Buddhism on Happiness

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The below excerpt is taken it it’s entirety from, ‘Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari. The insight that at the root of all human suffering is our incessant craving to attain, or avoid, good or bad feelings, allowed the Buddha to develop a practice to break our attachment to craving. In so doing he found a way to dissolve human suffering allowing us to attain real and lasting happiness. This may well be Humankind’s greatest insight. I have found no better explanation than Yuval’s words below.

For 2,500 years, Buddhists have systematically studied the essence and causes of happiness, which is why there is a growing interest among the scientific community both in their philosophy and their meditation practices.

Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world. However, starting from the same insight, Buddhism reaches very different conclusions.

According to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with pleasant feelings, while identifying suffering with unpleasant feelings. People consequently ascribe immense importance to what they feel, craving to experience more and more pleasures, while avoiding pain. Whatever we do throughout our lives, whether scratching our leg, fidgeting slightly in the chair, or fighting world wars, we are just trying to get pleasant feelings.

The problem, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. If five minutes ago I felt joyful and purposeful, now these feelings are gone, and I might well feel sad and dejected. So if I want to experience pleasant feelings, I have to constantly chase them, while driving away all the unpleasant feelings. Even if I succeed, I immediately have to start all over again, without ever getting any lasting reward for my troubles.

What is so important about obtaining such ephemeral prizes? Why struggle so hard to achieve something that disappears almost as soon as it arises? According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify.

People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices. In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what might have been.

The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it. It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. How peaceful!

This idea is so alien to modern liberal culture that when Western New Age movements encountered Buddhist insights, they translated them into liberal terms, thereby turning them on their head. New age cults frequently argue: ‘Happiness does not depend on external conditions. It depends only on what we feel inside. People should stop pursuing external achievements such as wealth and status, and connect instead with their inner feelings.’Or more succinctly, ‘Happiness begins within.’ This is exactly what biologists argue, but more or less the opposite of what Buddha said.

Buddha agreed with modern biology and New Age movements that happiness is independent of external conditions. Yet his more important and far more profound insight was that true happiness is also independent of our inner feelings. Indeed, the more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer. Buddha’s recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings.

In Buddhism, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are. Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes. When they feel anger, they think, ‘I am angry. This is my anger.’ They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others. They never realise that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.

 

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Buddhism – The Idea

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All of the below is an excerpt from the book, ‘Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari. It is an exceptional book, and Yuval’s explanation of Buddhism is the best I’ve come across. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

The central figure of Buddhism is not a god but a human being, Siddhartha Gautama. According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama was heir to a small Himalayan kingdom, sometime around 500 BC. The young prince was deeply affected by the suffering evident all around him. He saw that men and woman, children and old people, all suffer not just from occasional calamities such as war and plague, but also from anxiety, frustration and discontent, all of which seem to be an inseparable part of the human condition. People pursue wealth and power, acquire knowledge and possessions, beget sons and daughters, and build houses and palaces. Yet no matter what they achieve, they are never content. Those who live in poverty dream of riches. Those who have a million want two million. Those who have two million want 10 million. Even the rich and famous are rarely satisfied. They too are haunted by ceaseless cares and worries, until sickness, old age and death put a bitter end to them. Everything that one has accumulated vanishes like smoke. Life is a pointless rat race. But how to escape it?

At the age of twenty-nine Gautama slipped away from his palace in the middle of the night, leaving behind his family and possessions. He travelled as a homeless vagabond throughout northern India, searching for a way out of suffering. He visited ashrams and sat at the feet of gurus but nothing liberated him entirely – some dissatisfaction always remained. He did not despair. He resolved to investigate suffering on his own until he found a method for complete liberation. He spent six years meditating on the essence, causes and cures for human anguish. In the end he came to the realisation that suffering is not caused by ill fortune, by social injustice, or by divine whims. Rather, suffering is caused by the behaviour patterns of one’s own mind.

Gautama’s insight was that no matter what the mind experiences, it usually reacts with craving, and craving always involves dissatisfaction. When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless. This is very clear when we experience unpleasant things, such as pain. As long as the pain continues, we are dissatisfied and do all we can to avoid it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things we are never content. We either fear that the pleasure might disappear, or we hope that it will intensify. People dream for years about finding love but are rarely satisfied when they find it. Some become anxious that their partner will leave; others feel that they have settled cheaply, and could have found someone better. And we all know people who manage to do both.

Great gods can send us rain, social institutions can provide justice and good health care, and lucky coincidences can turn us into millionaires, but none of them can change our basic mental patterns. Hence, even the greatest kings are doomed to live in angst, constantly fleeing grief and anguish, forever chasing after greater pleasures.

Gautama found that there was a way to exit this vicious circle. If, when the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things as they are, then there is no suffering. If you experience sadness without craving that the sadness will go away, you continue to feel sadness but you do not suffer from it. There can actually be richness in sadness. If you experience joy without craving that the joy linger and intensify, you continue to feel joy without losing your peace of mind.

