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Lions Roar : July 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2006 46 the philosopher Robert Misrahi, on the other hand, happiness is “the radiation of joy over one’s entire existence or over the most vibrant part of one’s active past, one’s actual present, and one’s conceivable future.” Maybe it is a more enduring condition. Ac- cording to André Comte-Sponville, “By ‘happiness’ we mean any span of time in which joy would seem immediately possible.” Is happiness a skill that, once acquired, endures through the ups and downs of life? There are a thousand ways of thinking about happiness, and countless philosophers have offered their own. For Saint Augustine, happiness is “a rejoicing in the truth.” For Immanuel Kant, happiness must be rational and devoid of any personal taint, while for Marx it is about growth through work. “What constitutes happiness is a matter of dispute,” Aris- totle wrote, “and the popular account of it is not the same as that given by the philosophers.” Has the word happiness itself been so overused that people have given up on it, turned off by the illusions and platitudes it evokes? For some people, talking about the search for happiness seems al- most in bad taste. Protected by their armor of intellectual compla- cency, they sneer at it as they would at a sentimental novel. How did such a devaluation come about? Is it a reflection of the artificial happiness offered by the media? Is it a result of the failed efforts we use to find genuine happiness? Are we supposed to come to terms with unhappiness rather than make a genuine and intelligent attempt to untangle happiness from suffering? What about the simple happiness we get from a child’s smile or a nice cup of tea after a walk in the woods? As rich and com- forting as such genuine glimpses of happiness might be, they are too circumstantial to shed light on our lives as a whole. Happi- ness can’t be limited to a few pleasant sensations, to some intense pleasure, to an eruption of joy or a fleeting sense of serenity, to a cheery day or a magic moment that sneaks up on us in the labyrinth of our existence. Such diverse facets are not enough in themselves to build an accurate image of the profound and last- ing fulfillment that characterizes true happiness. By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that aris- es from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere plea- surable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it. Changing the way we see the world does not imply naive op- timism or some artificial euphoria designed to counterbalance adversity. So long as we are slaves to the dissatisfaction and frus- tration that arise from the confusion that rules our minds, it will be just as futile to tell ourselves “I’m happy! I’m happy!” over and over again as it would be to repaint a wall in ruins. The search for happiness is not about looking at life through rose-colored glasses or blinding oneself to the pain and imperfections of the world. Nor is happiness a state of exultation to be perpetuated at all costs; it is the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred and obsession, that literally poison the mind. It is also about learn- ing how to put things in perspective and reduce the gap between appearances and reality. To that end we must acquire a better knowledge of how the mind works and a more accurate insight into the nature of things, for in its deepest sense, suffering is in- timately linked to a misapprehension of the nature of reality. Reality and Insight What do we mean by reality? In Buddhism the word connotes the true nature of things, unmodified by the mental constructs we superimpose upon them. Such concepts open up a gap be- tween our perception and reality, and create a never-ending con- flict with the world. “We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us,” wrote Rabindranath Tagore. We take for permanent that which is ephemeral and for happiness that which is but a source of suffering: the desire for wealth, for power, for fame, and for nagging pleasures. By knowledge we mean not the mastery of masses of infor- mation and learning but an understanding of the true nature of things. Out of habit, we perceive the exterior world as a series of distinct, autonomous entities to which we attribute characteris- tics that we believe belong inherently to them. Our day-to-day experience tells us that things are “good” or “bad.” The “I” that perceives them seems to us to be equally concrete and real. This error, which Buddhism calls ignorance, gives rise to powerful re- flexes of attachment and aversion that generally lead to suffering. As Etty Hillesum says so tersely: “That great obstacle is always the representation and never the reality.” The world of ignorance and suffering—called samsara in Sanskrit—is not a fundamental condition of existence but a mental universe based on our mis- taken conception of reality. The world of appearances is created by the coming together of an infinite number of ever-changing causes and conditions. Like a rainbow that forms when the sun shines across a curtain of rain and then vanishes when any factor contributing to its formation disappears, phenomena exist in an essentially interdependent mode and have no autonomous and enduring existence. Every- thing is relation; nothing exists in and of itself, immune to the forces of cause and effect. Once this essential concept is under- stood and internalized, the erroneous perception of the world gives way to a correct understanding of the nature of things and beings: this is insight. Insight is not a mere philosophical con- struct; it emerges from a basic approach that allows us gradu- ally to shed our mental blindness and the disturbing emotions it produces and hence the principal causes of our suffering. Every being has the potential for perfection, just as every ses- ame seed is permeated with oil. Ignorance, in this context, means being unaware of that potential, like the beggar who is unaware of the treasure buried beneath his shack. Actualizing our true nature, coming into possession of that hidden wealth, allows us to live a life full of meaning. It is the surest way to find serenity and let genuine altruism flourish.