The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

Sharon Salzberg, Joh Kabat-Zinn, from Lovingkindness

“Only connect.”—E. M. Forester

We can travel a long way and do many different things, but our deepest happiness is not born from accumulating new experiences. It is born from letting go of what is unnecessary, and knowing ourselves to be always at home. True happiness may not be at all far away, but it requires a radical change of view as to where to find it.

A meditator at one of our first retreats found this out in a very pointed way. Before we established the center of the Insight Meditation Society, we had to rent sites for long meditation retreats. For our first one, we rented a monastery with a beautiful chapel. In order to turn the chapel into a meditation hall where we could sit on the floor, we had to remove all the pews and store them in a large back room. Owing to a shortage of sleeping accommodations, one of the meditators slept in a corner of that back room for the duration of the retreat.

During the course of the retreat this meditator began to experience a lot of aches and pains. Feeling quite annoyed and disturbed by them, he spent a long time searching the monastery for the perfect chair, one that would allow him to sit without pain. Unable to find it, he decided that his only recourse was to sneak into the monastery workshop at night to build himself a chair. He meticulously planned how he would do this without being discovered. Then, confident that he would soon have the solution to his problems, he went to the workshop to look over the tools and materials available. Back in the room where he was staying, he sat down on one of the pews stored there and set about designing the absolutely perfect meditation chair, guaranteed to end suffering.

As he was sitting there working, he realized that he was feeling happier and happier. At first he thought the happiness came because he was creating the unheralded, revolutionary, perfect design. Then suddenly he realized that, in fact, he was so happy because he was remarkably comfortable sitting on one of the pews. He looked around and saw that there were about three hundred of those pews right in his own room. What he was looking for had been right in front of him all along. Instead of taking that tortuous mental journey, he could have just sat down.

Sometimes we take quite a journey—physically or mentally or emotionally—when the very love and happiness we want so much can be found by just sitting down. We spend our lives searching for something we think we don’t have, something that will make us happy. But the key to our deepest happiness lies in changing our vision of where to seek it. As the great Japanese poet and Zen master Hakuin said, “Not knowing how near the Truth is, people seek it far away. What a pity! They are like one who, in the midst of water, cries out in thirst so imploringly.”

Ordinary happiness comes from the experience of pleasure—the satisfaction, for a little while, of getting what we want. Such happiness is like the temporary appeasement of an unhappy, insatiable child. We reach out for the consolation of a momentary distraction, and then we are upset when it changes. I have a friend who is four years old. When he gets frustrated, or does not get what he wants, the hallways of his house echo with his cries: “Nobody loves me anymore!” We as adults often feel the same: when we do not get what we want—or when we get what we want, only to have it change—it seems as though all the love in the universe has been withdrawn from us. Happiness becomes an either/or situation. Just like the four-year-old, our interpretations and judgments obstruct clear seeing.

Life is just as it is, despite our protests. For all of us there is a constant succession of pleasurable and painful experiences. Once I was hiking with friends in Northern California. We had decided beforehand to follow a certain trail for the first three days, and then to retrace our steps for the next three. On the third day of this arduous hike, we found ourselves on a long, steady downhill slope. After several hours of this, one of my friends, suddenly realizing what all this walking downhill implied for the next day when we would be retracing our steps, turned to me and said glumly, “In a dualistic universe, downhill can mean only one thing.”

The unrelenting flux of life’s changing conditions is inevitable, yet we labor to hold on to pleasure, and we labor equally hard to avoid pain. So many images from our world tell us that it is wrong to suffer; advertising, social mores, and cultural assumptions suggest that feeling pain or sadness is blameworthy, shameful, humiliating. Underlying these messages is an expectation that somehow we should be able to control pain or loss. When we experience mental or physical pain, we often feel a sense of isolation, a disconnection from humanity and life. Our shame sets us apart in our suffering at the very times when we need most to connect.

Conventional transitory happiness carries a subtle undercurrent not only of loneliness but also of fear. When things are going well, when we are experiencing pleasure and are getting what we want, we feel obliged to defend our happiness because it seems so fragile, unstable. As though our happiness needed constant protection, we deny the very possibility of suffering; we cut ourselves off from facing it in ourselves and in others because we fear that it will undermine or destroy our good fortune. Thus, in order to hold on to our pleasure, we refuse to recognize the humanity of a homeless person on the street. We decide that the suffering of others is not relevant to our own lives. We cut ourselves off from facing the world’s suffering because we fear it will undermine or destroy our own happiness. In that highly defended state, we withdraw into so terrible an aloneness that we cannot experience true joy. How strange our conditioning is: to feel so alone in our pain, and to feel so vulnerable and isolated in our happiness.

For some people, a single powerful experience may propel them out of this isolation. Ashoka was an emperor in northern India about two hundred and fifty years after the time of the Buddha. In the early years of his reign, this powerful emperor was bloodthirsty and greedy for the expansion of his empire. He was also a very unhappy man. One day, after a particularly terrible battle that he had launched in order to acquire more territory, he walked on the battlefield amid the appalling spectacle of corpses of men and animals strewn everywhere, already rotting in the sun and being devoured by carrion-eating birds. Ashoka was aghast at the carnage he had caused.

Just then a Buddhist monk came walking across the battlefield. The monk did not say a word, but his being was radiant with peace and happiness. Seeing that monk, Ashoka thought, “Why is it that I, having everything in the world, feel so miserable? Whereas this monk has nothing in the world apart from the robes he wears and the bowl he carries, yet he looks so serene and happy in this terrible place.”

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