But how do you get the mind to accept things as they are, without craving? To accept sadness as sadness, joy as joy, pain as pain? Gautama developed a set of meditation techniques that train the mind to experience reality as it is, without craving. These practices train the mind to focus all its attention on the question, ‘What am I experiencing right now?’ rather than on ‘What would I rather be experiencing?’ It is difficult to achieve this state of mind, but not impossible.

Gautama grounded these meditation techniques in a set of ethical rules meant to make it easier for people to focus on actual experience and avoid falling into cravings and fantasies. He instructed his followers to avoid killing, promiscuous sex and theft, since such acts necessarily stoke the fire of craving (for power, for sensual pleasure, or for wealth). When the flames are completely extinguished, craving is replaced by a state of perfect contentment and serenity, known as nirvana (the literal meaning of nirvana which is ‘extinguishing the fire’). Those who have obtained nirvana are fully liberated from all suffering. They experience reality with the utmost clarity, free of fantasies and delusions. While they will most likely still encounter unpleasantness and pain, such experiences cause them no misery. A person who does not crave cannot suffer.

According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama himself attained nirvana and was fully liberated from suffering. Henceforth he was known as ‘Buddha’, which means ‘the Enlightened One’. Buddha spent the rest of his life explaining his discoveries to others so that everyone could be freed from suffering. He encapsulated his teachings in a single law; suffering arises from craving; the only way to be fully liberated from suffering is to be fully liberated from craving; and the only way to be liberated from craving is to train the mind to experience reality as it is.

This law, known as dharma or dhamma, is seen by Buddhists as a universal law of nature. That ‘suffering arises from craving’ is always and everywhere true, just as in modern physics E always equals mc2. Buddhists are people who believe in this law and make it the fulcrum of all their activities. Belief in gods, on the other hand, is of minor importance to them. The first principle of monotheist religions is ‘God’ exists. What does He want from me? The first principle of Buddhism is ‘Suffering exists. How do I escape it?’

Buddhism does not deny the existence of gods – they are described as powerful beings who can bring rains and victories – but they have no influence on the law that suffering arises from craving. If the mind of a person is free of all craving, no god can make him miserable. Conversely, once craving arises in a person’s mind, all the gods in the universe cannot save him from suffering.

Yet much like the monotheist religions, premodern natural-law religions such as Buddhism never really rid themselves of the worship of gods. Buddhism told people that they should aim for the ultimate goal of complete liberation from suffering, rather than for stops along the way such as economic prosperity and political power. However, 99 per cent of Buddhists did not attain nirvana, and even if they hoped to do so in some future lifetime, they devoted most of their present lives to the pursuit of mundane achievements. So they continued to worship various gods, such as the Hindu gods in India, the Bon gods in Tibet, and the Shintu gods in Japan.

Moreover, as time went by several Buddhist sects developed pantheons of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. These are human and non-human beings with the capacity to achieve full liberation from suffering but who forego this liberation out of compassion, in order to help the countless beings still trapped in the cycle of misery. Instead of worshipping gods, many Buddhists began worshipping these enlightened beings, asking them to for help not only in attaining nirvana, but also in dealing with mundane problems. Thus we find many Buddhas and bodhisattvas throughout East Asia who spend their time bringing rain, stopping plagues, and even winning bloody wars – in exchange for prayers, colourful flowers, fragrant incense and gifts of rice and candy.

 

A Life Worth Living

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Its part of the human condition that we just get caught up in life. When we are charging through the undergrowth we don’t see the trees, let alone the wood. As a consequence we often don’t get time to identify what is really important in life until its too late. Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, captured this beautifully when she wrote about the deepest regrets of the patients she nursed through the final weeks of their lives.

In a striking parallel, in 2005 Steve Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford University and urged the young graduates to remind themselves every day of their mortality. He recommended this as a sure fire way of staying focused on what is really important, on what really matters in life.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.
Steve Jobs

Let’s look at what Bronnie Ware and Steve Jobs said and then draw some important insights.

Five regrets of the dying – Bronnie Ware

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. – This was the most common regret of all, that they had not followed their dreams but resigned themselves to the lives other’s expected of them.

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. – Every male patient regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of work.

I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. – By suppressing their feelings in order to keep the peace with others, they had settled for a mediocre existence and never achieved their full potential.

I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends. – Golden friendships had been lost and as death approached it was too late to track them down.

I wish I had let myself be happier. – When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice.

The Stanford Commencement Address – Steve Jobs

Connecting the Dots. – Follow your instincts, do what interests you. At the time it may be difficult to see how a particular interest or activity has any connection with your career or life goals. That’s because life is simply too complicated and too unexpected to be able to connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life karma whatever. Steve claimed that this approach never let him down and interests that seemed obscure and irrelevant at the time turned into a source of great value in later life.

