9 mins read.
You are unique. There is no one quite like you in this world. And as Fred Rogers would say:
I like you just the way you are.
But, as per this last article, it is helpful to contemplate that we are all also basically the same — unique but none more special — one reason being that our varieties of mind are the same. This includes both negative and positive minds, both unhappiness and happiness.
In this human realm we have a lot more worldly pleasure aka changing suffering than beings in the hell and hungry spirit realms because living beings there are rarely, if ever, free from the painful feelings of manifest suffering. This is almost too ghastly to contemplate, thought contemplate it we must if we are to develop universal compassion.
But whenever we are experiencing changing suffering it feels the same as other people’s.
My African adventure took a new turn when we decided on the spur of the moment to go say hello to the animals at the Tala game reserve. I was not expecting to spend the day hanging out on the wide open plain with rhinos, zebras, ostriches, wildebeest, monkeys, and giraffes, but there you go, another reminder to always expect the unexpected. It was a bit like the opening scenes of the Lion King, which I seem to be watching on this final airplane lap back to America.
Ok, so here’s a question. We saw this giraffe, like some mesmeric prehistoric creature, lumbering across the road in front of our truck to nibble on the green leaves on the top of a new tree. She seemed happy, she probably was happy, why not. And what was that? Was it not changing suffering? The same kind of comparative pleasure we all experience from worldly pleasures?
Back in the Observatory where I was staying in Cape Town, a frail old woman was sleeping outside in the same spot every night because it has a makeshift tarpaulin roof; but Sangkyong discovered that in the rainy months she was pushed out of that prime spot by two youths, only allowed to return in the dry season. If someone finds a tarpaulin, there is happiness, just as if someone buys a mansion, there is happiness. How much subjective difference is there in those pleasant feelings?
From life in luxury to life on the edge, is there any qualitative difference in our happiness when we get something we want? The giraffe is happy to find his green leaves, a millionaire is happy to purchase some new novelty like a yacht, and a handout of 100 Rands might make the day of someone hustling to survive. It is all relative – the suffering of change is by nature relative, the crossover point between some manifest pain and its temporary relief. Scratching an itch, as it were. Like receiving the all clear from a doctor, which is a pleasurable relief, but only for someone who thought they might have cancer. Better than, “It’s not good news I’m afraid,” but still not good enough.
By the way, none of these types of relief holds a candle to the relief we experience when we are able to drop into our peaceful heart-mind and let go of our problems through breathing meditation, much less when we start grasping less at our self through the wisdom realizing there is no self.
What is happiness?
Happiness is a loaded word, of course, which may be why Geshe Kelsang explains two types, fake and real.
According to The Week, in the mid-17th century Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, cast the word “happiness” (which hitherto had meant “lucky”) as an unending process of accumulating objects of desire, redefining it as a subjective, shifting feeling, predicated on our desires:
The felicity of this life,” wrote Hobbes in 1651, “consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus (utmost aim) nor summum bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.
He believed that happiness had a slippery and fleeting nature and must be continually sought after, which I think is a good description for the fake happiness of changing suffering. Or as Don Draper, the advertising exec, puts it in Mad Men:
What is happiness? It’s the moment before you need more happiness.
In some ways, the itch of fake happiness becomes more itchy the more stuff we acquire because luxuries become necessities and we find ourselves more and more distracted from the source of real happiness within. External wealth is nowhere near as meaningful or satisfying as internal wealth, not even close.
Once the basic necessities of food, clothing, medicine, and housing are met, more contentment would seem to bring more peace of mind. Trust me, I have thought about this, and I am not saying I’d prefer to be poverty stricken — day to day life is grueling with few resources and I’m way too accustomed to comfort and, basically, a wimp. But I think the feeling of pleasure we get from externals, once the basic needs are met, may not be that different.
I saw a lot of laughter in Alexandra, arguably more than in the neighboring Sandton with its fancy mansions behind electric fences. Jampel in Durban told me a story about visiting Eshowe in the Bodhisattva Patti days and seeing little boys playing with string and tin cans “squealing with joy, for hours on end” – a pleasure he reckoned was just as great as the pleasure of the little Sandton boy stuck into his video game, quick to boredom, maybe greater.
Therefore, as Buddha explains, the pleasure of temporary liberation from particular sufferings –although a great deal preferable to endless manifest pain — is nevertheless never going to be good enough for any of us, rich or poor – we all need permanent liberation from all suffering. This, then, is Buddha Shakyamuni’s intention– to free all living beings permanently from all their suffering. It is the reason he attained enlightenment and taught everyone else how to go about it.
