I've always wanted change. At 13, I declared to my parents that I was moving to the Caymans where I would support myself as a watercolorist. That didn't quite work out.
Soon enough, I found myself in college. But once there, I couldn't wait to leave the country to study abroad in England. And as soon as I graduated, I just wanted to move back to Europe. A few years later, I was married and living in Germany.
Our culture conditions us to measure satisfaction based on future circumstances and material items. We're starved for the new and novel, and we want it all now. Few of us have taken a step back to try and understand what's feeding our collective hunger.
When Julia Roberts appeared in the film based on Elizabeth Gilbert's wildly successful memoir "Eat Pray Love," ravenous moviegoers were eager to eat up her prophecy. Newly divorced, depressed and lacking satisfaction, Gilbert decided to spend a year traveling the globe. Via Italy, India and Indonesia, she eventually found peace as a spiritual, sensual and intellectually balanced woman. She also finished her manuscript and met an attractive Brazilian man.
Traveling 4,000 miles to work in an ashram, living with a quirky toothless healer, and taking Italian cooking lessons from a gorgeous Roman sounds like a grand path to contentment, but here's a secret: Happiness already lives deep within you, and it's free.
Mindfulness—a nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness—operates on the idea that learning to recognize the potential in each moment helps us to experience a richer sense of purpose and less dissatisfaction for what we aren't and don't have.
Historically, mindfulness played a central role in Buddhist meditation, whereby achieving a calm awareness of one's physical body and feelings is a critical component in the path to liberation. Meditation also has secular applications. Western psychologists, including Jon Kabat-Zinn (founding director of the Massachusetts-based Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness in Medicine), are successful at merging the healing aspects of meditation with psychological awareness in mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive therapy. Emerging neuropsychological studies, such as those reported by Dr. David Rock in Psychology Today, suggest that individuals who practice mindfulness can learn how to consciously switch between brain pathways.
We generally process experiences through two channels: the narrative network and the direct experience network. In the former, we take in everything all at once—passing information through a filter that assigns meaning and add our own interpretations. In the latter, we don't think consciously about the past or future, other people or even ourselves. Rather, we process information in "real time," without judgment. Most westerners tend to rely on the narrative network, thereby making it harder for us to feel our way through experiences.
Learning to shift between the two, and work more with one's direct experience network, has definite advantages. Becoming more closely connected to the reality of events as they unfold allows us to respond more flexibly, and helps us free ourselves from the past, our expectations and assumptions.
After eight years of traipsing all over the country and abroad, a nagging realization faced me: All I wanted was to be back home. What I'd worked so hard to distance myself from ended up being the only thing that could provide me with peace. This realization didn't occur out of the blue and wasn't a mistake. Tuning in with the experience I already owned was the product of slowing down, taking stock and learning to live more mindfully.
I am pleased to report a good deal of satisfaction with the present moment, and I didn't have to buy a ticket to Bali or paint on Grand Cayman to find it. It was always there, locked inside me.
Happiness resides in the landscape of the soul and thrives in the power of now.