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My Journey of becoming a Zen Psychologist

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“Can I be happy?” was the guiding question of my youth, my Zen question, or koan, if you like. There was no rational answer to the question, not the way I felt it. A simple “Yes” or “No” would not have done anything for me. My question was all yearning. It was a yearning to feel part of life, only to be satisfied by experience. Happiness never meant “having happy feelings” to me, but “glücklich sein,” which means “being happy” in German, my mother tongue. I felt too often like an outcast, separated, and condemned to a life with little light and love.

What happened is that my childhood home had slowly turned into a war zone. With each year, I isolated more, recoiling deeply into my turtle shell. Not that I always kept my head in. I knew there was light out there. I credit my mother’s love for this, but also my natural inclination to access my inner tranquility in both church and nature. I called this inward turning “being with God.” Besides these early spiritual experiences, there were also times of laughter, nonsense, and warmth. Just not enough to keep my head exposed to the light. It simply appeared too dangerous.

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At age sixteen a progressive priest taught me how to access tranquility with meditation. I learned to focus on my breath, candle lights, meditative music, singing and chanting. All of these practices impressed me so deeply that I considered becoming a nun. However, after four wonderful retreats in a convent nearby and in the village of Taizé in France, I decided against this path. A God I could only unite with after death made no sense to me. Back to “real” life, it started to look increasingly hopeless, seemingly with no way out.

Nevertheless, lightning struck at age nineteen, an internal event that gave direction to my entire life. It was right after my graduation from the Humanistisches Gymnasium Viersen, during a cold November night. A friend and I were bicycling to the home of our teacher, a very tough and judgmental teacher that is, who had unexpectedly invited us. The closer we came to her home, the worse I felt. Normally I kept those types of negative feelings so deep in my shell that even I knew little about them. But that night, they pressed forward, against that shell, against my skull, so hard, I thought my head would explode. I decided to take a risk. Trembling, I told my friend how I felt. While sharing this enhanced the negative feelings, I also felt tremendous compassion for myself. Seconds after, much to my surprise, I felt liberated, feather-light, and somewhat healed. These particular negative feelings left for good that night, at once and completely. Undoubtedly I had stumbled into something big, something I now refer to as “facing and embracing.”

I burst out into laughter. Probably more laughing at me than with me, my friend watched me, taking an oath. Hence forth and for the rest of my life, I would walk the path of utmost honesty. I immediately looked for other secrets I could reveal, but found none. It took me a sobering while to understand that neither I nor anybody else could will herself to honesty. One had to be ready for it. Apparently, the wish to be honest was an essential first step, but getting ready for more uncomfortable truths was going to take numerous more steps. Consequently I went looking for those steps and took them, one by one, with the unwavering commitment made during that one cold November night.

My path took me to Clinical Psychology which I studied at the Freie University of Berlin as well as at Ryokan College in Los Angeles. Eventually I became a Primal Therapist under the supervision of Vivian Janov. At the Primal Institute I learned to tolerate incredibly painful feelings, as well as how to speak up and communicate properly. Primal Therapy was criticized for promoting the acting out of anger while in reality the therapists actively prevented any act-outs. Most interventions were there to foster awareness of the war that takes place within the body while listening empathically to the clients’ words and tears. Ironically, almost all psychotherapeutic approaches nowadays include empathic, non-judgmental listening and present-mindedness when encountering strong feelings. Most therapists have come around and think that crying is a natural part of the healing process. There are, in my opinion, other real limitations to Primal Therapy, one of which is intolerance, a universal characteristic of “true” believers.

Step by step I let go of inner obstacles, creating space and increasingly entrusting myself to life as it happens. Stillness, inquiry, personal relationships, and the constant practice of “facing and embracing” made the occupation of my turtle shell the exception, not the rule. Meanwhile, I kept on yearning for an answer to my Zen question, “Can I be happy?” It confused me (who or what was I?); it led me down many wrong, painful paths (doubt); it engaged me and kept me experimenting. Obsession comes to mind. Thank goodness laughter kept breaking up the effort. Adyashanti called the spiritual quest a sickness. It may be necessary to have this sickness for a while, but it is still a sickness. It is a striving for something we already have.

