Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The Promised Post on Happiness
I once attended a talk by a Buddhist teacher where he was asked about pleasure. Specifically, the questioner was having trouble because it seemed like Buddhism was all about the renunciation of pleasure, and, well, she liked pleasure.

The problem with pleasure, he said, was that we tie pleasure to only the best things in life. We moan with pleasure as we put a bite of fine steak in our mouths, but feel nothing as we shovel in a burger for lunch. Pleasure brings happiness, but because it is tied to external circumstances, we are not free, nor can we be truly happy. At best, we're like a dog, with the world of things our master. The master gives us a toy and we're happy, the master takes it away, and we're sad. When things are bad, we remember when they are good, feel the contrast keenly, and so are sad. Even worse, when things are good, we know they won't always stay that way, and we start to miss them before they're even gone!

The goal of meditation, then, is learn how to be where we are and when we are completely, so that we can enjoy the hunger before the meal as much as the sating of that hunger as much as the feeling of fullness after, and so that we can find the same pleasure in a bowl of rice as in a fine meal. We are no longer at the mercy of our own thoughts, or the whims of the world. We are free.

If you've studied Buddhism before, that's probably nothing new to you. And if you haven't, it's probably because you're not interested in Buddhism. So why tell the story? Background, baby, background. It also helps because, while one hand feels like I've learned some lessons about how to be happy in this life, the other thinks I don't know shit, and who died and left me guru?

So if it's okay with you, I'm going to start far away from myself and circle in. I'll start with Jersey Girl, but just to say that the central struggle of the movie is about, as Sheryl Crow put it, "not getting what you want, but wanting what you've got." Affleck's character, Ollie, has a clear view of who's important in the world and who isn't, and from where he sits in Jersey, he used to matter but doesn't anymore. By the end, as movie rules dictate, he's realized that he's got a good life. Of course, he's kind of a dumbass, so you know he's going to keep struggling, but you feel like he's broken through a barrier.

Even if he wasn't a dumbass, though, he'd hit the same stuff over and over again, because the road to happiness isn't a straight line, it's a spiral, and you keep going through the same crap, just at a higher level. Like the man says, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." So learn to love your struggles, because they're going to be with you for the rest of your life.

It's tempting to think that our unhappiness arises from our external circumstances: a lousy job, with an incompetent boss and mean-spirited coworkers; our spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend; a town that's too big or too small, too liberal or too conservative. And you're right, to a certain degree. Life's full of ugly situations that gradually eat your soul, just as it's full of wonderful, sustaining situations. But in the words of the great Buckaroo Bonzai, "Wherever you go, there you are." Jon Kabat-Zinn said it much better than I could in his book of the same name, but I'll take a crack at it. There are things you're supposed to learn in this life, and you carry those things around with you, so that while you may think you're leaving your problems behind you, they may end up following you to your new home, job, relationship or whatever. Not only that, but things may actually get worse.

If you're theistically inclined, call it the Jonah Syndrome: When God asks you to do something, it's best to do it the first time he asks, because the second time he asks, there may be a really big fish involved. If you'd rather leave gods out of it, think of it as a pattern in your mind that shows up in your relationships and in the way you think about your life. If there's a problem in those patterns, it will keep showing up until you deal with it. And if you've ever ignored a problem with your car, your body, or any other complex system, you know that problems tend to escalate when you ignore them. It's the same way with your life.

So what's the solution? First of all, recognize this: You can't think your way out of a problem in your thinking. You have to learn to step aside from your thought processes so you can observe the patterns and see where the problem's creeping in. Once you learn that trick, it works like a clutch in your brain. When you feel yourself getting stuck in a loop, you press the clutch and disengage, letting your brain loop off on its own.

To keep going, a fire needs two things, oxygen and fuel. Thoughts are the same way, but their two fuels are attention and action. The first step in killing off a pattern of thoughts that's causing us trouble is to not take action based on it, and that includes speech. Especially speech. The second and much harder step is to stop paying attention to those thoughts. Don't even argue with them. Sunrui Suzuki said that trying to quiet your thoughts is like using your hands to tamp down the ripples in a pond; you just make more ripples. Instead, let them happen, but don't feed them with your attention.

There's a pattern in my head that tells me my life isn't good enough. I should be driving a better car, have a bigger house, or maybe an apartment in the city, with a glamorous job working for someone that people have heard of, doing something impressive. Or maybe even be famous myself. My floor should be cleaner, my breath fresher. I should be taller, with whiter teeth. From time to time, I get this urge to change careers and head for the coasts, even though I know I'd hate it there.

Ginny Morgan tells a wonderful little story that pops into my head when I'm thinking those thoughts. Manindra-ji, a Buddhist teacher, was passing through Columbia when his escort's car broke down. The escort was an old friend of Ginny's and called her to see if they could stay with her for a couple of days. She'd fallen away from her meditation practice of late, but she said yes. While he was there, Manindra-ji offered to teach a class to whoever wanted to show up. So Ginny put out the word, and a dozen or so people showed up, including a teenage boy, clutching a Carlos Casteneda book to his chest and twitching with energy.

Manindra-ji talked for a little while, then asked if anyone had questions. The boy's hand shot up. "How do you leave your body? And don't tell me it can't be done, because I know it can!"

"Yes, such things are possible. But why would you want to leave your body?"

"Because I'm miserable in it!"

"If you are not happy in your body, then you will not be happy out of your body."

"But he says," the boy started, gesturing with his book.

Manindra-ji made a gentle gesture like brushing crumbs off a table. "Please. I have met this man, and he is not happy, either. Listen to me, please, if you can. Be an ordinary person. Cook breakfast. Look for your happiness in these things, and you will find it, not anywhere else."

So that's it: the secret of happiness. There are more than enough challenges in any one life; there's no point in throwing yourself against the world looking for more. Look for happiness in simple things that cannot be taken from you, and keep your grip loose on even them. What could be more exceptional than to be an ordinary person, and bring all of your extraordinary gifts to bear on that goal?

Oh, and check out phototag and BookCrossing. They're cool.

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