HAPPINESS, SO CLOSE YET SO FAR AWAY
It is clear that, from the moment of our birth until our death, all beings are driven by, motivated strongly by, a search for what we perceive to be happiness. Every single thing that we think, say or do is designed to achieve happiness, whether we are consciously aware of this or not. The great irony is that most beings are unclear on what happiness actually is, and we spend endless time and effort searching for it where it cannot be found. Perhaps in the most ironic twist of all, we rarely see that looking for our own happiness actually keeps us from finding it.
Once we think about this, we can look a little deeper and realize that all problems come from the deep- seated thoughts of “I want some happiness” or “I do not want unhappiness.” First of all, we do not even begin to understand what true happiness is, or where it can be found. Then, we do not really understand who is driving this search, who is this “I” that so desperately wants to be happy. The very moment that the idea of “I “ arises, suffering arises as well.
It is only when we begin to think and act more in terms of considering the happiness of other beings that we find the true happiness within ourselves. It has even been said that the surest way to guarantee your own misery is to be on the constant hunt for your own happiness. When we realize, deep in our hearts, that we are connected to everyone and everything in this world, we start to see that there can be no real way to separate “your” happiness from “mine” anyway. All beings and phenomena exist in seamless interdependence; where everyone’s well-being relies on everyone else’s.
So, what is true happiness, and what is not? Lord Buddha has said that “There is no happiness greater than the perfect calm.” When we are truly happy, we are content with whatever arises; there is no need for anything at all, nor a perceived lack of anything. Happiness is ensured only by the complete eradication and total absence of all delusions, especially craving. Such craving, which arises from the ignorance of how things really are, is at the root of our suffering. The more desires which arise only bring more and more suffering, as the human mind is always searching yet never fulfilled.
Most people perceive happiness as the satisfaction of all desires, either in the form of sensory satisfaction, or the fulfillment of one’s will. This is actually only temporary pleasure, or a mundane, worldly form of happiness. True happiness, in reality, only comes from the lack of desire in the first place. Happiness is the result of the purification of the mind. Try as you might, you will never find happiness in a hateful mind, a greedy mind, or an ignorant mind. It is only when we see things as they really are that we begin to realize true joy and happiness.
Now, we may ask – – where is this true happiness to be found?
Happiness is beyond the constant wandering, the comings and goings, the highs and lows, which are so typical of our ordinary lives. It lies beyond gain and loss, pleasure and pain, praise and criticism, fame and reputation, and is found only when we cross the inner threshold of our heart.
We must start within, and work outward from there. Usually, we do the opposite and we end up always caught up in another crusade, another cause, another distraction. Contrary to our conditioning, the state of real fulfillment, being at ease and not wanting anything cannot be reached outside of us, in the external world – so why do we keep looking there? It is the constant “looking out” which prevents us from true understanding. We must come to realize that we cannot rely on anyone else, or any thing, for our own happiness. We must revolutionize our outlook.
Since the moment we were born, we have been allowed and encouraged to sink into materialism, to become enchanted by the physical world around us. Therefore, our focus is always on the physical, or objective, side of phenomena. Continuing to operate in this way can only keep us stuck. To free ourselves, it is absolutely necessary for us to begin looking INSIDE, at the subjective side of things.
Body and mind are together when in physical form, yet they can be distinguished as outer and inner, respectively. Like a piece of fruit, comprised of outer rind and inner flesh – if we look only without, we see inedible rind, but if we look within, we find the part that is tasty and nourishing – the flesh. Of course, the rind is essential and valuable, but to think that it is everything is misguided and extremely limiting. By only placing our attention on “without”, we are the slaves of external objects; if we look within, however, we become master of those objects. The treasure within is totally hidden by the without. In this manner, we live in ignorance of the truth that lies hidden in all things. Once we learn to look in, it will be revealed that concepts of “I” and “mine” are the cause of all our suffering. All of our delusions and misery arise out of this misperception.
We must come to see that happiness is not something distant, in the future, which needs to be attained, or is dependent upon circumstances. It is actually right here, right now, in this exact moment. We already have it, we just do not know that we do because it is cleverly hidden from us under layers and layers of confusion, delusion and ignorance. How strange that we seek so vigorously for something that we already have!
