Waking Up to Happiness

Natalie Goldberg was awfully sick yet she was happy. Happiness is available to everyone, she realized, but we can find it only when we’re still.

Natalie Goldberg
13 June 2016
Bed with books.
Illustration by Katherine Streeter.

Last summer I was sick in bed. I could write “flu” and be done with it, but that would be a generalization. My eyes were blood red and caked shut in the morning—the doctor said it was conjunctivitis. “Isn’t that what little kids get?” I asked. A lump was developing in the bottom of my mouth. I coughed up green phlegm. My ears were ringing and I heard things as though I were under water.

Why do I feel the need to state all this? While sick, I read The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki. The book was long, slow, magnificent, and included everything—many details about the main characters’ colds, allergies, bug bites, and intestinal problems. But as I read I didn’t cringe or back away. We are in human bodies and sickness is natural, a part of this physical life.

I took extra delight in the book’s last line. The third sister was finally going to be married—one of the strong narrative drives throughout the book—and the result: “Yukiko’s diarrhea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to tokyo.” and so the book ends. we are left with the ginger hesitation of a woman in her thirties—late for marriage in mid-twentieth-century Japan—riding to her destiny, her body engaged and nervously pumping. Now don’t be a prude. You have to love it. The honesty alone. No one else tells us these things. Thank the writer for being honest.

You don’t do happiness. You receive it.

While I was sick, lying in bed reading, I’d occasionally look up through my bedroom window and watch the pale green on the distant willows and near lilacs. and sometimes I’d pause to sneeze, cough, blow my nose, take a sip of tea. Friends would call to commiserate. Yes, I was awfully sick—it did seem a long time to be in bed—then I’d return to the dream of the book in hand.

The truth is I was happy. Happier than I’d been in a long, long time. Yet I knew that as soon as my energy returned I’d plunge back into mad activity, full of passion. I was lucky because I loved most of what I did in life, but as I lay in bed I realized passion was different than happiness. You don’t do happiness. You receive it. It’s like a water table under the earth. It’s available to everyone but we can only tap it, have it run up through us, when we’re still. a well that darts around can never draw water.

We misinterpret success, desire, enterprise, and the things we love as the state of happiness. Usually, we don’t even consider happiness because we’re too busy dashing after life, defending, building, developing, even fighting, asserting, arguing. we’re in the scramble—lively, engaged. so where does happiness come in? It’s a give and take, a meeting of inside and outside. even enlightenment is a meeting, a relationship of the inside and outside. The Buddha was enlightened—his whole nervous system switched gears—when he glanced up and saw the morning star. we don’t wake up in a vacuum. we can’t be at home with ourselves in a cubicle. to be at home with ourselves is to be at home in the world, in the interaction with others—and trees and slices of cheese and the broad, sad evolving of politics.

If I want happiness I have to understand it and then dedicate myself to it moment by moment.

When I was sick, I was settled down. I didn’t have a lot of energy for engagement, the daily tending to a hundred details. I am not saying the ideal state is a sick body, but when I began to aggravate about something I knew I was getting better. when the bite of concern and worry snapped in, I was reentering the pale of human life. At that moment, where was my happiness? I lost my connection to home plate, to the core of reception, patience, the bottom of my belly, to the ground of well-being.

The next day I dragged myself out of bed and crossed my legs, sitting up straight for half an hour to anchor my wandering mind in the breath. To keep coming back to the present moment. To regain the contentment I’d so quickly lost.

As I sat, I was lost for a long time in a memory of Auschwitz, where I’d meditated for five days the previous summer, then I was lost in the thought of turning over the compost out back in my yard, then in considering maybe buying some granola. Thoughts have no hierarchy. The mind jumps from the serious to the mundane in a second. Then snap. I came back to myself. If I want happiness I have to understand it and then dedicate myself to it moment by moment. I can’t stay in bed sick all the time to attain it. I have to commit myself to it when I’m also well.

The thing I love about the Zen koans, those terse, enigmatic teachings from the Chinese ancestors, is that they include sickness in their presentations to realize original nature.

Great Master Ma was not well. The director of the monastery stopped in his room and inquired, “How is your health? How are you feeling?” the Great Master replied, “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.”

We could speculate on meaning here but the important thing right now is that sickness is included in the realm of realizing peace, understanding, and happiness. Nothing left out. How can we stay connected to contentment in the dentist’s chair? How can we be with peace as we listen to the news? sometimes happiness is being in the center of our grief.

When my friend’s husband died in his thirties and she was bereft, her therapist said, “Enjoy your grief. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.” Can you imagine that? To be in the heart of your life whatever your heart holds.

I am not saying there is a prescription for happiness. Just that the trained mind examines situations; it does not simply fall apart. If you are sick in bed, it’s an opportunity. If you continually have a hard time with a friend, look deeper than the bickering and misunderstandings. Maybe the relationship died years ago and you neglected to notice it, hanging on to old ideas of love. Maybe it will take root again—maybe not.

In college, the single class that caught my interest was an ethics class in the philosophy department. We studied Descartes, Bergson, James, Kant, Socrates, the full gamut of white dead Western men. The essence of each reading was the question of happiness. What is it? How to attain it?

No one can hand over happiness on a silver plate—or on a doily. Especially when we don’t know what it is.

When I studied with my Japanese Zen teacher he said, “Whatever you do, let it be accompanied by dharma joy.” He lifted his dark eyebrows in an expression of inclusion. Yes, you, too, Natalie, are capable of this. At the time I was thirty-one years old.

No one can hand over happiness on a silver plate—or on a doily. Especially when we don’t know what it is. Our job is to pay attention and examine it. Can we have happiness and peace at the same time as joy, fun, pleasure, anger, and aggression? How do we learn to abide in ourselves?

I ended up staying sick in bed for five weeks. That’s a long time. My ears, the eustachian tubes, became congested. The middle of my head filled up. Finally, on a Wednesday, I had some energy and went out. Eagerly I plunged into life again. How foolish I was. I must have done thirty different tasks, including going out that night with friends. I enjoyed it all, but just as I was falling asleep, I asked myself the question, “Were you happy?” Quickly the answer came: only the half hour I was planting tomatoes and strawberries in the backyard.

The next morning I woke with the black stranger loneliness sitting beside me. Certainly I’ve been lonely before but this time it manifested heavily beside me. I’d lost paradise, my time in bed.

In the next days at different intervals I asked myself, “Are you happy?” Head-deep in my active life, I didn’t know how to find happiness again. I couldn’t make it happen. Then just seven days out of bed, standing in line at the bank, like a cocker spaniel or possum, I felt happiness, for absolutely no reason, ringing my bell. After I made my deposit, I sat in the car wondering what had happened. I was almost “bursting with happiness” as they say in romance novels but I was not particularly in love, only swimming in my own being.

Then this morning, as I dressed to go out, I again asked myself, “Are you happy?” I was darkly blue from allergies and constant may winds and a drought that made my skin almost crackle, so I growled no but I wasn’t convincing. Some defense had been smashed. Even in misery there could be happiness. and then it bubbled up, clear and full, for no reason. But there was a reason. I was paying attention.

Happiness is shy. It wants to know you want it. You can’t be greedy. You can’t be numb—or ignorant. The bashful girl of happiness needs your kind attention. Then she’ll come forward. And you won’t have to be sick to find her.

Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg is the author of Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within (Shambhala 1986), The Great Spring: Writing, Zen and This Zigzag Life (Shambhala 2016), and other books on Zen practice and the creative process.