Love and Loss. – To paraphrase Steve’s words, ‘Shit happens’. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick, don’t lose faith. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. So when disaster strikes you can reassess and learn from your mistakes, but if you truly love what you do you will overcome even the greatest of setbacks.

Death. – In the face of death, almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

In closing his speech, Steve Jobs urged the young graduates to, “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.”

Here are the insights I have gained from both of these inspirational teachings.

Put Love and Friendships front and centre stage. – One of our greatest failings as human beings is to take our most important relationships for granted. It’s like continental drift, slowly and imperceptibly we allow ourselves to drift apart. In the end life boils down to love and relationships, that’s all that remains.

Live a life true to yourself. – It is not just the expectations of others that influence our decisions and our destiny. Our cultural norms and beliefs are like an ocean current that pull us along in their invisible embrace. These beliefs are so ingrained in our society that we are often unaware of the strong influence they exert on us. Ultimately, only a few of us will avoid the final regret of not following our dreams, it takes exceptional courage to walk our own path and disregard the disapproval of others.

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”
Henry David Thoreau

Be Authentic in your Relationships – Have the courage to be open and honest. Give your opinions the same respect you give to the opinions of others. Friends are often startled and surprised when we speak openly and honestly, but it usually brings our relationships to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from our lives. As Bronnie Ware observed, either way, we win.

Follow your passion. – Follow your instincts and gut feelings, if something interests you, do it. Life is a jigsaw, but when it ends how much better to have something that resembles a lived life, not just a lot of white space. As Steve Jobs learned, we cannot join the dots going forward, we have to trust they will connect looking back.

Love your work. – We are all different, we all love different things, but find the work you love to do. If you are a round peg don’t hammer yourself into a square hole it will only damage you. If you haven’t found the work you love, keep looking, never settle. Don’t choose a job or a career because it pays the most, stress and dissatisfaction are too high a price to pay.

Don’t spend all your life on the treadmill of work – It may be our culture, it may be an unquestioned norm of our society, but is it right, is it good for us? Our relationships, our physical and mental well-being all need a balanced life. Work can provide important social contact and a sense of purpose and achievement, but not at the expense of our vital relationships. Time spent with our partners, children, family and friends nurtures and deepens our bonds of love and affection.

Choose Happiness – Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish – Always remember happiness is a choice. We can nurse an injustice, or we can let it go. Life is short, make time for fun.

And so it begins…

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters
Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters

In the movie Groundhog day, Bill Murray’s character wakes up at 6:00 am to the same day, every day. Trapped in the same day he learns new skills to impress the woman he is falling in love with. Grumpy, intolerant and selfish his best efforts to delight and impress only fail miserably when they are exposed as self serving. It is only when Bill changes, awakening qualities of compassion and kindness within himself, that he finally wins in love and escapes the drudgery of being trapped in the same day, over and over again.

In reality, if only we woke up, we would see that all our days are Groundhog days too. We get up every morning and repeat the same ingrained habits and conditioned behaviour every day. There may be a change of routine at the weekends, but to someone watching the film of our lives, it would be as predictable as Groundhog day. The only difference between Bill and us, is that he knows he is trapped in the same day.

Our lives change when we wake up and accept that every day is a Groundhog day, but recognise that every day also presents an opportunity to begin again. Like Bill we will fail repeatedly, we will make so many mistakes, follow so many wrong paths, and find it nigh impossible to break free from the shackles of our own beliefs, habits and conditioning.

Ultimately, we will discover that at our very core is a soul that can tap into an unquenchable wellspring of love to nourish and transform us. We will come to accept ourselves as human beings suffused with both light and shadow. When this happens a whole new world of opportunity opens up for us. One in which our lives are not dedicated to chasing elusive success or unattainable perfection, one in which we stop digging for gold at the end of rainbows.

Instead, every day becomes a new beginning, every moment has meaning and hidden depths to be explored and savoured. Our priority shifts to learning simple daily rituals and habits that keep us awake and allow us to extract a deeper meaning, purpose and happiness from life.

There is an indian proverb that says,

Everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional, and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time, but unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person.

To nurture our Wellbeing means taking care of both our internal and external worlds. Our internal dimensions of mind, body, emotions and soul are so deeply integrated that they blend into one consciousness, caring for one enriches the others.

Our external world is enriched through our social connections, meeting a good friend can lift our mood in a heartbeat. Finding a community to connect with can bring a sense of belonging. Work is such a large part of our lives that it is essential that it flows at a rhythm that is in harmony with our soul. As to money, I agree with the late Irish comedian Spike Milligan,

“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy”

Taking care of our Wellbeing is an adventure, one in which we wake up every day on a journey to explore and learn. We need a North star to guide us, a map to follow, a set of basic tools, and a log to record the insights and lessons learned along the way.

And so it begins…. a daily journey to enrich our lives.

“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” Henry David Thoreau