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Accepting who we are and wanting what we have

23 Nov 2012 | Paul Sternberg

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Reflecting on the recent presidential election fever in the US, I was reminded of the words of Rabbi Hyman Schachtel who delivered the inaugural prayer for President Lyndon Johnston in 1965. Rabbi Hyman wrote that "happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you already have". In other words accepting who you are, being appreciative of your everyday life and being able to see the value in the things that surround you. This wonderful expression from one of the great Jewish rabbis of our time brings to mind the saying of another great spiritual figure, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was once asked by a western journalist if he could explain the secret of his life in three words. "Three words?" he replied. "Renounce and enjoy!"

Both Gandhi and Rabbi Schachtel are telling us something that we know instinctively but rarely ever hear from our political leaders, our schools, our television screens and our newspapers. It's something that goes completely against the grain of our culture: that to be happy we need to let go of trying to get what we want, trying to get things to go our way, trying to feed the appetites and desires that we are continually encouraged to think we need. They try to point us to a life which can be lived with intention and meaning in spite of, rather than because of, the trappings of mainstream culture which in the words of economist Tim Jackson only persuades us "to spend money we don't have, on things we don't need, to create impressions that won't last, on people we don't care about."

This is where the teachings of the great sages and the wisdoms of the great faith traditions come into play. For they remind us of the beauty and meaning in our everyday lives: of relationships, of appreciation for what we have, of hope for the future, of the joy in the small things, of overcoming difficulties, of providing a source of meaning and purpose in our lives. These great traditions and wisdoms of old remind us what science is now confirming: that our lives and of those around us are like a rainbow where we are never sure where one colour begins and another ends - in other words we are so radically inseparable and interconnected that reciprocity, generosity, compassion for others and altruism are embedded within our emotional and psychological DNA.

And unlike the things we hear from our politicians, our schools and our media these great faith traditions tell us something else: that there is, in the words of the ancient Hindu scriptures, "a secret dwelling in the lotus of our hearts." Whether it is Jesus or the Buddha, the Prophet Muhammad or the great philosophers of Ancient Greece, the Native American elders or the legendary Chinese sages, they all tell us, albeit differently, the very same thing: that our main purpose in life is to find this place in our hearts. This is where silence, through meditation and prayer, through deep contemplation and reflection can help us. Silence allows us to reflect on the inner reality of which we know so little. It allows us to still our minds, observe with detachment our conveyor belt of thoughts, to become attentive to the presence of our true self.

A deeper encounter with silence, through meditation and its related practices, doesn't mean that we have to drop everything and go and live like a hermit on top of a mountain. And it doesn't mean being 'religious' in a doctrinaire sense. But what it does mean - and scientific evidence confirms this - is that finding an inner stillness can lead to changes in our brains and can light up neural networks of happiness, love, and wisdom within ourselves as we face the challenges of a world that, in more ways than one, is becoming overheated.

It is in meeting the challenges of living in today's world that Action for Happiness is so important as movement of people taking action to create a happier society. Our vision must be for as many people as possible to live happy lives and as few as possible to be anxious or depressed. This requires us to bring together the latest scientific research with the wisdom of old; and to combine inner peace and wisdom with an outer generosity and kindness towards others. At the heart of this lies the recognition of the essential importance of accepting who we are and wanting what we already have.


Paul Sternberg is a consultant to media, business and not-for-profit organisations and leads the partnership and campaigns work at Action for Happiness. He has worked at the Peter De Haan Charitable Trust, Nesta, Channel 4, The Ethical Communications Agency and Business in the Community. He teaches at Ravensbourne College and is on the Board of Trustees for Citizens UK.

On 28 Sept Paul will be part of Just This Day, a day of stillness and silence at St Martin-in-the-Fields, where he and others will be reflecting on what faith traditions tell us about how to live well.

Paul Sternberg     Just This Day



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