At age twenty-six, the answer finally came to me. After a long day of work, climbing up the stairs of a subway station in Berlin, I filled myself with the question. Suddenly, I was struck with a realization. I stopped in my tracks and stood still in the middle of the stairways, looking around, and opening senses wide.

The squeaking of the subway in the background, the rubbery air, the gray walls with graffiti to my sides, rushing people, a person dressed in rags swaggering, all that and more painted by no means a pretty picture, but one in which everything mattered and in which everything made sense. I was all that which I experienced. It may sound odd, but it felt like a perfect moment. I did not mind the experience of the moment; I loved it. When I finally moved again, I fully expected this love to end. But it didn’t. And it still hasn’t. I was being happy then and I am being happy now.

Up until that awakening, I had known about the world being an interconnected whole, but I never felt it so completely. Closing up on the whole had been easy, too many obstacles keeping me in the dark. In order to allow all the light in, I had to first understand the roles the biggest boulders played within the whole of my life. I love the way Pema Chödrön puts it,

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”

It isn’t that I consider myself enlightened now, except maybe in Adyashanti’s grounded sense of “coming from awareness.” In all other senses of the word, my Zen masters (see below) won’t let me have something so perfect. But there is ample light now, every day, even during times of thunderstorms. Happy feelings come and go. They are transient guests. On the other hand, being happy is connected to awareness, the house of many guests, none of which are here to stay. Nothing special about coming from awareness; all sentient beings are it already. When I was finally able to relax with the awareness, I noticed the universe as if for the first time. Everything is unfolding without clear boundaries, crossing over from the outside in and the inside out. I cannot tell what’s unfolding, awareness or the universe. Neither can I take credit for it. I am simply loving that which is.

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When I began to react more strongly to the limitations of Primal Therapy – its disinterest of other approaches, happiness, and spiritual experiences -- I left. My training diversified and included Buddhist-oriented therapy, mind-body therapy, self-psychology, humanistic therapies, even cognitive and behavioral therapy. No single approach made it to the top of a hierarchy. Instead all approaches formed a circle in which the dance partners, client-therapist or teacher-student, could break in anytime. It is impossible to predict what steps to take in a dance of connection; all sessions require open-mindedness which is the opposite of clinging to theory. And this is how I learned to work, with individuals, families, and couples, with the young and with the old, loving it all.

I also began to appreciate science during that time. Zen and science have in common that both constantly ask questions. One is never to assume anything and to admit that one can never find the truth. While the methods of inquiry are different, this shared foundation makes science a friend of Zen. In particular, I was trained to decode non-verbal behavior with the Facial Action Coding System (by Ekman and Friesen). My research revealed that severely depressed people actively counter their smiles with split-second antagonistic muscle movements. How wondrous the mind works. Don’t we all want to feel happy? This question turned out to be a leading question for the book I was going to write in the future.

I also worked on various other projects at my Alma Mater, the Freie University of Berlin, encountering many rigidities in professors subscribed to particular paradigms, such as the great and powerful wizard of Cognitive psychology. In this paradigm, thoughts govern over our consciousness. All data had to be interpreted through that lens. When I resisted, pointing out that thoughts had little to do with split-second non-verbal behavior, I was treated like a rebel. It is astonishing how we humans create hierarchies in just about all situations, not only in the interpersonal (social structures), but also in the intrapersonal (inner experiences).

We tend to believe in a big boss running the show while in reality all experiences are relational, making a seemingly particular sound while passing through space, mixing with other seemingly particular sounds, bouncing back and forth, always joining in the music of the spheres. The conductor is not the music. The music is the music. Neither does the conductor inform the musicians of making a sound. The music informs the musicians. In reality, there is nothing over anything. There is but one music, one universe. Accordingly, there are no species over species, no persons over persons, no thoughts over emotions, and no mind over matter. We only have this one world and questions. Because I like this non-dual world and the questions I throw into it, I decided against the academic path and for the open-minded path of science and Zen.

