I recently listened to a podcast interview with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, conducted by Mel Robbins. His area of study is positive psychology and happiness. He offers Helen Keller’s view that happiness is wholeness. He holds that happiness is something that ensues a meaningful life. To pursue happiness directly results in failure. He uses an acronym to name the essential ingredients of a happy life: SPIRE. These letters stand for: Spiritual, Physical, Intellectual, Relational, and Emotional. I thought it might be useful to explore these topics in a few reflections.

The term “whole” itself is related to the words health, heal, hale, holy, and even hello. The Latin word for whole, integer, finds its English counterpart in the word integrity. The opposite is “broken,” which means damaged, divided into parts, or fractured (also from the Latin). This root suggests that happiness involves an integration which holds together in harmony all the various dimensions of our human nature. At the same time, in an article co-authored many years ago, we raised the question of whether one can be a whole person in a broken body. The conclusion was that it was possible, often with the help of intelligently caring and trustworthy others. In other words, wholeness, integrity, authenticity is possible, and is only possible if it is compatible with the inseparable limitations, sorrows, pains, losses, and mistakes found within every human life.

These thoughts lead naturally into the first component of happiness, the spiritual. This element may include religion, but not necessarily. Theologian Diarmid O’Murchu, in Reclaiming Spirituality, suggests that preceding, informing, and going beyond specific religious beliefs, is the human longing for deeper meaning. Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has also claimed that the longing for meaning is the deepest drive of the human being, a view expressed as well by theologian, Karl Rahner.

This longing for meaning may be understood to comprise three dimensions, a sense of worth, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose. The journey toward meaning would seem as a result to involve as well three elements: the practice of solitude and meditation; the experience of friendship and compassion; and the sense that we are part of, and called from within, to give ourselves to something beyond and greater than ourselves.

For today, let’s look at the first element: solitude and meditation. Meister Eckhart, the 13th century mystic has written: “There is a place in the soul that neither time nor space nor any created thing can touch. … There is a place in the soul where you’ve never been wounded.” The purpose of solitude and meditation is to get to, to return to that space, that Thomas Merton calls “the secret beauty” of our heart. This has been the guiding principle of all my thinking and feeling: that there is a sacred worth and value, to each and every person, and to all that is. It is our home space, our underlying identity. It is never proven, but only discovered, or rather uncovered.

One of the pathways to uncover this place is through breathing meditation. This practice is common to both Eastern and Western traditions. It involves essentially three steps: first simply sit quietly and pay attention to our breathing, its inhale, pause, and exhale, and how it feels. Before long our mind will wander into all kinds of thoughts–the second step. Finally as we notice this distraction, we simply return our attention to the breath. This process will repeat itself continually. Those who write about this practice, such as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nath Hanh, speak of this practice as allowing us to become more fully present in all our activities. His book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, was written to help social workers be more mindful and so more helpful to those they assisted in their work.

James Finlay has a wonderful comment on this practice: “As we sit, though nothing happens, there is a subtle parting of a curtain.” a clarity and awareness may surface. Wayne Muller echoes a similar thought. He tells of a week long silent retreat, where a deep feeling of sadness emerged. Yet he stayed with the silence, and writes about it.
I could feel a place inside, below all my names, my stories, my injuries, my sadness–a place that lived in my breath. …It had a voice, a way of speaking to me about what was true, what was right. And along with this voice came a presence, an indescribable sense of well-being that reminded me that whatever pain or sorrow I would be given, there was something inside strong enough to bear the weight of it. It would rise to meet whatever I was given. It would teach me what to do.

In the silence of solitude, then, we may become attuned to our own inner voice, the voice that, so to speak, is behind and in our breath. It is the expression of our inmost self, our sacred self, our authentic self, our heart or core self. It is the place where we have never been wounded.

Yet there are places above that inmost self where we have been wounded. There are voices other than the voice of our sacredness. And as we sit in silence, we may first hear these other voices: the voices of criticism, of judgment, of rejection and the like. And there is also the whole spectrum of feelings that each of us experience in some way, including the negative or troubling feelings, such as anger, frustration, bitterness, and the like.

As we have frequently said, the challenge is to recognize these feelings, without either identifying with them or unleashing them indiscriminately. Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, suggests that we regard these as visitors, but not give them the run of the house. They do belong to us, but they are not who we are most deeply. Anglican author, Morton Kelsey, clarifies the process of recognition and response to these feelings..
Out of silence disturbing emotions often come to the surface which are difficult to control. They can range from vague apprehension to terror and panic, or they may vary from bitterness and indignation to aggressive hatred and rage.. … In the silence one can allow the feelings to arise, disconnected from their ordinary targets in the outer world, and learn to deal with the depth of the psyche directly. … Our feelings and personal responses to the world are taken down, examined, and brought into relationship with the rest of our being and the Centre of Meaning.

In this process, we may be able gradually to uncover the outer, sometimes disturbing layers. Behind these, we may become more and more attuned to and in touch with our core self, our authentic self, our true home. We may then, more and more, learn to live from and return to that soul self. Of course the ambiguities and struggles of life always remain and assert themselves. But they may gradually become visitors and not permanent residents.

The journey into silence may pass through the whole spectrum of feelings. Yet beneath these may be uncovered and emerge to awareness our inner core, in its beauty and sacredness. We may then–though not without reversals and new beginnings–gradually live more and more from that centre, and discern and respond to its presence in all we encounter.

In the silence of your heart, may you more and more uncover and live from your inmost secret self, and experience the happiness of being truly at home to your self and others.