“I had set out to try and observe moments of happiness and find out what they depended upon. But I had discovered that different things had made me happy when I looked at my experience from when I did not. The act of looking was somehow a force in itself which changed my whole being.”
Or in other words, is this the quantum theory of happiness?
This book, published in 1934, charts one woman’s attempts to try and figure out what constituted a happy life for her. Written under a pseudonym, Field (Milner) uses her own life as a template for how one might go about figuring this out. From the beginning she makes clear that the book is a representation of her own efforts, her own journey spanning 7 years, during which she tried several different approaches to rebalance her life, to discover her needs and her purpose and to generate a greater sense of happiness. The title in itself is telling. Virginia Woolf highlighted, famously, the need for women to have ‘a room of one’s own’ if they were to achieve independence, to write, to produce art. Space and economic stability are the basis from which women can grow to be more than mere servants of society. Field takes this journey one step further. It is one thing to have economic freedom, the space and time to direct your life, but none of this is any use if you don’t know what to do with it. As well as achieving economic independence, women also needed mental and emotional independence, to be able to direct their life in a way that met their own needs, not the wider social good, the needs of others or social expectation.
Each chapter follows a particular idea or observation that Field made during her seven year quest. It’s a little rambling, disorganised and I liked this about it because it felt true: the mind is a little rambling, disorganised. It is not logical, but more intuitive. At the outset Field recognises something that I’ve also recognised in my own life, that as women we are led to value the ‘male’ characteristics of logical thought, intellectualism, power, status and to reject intuition or feeling which is considered more ‘feminine’ (I should point out that I balk at these descriptions because I think they reinforce a stereotype which is damaging to both men and women, which is a point Field herself makes at some point but then reconciles herself to them as simple descriptions. I’m not seven years in yet, so my instinctive shudder reflex is still operative. Interestingly the Tao te Ching posits the same hypothesis that there are ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ attributes – yin and yang – yet followers of the Tao seek to maintain these things in balance within themselves i.e. we are all comprised of yin and yang and to be a balanced human being, at one with the Tao, one must embrace and nurture both sides. I feel more at ease with this conceptually). She recognises a need to reconnect with her intuitive powers. This I found an interesting thought. It is something I felt quite strongly on my reading of Women Who Run With the Wolves, that I had disconnected from my intuitive side. I think having worked in a male dominated environ for so long, perhaps I’ve learned to distrust it. Or switched it off out of self-preservation, I’m not sure which. In fact I think my intuition remains intact and emerges most strongly in my dreams, which I’m beginning to pay more attention to.
Field’s approach was to keep a diary and go back over it to see what her diary keeping was revealing to her. She also used automatic writing and attempted some more formal approaches to trying to understand and define her life, such as focusing on a specific purpose or goal or focused meditation. She quickly found that these latter approaches didn’t entirely work for her:
“I had been continually exhorted to define my purpose in life, but I was now beginning to doubt whether life might not be too complex a thing to be kept within the bounds of a single formulated purpose, whether it would not burst its way out, or if the purpose were too strong, perhaps grow distorted like an oak whose trunk has been encircled with an iron band. I began to guess that my self’s need was for an equilibrium, for sun, but not too much, for rain, but not always. I felt that it was as easily surfeited with one kind of experience as the body with one kind of food, and that it had a wisdom of its own, if only I could learn to interpret it. So I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know. I wrote: it will mean walking in a fog for a bit, but it’s the only way which is not a presumption, forcing the self into a theory.”
And I like this idea, the idea that we need to interpret rather than defines our lives and that this process requires walking in a fog for some time. I feel I have been on a similar quest, that I started on this path in around October 2016 and since then I genuinely feel that I have spent a considerable time mooching around unfocusedly in a fog. This has been disconcerting, but then I remember that I like fog, I like the way it obscures and reveals, and reading this book by Field made me accept, in a way I have not before, that maybe the fog is exactly what I need. Growth is messy, it is hard and it is continually under attack from forces of habit and social pressure. Perhaps what Field happened upon is the recognition that becoming a self-determining being is so challenging that it takes a range of approaches and a considerable length of time to achieve it, and even then it is precious and fragile and so easily lost.
One of the areas Field focuses upon is the phenomena of letting yourself go, of reaching out with your senses and diffusing yourself into something: another person, a landscape, a work of art, music, it doesn’t entirely matter what. She discovers that she can push her focus to her skin, to her extremities, and in so doing she experiences a more relaxed, less anxious state. I suspect what she discovered is what we now term mindfulness, a way of setting aside the ego and existing in the moment, sensing and feeling what is around us as well as our own state of being. Letting go, too, was an important discovery for her. The relief that comes from not fighting how things are, not forcing. Though she first uncovered this when sewing, by stopping thinking about her movements and focusing instead on the needle and thread, she soon found this helped her achieve a more peaceful, transcendent state in other areas. When she stopped trying to appreciate a work of art and instead just looked at it, encountered it, she experienced it in a completely different way. When she stopped trying to be interesting and thoughtful as a companion, she was able to appreciate her friendships more and as a result became more interesting and thoughtful. Letting go is an art which I think as a society, certainly Western society, we’re not very good at. We must learn more, achieve more, experience more. We can only do this by relentlessly directing and controlling our efforts. What Field discovered is that when she stopped trying to be things, she was able to uncover who she was. She didn’t have to be anything more than that.
Despite the fact that this book was written so very long ago, a lot of its ideas, its methods and ruminations feel very fresh and very relevant to this woman living 84 years after its publication. Field pays close attention to her wandering thoughts, to the things the mind keeps coming back to and the feelings generated by it. She admits there’s a childlike quality to her thinking, something I have recognised, also, in myself, and this fear of being wrong, of being disregarded or humiliating oneself which stems back to our conditioning in childhood and the subsequent desire to be seen and perceived as a good citizen. She recognises that sometimes what we focus on is telling us something other than what we think it does, as she references here:
“For instance, when I found that my wandering thought was perpetually straying off to the idea of some special person I learnt to suspect two possibilities: either that blind thought had confused that person with someone who was emotionally important to me in the past, probably some member of my own family; or that that person’s outstanding quality as I saw him was something that was lacking in myself. Like a cannibal eating his enemy’s heart in order to partake of his courage, I was impelled towards someone whose qualities I felt in the need of.”
And again I have recognised this in myself, particularly recently where I have found myself thinking, almost constantly, about someone in particular that I admired in my youth and who, for whatever reason, has come back into mind now. In some way I recognised from my own musings that my admirations are often related to particular qualities I recognise in the person which I desire to acquire for myself (as in the case of DeLillo, whose writing skill and perceptive abilities I envy) and this particular admiration is related to a certain freedom this individual possesses, a freedom they obtain from being entirely themselves, being unrestrained, explorative, experimental. This leads to poor outcomes, sometimes, but more often to something remarkable, brilliant. It is this unrestraint I admire, the willingness to push oneself past self-consciousness and do what feels right. Which comes back to instinct, and the stuntedness of my instinctual self. I think this is something that I have been gradually coming to understand, something I need to address. Field has given me the confidence to explore this in more detail, to follow some of her methods (I am keeping a diary, for example) and accept that unpicking what will be a life of my own might take years, but the effort, in the end, will be worth it.