At Ryokan College in Los Angeles, where I became a psychologist all over again, I started to ask questions about the phenomenon of immigration. I conducted an empirical study, asking what distinguishes immigrants from those who, under the same conditions, remain in their country of origin. It seems as if longing for expansion of ones outer space is just as varied amongst people as longing for expansion of ones inner space.

Apparently, I suffered from both types of longing. I did not like to feel pinned down by my geography, customs or language, even though I appreciated good old Germany and loved many of its people. I am now very much at home in the beautiful United States, loving, once again, many people. The world is big; it feels good to me to become touched by her in a variety of ways.

Throughout my personal journey, I used writing as an important tool of tapping into the power of the universe. To me writing is looking at inner experiences in slow motion. There is so much stillness between forming questions and the popping up of thoughts and words. And only when the rhythm of words creates a life of its own, not unlike a song that touches my heart, do I move on to the next question or to the next thought. To me, writing is not just a creative act, but a form of deep inquiry that has the power to blow up the largest boulders blocking awareness. When unblocked, it returns to its natural state of openness, like the universe itself.

By age thirty-four in 1999, I decided to write for the sake of others as well. I wanted to share western and eastern paths of experiencing our participation in this universe, paths that I had tested and on which I am still walking now. The idea of a book was born when I realized that nobody shared these paths with equal appreciation. Those who write about awareness rarely acknowledge the flow experiences of pursuing our dreams or of romantic love and meaningful friendships. On the other hand, writers concerned with the concrete aspects of life are often blind to the flow of life, the beauty and power of the indefinable universe. I felt a unified theory of happiness was very much in need, however non-theoretical my actual approach was.

My decision to write a book on happiness was surely made easy by having met the love of my life, Steven Polard. While I was writing A Unified Theory of Happiness: An East-Meets-West Approach to Fully Loving Your Life, I also conceived the three Zen masters I mentioned above. Their names are Sophia, Tristan, and Karla. They never tell but show; they are the embodiment of happiness; they test my strength and make me a more patient person. As much work as it is to do what it takes, even when occasionally pushed over my limit, loving my family is by far the best gift I have ever received.

One receives so much by giving. Thus, loving others is never a burden, albeit it can be a stretch. Call it lovingkindness, compassion, or love: human connection trumps all when it comes to happiness, be it for your small or for your large human family.

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About five years into writing my book, I met my Zen teacher, Bernard Silvers. He used to be a Zen monk at the Los Angeles Zen Center where he lived from 1970 to 1984, leading the center into a prosperous time as its president for eight years.

Well-promoted spiritual teachers everywhere, but I felt drawn to one who makes no ado. Bernard Silvers is his own kind. Part of his success at the Zen center was that he favored democratic leadership, something relatively new to Zen institutions at that time, a move not necessarily liked by his teacher, Taizan Maezumi (Soto and Rinzai). His other two teachers were Hakuun Yasutani (Soto) and Koryu Osaka (Rinzai). The latter, a Hiroshima survivor, “a humble man, filled with love,” had the greatest influence on Bernard Silvers. Refusing honors and titles from his teachers, he emanates the same qualities. His teachings are about human connection, not enlightenment, yet another concept in his eyes. Once I wanted to know how he differed from a Zen master. He just chuckled and asked, “What’s a master?” Apparently, he is in no need of the distinction. Bernard Silvers is a Mensch, helping his students relate to people and to a world in which “everybody has flaws and nobody knows that much.”

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Twelve years passed of working on A Unified Theory of Happiness. Mostly secluded in the quiet mountains of Topanga in a room with a computer to write and a zafu to meditate on, I felt inspired and at times deeply moved by Bernard Silvers. Our relationship helped me sustain my effort. Finally, after twenty years of researching happiness of which the last dozen was spent writing and synthesizing, I finished the book.

