Lesson 20 — Real Happiness
Finding lasting happiness. Becoming a joyous, loving person. Attaining peace of mind. These are universal human aspirations, and are not terribly far out of reach. The truth is that happiness, quiet joy, love, and peace exist when reactivity is absent. Awareness, contentment, freedom, and love are aspects of the primal, underlying state of mind — a state which simply is. Unhappiness is a disturbance of that state, a disruptive modulation of it. Unhappiness is a wanting, judging, condemning, rejecting, emotionally-charged reaction to information that is present in the mind.
One of our culture’s strong messages is that happiness comes from satisfying our wants — from taking seriously, and acting upon, the messages of desire and longing and wanting that arise in consciousness. Our culture tells us that happiness comes from pleasure, and if we want to be continuously happy, we should spend time setting up a continuous series of pleasure hits.
There is, however, another perspective on happiness. Those with this other point of view say that there is no need to seek happiness, happiness simply is when mental reactivity is not. Thus, the task is not to become happy; it is to stop making ourselves unhappy. These people point out that the storms of reactive emotion we call fear, anger, hate and craving — all of them ways of wanting things to be different — are what disturb the otherwise smooth ocean of peaceful awareness that is happiness itself.
If we want to live a life of inner peace and outwardly-directed love we need to do two things. First, we need to give up the hopeless task of trying to make the world immediately around us so pleasant that unwanted mind content never arises. Second, when unhappy disturbances first arise in the mind we need to avoid feeding energy into them. In nature, if energy continues to enter the modest tropical disturbance type of storm, it will become a hurricane. It is the same with storms of reactive emotion. An impulse of fear, anger, hate, or craving may arise in the mind, totally beyond our control. If at that point we just note the impulse and let it go, it never becomes a mind-dominating tempest. On the other hand, if we feed energy into the situation by creating a story to go with the feelings, those feelings are likely to escalate from a puny pang of discomfort into a mental hurricane.
We don’t ignore the emotion-tinged messages that arise in the mind or deny their existence, but neither do we assume that we must dwell on them or act on them. We don’t need to let them spoil our day. While some messages do need to be taken seriously and acted upon, many others advocate action that is inappropriate in present circumstances. If we let the feelings remain without reacting to them — allowing them to stay, simply as messages on the noticeboard of mind — they soon fade completely away.
Separating the kind of message that should be acted upon from the kind that should be ignored requires attention and discrimination. We humans have certain basic needs which only the world around us can meet. Each of us needs food, housing, some degree of security, and supportive relationships with other people. As Abraham Maslow saw it, if our immediate environment doesn’t give us these things we cannot be whole, well human beings.
The Gautama Buddha was a strong proponent of the inward-looking perspective, but he, too, recognized that we have needs which must be met through external resources. He advocated a middle path between the extremes of deprivation and indulgence. You turn to the physical situation to meet your needs, but not to satisfy your greed. On the middle path, you don’t starve yourself or freeze yourself. You approach the external world to get the food and shelter you need to keep you healthy. And you approach it to find a community of supportive people — within which your needs for belongingness and psychological/spiritual growth can be met.
If trying to change our physical situation sometimes makes sense, and accepting what is sometimes makes sense, where do we draw the line?
The Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr acknowledged the difficulty and defined the problem in his famous prayer:
. . . give us serenity to accept what cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish one from the other.20
Not everyone would draw the line exactly where Niebuhr drew it. The version of Niebuhr’s prayer adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, uses the words “change the things I can” rather than “change what should be changed.” The AA version is oriented more to the capability of the individual to change things; Niebuhr’s more to the demand for change inherent in the situation itself.
Some proponents of acceptance — particularly those concerned about our fragile biosphere — would advocate less change than either Niebuhr or AA advocated. They might prefer something like: “Accept what cannot or should not be changed.”
There are many things we cannot change — aging and death for example. Each of us who doesn’t die young will eventually grow old and deteriorate physically. A biologist acquaintance expressed it with brutal directness: “Every living thing is programmed to self-destruct.” We all understand this intellectually. Nevertheless, many people maintain an externally-oriented mindset as they approach old age, irrationally hoping that reality for them will be different. To the very end they direct their energy and attention outward, pinning their hopes for peace of mind and happiness on the success of external measures — measures which, at some point, are guaranteed to fail. It doesn’t occur to them to channel some of that energy and attention into discovering how to handle, with equanimity, whatever old age might throw their way.
