I need a new suit…
This is another repost. I reworked it a little, though it would’ve been better if I delved into one aspect of it a little deeper.
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-=[ Pursuit of Happiness ]=-
“Only one thing has to change for us to know happiness in our lives: where we focus our attention.”
— Greg Anderson (1964–)
I remember listening once while a fellow meditator listed a string of unfortunate situations as a way of explaining her unhappiness. The teacher sat and closed her eyes for what seemed like many moments and I thought he was going to dig up a pearl of wisdom, so I was listening with all my might. Instead of an answer, however, this is what the teacher said, “You will always have this problem.”
That was fucked up, I thought to myself. However, I have since learned that this was a powerful teaching.
There are two very different ways of attaining happiness. One is so deeply conditioned in our society that almost everything in our culture supports it. The other is radically different proposed almost twenty-five centuries ago and is still followed to this day. The question for me today is: which approach is most likely to contribute the most happiness? My money is on the older approach.
First, I should begin by offering a basic definition of happiness. For this, I will turn to modern systems theory (I know, I know, it sounds egg-headed – bear with me). Every organism, whether cellular, social or psychological has some sort of membrane, or boundary that defines its internal and external. In other words, every organism has boundaries that defining its self from its environment.
Still with me? Ok!…
At a very basic level then, happiness can be simply defined as a state of equilibrium between inner and outer states. Unhappiness is created when we experience an uncomfortable tension we call desire — the yearning for this tension to resolve itself. We want the outer world to be somehow balanced with our inner world.
Which bring me to the two strategies for achieving happiness: One is to change the external environment – the outer world – to meet the needs (or wants) of the organism, the other is to change the internal state — the inner world – to adapt itself to the environment. In other words, we can strive to change the world in order to satisfy our desires, or we can change our needs by adapting to the world. Both strategies have as their goal the aim of removing the agitation of desires, one by fulfilling them and the other by letting go of them.
For humans as we are structured gratification of desire usually means getting each of the six senses to experiencing its object of desire (whether the object is a thing, person, or place) together with a feeling tone of pleasure. Of course, we all know that such moments cannot be sustained, but that doesn’t seem to be a deterrent. Even knowing we can’t satisfy all the senses all the time, the satisfaction of some of the senses some of the time is still considered a very appropriate thing to do with our time.
Virtually everything in our culture reinforces this idea, and we are continually encouraged to define ourselves by how many of our desires we have been able to slake: a new car, a bigger, better home, a more attractive partner, a newer iPod (my particular weakness. *grin*), etc.
This tendency to change the world in order to calm our desires is actually based on the idea of how things should be, and therefore is dependent on how much wisdom we can bring to bear on any given moment. As someone who actively participates in activists’ causes and social justice, I have a strong problem here. I mean, shouldn’t the desire to change the world for altruistic ideals — making the world a better place — be a better desire? In fact, many people get Buddhism wrong. There are good desires, even noble ones. It’s not that some desires are not more worthy than others. I find the problem is in the nature of desire itself.
Because we are so conditioned with the notion that happiness is something to be pursued “out there,” it might sound odd to hear of a tradition that talks of uncovering happiness from within. A long time ago, a great man stated that to live is to know suffering. I think this is true enough, we all know suffering in some form or another. However, he also said that there is a way out of suffering if we seek out its internal causes, understand them, and solve the problem through internal adjustments. According to the Buddha, it’s not the tension between the inner and outer worlds that causes unhappiness; it is the desire for the external to change (or not to change, as the case may be), which is itself an internal state.
The one constant in life is that everything is constantly changing. Even our bodies are constantly changing, replacing dead cells with newer ones. People come and go, electronic gadgets become obsolete, replaced by newer, faster, and thinner models. *grin* Conditions in the world are notoriously unstable and often subject to forces beyond our control, while internal desires are intimate and more accessible. It is simply more efficient to adapt to the world than to alter it. Now please! Don’t take this to mean that we just sit there and do nothing! I’m talking here about changing the basic mindset of getting more, grasping for more, as a major focus in attaining happiness.
Grasping and getting is problematic because the mind, as the creator of desires, will always throw up more than can ever be satisfied by even the most successful series of external changes. The fact is that even if we were extremely successful at making everything outside of ourselves be just the way we want it to be (at the very least, a childish thought, you must admit), we could never get anything fundamentally perfect. Because our desires are always changing, because they are often conflicting, and because the changes in our external world can never keep up with the pace of a wanting, grasping mind, the satisfaction of desire as a strategy for happiness will always be doomed.
What I love most about this teaching, however, is not this particular insight, but the fact that it isn’t a “philosophy.” The Buddha actually left us a method to use in order to attain this relationship with our inner worlds. But that’s another post, for another time.