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What is “Happiness”, Anyway?

March 2, 2012

“If we don’t observe or contemplate deeply, our happiness is limited and temporary.” — The Bad Lama

After the last post, we received several responses that posed the question: “What do we really mean by happiness, anyway?” Paul  Kiefer, in his comment, pointed out that happiness, as we usually understand it, is just a small part of an emotional spectrum that includes many other vivid and interesting emotions.  If we only experience happiness in a limited part of our emotional spectrum  — monochromatic happiness — we can’t be happy in our full range of experience. Monochromatic happiness can’t encompass such troublesome emotions as pain, boredom, anger, and fear.  If any of those emotions appear, our happiness is destroyed.  This is a very fragile and fleeting happiness.

We may think that happiness is like a gated community in which we have everything that we want and nothing that we don’t want. (As the Bad Lama put it we may think that happiness means that everything is perfect and “creamy.” He particularly liked the word “creamy.”) We may stockpile our happiness provisions and build the best anti-misery defenses money can buy, but we find that imperfections still manage to penetrate the perimeter and plague us. The boom-boxes of the undesirables disturb our sleep, and if we seek silence by jetting off to a desert devoid of all humanity, we’re awakened by coyotes howling in the night. We flee from the desert to the hush of a sensory-deprivation tank, and discover the sound of our own breath roaring in our ears.

Any happiness that attempts to limit our range of experience can’t last: we’re blessed with or doomed to our full range of experience. The more limited our view of happiness, the more  time we will spend in not-happiness. And the more irritated we become about having to spend time in not-happiness, the larger its territory seems to become, and the smaller the territory of happiness seems to become. So if we are interested in some sort of pervasive happiness, that happiness must bust out of the gated community.  The hagiography of the Buddha makes this clear.  Prince Siddhartha, the not-yet-Buddha, is described as having lived in the ideal gated community — a palace filled with only pleasant, healthy people, where every sensual pleasure was indulged and pain was excluded. But when Siddartha looked outside of the palace and saw the realities of old age, sickness, death, and poverty he didn’t shut the blinds: he decided to leave the palace and learn about those unpleasant realities. He wanted to find a way that those experiences (which he recognized as inevitable and unpleasant) would not cause him to become unhappy. His decision to leave the palace and become a wandering beggar is traditionally called his “going forth.”

The gated-community version of happiness seeks to exclude all troublesome experiences. The going-forth version of happiness actually seeks to meet and include those troublesome experiences. There is an element of interestedness to this kind of happiness, a willingness to embrace everything that it meets. The vast happiness has the element of acceptance, contentment or willingness to be satisfied — it embraces the full spectrum of the rainbow of emotions.  But it’s not simply a passive  approach to experience; it is intensely engaged and present; very energized and awake. It is also described as being very easy and free from striving.  This happiness is free to appreciate all manner of experience so that, as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it in his Sadhana of Mahamudra, “pain and pleasure alike become ornaments which it is pleasant to wear.”

If we truly knew this vast happiness, if we embodied it fully, then we could truly say, “I am happy all the time.” In the experience of any emotional or physical state, in pleasure or pain, we could recognize our happiness. It’s said that there are people that recognize this vast happiness: they’re called  “enlightened.”  The rest of us might say, “I am happy all the time. Unfortunately,  I usually  fail to recognize it.” We’ve spent so much time and effort familiarizing ourselves with a limited, unsatisfactory version of happiness that it’s hard to recognize the vast version of happiness. So, as one correspondent asked me, “How would we recognize happiness?”

When his holiness, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa visited Boulder in 2008, a student asked him a similar question: “How can we find a perfect teacher in this imperfect time?” The Karmapa replied (I paraphrase) “Just try to find a teacher with more positive qualities than negative ones. At this point, you wouldn’t be able to recognize a perfect teacher if you met one.  If the Buddha himself appeared and offered to teach you,  you’d project faults onto him.  So just find a teacher with more positive than negative qualities and try to learn what it is to be a student.  Then, when a perfect teacher comes along you might be able to recognize him.”

We can’t recognize a perfect teacher because we’re unfamiliar with what teachers and students really are.  Just so, we can’t recognize vast happiness because we’re unfamiliar with what vast happiness really is.  Since we can’t recognize it immediately, we have to learn to approach it by degrees. There are many wisdom traditions that offer different ways to learn to recognize the vast happiness.  The Buddhist way to learn to recognize vast happiness is through meditation.

Meditation teaches us to open our minds and hearts and let go of our limited version of happiness in order that we might recognize the vast happiness. As we begin to practice meditation, though, we usually find that we don’t at all recognize vast happiness. Instead, we recognize something much more familiar:  our own relentless self-limiting habits that lead us away from happiness and into unnecessary suffering. We’re very practiced in these self-limiting habits, so we can recognize them pretty easily, and also recognize the suffering that they create. It’s a lot more difficult for us to recognize vast happiness. For this reason,  many Buddhist teachings start with the reality of suffering.

Once we begin to recognize how we create our own suffering, we realize that we can actually stop doing some of the things that cause suffering and that as a result we feel happier. We may not recognize vast happiness, but we begin to get a sense of the territory that it inhabits; we begin to get the scent of it. We’re beginning to head in the right direction. We’re on the path.

We can’t learn this territory by studying or by having someone else tell us about it. We have to experience it ourselves.  We can’t hire someone else to walk on the path for us. We have to take the journey ourselves. If we want to take the Buddhist path, we have to meditate.

Fortunately, meditation is very simple (simple, not easy!) Here’s the Bad Lama’s first meditation instruction: just sit.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Kiefer permalink
    March 8, 2012 7:06 pm

    Really excellent and well written. A close look at the word ‘happiness’, maybe it’s not as happy as we thought….. It’s TOO happy. It’s never happy enough, etc. It’s like it’s pointing to a word that’s more inclusive than Happiness really. Like… Badness. That’s as good a word as any, right? you’re the bad Lama so you would know. (-:

  2. Paul Kiefer permalink
    March 8, 2012 7:18 pm

    *sorry I didn’t mean to confuse you with anyone else, like Lama Tenpa Gyaltsen. I’m just this random person on the internet I don’t know what’s going on

  3. November 8, 2012 5:20 pm

    Lama Tenpa’s new word is place of “creamy” is now “cheesecake,” right? I love it! “Simple, not easy” is a great way to put it. Also, great sources. I know you put links to bios about the teachers you mention, but if you could also put the sources, too, if you remember where they are from, that would be great! I’d love to look them up.


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