Happiness is not something created outside of us, and neither is unhappiness. These are just two states of mind. Contrary to traditional notions that most of us carry around, happiness is not found in sensory pleasures or material achievements, which do not last anyway. Even what seems to be happiness to us at first glance is really just sowing the seed of new suffering, as we try to get what we want, then protect and defend it, until we tire of it and move on to a new distraction.
We think that by pleasing our insatiable desires that we can be happy, not realizing that the means available to us to please our sense desires are inherently restricted by time and space. It is an impossibility to find the unlimited, the constant and always available, in the limited.
The world is always in a state of flux. At each moment, something new is being created, sustained, transformed, and then destroyed. Trying to hold on to the ever-changing is like trying to capture quicksilver by grabbing it tightly – it just does not work. If we allow ourselves to become attached to a certain state or condition, it is only a matter of time before we become disappointed.
We can make a decision to find our innate happiness; it is certainly within our power to do so. When we consciously move in this direction, we choose to walk through the gateway of a calm and detached mind. We choose to become familiar with and understand the workings of our mind and to no longer be a slave to our ego-driven, incessant thoughts, desires and fears. Moral discipline, concentration and wisdom lead us there.
But first, it is important to make that initial decision – do we really want to be happy? Of course, everyone would respond “yes” to that question on the surface. Embarking on a quest for true happiness, however, requires great courage, fortitude and determination. Cherished ideas, beliefs and behaviors will have to fall by the wayside as one learns an entire new way of looking at the world. Conventional ideals of material or intellectual success, thoughts of “being somebody,” powerful and admired, must be seen for the illusions that they are. If we decide that we do want to go beyond traditional notions of happiness and realize a lasting peace and satisfaction, then we must be prepared to look at ourselves and everything around us in a radically new way.
We must be ready to ignore the comfortably familiar voice of our ego and move into uncharted territory. Even if we have been chronically unhappy, discontent and dissatisfied, we have probably grown quite accustomed to those states of being. Such habitual behavior, and states of mind, despite their negative effects, can be very difficult to give up. However, once we have opened or eyes, once we have become resolved, we start to see that it is wholly within us to destroy our self-created and self-perpetuated suffering. We only need to choose to do so.
Our suffering comes from the three poisons of ignorance, craving, and hatred. Once we become aware of this, we can set out on the path of transformation. Becoming aware of our unawareness is the first step.
Our ignorance is a form of blindness. In this state, we stumble around in the dark, frantically searching outside of us for what we believe will bring us happiness, when all we really need to do is turn the spotlight inwards. Our mind wanders, endlessly and carelessly, ever looking outward and enslaved to objects, experiences and sense pleasures. We do not realize that when we look inside instead, that is when we become free. We move beyond “fun”, transitory pleasure and distraction, no longer constantly searching for things that bring no promise of fulfillment. Restlessness is replaced by peace, a peace which lacks nothing and needs nothing.
Lord Buddha explained the sequence like this “ In dependence upon feeling there is craving, in dependence upon craving there is pursuit, in dependence upon pursuit there is gain, in dependence upon gain there is decision-making, in dependence upon decision making there is desire and lust, in dependence upon desire and lust there is attachment, in dependence upon attachment there is possessiveness, in dependence upon possessiveness there is stinginess, in dependence upon stinginess there is safeguarding, and because of safeguarding, various evil unwholesome phenomena originate – the taking up of clubs and weapons, conflict, slander, falsehoods, quarrels, insulting speech.”
Until we learn to cease the fruitless external chase and start to look within ourselves for happiness, there will always be another desire, another perceived source of happiness waiting in the wings. We will always be grasping for the “right” job, man, woman, clothes, title, house, car, etc. – the list is endless. Ultimately, however, none of these things provide more than momentary pleasure.
No matter how things may appear, peace and happiness are not located outside of us. They cannot be “obtained”, then somehow placed inside of us – there is just no space there, no opening through which they can enter in that manner. As long as our heart is full of likes and dislikes, how can there be any room for peace and happiness?
