Blog Introduction

For more on the purpose and origin of this blog, click here for the inaugural post.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Too much happiness

First of all my apologies for a long break between posts. I've recently launched a new venture - the Australian arm of a new movement called Secular Buddhism (see the link at the bottom of this post). It's taken some of my 'dharma time' and has its own blog that I'm writing too. Still, I have a number of ideas that have been brewing for this broader ranging blog, so I hope to be posting more often.

I was sitting on the toilet in one of my favourite cafes recently. Someone had left a pretty decorated piece of paper on the toilet roll holder, presumably as a message for subsequent sitters. Here's what it said:

Like a mother
cares for her children,
so does the Lord
care for His.
He keeps them warm
when night turns cold
and gives them
everlasting love.

I felt incredulity arise - how could anyone but a child swallow such a story? Empathy was there too - I could feel the seduction of safety - someone all-powerful who will care for me and keep me safe and warm. Who wouldn't like that? But I have to admit there was also condescension - not a feeling I like because there's an arrogance in it and I've never been able to find anything good about arrogance. On reflection the thoughts that led to this feeling were that for an adult to choose to believe this, they must be unwilling or unable to deal with reality. Instead of learning how to live with life as it is, there is an adoption of a belief to make them feel happier and less scared by it.

Stephen Batchelor speaks of the Buddha's teachings as an opportunity for confrontation (with reality) as opposed to what religions offer which is consolation (from reality). (Religious Buddhism is no different to other religions in this way, offering the consolations of an ancient Indian religious world view.) Instead of warmth, everlasting love and the promise of something better once this life is over, the dhamma is about looking honestly and unflinchingly at reality - the here and now experience of this fathom-long body - the good, the bad and the ugly bits - the whole catastrophe. It's about dealing better with the inevitable difficulties of being a human being, removing the optional difficulties - the dramas we create for ourselves, and experiencing the incredible joy that comes quite naturally when we do these things.

This piece of toilet-time reading got me thinking about why people choose to practice the dhamma. From my experience, like religious seekers, most people come to it out of the desire to relieve some acute or chronic pain (including existential angst) and/or the desire to be happier. What I've found both confronting and liberating is that while these are definitely results that flow from practising the dhamma, they are only part of the story. Unfortunately for those who like quick fixes, the means of achieving these outcomes involves living life more honestly and fully which means experiencing the pain more directly (rather than trying to avoid it) and more deeply (sitting with it long enough to really get to know it).

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald described research showing that happier people tend to be promoted less and earn less. While I know a lot of people in the corporate world who could do with less cash and more happiness, there were some other more worrying correlates. One was that 'very high levels of positive feelings predict risk-taking behaviours, excess alcohol and drug consumption, binge eating, and may lead us to neglect threats'. Not only this but people were more likely to use racist or sexist stereotypes when evaluating people and more likely to drop out of school early. It also described research showing that people who strive for happiness more, constantly measuring to see if they are getting it, tend to be less happy.

While we'd probably need to look more closely at how these studies measured 'happiness' before putting too much stock into the findings, it did coagulate some thoughts I've been having for a while now. They last arose when I received a brochure in the mail for the annual conference in Sydney called "Happiness and its Causes". While I'm a big advocate of Positive Psychology and of the need to overcome the negativity bias that our species has inherited, it has occurred to me that pursuing happiness too single mindedly can easily slip into self delusion territory.

One of the core teachings of the Buddha was that there is suffering/angst/ stress/unpleasantness in life (the Pali word that covers all of these strains of pain and more is 'dukkha'). The practical imperatives that flow from this are to accept that this is true (any human being can look at their life and know it for themselves), expect this from our own future (we're not so good at this bit), and when it comes, change our reaction to it. Rather than running away from it (e.g. distracting ourselves with work, drugs, alcohol, television, shopping, wishful thinking a la The Secret) or trying to forcibly destroy it (blame or attack the world in some way), we look at it closely, understand it and see how it works.

The next core teaching is that on top of the inevitable pain that comes along with being human, we create more drama for ourselves by then proceeding to desperately try and make the good bits of life continue unabated forever, and try and avoid the unpleasant bits at all costs. It is this very desperate 'clinging' to the good (and absence of bad) that creates the optional dukkha in life. While the dhamma doesn't suggest inaction to improve our circumstances, it suggests we first accept what's happened, then respond out of calm clarity rather than resist what's happened and react out of this desperation. It's when we let go of this desperation, says the Buddha, that a very natural joy and peacefulness arises of its own accord.

So while the dhamma is definitely about the good stuff, it's about a realistic path to it. There's no short cut or easy route; no all-powerful God who's going to take care of it all for you, but rather, the hard work of looking closely at your own reality, understanding it deeply, accepting it, and then living in a way that allows the good stuff to happen.

Endnote:  If you find this topic interesting I recommend an excellent book: Ending the Pursuit of Happiness by Barry Magid - a Zen teacher and psychoanalyst.

Link: The Secular Buddhism web site: http://www.secularbuddhism.org.au/