Yes, we humans fall into traps. North American culture strongly supports the trap of perpetual, narcissistic, pleasure seeking. Its repetitive message is: find happiness by satisfying your wants. Sometimes, wants and needs coincide. Our world is full of legitimate unmet basic needs, and there is every reason to take personal and collective action to help people meet them. But the consumer culture’s core message is not that we should help others, it’s that we should satisfy our own wants. Pleasure is its guiding value, and consumption is its recommended way. This culture does a great job of preparing us to function, to act, to acquire, to change things. It does not prepare us to accept what we cannot, should not, and need not change. It does not teach us to allow the actions we take to be guided from a quiet center of concern and interest. It does not do much to help us become wise.
The inward-looking path has its traps, too. One of these is maintaining a preoccupation with self, and losing oneself in narcissism. In this circumstance, too, pleasure remains the guiding value, and consumption (in somewhat subtler forms) remains the way. People trapped here miss the deeper point of their chosen practice of inner development, and end up becoming attached to its techniques. They may take pride in the length of their meditation sittings, for instance, and the number and duration of the retreats they attend. They want to “have” spiritual experiences. As a result, egos harden rather than dissolve.21
Developing the ability to accept whatever is, non-reactively, does not mean that we abandon positive kinds of action. Ideally, we return from silence and retreat to participate actively in the world, but with a more spacious, more allowing, more enlightened mental outlook.
Acquiring an enlightened outlook is not apt to happen in a weekend. Part of the reason is that we lack facts and we harbor well-entrenched delusions. We lack facts, for instance, in the area of brain/mind functioning. And a major delusion is the one we just looked at: We tend to blame our personal unhappiness on externals, and see only one path to happiness. We feel that we must change the external situation in some way — through direct action, appeal to reason, coercion, manipulation, or force — until it matches our expectations, until it gives us what we want.
What we can do about our unenlightened state is to start gathering missing facts, and start taking those steps which will ultimately allow us to see through the delusions. We can learn enough about the processes of mind and brain to discover the rules of the happiness/peace/love game. We can discover where our points of leverage lie in dealing with the unruly aspects of mind, and we can develop those ways of being which enable us to acknowledge mind’s informational patterns without generating reactive storms. Finally, we can pay attention to our own experience of happiness and unhappiness, and draw our own conclusions about what they are. In the end, we see for ourselves that real happiness is simply freedom from wanting.22
20. As quoted in John Bartlett, FAMILIAR QUOTATIONS, Fourteenth Edition, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1968, p. 1024.
21. Chogyam Trungpa said a lot about this problem in CUTTING THROUGH SPIRITUAL MATERIALISM, Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 1973. Eric Fromm addressed it in TO HAVE OR TO BE?, New York: Harper and Row, 1976.
22. Those readers who would like to develop this sort of mental attitude but need more information on how to go about it, might find another book of mine helpful: Copthorne Macdonald, TOWARD WISDOM: Finding Our Way to Inner Peace, Love and Happiness, Toronto: Hounslow Press, 1993.
Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:
“The truth is that happiness, quiet joy, love, and peace exist when reactivity is absent. Awareness, contentment, freedom, and love are aspects of the primal, underlying state of mind—a state which simply is. Unhappiness is a wanting, judging, condemning, rejecting, emotionally charged reaction to information that is present in the mind.”
Does your intuition or experience confirm this observation? (I believe that when you come to study the enneagram system, you will find Cop’s “underlying state of mind” to be what’s referred to there as “essence.” See if you agree.
Here seems to be the gist of this chapter: “One of our culture’s strong messages is that happiness comes from satisfying our wants.” But that “In the end, we see for ourselves that real happiness is simply freedom from wanting.” Do you buy that? (Or maybe it’s free.)
When you let go of your reactive emotions of “fear, anger, hate, and craving,” does that leave you happy? Or can’t you let go? Why not?
What methods, means, or devices have you acquired and mastered “to avoid feeding energy” to mental disturbances when they arise, so as to keep them from spoiling your day? Or would you rather indulge your fear, anger, hate, and craving at the expense of “inner peace and outwardly directed love”?
Do you, like the Buddha, take “a middle path between the extremes of deprivation and indulgence . . . to meet your needs, but not satisfy your greed”? Or do you advocate wild abandon and uninhibited self-indulgence; or ascetic simplicity and puritanical self-restraint? What’s your way and why do you prefer it?
“Every living thing is programmed to self-destruct.” Can you accept that? How?
“North American culture strongly supports the trap of perpetual, narcissistic, pleasure seeking.” Do you agree? Are you caught in this trap? How do you free yourself?
Do you have a “chosen path of inner development”? Write about it. Do you ever get “trapped” by “becoming attached to its techniques”?
“We tend to blame our personal unhappiness on externals, and see only one path to happiness. We feel that we must change the external situation in some way—through direct action, appeal to reason, coercion, manipulation, or force—until it matches our expectations, until it gives us what we want.” Is this what you do? Is this delusion? Is there a better way?
Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.
(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)
Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.