When I was invited to do a talk for the International Day of Happiness, I jumped at the chance.
I was enthusiastic about it at first, but that enthusiasm soon began to fade. I started to have doubts about my ability to talk about happiness for 30 minutes.
How do you present a talk about happiness?
This was the question I asked myself over and over again.
I came to the conclusion (a few days before the event) that when we speak about happiness, we only talk of two things:
1. How we feel when we're happy
2. What gives rise to that feeling we know as happiness
Feelings are subjective.
They're very personal.
I can never experience a feeling for you and you can't experience a feeling for me.
I can't feel what you feel and you can't feel what I feel.
I might say some comforting words, such as, 'I know how you're feeling.'
But I don't, really.
They're just very nice words to hear when we're wanting reassurance that we're not alone with our feelings.
When, in reality, we are.
But we're OK with that, right? We don't know any different.
After all, we've never shared feelings before, have we?
Even if I say I know how you feel, it's still I who feels the feelings that I say are the feelings that you say you're feeling. Do you follow?
To cut out any further mind-bending sentences, let us conclude that happiness is a feeling and is therefore subjective.
And because happiness is subjective, I knew I couldn't realistically present a talk on happiness in 30 minutes.
I don't know what makes people happy! I have no secrets for peoples' happiness! What on earth can I speak about?
Then I asked the question: what makes me happy?
That would be a good place to start, right?
If I could speak about that, then I wouldn't be surmising about other peoples' states of mind; their emotional triggers and the filters of their mind.
At first I thought it might seem self-indulgent and narcissistic to just talk about me, myself and I . . . but that would only be true if I was telling them aspects of myself to benefit my ego.
And that wasn't the case.
I was going to tell them aspects of myself because:
1. I thought they would benefit from hearing about my philosophy and experiences.
2. It's the only thing I know!
I started off the talk by explaining my dilemma about not knowing what to talk about and reasons for this.
I told them the basic fundamentals which make up my own happiness, and would no doubt also make up theirs. Think Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs:
Physiological: breathing; water; food; sex; sleep; homeostasis; excretion.
Safety: security of body; employment; resources; morality; the family; health; property.
Love/Belonging: friendship; family; sexual intimacy.
Esteem: self-esteem; confidence; achievement; respect of others; respect by others.
Self-actualisation: morality; creativity; spontaneity; problem solving; lack of prejudice; acceptance of facts.
What I wanted to speak about was one area of life which seemed to be the undercurrent in all that I do.
It effects the way I look at life.
It effects the way I live my life.
It effects the way I perceive life and is therefore an intrinsic part of my own personal philosophy.
It's the one thing which I'm sure people weren't expecting to ponder on at an event focused on happiness.
Death and dying.
When I ponder on my own mortality, it gives rise to gratitude, love, joy, compassion, understanding; empathy, patience, contentment, motivation, ambition, and many more.
I've had an interest in the paranormal since I was a child. My parents said I was writing ghost stories at the age of six. At the library, I would run over to the non-fiction section and look for books on ghost sightings. I would revel in the black and white photos of the silky figures coming down huge staircases in old mansions.
I wanted to know what it was all about death and why people feared it. Maybe, as children, we all have an innate knowing that death is safe, but it's knocked out of us by our exposure to fear, through adults and the media.
Another reason why death plays an important part in my life, is that I've had three friends die before they're 30, so now, because I'm approaching 31, I feel like I'm on borrowed time. I didn't share this with the group to gain their empathy - thousands of people die everyday - death is as common as life - but my exposure to death has impacted my philosophy . . . and this is what I was wanting to share with them.
A good friend of mine died of cancer at the age of 22. He said to me, 'Gav, one day you're on the bus going to college and the next day you've got a brain tumour.'
Life unfolds like that sometimes.
But doesn't that make you want to live?
Doesn't that make you look around and think, 'Wow - what a beautiful planet we share. Oh, look, I'm breathing - that's amazing!'
When I was in my late teens I was incredibly miserable. I was overly ambitious and my dreams just weren't happening fast enough. I didn't like myself. I didn't like what I saw in the mirror. I turned to smoking weed and I drank way too much. I was your stereotypical teenager, really, but I was suffering, nonetheless.
