Why can’t I be happy?! Buddha’s reply.

We all want to be happy, isn’t that the truth?! In fact, we all want to be happy all the time; it’s the way living beings are wired. But are we happy all the time? And if not, given our wish and the 24/7 effort we put into it, why not? Buddha Shakyamuni and many meditators since him have taken this question pretty seriously and, luckily for us, come up with some answers.

What is our problem?

This article dealt with how self-cherishing ties itself in knots to cherish a real me that doesn’t even exist. This gives rise to all our problems, misfortunes and painful experiences.

How?

We all seem to have loads of problems all the time which obstruct our happiness. But what is a problem? What is our problem?!

Here’s just a mini illustration. Flying back from San Francisco late the other night, I tottered tiredly to the back of the plane to use the restroom and then entirely forgot where I was sitting – I thought it was 32E (like my previous flight) when in fact it was 28E. (I am a little directionally challenged at the best of times – once, while visiting a friend in his semi-detached house on a long street in South London, I went off to get his kids some sweets. I forgot to note his house number and spent the rest of the morning spying through every letter box in the neighborhood …) So I was peering through the gloom into Row 32, wondering who could have stolen my bag and who this stranger was with his feet up on my seat, and then looking down all the rows in the vicinity of 32, when I noticed that some of the other passengers were looking at me as if I was a mad woman. I felt self-conscious for a moment there, wondering what they were thinking. Later, safely back in seat 28E, the following thought occurred to me:  If someone looks at me in a funny way and I get embarrassed or unhappy, where’s the problem? I could reply: “Well, this is a horrible situation as they’re looking at me in a funny way. The atmosphere is really weird. I need to get out of here.” (Usually not an option at 37,000 feet). Generally we think the problem is out there. But if we check, our actual problem is the agitation in our mind. If I don’t care how they are looking at me, if I stay peaceful, I have no problem.

So where is that agitation coming from? I might still conclude, “Well, they’re making me agitated.” They’re not making me agitated, actually. No one can make me agitated unless I let them. If we can control our minds and stay peaceful, we’re not agitated, and we have no problem. They’re not causing our problem, we are.

Specifically, we become agitated and lose our happiness due to some unpeaceful, disturbed, uncontrolled state of mind. We call these in Buddhism, “delusions”. For example, any agitation in this case could be coming from attachment. We are very attached to our feelings, we want to feel good all the time, we don’t like people offending us, we’re attached to our reputation, we want people to like us, we have strong attachment to the way we think things should be. So maybe it’s coming from attachment. Or maybe it’s coming from aversion — we don’t like that person, they feel threatening to our happiness or sense of self in some way. Our mind is troubled because we have the unpeaceful, uncontrolled mind of anger.

Losing our freedom

This attachment or anger is coming only from our self-cherishing. Geshe Kelsang says in Transform Your Life:

We often feel that it is someone else who is making us unhappy, and we can become quite resentful. If we look at the situation carefully, however, we shall find that it is always our own mental attitude that is responsible for our unhappiness. Another person’s actions make us unhappy only if we allow them to stimulate a negative response in us. Criticism, for example, has no power from its own side to hurt us. We are hurt only because of our self-cherishing. With self-cherishing, we are so dependent on the opinions and the approval of others that we lose our freedom to respond and act in the most constructive way.

We think things like, “He’s really upset me. I’m the victim here.” And in doing so we disempower ourselves, disengage from others, and thus lose the freedom to respond with patience, for example, or loving-kindness, or generosity.

Buddha’s answer in a nutshell

So, our happiness is constantly interrupted by problems, misfortunes and painful experiences. These come from our delusions; our delusions come from our self-cherishing; and, as explained in this article, our self-cherishing comes from thinking that our me is the only real me, namely self-grasping ignorance. (More on the dynamic of these two ego-minds in the next article.)

Start small

Clearly, we will not be able to remain happy in big horrible situations unless we practice first with mild examples like the one above. We can start to overcome our self-cherishing and other delusions gradually, starting with situations that we can transform, and working our way up to more challenging problems.

Over to you: Do you have any personal examples of restoring your happiness by overcoming a delusion?

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