The Soul of Therapy
What Nightcrawler Picking Taught Me About the Pursuit of Happiness
“Don’t put finding your happiness at the center of your searchlight. Center your life on giving people your best energy. Happiness will appear on the edge of the circle of your focus on bringing light to others.”
One thing I’ve always known about my friend John is that he loves to fish. I remember him inviting me to fish with him forty years ago, and then asking: “Do you want to go worm picking with me tonight?” I had no idea what he was talking about.
That evening he showed me how to gently walk about the yard with a flashlight and a bucket. I was awed to realize that on a cool late spring or summer evening, nightcrawlers (six-inch-long worms, not those tiny worms I was used to digging up in the garden) come out of their holes by the thousands to stretch out on the soil beneath the grass. Even though he was introducing me to worm picking on the property on which I had grown up, I’d never seen this spectacle before. That’s because as worms feel the vibrations of you or me approaching like a Tyrannosaurus Rex, they zip right back into their holes! Those nightcrawlers are so sensitive, John taught me, that they also zip out of sight just upon feeling the direct beam of a flashlight. The key, he said, is to look for worms around the dim edge of the light, not in the center of the beam where the nightcrawlers disappear quickly.
Years later, in a chapter of essays in The Inconceivable Surprise of Living on what wise human beings have said about happiness, I reflected on these words attributed to Gretta Brooker Palmer: “Happiness is a byproduct of an effort to make someone else happy.” It might seem like a stretch to connect her words with worm picking, but maybe she was saying something like: “Don’t put finding your happiness at the center of your searchlight. Center your life on giving people your best energy. Happiness will appear on the edge of the circle of your focus on bringing light to others.”
The worm picking metaphor applies to many other aspects of life. If we put “How can I find Mr. or Ms. Right?” at the center of our search for love, we may find that love slips away. If instead we focus the light of our attention on our own blockages to becoming Mr. or Ms. Right, we’re more likely to find a deep and enduring love.
Worm picking can also be a metaphor for dealing with anxiety. If we shine a light directly on getting rid of our anxieties, the solution to anxiety slips away. Only by shining the beam of our awareness on mindful acceptance of all aspects of being human do we begin to find that part of the solution to anxiety is to drop our expectation for a solution to anxiety.
Likewise, when we put money at the center of our sense of what our work is about, it is not surprising when a sense of purpose in how we spend our work hours slips away. We’re afraid that if we focus on purpose too much that money might slip away; that is, we don’t believe we can find a way to make a life and make a living. Addressing those two necessities can indeed be challenging, but it’s also a form of spiritual poverty to get wealthy doing work that we find purposeless.
Maybe as a nation we’re hard-wired to have this struggle. The “pursuit of happiness” is in our national DNA. But when we pursue happiness, it slips away. I realize there is great value to setting goals and pursuing them directly with hard work and dedication. But the physicist Niels Bohr said, “The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” Worm picking taught me to question the direct pursuit of everything in life. Some of the best things in life come to us when we’re not shining the light of our awareness directly on them.
Keep reading about your happiness: “Your Face on Happiness.”