My oldest child was born and would, hopefully, go out into the world sowing seeds of happiness. I had worked hard to find that which unifies Western and Eastern thought, the active and non-active ways of participating in life. My hopes for my child were high. But now it was time to surrender and see if other people would take to her. Much to my delight, publishing house Sounds True did, for which I am still very grateful.

A year later A Unified Theory of Happiness was released. Much to my delight, everybody at Sounds True -- from the acquisition editor Jennifer Brown to the founder Tami Simon -- feels the call of spreading the dharma, the song of the universe. Especially meaningful to me was that a copy of my book was rushed ahead of schedule to my house so that I could take it to my dying mother in Germany. We had spent countless hours talking about happiness. Her life-long emphasis on love had made my message a part of her legacy. I wished from the bottom of my heart to find her fully conscious, able to see what she helped do. My wish was granted. I made it on time. When I handed her the book, she was very surprised and moved to tears. Her daughter was published and in a way, so was she. A month later, on Mother’s Day, after a painful struggle, she surrendered peacefully in our arms.

How fitting a day to die for a proud mother of six, a woman who saw no higher good than motherhood. She was by no means perfect. But her motto of love was. She was filled with compassion for every beggar she encountered, every hungry and ailing soul she heard of. Why is it that we so admire compassion in those who hold leadership positions? I think because the quality so rarely mixes with power. Meanwhile, millions of ordinary people, especially women, embody compassion. Motherhood of course is only one venue to bring about this quality.

Compassion is a natural occurrence that grows easily in humans, given just a bit of encouragement and practice. When we are being happy and relate to all facets of the one diamond that life is, compassion grows exponentially. Every beggar’s open hand is our own hand waiting to be filled. Every tear that’s shed feels wet and cold on our own skin. Happiness is therefore inseparable from compassion and part of the transformative power of Zen.

After the release of A Unified Theory of Happiness, more and more people asked me about the “how” of the theory, the actual synthesized approach I live, both personally and professionally. A new idea for a book was born, with new questions stirring up the now old order. One fundamental question that came up was: Am I actually a Zen Buddhist? After all, I rejected the hierarchical structure in Zen institutions, along with the Asian tradition of bowing and reciting the sutras ritually. I also paid more attention than traditional Zen Buddhists to the bio-chemical balance of the body, to understanding and actively working with pain and feelings in general, to growing within a human connection, and to practicing concrete skills.

I adhere to the Bodhisattva vow, but I won’t wear robes. I like lipstick, passion, and good ambition. I think of the universe as complete and thus perfect. Nothing can escape it. Nobody can transcend it. There is no mind over matter. It is all One and every moment is birthed by the One; everything happening simultaneously. With no refuge to the supernatural, what does all that make me?

Eventually I realized, that Zen as a way of life had changed into a psychology for me. From there it was but a small leap to calling the practice Zen Psychology, a new, distinct form of Zen. In China, Buddhism evolved slowly into Zen Buddhism. It is only natural that it evolved also in Europe and America, once again showing that everything in the universe is subject to change. Some people will have difficulties accepting this, but the Bodhidharma -- the legendary Indian monk who originally brought Buddhism to China – cannot be stopped. He had also gone to the west. I declare this with as much loving respect for the traditional as with delight for the new: I am a Zen Psychologist. In this capacity, I help others transform themselves, become more able and - if so desired - experience awakenings.

As being part of the universe, we all have what it takes to access its power rooting in impermanence, abundance, stillness, and interdependence. I founded the Los Angeles Center for Zen Psychology in 2012 to show Zen, enabling each person to transform and align with the universe by actively creating and realizing it.

 

               Impermanence

Interconnectedness      Power of the Universe      Abundance 

           Stillness

 

The journey continues. I hope to finish the new book in a slightly more timely fashion than A Unified Theory of Happiness. May all sentient beings be happy.


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Only a deep attention to the whole of our life
can bring us the capacity to love well and live freely.
Jack Kornfield

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Copyright © 2013 - Andrea Floren Polard Psy.D.