The Mechanics of Happiness

I haven’t written about my last few days in Thailand, let alone any of the last month. I mean, I was busy having fun and stuff, but that’s not the reason I haven’t updated my blog. The reason is that in those last days travelling by myself, I went through a mental shift that I’m able to put into words only now.

It happened in Pai, that backpacker place in northern Thailand. One day I woke up and thought: “I don’t feel like talking to anyone. I feel like walking”. And I started walking. I soon left the hippy-hostel-hill and found myself in some fields, surprisingly alone. I was carrying nothing but a mango, which I ate once I felt hungry. When I was done eating, I came across a little pond in which I could wash my hands. And then, there was this big temple in a tiny village, and I meditated. I hadn’t drunk in a while but I was not worried. I wasn’t sure where I was going and whether I’d be able to return home if I walked too far. But I just kept walking, observing, breathing.

“The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention” (Julia Cameron)

There was a shop where I bought some water and food. There were some sad chained elephants, there were trees and little huts that looked like shepherd’s napping spots. After a few hours (two? three?), I was starting to feel tired. And then, someone stopped their motorbike and asked me whether I needed a lift. “Well, I’m not sure whether I need one, as such…” – “So, where are you going?” – “I don’t know, maybe the Pai Canyon [two more walking hours down the road] would be nice?” – “Oh, then you definitely need a lift.”

And so I had energy left when reaching the canyon, energy to climb around the sandy narrow tracks and listen to breezy music while looking down deserted landscapes. Hitching back to town was then very easy. Life as such was easy. I’d shifted from planning and worrying to doing and trusting.

Yes. Maybe travelling is special. Maybe it is not wise at all to take this exalted state of mind as a baseline for comparing all my other experiences to. And yet, I found it worth telling this story because I’ve been learning from it in the month that has passed since.

Life has not proven that easy, of course. But also not horrible. For New Year’s, I went to Oxford, the home I had until half a year ago, and I stayed for two weeks. I was pleased, because I didn’t miss Thailand’s hot springs and exploration tours – Instead, I was very excited seeing lots of friends and connecting to lots of other people (like when I organised a conversation dinner, which one of my attendees wrote about).

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I spent a whole day just working on my goals for the year, trying to distil my experiences (especially those after graduation) into an action plan, or at least a direction. Like many people who have finished Uni and don’t yet know what comes next, I have found thinking about the future quite daunting (and not just because I worry about humanity destroying itself).

More precisely: I spent half a year being overwhelmed by the task, and then went travelling to escape my own thinking. And, who would have thought: that was exactly the right thing to do. Suddenly, I was able to focus on the positives. I won’t starve during the next few weeks (probably months) if I don’t make a decision, and I’m free. If I really wanted to, I could literally just leave. Or do whatever.

At the beginning of 2018, I felt excited about the year to come. I mentally stumbled over my own excitement, because it was something I hadn’t felt in a long time. Buzzed by the energy of actually looking forward to things as opposed to reluctantly engaging in the things I felt I was supposed to be doing, I decided on my first goal for this year. Being excited to get up in the morning. I don’t only want to be excited in the mornings, but that was inspired by the image of a child waking up and running down the stairs in the morning, excited about the day to come. That’s exactly what I want to do. My other goals kind of contribute to that, because they, too, are aimed at making me feel good. I want to cultivate a social life that contains deep connection, I want to feel like my body is strong and trustworthy, and I want to be creative (that’s another thing I realised I enjoyed, but hadn’t done in a long time). And, crucially, I’m allowing myself time to not think about what I should be doing – most notably, jobs. My guess is that plans about the future will come to me once excitement about life in general has settled in. That’s reversing the dynamic I felt during the last few months, where I felt like making future plans was becoming impossible the more I tried to force myself, because I just got too stressed to really do anything. I’m giving Excitement until the end of March, and if life isn’t automatically easier then, I’ll just figure out another strategy.

So, I made these glorious plans. And then, I came back to Berlin. I was greeted by a minor snow storm that soaked me in ice. Making friends was hard, and exercising was an effort that felt far beyond me. My initial inner-child response was to sulk, and go like: “Oh, the problem is Berlin. I should just leave again”.

I spent a week making myself do things anyway, all of the things I knew were good. I did some creative writing every day (“You have to allow yourself to create badly in order to create at all” getting me through my self-criticism). I went out to do parkour with someone, but ended up dancing around on the stones instead because that felt more like playing, and I need play more than “serious exercise” right now. I went to a meetup without really knowing what it was about, and it turned out to be people organising techno parties for fundraising purposes. I couldn’t even tell what techno is when hearing it, but the people were fun and I congratulated myself for going anyway. I went contact dancing, learnt how to do animal moves at a workshop, had dinner with a group of law students, and made a summary of a chapter which I handed out at a group discussion on moral philosophy.

All of that was actually pretty hard at the beginning, because I find being around strangers exhausting, and activities continued being draining even while I was doing them. For example, at the dancing session, I’d dance for a few minutes and enjoy myself, and then curl up in a corner…until I was able to dance again. In the moment, I couldn’t even tell whether I enjoyed the experience as a whole, but I reminded myself that doing things is better than not doing things. And the positive effects have started arriving.

After a few days, I suddenly thought: wouldn’t it be fun to pretend I’m travelling through Berlin right now? You know, do all the random things that I really love when I’m on a trip, just being perceptive to opportunities and ending up doing something totally unexpected. To get started, I made a list of things I could do and then set off to do something else entirely.

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I cycled around and suddenly saw all these things, stopped to take pictures, walked along a bit of the Berlin Wall, and found myself in a free exhibition. In the evening, I went to a two-and-a-half hours training session, physically intense, but also requiring coordination, reaction, and weirdness. And instead of being drained afterwards, I asked myself: “What next?”. There was a radical-leftist space two corners further on, and they provided dinner on donation basis (VoKü, or Volxküche, as it’s called here). I’m not sure whether that was still the buzz of the travelling day, but I didn’t feel insecure walking into the dirty space with people I didn’t know anything about. Maybe I was just massively hungry. Over dinner, I started talking with an anarchist – new people, new views! I could have continued the night in some party I was invited to and I’m sure I could have turned my life from unexpected to surreal if I’d tried a bit harder, but I was pleased enough with the state of affairs as it was.

All of that made me hopeful that I can make the transition from travel happiness to settled happiness. I think – I feel – that this year still has the potential to be a great one for me. It might not happen by itself, but I am learning what I need, and I’m trying my best to do whatever will work.

And just now, I noticed that my blogging theme has shifted from what I called “the mechanics of fear” to what I might as well call the mechanics of happiness.

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