Friday, September 22, 2017

Happiness

“Ends are ape-chosen; only the means are man’s” (attributed to Aldous Huxley)

Do humans seek happiness?  If so, why is there pervasive stress and suffering?

Humans would of course choose happiness over suffering.  We seek what would make us happier.  That is almost a tautology.

To go through suffering is usually to seek happiness in an indirect way.  To work hard so that one's family is provided for.  To go through stress and ambition to achieve fame.  To take on debt so that one can be eventually rich.

We are aware and conscious of time, unlike other animals.  Many of our decisions are for future happiness, and can lead to lower levels of happiness in the interim.

But I believe it is a mistake to look at human effort as happiness-focused.  Happiness is an abstract goal and cannot be pursued in a vacuum.  It is a side-effect of achieving meaningful goals.  The common spiritual pursuit of just seeking happiness on its own is misguided.  To seek happiness as a goal in itself is, so to speak, to defraud existence in giving us something for nothing.  It won't work for long.

Spiritual practices are more meaningfully seen as a way to cope, and a way to reduce stress.  They are strategies to heal, not to achieve.  They are not meant to create, but to calm.

The existence of suffering is the clearest proof that we live not just to be happy.  We seek the achievement of our goals.  Progress toward those goals makes us happy.  Those goals could be intrinsic or could be socially motivated, and one can argue whether those goals are well-founded or whether as a species we have gone astray.

The apocryphal story about the happy bum who was enjoying his afternoon in the shade of a tree is instructive.  The rich man asks him why the bum doesn't go do something and get wealthy.  The bum queries the rich man what he would do with his riches if he already has the happiness that those riches promise.  The story ends there.  The rich man should have asked one further question that is missing from the story.  "What makes you assured about your future happiness?"

We work, undergo stress and trials, so that by enduring some pain in the present, we hopefully lessen the overall stress and suffering in our life, and in the lives around us.

But that still is not the complete picture.  It might actually be that our stress and suffering continue in different ways.  Is such a life worthwhile?  If someone just suffers and works through most of one's life with moments and glimmers of joy, is that life worth living?

I believe so.  To want to end one's life out of depression is understandable, but that usually means that one sees no realistic way to achieve any meaningful goals and there is excessive, paralyzing pain in one's present.

We live to further life.  In that effort, we feel happy.  That effort and its success give us joy.

Happiness is not a goal, it is a measure.

--
Manas had been in the monastery for many years, seeking everlasting bliss.

Occasionally, a villager or his family would come visit the monastery.  They usually prayed in front of the altar, and sought blessings and good fortune.

One day, when the sky was clear and the air was pleasantly cool, a village family was walking around the peaceful gardens of the monastery.  Manas was sitting quietly in his spartan room, cross-legged, listening to the sounds of nature around him.

While the two little children of the family were running around in the garden, the father gently knocked on Manas' door.  Manas nodded and the father came in, touched Manas' feet in a gesture of respect, and sat down on the floor in front of him.

The father spoke hesitantly: "We are going through trying times.  This year it has not rained well.  We are poor.  We hope next year will be better.  Do you see happiness in our future?"

Manas sat quietly for some time before replying: "Your very nature is happiness.  These transitory trials should not bother you."

The father, perplexed, asked: "What is worth getting bothered about, if not this?"

Manas calmly replied: "Nothing at all."

The father remained quiet.  He had not received the assurance that he had come for.

He had picked up a beautiful, lustrous stone earlier from the garden.  He placed that stone near Manas' feet as an offering, and got up and respectfully bowing, slowly walked back out of the room.

Manas looked at that stone for a long time.  It was time for the evening tea ritual but the monastery bell had not rung yet.  The stone was unperturbed.  Nothing bothered it.
--

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