Instead, we must become like empty vessels — open, at ease, and content for anything. This, in turn, creates the space which allows our natural state of peace and happiness to awaken and flourish. There is nothing to do, there is nowhere to go, there is no one to “be” – we only allow our innate goodness to sustain us, free from external distractions and delusions. It is a matter of making room rather than crowding, simplifying and subtracting rather than adding. An independent form of happiness arises, which is not reliant on anyone or anything. Only our conditioned and confused thoughts stand in the way of our experiencing such happiness.
Real happiness and peace depend only on our mind – we can find these experiences in a frenetic urban setting as well as in a secluded mountain retreat. Outside circumstances do not matter, it is more important to have mindfulness, determination, concentration and focus. When our state of mind is disturbed, even a palace can seem miserable, while in a state of peace, the most pitiful hovel can seem magnificent.
We are the only ones with dominion over our own hearts and minds. No one can take our happiness unless we give it to them willingly. Everyday we encounter innumerable triggers for happiness and suffering, but we can choose our reactions. Our reactions can generally be summed up as craving or aversion, or equanimity. Craving or aversion perpetuates suffering and keeps us enslaved lifetime after lifetime, while equanimity, or an even-mindedness toward all that exists, liberates us.
In a state of craving, we will always want “more.” As soon as one desire is met, another calls out for our attention, in a never-ending and impossible to win, game. We mistakenly believe that when we get what we want, we will be satisfied, but this is not the case – fulfilling a desire feeds, rather than abates, our incessant yearning. Temporary, worldly, pleasures of the senses are like morning dew on the tip of a blade of grass — lasting only a short while then vanishing.
You may want to try looking at everything you do that gets in the way of your true happiness. One effective way to do this is to look at a craving, or desire, as it arises, and resist the usual urge to satisfy or repress it. For instance, you may have a strong impulse to go to the beach for a nice, relaxing swim. You may feel quite certain that this will make you happy; however, if you really examine yourself you may come to realize that the pleasure you may experience from the swim is only fleeting. Going for the swim today may only create a new urge to want to go again tomorrow, and on and on. For a change, you could try not indulging that initial desire, and just watching it. You may be quite surprised to see that not going for the swim, not automatically answering that desire, brings a different, more substantial sense of fulfillment and peace than if you had actually gone. It should be emphasized that this is a very conscious choice not to act on the desire, not mere suppression or denial of the urge.
Experimenting with this kind of approach in your day –to- day activities may help to open your eyes to a refreshing and spacious new perspective. It is a step towards contentment with what is, rather than engaging in a very familiar yet pointless chase.
Letting go of desire IS letting go of suffering. There is a story which illustrates this point nicely – the monkey and the trap. A hunter had set a trap, which contained a sweet piece of fruit, to attract a monkey. The monkey came along, was tempted, and put his hand into the cage. He grabbed the fruit and was very pleased until he realized his arm was now caught in the trap. Holding tighter and tighter to the fruit, the monkey twisted and turned, desperately trying to escape while the hunter approached. The hunter grabbed him and it was only then, too late, that the monkey understood what he had done. If he had only let go of the fruit, there would have been space for him to wriggle his arm out of the trap, and he would have been able to get away!
Another story tells of a wandering Sufi teacher, who sat under a tree with one of his disciples and began eating a large bag of red-hot chilies. The teacher began to sweat, his face turned redder and redder, but he still continued to eat. After a while, he was choking and seeming to be completely miserable, so his student asked him why he kept eating the chilies. His response was that he was still hoping to find a sweet one that would not make him feel sick.
These stories vividly illustrate what we do to ourselves all of the time, due to our ignorance, craving and aversion. Once we see that we are acting this way, we may become motivated to change our behavior. One way that we can do this is by learning to calm our relentlessly ticking mind. When we silence our chattering thoughts, our mind will become quiet, at ease, and relaxed, and from there we will be able to find our inner happiness. Rather than bouncing around on the tumultuous waves on the surface of our mind, we can go into a deeper place, we can sink down, down, into the perfect quiet of our innermost being. Sakya Pandita described it beautifully, saying that “the precious gems stay at the bottom of the sea-bed, but the unwanted rubbish floats on the surface of the sea.” We must learn to access that peaceful spot within ourselves. We must learn to stop our old conditioned behaviors of being pulled here and there by external circumstances.