One day, I was walking my dogs on a grassy hill. There was no sound on that hill, apart from distant traffic and the occasional barking dog somewhere. My dogs were running around frantically; happy chasing leaves and their tails. I, on the other hand, was listening to the constant stream of thoughts going on inside my head. It was dreadful. I liken it to the sound of a football match.
Then I found myself staring at a tree. I stared and stared at this one tree.
Then my perception of the tree changed.
Then everything about Gavin and all of his problems; all of his past; all of his future plans; and all of his insecurities vanished in an instant, leaving nothing but awareness and a formless identity.
And that identity was shared with that tree.
I went from rock bottom to ecstatic laughter in an instant.
I laughed my arse off for a few minutes on that hill and I had no idea why.
As soon as the first thought came, Gavin Whyte came with it. It was a thought which asked, 'What the hell was that?'
I, now back to being Gavin Whyte, with his past and future etc, was confused. I thought I was losing the plot.
Still on the hill with my dogs and pondering on the experience, a voice came into my head and said, 'See everything as if for the first time.'
Now, I know it sounds crazy to have voices in your head - honestly, I do - but it happened.
This voice has made itself known three times in my life, and every time it grabs my attention and I have no choice but to listen.
You know when you read a book in your head? You know when you're talking to yourself in your head?
What does the voice sound like?
It sounds like you, right?
That's the trick of our thoughts. They use our voice which makes us believe they are us. But we are not our thoughts; we are their observer.
The voice that said, 'See everything as if for the first time,' was not my voice.
I don't know whose voice it was, but it wasn't mine.
And I had no control over it.
It just came - said its thing - and left.
As soon as I heard it, I stopped walking with my dogs and instantly thought I had been given a secret to life. A secret to happiness.
I continued to reflect on the mini message (which has profound effects if you do what it says) and then I thought, what if if you see everything as if for the last time, too?
So what happens when you look at something as if for the first time?
You eliminate the past.
You cut through all of your preconceptions and all of your 'knowledge' of that object.
What happens when you see everything as if for the first time and the last time?
You eliminate the past and the future.
With this perception, you know you've never seen this object before and you know that you're never going to see it again.
Also - you have to admit to yourself that you have no idea what it is!
With this mindset, calling a tree a tree makes no sense whatsoever!
Calling a flower a flower is nonsense.
Calling a person a person is ridiculous.
You have to admit to yourself that you don't know what they are - because you have no idea who you are either!
You have absolutely no idea.
But there is one thing which you do know:
That you, this nameless witness, shares the same energy and presence with everything else in the entire universe.
Looking at life this way, we see that we never die, because we were never born.
Death is a natural process in life which we have labelled 'death'. And this label brings with it so many negative connotations, which breeds fear.
We could go so far as to say there is no such things as death. There is only life because death IS life.
As Ram Dass said, 'Death is like taking off a tight shoe'.
The physical universe is in a constant state of flux. It's full, from moment to moment, of subtle changes which our eyes don't pick up. We only notice change after a significant amount of time has passed, or if there has been a set of circumstance which have caused a vast change in a small amount of time.
So when you do actually see a flower, it really is the first time you've seen it, and the last time you're going to see it.
That flower is always changing.
To assume it isn't is plain ignorant.
So many of us live our lives as one big assumption. We go to bed at night as if we've signed a contract which states that we're going to wake up in the morning. We think there's a similar contract in the morning which promises that our heads will rest at night . . . but there is no such contract.
Yet this is how most of us live our lives.
A healthy awareness of death and the fragility of this physical world and your physical form, brings you back to here. To now.
I finished the talk at the event for happiness with a few simple figures which put things into perspective for me. They're figures which I've stated previously on this blog, but I will repeat them here.
If you live till you're 80:
- you have approximately 4160 weeks here. (Half that if you're approaching or are past 40).
- you have approximately 29,200 days to shine. Match this with the number of sunsets to see.
- you have approximately 960 months. The same applies with the number of full moons to see.
- you have approximately 80 sets of seasons to make the most of.
How that does that make you feel?
I don't know about you, but it makes me want to live.
And when I start living, I'm happy.