I am often haunted by guilty feelings, especially as each New Year begins and all my resolutions go out the window. Losing weight? Sure. Feeling consistently good? No problem. Saving the world from destruction? I’ll be first in line.
The problem is, comes February, I am back where I started – when I stuffed my face during the holidays and postponed the effort to diet — or when I got depressed over something and didn’t deal with it — or better yet when I recycled all the requests for help from the various non-profits around the world instead of sending money or signing up for something worthwhile. I made giants steps in my head, but in reality I am slugging along like a turtle on crutches, wondering why I am not progressing.
At this point I usually resort to taking a trip: Nothing works better than getting on a plane, talking to strangers, planning miles-long hikes through ancient cities, eating gelato gleefully (after all, everyone else does and looks good, so why can’t I?).
The power of traveling is that it is the ultimate distraction from what we need to deal with, and I have mastered it. In fact, and as I write this, I am in my favorite city in the world, Rome, where it is very easy to be distracted—by people, by noises, by beautiful sites—and also to believe this is truly the only way to live life to its fullest and in accordance with one’s resolutions. What’s to worry about when right outside the window is a centuries-old church scanning the time with building-sized bronze bells? Or when feeling lonely one can just step outside and converse (often non-stop) with the butcher or the baker around the corner, whom, by day two, already calls you by name and tells you his private stuff? It is powerful and tempting, and can easily lead one believe that life is just as it shows on the surface: a bit of work, a bit of pleasure (more than that in Italy for sure!), soothing relationships… what more may one want?
The problem, I am finding out, is not so simple. Used as we are to thinking that the grass is greener on the other side, many of us Americans covet others’ lives, especially that of Italians for how they seem to approach life: putting pleasure and relationship first, and duties later. But whether we are here or there, or anywhere, we, human beings, face the same exact challenges. On the surface we may draw more satisfaction from having our senses satisfied or feeling protected and loved by the many a friend we may have, but deep inside our angst and our yearning for a different kind of peace remains.
I attended a Buddhist reunion in Rome last night and it proved to be an awesome experience. There, I was able to compare how we handle our “inner” life in Italy vs. in the States, where I frequent spiritual centers with the diligence of a diabetic on insulin. True to our Italian style, people voiced their feelings and concerns aplenty, and complaining about others’ doings and ways to handle the feelings that arouse thereafter. As they spoke, I detected much of the same issues that emerge with people from other countries, albeit in different styles: hurt feelings, loss of sense of self, confusion about the path ahead, and more of the same. A realization struck me: Could it be that true satisfaction and “happiness” derive from inside, regardless of how we conduct our outer lives? Could it be that, just by accepting who we are, what happens to us, and have a positive attitude about it we could all be okay even if we don’t eat gelato or stare at a magnificent building ever? Just as I notice blessed expressions from people meditating in the USA, I saw upset faces last night. Just as I observe happy Italians eating spaghetti, I registered unhappy reactions from upset individuals in the USA. It helped that the presentation last night was about this: How to feel at peace no matter what, but in truth my own ability to achieve it is at best volatile, and I imagine many of us feel the same.
What I took home was however invaluable. I learned that happiness or unhappiness are internal states, that we have the ability to maneuver the players and the facts of our inner landscape in ways that will produce peace instead of anger, love instead of indifference, generosity instead of greed. That is to me, the true Italian (or Scandinavian or Argentinean or French!) way to handle our resolutions: We accept what happens, we make the best of it and we forgive ourselves for falling short.
Let’s stick to this in 2015 and may your year be as blessed as you deserve it to be.