Even the initial instance of gaining some physical sensation of pleasure in meditation can illuminate the fact that there is something entirely inside of us that gives joy and happiness. We start to see that, in addition to physical pleasure derived from touch, such pleasure can be gained at a more subtle level just through concentration. An inner joy arises, and without “self”, the inner joy is much greater and more profound than any happiness that we usually encounter in this life.
We do not have to live governed by the senses. Within their context, it is just not possible to find continued happiness. Clearly, the answer does not lie in improving our sense contacts, but in improving our reactions, so that we come closer and closer to a place of equanimity.
If we choose, we can make each and every day and moment an adventure. Usually, we feel burdened or deprived, too much or too little to do, not enough money or friends etc. Everybody wants to escape from perceived unsatisfactory conditions, but the escape mechanisms we choose do not provide real inner joy. Constantly trying to catch even a moment’s pleasure, we fail to realize that anything and everything right here, right now, is fascinating if we approach it with mindfulness. Simply watching grass grow in a field can teach us a lot. We may start to sense a lightness, a freedom, sensing wholeness rather than limitation, as we expand and explore in a mindful state.
It is only our ego which constantly distracts us by insisting that we satisfy the wants and needs of its outer reality rather than be satisfied with the abundance to be found within. Allowing the ego to control our state of mind, we associate happiness with a state of being where we “get our way.” Then, tighter and tighter, we attempt to make all our experiences conform to the way we wish things would be, rather than just how they are. The real way to be open and connect with true happiness is to live in sync, in tune with the natural flow of events, whatever that may be. When we allow ourselves to enjoy whatever we are doing, whatever is occurring, at its own pace, we find the invisible rhythm of peace. We rest, at one with our own experience, and not under the influence of ego’s distortions.
Without realizing it, we are limited in our understanding of life by our ego’s individual perceptions and interpretation of the world around us. One key to happiness is to start to realize how our subjective experience operates. The way everything appears to us is strictly a function of our ordinary mind. We label things as good or bad, pure or impure, beautiful or ugly, etc., and then we build intricate elaborations from there. As soon as the mind perceives something, it appraises it as attractive, repugnant, or neutral, and clings to it, pushes it away or feels indifferent. Then, when mental or physical action is taken on the basis of this distorted perception, karma is accumulated. This cycle continues, on and on, until we wake up. The awakened person lives a life of simple acceptance – giving up all preference, liking or disliking, chasing, aversion and duality. It is a life content with what one has and not interested in wasting time worrying about what one does not have.
Objects and events do not have the intrinsic power to make us happy or sad, that power lies within us, and in how we react to life. We can practice being peaceful and happy in our everyday experiences by remembering this. You can even have a sense of humor about it — once, a nice person was sitting down to what she thought would be a delicious dinner of Chinese food. It turns out that the restaurant had delivered beef instead of the chicken she had ordered. The girl got very upset, very disappointed and sad, until her kind teacher and friend pointed something out to her -– he told her “Do you want your happiness to depend upon a chicken?” Then, the girl had to laugh at the situation instead of feeling upset.
True happiness does not stem from rigidity or solidifying long held beliefs, but in relaxing and relinquishing opinions, views and ideas. It is like letting a cool breeze waft through your life, like gently blowing on a dandelion and watching it scatter. Typically, we spend our lives chasing jobs, money and lovers, we move to different places, get married and divorced, and sometimes even allow spiritual pursuits to throw us off the track. Instead, we might try to slow down, take some deep breaths and learn to make friends with ourselves, just as we are.
When we take the time to stop, and look within in an unhurried and nonjudgmental manner, happiness will slowly begin to reveal itself on its own. No frantic searching is required, we just become more and more aware, and make the choice to choose happiness instead of suffering, in every moment. As you begin to find the beauty and joy within, you will soon see more and more of it reflected back to you by the world. It will be coming from the inside out, not vice versa. Then, you can smile every day, and share your contentment with others. You will have found a great treasure, without having to go anywhere.
In the words of Lord Buddha “To live without anger among the angry is, indeed, happy. To live unafflicted among the afflicted is happy. To live without ambition among the ambitious is happy. To live without possession is a happy life like that of the radiant gods. To live without competition among those who compete is happy, for he who wins creates an enemy, and unhappy does the defeated sleep. The one who is neither a victim nor the defeated sleeps happy.”