The Happiness of Non-Human Friendships

I lost a very special friend over the Thanksgiving holiday. He and I had a 16-year relationship and we spent time every day cuddling, and sharing meals and walks. He was someone with whom I could share my deepest fears and secrets. He was there for me whenever I needed him. I learned so much from my friend about courage, generosity and strength. I loved him dearly.

My husband was not the least bit jealous or threatened by this relationship because my dear friend was my cat, Mistoffolese.  For over thirty years, Gary and I have shared our home with cats. All were at one time strays or kittens of a stray, or shelter cats. We’ve also had a few dogs, fish tanks, hamsters, gerbils and two praying mantis named Ramsesses and Moses. However many of these creatures lived with us, cats have always been big part of our life together.

Pets are good for your health and happiness. Researchers tell us that pet owners live a few years longer and visit the doctor less often. People who share their lives with a dog or cat have lower blood pressure and higher levels of serotonin. Dog owners in particular tend to be more active because of the demands of daily walks. (Although, I’ve had a few cats who insisted on having a daily walk, too.)

People who have animals in their life recover faster when they are sick and have longer survival rates after a serious diagnosis such as cancer or heart disease. Even something like a fish tank or a bird can help people feel more relaxed.

For all of these benefits and more, I choose to have stains on my carpets and tiny pricks in my grass weave wallpaper. I don’t even mind the claw marks on my kitchen cabinets. And when I put the tree up next weekend, I know there will be a few of the younger members of our household who will be sure to climb it and chase a few ornaments. I don’t care.  What I have, I share with the ones I love most and that includes my furrier friends.

My animal relationships aren’t limited to the indoors. I have friendships with some of the creatures that share the property I call mine. They were here long before this house was built. Perhaps they are the ones who share with me, so I try to be a good neighbor to them.

I plant extra herbs for the caterpillars and butterfly bushes for after the metamorphous.  I have blueberry bushes, but the squirrels and birds usually beat me to the berries every spring. I know when I plant the tomatoes and other vegetables; the raccoons and deer will probably get most of the fruits of my labors.  I have made peace with this. I can go to the grocery for more. They cannot. The relationship I have formed with the animals matters more to me than a tomato no matter how red and delicious.

I never look at these non-human creatures as my pets. They are my friends and guides to a deeper and truer love. They have taught me how to connect without words and how to sense the world around me. They have shown me how to see the world from a different perspective. (purrspective?) Each relationship has given me more than I gave in return.

This was especially true of my friend Mistoffolese. I have known very few people who knew how to love as completely as this very special cat.  I will miss him and all that he brought to my life.

This holiday season consider opening your home to a shelter animal. So many dogs and cats need a loving home and many shelters offer specials at this time of year on adoption and vet fees.

The Simplicity of Mastery

As a writer and content developer, I’ve worked in a wide variety of fields from personal growth and therapy, to forestry management and highway engineering. In my role as a human resources consultant, I’ve worked in the finance, healthcare, publishing, creative services, manufacturing, construction, private schools, retail and restaurant industries. What I’ve learned is that each industry, each field of study, has it’s own language.

Jargon is something that is created within a field of study to further define concepts that are only evident to the people who work within the industry. It’s a language within a language that describes nuances and details important to deeper work in that field. The first thing I do when I start a project is to learn the jargon, so I can better understand the concepts I’ll be using to complete a project.

Many of the projects I do involve translating the jargon into commonly used language for non-experts. However, knowing the language, in no way makes me a master in that field. Masters are the people who work in the field on a daily basis, using the concepts for a practical purpose. A master is recognized by how well he or she can explain jargon with clarity.

The Language of Spirituality and Religion

The jargon of religion is particularly interesting to me because of the number of words created that mean God. Some can be spoken and some can only be spoken under certain circumstances. Some can’t be spoken at all. These are words that exist for the sole purpose of not being used.

Spiritual pursuits also have their own jargon. What has always interested me about spiritual jargon is the number of words created to describe what many believe is indescribable. These are words such as isness, being, gap, oneness, no-self, no-mind, and many more. Unlike other fields of study where jargon is standardized, each writer develops his or her own jargon requiring the reader to learn the language before understanding the insights.

Spirit-Speak

How to Create a Happier Life with the Enneagram was developed using plain, common use language. The project was originally my husband’s idea. While he believes spiritual practices have enormous value, he has no patience for what he calls “spirit-speak.”  He pitched the idea for this project to me by asking me to write it for “regular guys” like him, who don’t understand spirit-speak and don’t want to learn it.

At first, I thought that wasn’t possible. Some things are just really hard to describe without jargon, if not impossible. Jargon’s sole purpose is to give a voice to those undefined concepts. And, there was the part of me that believed spiritual matters were a little too mysterious to be described plainly.  Besides, shouldn’t spiritual concepts sound inspirational?

Six years after my husband first mentioned the idea for this project to me, I’ve come to agree with him. In other fields of study, how well someone understands the concepts is demonstrated by how well he or she can explain them in simple terms. Perhaps, spirituality should not be an exception. Instead of making the concepts more complex so an interpreter is required, maybe they need to be simplified.

