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Learning to Be Happy, Part 2
Little pressure here: our humanity depends on it

by DK Holland

Imagine a dimly lit room in which Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard meditates in a lotus position, draped in blood red and saffron robes. His smile is serene. After fifteen minutes a technician draws Ricard's blood to check his stem cell count. It has increased sharply: In the process of calming his mind, he is healing his body. Called “The Happiest Man in the World,” Ricard is also a connector, humanitarian, artist and social activist.1

Imagine a Pratt professor as she asks graduate design students to meditate together at the start of each class to open up to all possibilities. Then they begin to work.

Imagine a sweltering, packed subway car in which a young Quaker holds her fellow riders “in the light” as her meditation. She feels renewed, centered as she slips out at her stop. And, oblivious to the gift they have just been given, so do quite a few of the passengers.

Rush. Rush. Rush. Most of us are on the go, never resting, never reflecting: captives of our monkey minds. The irony and the pity is that we would be far more productive, creative and healthier—happier—if we regained our balance through mindful silence.

Early bipeds—humans—were busy warding off a plethora of impending threats. They lived under extreme stress but they didn't have yoga or meditation to help them cope. They had neither a past nor a future. Without a way to even jot things down, they had no logic system, mathematics or any other planning tools to process information in any depth. They probably didn't even realize there was a world beyond that which they could see. They had no clue why their children died. Why the green plants and lakes they relied on vanished. They must have been, in that sense, narrow thinkers.

Besides providing power to the cell phones of passersby, this rehabilitated “gas” station is a place to gather and, almost by osmosis, get an entertaining education about how much energy we use as kilowatts instead of gallons go up as electricity is “pumped” into your phone or electric bike.

We, on the other hand, constantly overdose on information, feel humbled by the vastness of outer space in contrast to our temporary, insignificant existence within it. This is a different kind of handicap, one that puts many on an impossible quest to be remembered for all eternity: A passionate sculptor carves huge boulders thinking they might survive the ultimate destruction of the earth when the sun explodes billions of years from now; another artist designs a 10,000-year clock that will live on top of a desert mountain. The Long Now Clock2 will tick once every 1,000 years. Neither is a rational idea but they pique our imagination: The idea of immortality, of living forever, as impossible as it is, makes us happy.

While we like to think modern humans are hard-wired to be moral—fair and loyal, striving for high ideals—without the use of sophisticated language our early ancestors probably made simplistic decisions. “Love. My tribe. Hug!” “Fear. You stranger. Club!” Today we either employ “common” sense (common to whom, you might well ask) or ignore that which presents a conundrum. Whether we act on them or not, however, we modern humans can't deny we have the same prehistoric brain architecture, the same primal feelings. Because we fail miserably at seeking equilibrium, we go into therapy for years and years. And, in the odd fleeting moment when we do find our balance, we are truly happy campers.

Try running across the Savannah on all fours getting away from that wooly mammoth charging straight at you. “Hey! Keep your head up!” (Hard to do, huh?) Exhausting! Try shutting down and grabbing your laptop, protecting it from being destroyed by that herd of stampeding giant deer—while on all fours! The engineering miracle of being able to stand on our own two feet is one of our best ideas for so many, many reasons, including the expanded use of our arms and hands and the energy saved.

Our modern hands are marvels: sleek and elegant. Our fingers, agile and versatile. They’ve been essential in shaping the neural pathways of our developing brain for millions of years; helping to make us smarter and smarter. Zoom back in time: your hand eventually devolves into a stubby, hairy claw with no opposable thumbs (i.e., no grabbing or grasping small objects).

But learning to walk erect about two million years ago eventually caused our brains and hand skills to develop. Then a million or so years ago, up on our own lanky legs, on our own two bare feet, running like crazy, we social creatures developed spoken language because we craved communication with others.3 We Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise being”), since we were inherently creative and highly adaptable, became artful, crafty, problem-solvers: We learned how to solve gnarly problems like how to get that logo on the cave entrance to ward off evil spirits. “Ochre, fabulous color choice!” We came up with elegant tools to kill off all the wooly mammoths, the saber-toothed tigers and giant deer, driving to extinction hundreds of large creatures (including all human-like apes not of our kind). We were on the go! Our numbers were multiplying and there was no stopping us. Then, suddenly, Homo sapiens were reduced to just six hundred breeding individuals probably because of the insurmountable challenges of surviving in an unstable climate on uninhabitable land. As conditions improved, our numbers grew again. About 5,000 years ago humans started to develop written language and everything started to change (more on that in Part 1). We started to develop consciousness, to think of ourselves as separate from the rest of nature. There was nothing like us! We thought we were the best thing since sliced bread.

I was at a table engrossed in discussion with three middle-aged adults and four nine-year-old girls. The kids made colorful drawings as we talked. “Wait just a second,” I observed, suddenly alarmed, “You kids are all drawing and none of the adults are!” An auburn-haired girl looked me squarely in the eyes and declared, “That’s because kids have wild imaginations.” As if we adults didn’t? I was appalled at us adults. Were we way too “in our heads”? I used to draw. I rarely make anything creative with my hands anymore. I must say, this was a momentary crisis for me as I looked down and realized my fingers had become permanently glued to my keyboard. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.