I asked some people recently if they want to be happy all the time. I thought they’d all say yes, duh!, but some of them weren’t in fact quite sure. When I asked why, they come up with two classic observations (1) because they felt that without unhappiness they wouldn’t appreciate what happiness was, and also (2) how can you be happy when you get cancer or people die?!
These seem like reasonable points. Made me remember that we have to understand what Buddhas might mean by happiness as opposed to what the rest of us usually mean by it. There are two types of happiness, which Geshe Kelsang has called artificial and real. Both are pleasant feelings, both feel good (even great), so what’s the difference?
Real happiness is not the pleasant feelings such as excitement that come from worldly enjoyments such as a new relationship or a new hairdo. That is worldly pleasure, and the reason it is not real happiness is because it doesn’t last and is simply the changeover point between unpleasant feelings and more unpleasant feelings (as is explained more here.)
Buddha called this type of happiness “changing suffering” — not because it feels bad or because there’s anything wrong with it per se, but because it is not the pure or unconditional happiness of inner peace that arises from wisdom. It’s like the relative pleasure we get from scratching an itch (and I know about that, as I’ve just spent the weekend in Texas with about 1,234 mosquito friends). As it says in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:
The mental peace that develops from worldly enjoyment is not real happiness but changing suffering.
So in response to the first observation, it is true that without unhappiness we wouldn’t know what this kind of happiness is, because it is just the temporary alleviation of unhappiness.
In response to their second observation, I would say that actual happiness is not the same as excitement or glee. It is not generally appropriate to jump around with joy when someone drops dead.
To get closer to what Buddha means by the real happiness that comes from wisdom, I decided to ask the same people a different question – did they want to be at peace all the time? This time, everyone said yes.
For one thing, it is easier to see how being at peace is not just in contrast to being depressed — it is not part of that seesaw, but an underlying way of being. It is also easier to understand how we can learn to be at peace even when things go wrong. We are learning to maintain an internal locus of control, taking ownership of our lives.
The practice of meditation
And when we’re at peace, we’re happy, are we not? That’s the happiness we’re talking about, the happiness that we can grow more and more deeply by meditating, aka familiarizing our mind with wise positive thoughts both on our cushion and in our daily activities.
The Oral Instructions says:
This book principally presents the practice of meditation, through which we can develop and maintain a peaceful mind all the time. If our mind is peaceful all the time, we will be happy all the time.
Will this make me happy?
Will this make me happy all the time?
I’ve been finding this very helpful. For sure, as I’m about to take my first sip of this Costa cappuccino and have my first bite of muffin, if I ask myself the question “Will this make me happy?,” the answer is “Of course!” But will it make me happy all the time? No.
Only inner peace can do that. Therefore, I can get a lot more out of this cappuccino and cake by learning to enjoy it with inner peace. And I can recognize too that the happiness of those first few bites (before the worldly pleasure wears off) is in fact coming from the inner peace rather than from the muffin – if I remain in a miserable mood, for example, no muffin on earth has the power to make me happy from its own side.
What this means is that if I can keep the inner peace going, my enjoyment can go on! It’s like having my cake and eating it! But otherwise it can’t – the eating will just turn back into a sickly feeling and/or the need to lose 5 lbs.
Searching for happiness
Since beginningless time, in life after life, we have all been roving around in search of happiness. If we subscribe for just a moment to the narrative of evolutionary biology … in just this one world, Planet Earth, we can see how living beings — whether dinosaurs, marsupials, mammals, fish, or primates — have been trying nonstop to find happiness and get rid of suffering. Home sapiens (that’s us I’m afraid) have been uniquely cruel, selfish, and destructive in our pursuit of happiness and profit, managing in the past few millennia as we roamed further and further afield to “domesticate” (ie, own and entrap) untold living beings while driving the majority of other species to extinction. And we’re obviously still at it (including Koala Bears!), justifying ourselves every step of the way.
Nothing exceptional about me
Self-grasping, thinking everything really is out there for the grabbing, is why we are in samsara experiencing one hallucination after another. That constant craving of uncontrolled desire — seeking happiness out there — then perpetuates samsara, keeps it rolling on and on, traveling everywhere but nowhere.
I’ve been reading the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s very thought-provoking – not least because it reminds me that the difference between me and a monkey is … yikes, not much! I am a primate!! So are you!!! There is only 1.2 percent genetic difference between me and a chimpanzee! Look at your hands … they’re designed for climbing trees!
I mean I went to school, so I knew that — but this book has brought it home to me and made me appreciate even more that I have to use this life to break free. It’s obvious. I cannot afford not to because there is nothing at all exceptional about me, especially my body. Feelings of human superiority are very deceptive. I am simply a part of this ancient scary endless horror movie, nature red in tooth and claw; and if I remain as such, how can I hope for anything other than disaster and pain to befall me sooner or later? It’s all very well fearing taking rebirth in the lower realms, such as the animal realm, in our next life – but it turns out we’re already in the animal realm according to this paradigm. We even have tail bones!
