties from your life, Buddhists like to tell a well-known joke: "Have you heard about the Buddhist vacuum cleaner? It comes with no attachments!"

So, as you enjoy this summer at America's beaches and ballparks, or in your own backyard, take a moment to ask yourself whether your vacuum cleaner really needs all its attachments. Enjoy the time spent with your loved ones. Be in the moment. Celebrate the joy of the life you are living. As Buddhists often say, the road to relaxation is a simple one: Take a breath, take a break.

Lama Surya Das, author of "Awakening to the Sacred," is America's most highly trained practitioner in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This was written for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pub Date: 6/06/99

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