#3995 - Friday, August 28, 2010 - Editor: Jerry
David wrote the article in which six songs were featured, in
my previous Highlights (#3992)
Good News: Happiness Doesnt
Happiness is slippery. It doesnt like to stick around. We
know weve had it before, but its gone away, and we know there are certain
things we have to do to find it again. Certain ducks have to be in a row. After
all, if you didnt have to do anything to be happy, you wouldnt do anything at
all. It cant be too hard to find. Other people seem to be finding it all
Yet for all our efforts, we never seem to get this happiness
problem nailed down, and theres a very good reason for that.
When we start talking about solving the problem of
unhappiness, its hard to avoid the topic of Buddhism. I know not everyone is a
fan, but they have lain some important groundwork, even for those of us who like
the idea of improving our quality of life but arent prepared to buy the whole
package, with all its baldness and orange robes. Despite its promises of peace
and enlightenment, I havent leapt in with abandon, so dont worry, this article
doesnt delve into pratitya-samutpadas and tathagatagarbhas. Its about a
plain-jane concept you know very well: happiness.
Buddhism developed as a response to mankinds search for
happiness. In the simplest terms, its not a belief system but a methodology for
being happy. Yet Buddhist literature is known for focusing much more on
suffering than happiness. Its curious preference for morbid subject matter has
led some to describe Buddhism as preoccupied with negativity.
The reason suffering has become Buddhisms primary focus,
rather than happiness, is that happiness, as we conceive of it, doesnt really
exist at least not in the same way suffering does. What we refer to as
happiness is really just what the absence of suffering feels like.
Although its become the favorite term for the concept,
suffering is really not an adequate word. The Buddhists call it dukkha.
Suffering is perhaps the most common English substitution, but Ive also seen
anguish, unease, dissatisfaction, stress, discomfort, or unsatisfactoriness.
None of them are quite right, and so many writings in English will use
I avoid the casual use of Sanskrit or Pali words in my
articles because I think they make a lot of readers tune out, as they sense
theyre being led into an esoteric religious discussion. Books and articles
about Buddhism can get pretty dry and cryptic, scaring away readers who would
otherwise be fascinated by the very same concepts if they werent presented in
such stuffy, user-unfriendly language. But for the rest of this article Ill use
dukkha, if it hasnt scared you off yet.
Unease might be the best of the English translations of
dukkha. The original word was meant to evoke the feeling of a potters wheel
that would screech as it turned.
I often substitute dukkha with suffering but I realize that
may be misleading for those not acquainted with the Buddhist meaning of that
word. Before I encountered suffering in the Buddhist context, it meant
something different to me. It meant great pain. Sobbing, aching,
Suffering, from a Buddhist perspective, refers not so much to
outright catastrophe as to the persistent, low-intensity feelings of
dissatisfaction or yearning that human beings feel most of the time. Indeed,
most of our suffering is extremely minor:
* The faint hint of financial angst you get
when you notice gas has gone up again
* The tiny feeling of urgency you get when
you discover you only have 19 more minutes to get ready to go, and you thought
you had 30
* The slight unease you feel when youre
opening a gift in front of the person who gave it to you, and you want to make
sure you look pleased no matter what you really think of it
* The sinking, here we go again feeling
you get when so-and-so begins to get impatient with the waitress
This is dukkha. This is life.
Moments in which unease is not present are wonderful. There is
a light, problemless, everything in its right place quality to them. Weve all
had these moments, and they arent particularly rare, but they are not your
Often they happen when you experience something so powerful
that it wrests all of your attention away from your thinking mind, such as a
picturesque sunset or an incredible piece of music.
Other times, this peace blindsides you at a perfectly ordinary
moment, maybe when youre filling up a glass of water and youre taken by a
perfect, glowing triangle of sunlight on the countertop. Suddenly the mind shuts
off, you can hear the delicate background noise of the kitchen and the
surrounding neighborhood, and everything looks and sounds exactly as it
The potential for it seems to be always there.