I read this the other day about the apparently greatly misunderstood Epicurus (also in The Week):
As Epicurus saw it, happiness is merely the lack of aponia—physical pain—and ataraxia—mental disturbance. It was not about the pursuit of material gain, or notching up gratifying experiences, but instead was a happiness that lent itself to a constant gratefulness.
Buddhism would agree that when our delusions have subsided, and/or when we experience gratitude or other positive minds, our mind is naturally peaceful and therewith happy; and would also add that we can exponentially deepen that peace and happiness through increasing our positive minds until they last forever.
I was thinking today about why get out of bed in the morning? Why do anything? Why slog away at work, feed the cat, put up the offerings, answer the texts, talk to the coworkers, sort out the paperwork, go for a walk, surf the internet, give away a dollar, go to the doctor, watch TV, water the flowers, etc etc. I know from the times I’ve tried it that if we can have the same intention as Buddha — that is, wanting ourself and all living beings to be free permanently from all sufferings — our whole day becomes extraordinary, even as practically speaking we work just temporarily to liberate ourself and others’ from particular sufferings. With practice, we can get better and better at doing both these at the same time.
Curating our life feeds
What is true or real happiness? Nowadays a lot of people famously curate their Facebook or Instagram feeds to give the impression that their lives are perfect and to avoid appearing unhappy — just one peak experience after another, one exotically located selfie after another — leaving everyone else grimacing or with FOMO. This constant pretending takes a toll and probably, though I haven’t Googled this to check, undermines friendships rather than strengthens them. If our lives were actually perfect and we were always happy, we probably wouldn’t bother telling everyone. I haven’t seen Venerable Geshe-la post any selfies recently, for example. It’s hard to get him to talk about his own life or his achievements or his non-stop great bliss at all.
It is not just on social media that we are jostling for reputation and position like this, I think it just shows up there because we spend so much time on it. One of the social workers in Alex township, who has to deal with so much real crazy sh** every day, was nonetheless more preoccupied by a male friend who was so proud of his new car that he was making everyone around him “feel small”. Apparently there is a lot of jostling for status in the townships, that’s what they told me; and perhaps it’s not so surprising in a community that was kept down for so long.
When I brought up Shantideva’s analysis of how we categorize people into (1) those who are inferior to us in some way so we feel pride, (2) equal to us in some way so we feel competitive, or (3) superior to us in some way so we feel jealous, there was a vigorous nodding of heads. I was surprised one early morning to see the domestic, Ama, arrive at work where I was staying all dressed in her very finest togs as if she was going to a wedding or something. When I started looking, I could see that a lot of commuters were beautifully dressed on their way to and from work, apparently to keep up appearances in the communal taxi, and changing quickly into their scruffy clothes once no longer amongst their peers. Just Instagram in 3D.
That leads me to Buddha’s point about happiness coming from within — real happiness, that is, versus the fake happiness of changing suffering. The deepening pure unconditional happiness that arises from a growing inner peace, a pure intention, warm love, virtue, and wisdom. How does the pleasure from, say, eating some good food (however we construe that, from green leaves on top of a new tree to dining out on every continent) compare with the pleasure from say, developing the heartfelt wish for everyone to be unconditionally happy and permanently free from suffering?
Happiness doesn’t come from working hard or pursuing and purchasing peak experiences. It is a natural by-product of peaceful and positive states of mind. Our first-world lifestyle and expectations can therefore backfire. To quote The Week again:
These days, we try to collect moments of happiness like shells at the beach, even as the waves wash them away. The pursuit is Sisyphean; it inevitably leads down a disappointing path.
Or, as Aldous Huxley wrote in 1956:
The right to the pursuit of happiness is nothing else than the right to disillusionment phrased in another way.
Also, in this kind of pursuit of happiness, we often think it also requires avoiding bad feelings at all cost — pretending they are not there and airbrushing them out of our feeds or daily commute, or distracting ourselves. But if we know how to be truly happy we are no longer scared of these thoughts and emotions because we know they are just weather in the mind with no power to do us harm, and not who we really are. (See these articles for more on that.)
And, like I said, we’re all the same
One last thing, just like our negative minds and our experiences of changing suffering described above, our virtuous minds also feel the same inside. We are not that original. Which turns out to be a good thing. For, if we are not so original or unique after all, it means the methods exist to fix us.
Thanks for sharing my adventures in South Africa. Over to you. Comments most welcome in the box below.