Some Thoughts On Happiness and Suffering

The purpose of our lives, according to the Dalai Lama, “is to seek happiness.”* Although, most of us will agree that what we want most from our lives is happiness, we seldom think and feel and sense deeply about all that this involves.

In most dictionaries, happiness is defined as having to do with luck and good fortune, pleasure and satisfaction. And most of us, most of the time, define our happiness using these sorts of terms in relation to our images of health, family, money, friends, security, jobs, possessions, and so on.

There are moments, however, when we know in our heart of hearts that another, deeper form of happiness exists—the happiness that we feel when we let go of all of our conceptions about who we are and are able to experience the miraculous nature of what we call “ordinary life.” That we exist at all, that we have the opportunity to participate in the extraordinary mystery of life, is the greatest “good fortune” imaginable. Yet, for most of us, the miracle that lies at the heart of our own existence is the one fact that always seems to elude us, the one fact that we always seem to forget.

It does not take much observation of our daily lives to see why we so easily forget. Almost everything in our media-driven culture is designed to suggest that we are lacking something and to entice us to purchase something, to believe something, to be something, or to do something that will “bring happiness.” Society conditions us to a negative self-image, in which whatever we have is never enough. And we identify with these suggestions and influences, as well as with our reactions to them, imagining that our happiness is somehow bound up with them. But, of course, the problem isn’t just the result of our identification with what influences us. The problem is also, and perhaps more centrally, the result of our identification with the images we have of ourselves that allow these influences to shape and define us so deeply. It is these images, many of them negative, that fuel our suggestibility, our assumption that this object, that person, this job, that success, that politician, this spiritual experience, that pursuit will somehow improve our lives, make us better people, and bring us happiness.

And so, we suffer. I am not here talking about the inevitable suffering of war, pain, disease, trauma, and loss. No, I am talking about the unnecessary suffering that we bring on ourselves through chronic negativity. The Dalai Lama points out that it is our negative emotions, especially our anger and hatred, that undermine our physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being and promote conflict and destruction in the world. (Just listen to discussions on FOX News or CNN or talk radio, or better yet to yourself and others discussing the current problems facing us all.) The Dalai Lama also makes clear that “The only factor that can give you refuge or protection from the destructive effects of anger and hatred is your practice of tolerance and patience.”* But who, besides a very small minority of people, actually practice tolerance and patience?

Of course, a lot of our intolerance and impatience, and thus the negativity bound up with them, arises, first, because our self-definitions and expectations of ourselves and others are so often illusory and unrealizable, and second, because even when they are realizable they most often do not reflect who and what we really are, or the actual forces at work in society. Even more important, they do not reflect the miracle of being alive on this earth, and of our great opportunity to engage consciously now in this miracle.

To be alive, in the highest sense of this word, means to be filled with life, to be able to receive, contain, and transform whatever life brings us—until it brings us nothing more. To live life fully and freely means to experience all sides of life as they present themselves to us: joy and suffering, love and hate, pleasure and pain, insight and ignorance, unity and fragmentation, hope and disappointment, clarity and confusion, and so on. This is the only real freedom—the freedom, whether we like or dislike any particular experience, whether we accept it, fight it, or try to change it–is to remember and feel the mystery and miracle of what we have come to call “the ordinary.” For it is this re-membering of our wholeness, this conscious re-connection with and welcoming of all sides of ourselves and our lives, that brings the happiness that we truly wish for.

*The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D. (Riverhead Books: New York, 1998), hardcover, 322 pages.

Copyright 2009-15 by Dennis Lewis

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