Right now, due to the power of a more creative imagination, I am finally able in this life — after countless lifetimes as monkeys, albatrosses, cockroaches, and dinosaurs etc in this and many other world systems — to use my mind to break free. This is due to some out of the blue good fortune whereby I have met enlightened beings who know that life does not equal samsaric suffering, that there is an alternative. They are explaining clearly how I can manifest and purify my very subtle continuously residing mind, the formless awareness that goes from life to life, in order to realize my potential for enlightenment. They are revealing that none of any of this is as it seems, that there is nothing beyond mere appearance, that everything depends 100% upon thought; which is what makes it possible, at long last, to break it all down.
I saw this video of a toddler last week – he wanders up to a mirror, looks curiously at his reflection, and then walks around the back of the mirror to find out where it’s coming from. We are, according to Buddha, childish ones – but we can learn through our own examination and experience that the things we normally see do not exist, that there is nothing behind mere appearance. And that truth will make us blissfully happy, forever.
This opportunity is what makes my current life a precious human life as opposed to an animal life with no freedom or endowments. I may have a primate’s body, complete with opposable thumbs; but there is nothing to stop me at the moment from developing a Bodhisattva’s and then a Buddha’s mind. Notwithstanding I have only a few hundred months left (at most) to get this done before I find myself in a new body, perhaps with an actual tail.
Luxuries become necessities
However, I do digress ever so slightly, because what I was planning on quoting from that Sapiens book is this (when the author is talking about when the human species started to domesticate their world):
One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.
It’s like me with camping, or rather not camping. I camped at UK Kadampa Festivals for years, maybe even a decade or more! The tents did become larger as the years went by, I admit, and the thermoses, pillows, and so on became more and more fancy. But the point is that I didn’t much mind camping, and I might even have quite enjoyed it from time to time. Slowly but surely, however, I was invited to stay a night here or a night there on a sitting room floor by someone who took pity on me when it rained. These invitations grew over the years to being offered more nights inside, space in a caravan, a bed in a shared room, even my own room from time to time … Then some very generous American friends said I could share a modest house with them in my own small room for the whole Festival! What luxury!!! However, sure enough, the moment I put down my suitcase and lay down on my soft bed, I had started to take this for granted. Fast forward several years, Summer Festival 2019, and I am writing this in a beautiful house that is a darn sight posher than my own apartment … and there is no place to go from here but down. I am already plotting neurotically how to maintain this level of luxury next summer.
So, what about this lasting happiness then?
In Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s teachings on developing love in 2009, he said:
Probably we think: If I have money I will be happy all the time. If I have a good friend, a boyfriend or girlfriend, I will be happy all the time. If I have a good reputation or a higher position, I will be happy all the time. This is wrong.
More on why “This is wrong” (ie, worldly enjoyments don’t make us happy all the time) is explained all over this blog, including here.
We need stuff, but we probably don’t need it quite as much as we think, and we definitely don’t need to grasp at it for happiness. As soon as we do that, it is like trying to drink water from a mirage, we will always come up thirsty. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:
It is as if we are continually chasing mirages, only to be disappointed when they do not give us the satisfaction for which we had hoped.
We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.
To be happy all the time, we need to learn to enjoy mere appearance without the grasping – enjoy the mirage without grasping for the water, or enjoy the muffin or the hairdo or the relationship without grasping at something actually being there causing happiness. As it says in Oral Instructions:
When I search with my wisdom eye,
All the things that I normally see disappear
And only their mere name remains.
The point is that we can come to enjoy everything if our mind remains at peace thanks to wisdom, whether that be mirage-like muffins, relationships, or whatever. But not if it’s not. That’s the difference between liberation and samsara.
Tried and tested method for finding lasting happiness
As it says in Oral Instructions:
Meditation is a scientific method to transform human nature from bad to good. Everybody needs to be good-natured with a good heart.
Why do we need to be good? Why shouldn’t we all just stay like we are, each man out for himself, with occasional heroic flashes of selflessness (recorded on social media?)
I don’t know about you, but whatever I see in the news, in history, around me, or in my own life confirms that cutting ourselves off from others, being selfish and mean, doesn’t seem to be a remotely successful strategy for finding lasting happiness or freedom, either individually or collectively.
Instead, the way to develop deeper and deeper happiness is by getting rid of our inner problems – our delusions – and cultivating our boundless potential for good qualities such as love, compassion, patience, and wisdom.
This is the real method to solve our own inner problems – problems of ignorance, depression, anger and so forth – and is also the real method to benefit others practically.
You’d think we’d know this by now! But we seem to have surprisingly short memories about what makes us really happy and what doesn’t.
Rather than just lumber around like great apes, we need to unleash our spiritual side. It is there, have no doubt – it has always been there inside you. As Buddha says in a Sutra:
If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere.
When we manifest our very subtle clear light mind we can mix it directly with the true nature of all things, emptiness, the mere absence of all the things we normally see; and the mental peace that arises from this wisdom is real deep happiness, pure and lasting. As Ven Geshe Kelsang says:
So, if we really wish for ourself and others to be happy all the time, we must learn to practice meditation. Eventually, through practicing Mahamudra meditation we will be able to benefit each and every living being every day.
There is life with suffering and there is life without suffering. There is life without any real or lasting happiness, and there is life with real and lasting happiness. At some point we have to choose because it looks like we can’t have both.
Which brings me back to Gen-la Dekyong’s practical question that we can ask ourselves throughout the day:
Will this make me happy?
Will this make me happy all the time?!
Over to you. Comments are warmly invited.