When these concepts are explained clearly, there is no need for a spiritual guide or guru. The teachings themselves are meant to direct people back to their own internal guide. What is important to take away from any spiritual practice is that you are the best guide for your life.

Many of the texts we hold as sacred were written more than 2000 years ago before the sciences of psychology, neurology, physiology or biochemistry. Perhaps, what may have been indescribable two millennia in the past can now be explained clearly, so everyone can understand and use the practices to create more happiness and life satisfaction.

The Simplicity of Mastery

The best teachings about spiritual practices are simple and clear. The greatest spiritual teachers in history kept their message simple. It was the people who came after the original masters who added the complexity.

Buddha instructed his followers with this advice, “Better than a thousand hollow words is one word that brings peace.”

Black Hawk, a Suak Holy Man, observed with irony, “How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.”

St. Paul admonished early Christians to limit their language in church gatherings to only what benefits all members. Many of the early Christians sought the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues because it was a peak spiritual experience that seemed to bring them closer to God. Paul reminded his students that this was a gift that had no practical purpose in the service of others.  He encouraged them to instead seek the gift of prophesy, or teaching.

The message of Jesus was very simple and clear. Love God and love one another. When his disciplines argued over who would achieve the greatest glory in the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus told them the one who is the least is the greatest in the eyes of God. He instructed his followers to become like a child in their faith and directed his disciples to actively demonstrate their faith by helping the sick, feeding the hungry and caring for the poor.

The Key to Mastery

Buddha taught, “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do if you do not act upon them?”

The pursuit of knowledge can be very rewarding, but I don’t think it leads to understanding or mastery.  The true masters of any field of study are the ones who put their knowledge to use with a daily practical purpose. Their growth is not measured by the degrees they hold, but by how well they can use complex concepts. Knowledge is only the first step to understanding and is worthless without action.

Spirituality and religion are the same as any other field of study. What I have learned is they have more commonalities than differences. The only level of development that really matters is your willingness to put your faith into action. Mastery comes from daily practice for a purpose, not from the accumulation of facts and jargon.

December Happiness Challenge: Give Yourself Away

Harvard Professor Michael Norton, author of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, reports that it is entirely possible to buy happiness. All you have to do is spend your money – on other people!

December is the season of giving. For most Americans, it’s also the season for charitable giving and many charities take full advantage by asking for donations.  Americans are generous people. About 60% of us regularly support charities.

There are parts of the world where the cost of a cappuccino at a coffee shop, can provide clean water eliminating most of the illnesses that threaten someone’s health. The cost of two movie tickets is enough to provide the tools to make a living that lifts an entire family out of poverty.  The cost of dinner at a restaurant will start chicken and goat farms throughout the world, providing food and an income to a family. That’s an incredible amount of power to bring about real change in someone’s life.

Giving benefits both the receiver and giver. It’s one of the most effective ways to create deep, genuine happiness in your life. While writing a check feels great, giving your time feels even better. A few hours a month is enough to generate positive feelings for weeks afterwards. Giving talents and abilities that only you can give, further increases the pure joy of giving. It will also be the best gift you ever gave yourself.

Here’s the Challenge:

This holiday season, in addition to writing those checks, sign up for a little volunteer time. There are so many worthy organizations that need committed, reliable volunteers. Many people sign up for soup kitchens on the holidays, but volunteers are needed year round.

Give yourself away by spending some time coaching or tutoring children. Volunteer to drive the elderly for special errands or outings. Deliver Meals on Wheels a few days every month. Schools often need volunteer readers to help children who are struggling to learn.

If your time is really tight, sign up for the bone marrow registry or give blood once a month. It costs nothing but you could be saving a life.

Check out www.volunteermatch.org to find opportunities in your area that fit your interests, talents and availability.

Why this Practice Works

Giving is pure joy. Researchers report that feelings of happiness last longer and are felt more deeply when we give ourselves away.  The happiness lasts much longer than a pleasant experience such as a night out, a weekend trip or the pleasure of a new purchase.

Direct contact with the beneficiary of your giving is an opportunity to see how your actions impacted someone by putting a face to that person.  Writing a check is satisfying, but you miss the smiles and the tears that come with knowing someone cared. That personal connection reassures another person who is struggling that they aren’t alone. It also demonstrates to the giver that their contribution, however small, really matters.

Who Are the Richest Givers?

Poor and middle class families give more than twice as much on average as wealthy families (calculated as a percentage of income). People at the lower end of income levels also volunteer more of their time. The poor continue to give during difficult economic periods, while the wealthy slow their giving to match the growth of the economy.

Researchers tell us that the more religious a person is the more likely s/he is to give. Since the poor tend to practice their religion more than people at the upper end of the income levels, some researchers explain the giving disparity as being a matter of religion.

Or, perhaps regular folks know something about the joy of giving.  The greatest happiness comes when you give yourself away and trust that your generosity will make your life richer in ways that don’t involve money. Take the volunteer challenge this month and discover the joy of giving for yourself.

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