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Simple Things

I walked across an empty land
I knew the pathway like the back of my hand
I felt the earth beneath my feet
Sat by the river and it made me complete
Somewhere Only We Know

The other day, I was swimming in the lake when a man arrived with his very excited dog. As he hurled a ball into the sparkling water, the Retriever joyfully followed, swimming to fetch the ball and returning it triumphantly to the man's feet, tail wagging and ready for another go-around. They had obviously performed this simple ritual numerous times yet you'd never know it from the spontaneity and happiness of both.

Of course it's scientifically proven that pets are beneficial in multiple ways with their consistent, non-judgmental companionship but there's more to it than that. In our restless lives, something comforting, almost awe-inspiring, is to witness manifestations of enchantment with the simple things in life. Like a small child wide-eyed with wonder when he hears a beloved bedtime story or a cat who stretches luxuriously in the sunshine. Not plagued with the burden of the race to get ahead and our relentless mental machinations that swing wildly from past to present and present to past, they are free to follow their hearts and find happiness in the simple things as they unfold in the moment.

According to Bronnie Ware, a former palliative care worker and author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, one is patients who wished they had allowed themselves to be happier. The use of the word "allow" is significant. To allow happiness is a subtly different sentiment from that of regret at not being happy. It suggests an awareness, unveiled by the finite nature of our earthly life, that when it comes to happy we have a choice of whether or not to engage our hearts. Many years pass and the simple things have gone unnoticed until it's too late.

When I produced a play in a high-level men's security prison in the Catskills, I asked one of the toughest-looking guys in the cast what he was missing the most during his twenty-two years behind bars. His answer remains with me to this day. "When I get out - God willing, I'm going to hug a tree…"

So why do we find it hard to appreciate the simple pleasures that can contribute so much to our happiness and well-being? We live in a pragmatic society where the mind dominates and the heart takes second place. This domination is only increased today with the relentless pursuit of technology and the numerous challenges we face. This is not new. The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous work of 14th-century Christian mysticism, makes this division plain: "The universes which are amenable to the intellect can never satisfy the instincts of the heart."

We are not encouraged in our driven world to seek pleasure and express gratitude for the "ordinary" rituals and environments of daily life like sharing what we have with others, being in nature, eating together and appreciating our food. Over-stretched, overworked, over-scheduled as we are, we get coffee to go and barely taste it. As our hearts long for relief from the grind, our minds seduce us into pursuing what we believe will be magical experiences which end in disappointment and don't deliver the advertised happiness. These "once-in-a-lifetime vacation experiences, constant entertainment and endless purchases leave us empty and unfulfilled.

The intellect tends to complicate life while the heart simplifies our existence. There's no fooling it; it simply wants what it wants. Caring for our hearts is a priority if we want to live a happier, more expansive life. And what better way than to rediscover our enchantment for the seemingly simpler things we encounter daily that can bring us joy and comfort? So, slow down a little and take a few minutes to taste the coffee, appreciate the sunset, spend time with a friend just for fun and, if the mood takes you, hug a tree. You won't regret it.