Buddhisms genius is that it reduces all human problems to a
single one: the problem of dukkha. This is a very powerful perspective. The
implication is that our ordinary state is one of peace, perfection,
problemlessness, and clarity the very things we are always ultimately seeking.
Dukkha is the only thing standing between a problematic moment and a problemless
one. The problem is not gas prices, or your bank balance, or your love handles.
Without dukkha, none of them would be problems. The price of fuel would strike
you as perfectly appropriate, as would your net worth and your
The Buddha developed a method for transcending dukkha, but
many other approaches have been discovered since by sages, psychologists,
seekers and average joes. They all amount to overcoming your attachments in the
whats left when you take away unhappiness.
Since the only problem we ever have is the presence of unease
in our moments and not the absence of anything happiness itself doesnt
really exist. Its just what we call moments in which we dont experience
dukkha. And that means what we refer to as happiness is always there behind
the current moments unease; ultimately, it is always accessible.
I find its more empowering to think of happiness this way
as the absence of unease, and nothing else and heres why:
We tend to think of happiness as something out there,
waiting just beyond some future achievement or change in circumstances. This
makes our happiness contingent on factors we cannot directly control. If we
think of unhappiness (or unease) as a function of how we are relating to the
present moment whatever it contains then we always have an opportunity to
improve the quality of our moment. This way power over our quality of life
resides with ourselves, and not with luck, status or other
Happiness is too easily confused with gratification.
Gratification is simply getting what you currently want. It provides a fleeting
cessation of unease, which makes it feel awesome, like an end in itself. It is
such an intense release that it feels as if the problem has been conquered, when
really its only been chased away for a short while. As a strategy for
happiness, gratification is a poor one for three reasons:
1) You cant always get what you want
2) Depending on getting what you want in order to be happy
increases your attachment to getting what you want, which intensifies the
suffering youll experience next time
3) Getting what you want often makes it harder to get other
things youll soon want for example, when you spend all your money on what you
want right now
The typical approach to seeking happiness is to add something
to our lives, because we perceive ourselves as needing something we are missing:
more security, more money, another possession, the approval of others, a
personal achievement. But on closer inspection even these actions are actually
driven by a desire to remove something: insecurity, hunger, angst, tension of
some kind. We are driven to acquire and achieve in order to remove dukkha from
There is no happiness
Dont seek happiness. If you seek it, you
wont find it, because seeking is the antithesis of happiness. ~Eckhart
Happiness (or whatever you want to call that state we are all
seeking joy, well-being, peace) occurs when something is removed, not when
something is added. Happiness is an opposite, a negative mold an imaginary
abstraction created to define precisely what it is not. Its no different than
darkness, which itself is nothing at all only a way of describing an absence
of light. Light is real, darkness is just a concept.
So why did we get it backwards? As with most of our
inefficiencies, we evolved that way. For millions of years our behavior has been
driven by dissatisfaction, which manifests itself in a sentient creature as
desire. Our very clever biology has us desiring, non-stop, for anything that
appears to put us into a better position to survive. Its the ultimate
carrot-and-stick setup, and we still fall for it because we dont know what else
to do. We can always use more security, more esteem, more power, so the desires
never cease. It works very well to the survival end, by constantly creating a
mental itch that must be scratched. This itch is unhappiness, unease, or to
Buddhism fans, dukkha.
This is how the human mind works now. It creates unhappiness
to keep us moving, with no regard for our quality of life. You can scratch the
itch your whole life and it wont go away. It will only put you in the habit of
scratching the itch. The human mind has developed to a point where we are
finally understanding this awful cycle, and developing ways of dealing with it.
About 2500 years ago a New York minute, in evolutionary time a curious young
prince nailed the problem down. He found we werent actually missing anything
Happiness, it seems, is just a shadow. By continuing to gaze
at it, weve overlooked whats standing in the light.