Sunday, December 20, 2009

Message from Sri Lanka

This excerpt on the nature of happiness/unhappiness came from an email sent by my dear mate Tim who is presently on a 3 month retreat in Sri Lanka. I'm thinking he's had a few insights from the monks there and thought I'd pass it along:

The only point I want to mention is one that in Buddhism is central to
understanding why a vast proportion of what we think is good for us,
is in actual fact the very cause of so much unhappiness. As such I
think it’s worth making an attempt to communicate to the people I
love. I’ll use an analogy: think about someone who has been smoking 10
cigarettes a day for 5 years (or much less). It has become a habit to
the body and mind and smokers will often say it’s relaxing and
enjoyable. What has been shown is that as soon as habitual smokers
finish a cigarette they start to feel withdrawal from the nicotine,
and over the following minutes and hours they start to crave another
one. A sense of dissatisfaction with their current reality of NOT
having a cigarette develops as they start planning when to have the
next one, and imbuing the cigarette with all these positive qualities
(it’s relaxing; it’s pleasurable) and this object becomes anticipated
as the cause for future satisfaction/happiness. The sense of
dissatisfaction with the current reality of NOT having this
pleasurable object grows in direct proportion to the anticipation of
having it. Then finally, when you smoke the cigarette you feel a wave
of satisfaction and happiness flood over you. We call it happiness,
Buddhists call it suffering; the suffering of change. The feeling of
pleasure arises from the movement from dissatisfaction to relative
satisfaction, and the kicker is we attribute this relative
satisfaction to the object itself. So we start craving the happiness
it provides. We are all habituated to our objects of craving, whether
smoking, eating, TV, sex, whatever. We’re stuck in a pattern of
wanting the next ________ to make us happy. But it’s this very act of
grasping for the next thing and seeing happiness as an inherent
quality of that object (rather than how we relate to it) that leads us
to feel dissatisfied with what we have, where we are, and who we’re

And the crazy thing is we aren’t even aware of this underlying sense
of dissatisfaction. Ask a smoker if the habit causes suffering and he
might say yes, but only because the government taxes is too high. But
the happiness and relaxation he experiences when he smokes the next
cigarette is only relative to the dissatisfaction of NOT having it.
Give a cigarette to someone who’s never had one and ask them what they
think. I’m willing to bet they won’t say it’s a pleasant experience.
By making happiness all about having/consuming objects out there (be
they people, things or simply experiences) we are setting up a
perpetual cycle of unhappiness. But as most will tell you, if you
don’t already know, giving up smoking is anything but easy. For the
short and mid-term it involves discomfort. Breaking habits is not
rocket science, everyone can do it. It’s just hard.

The good news is that if we want to find a more sustainable, and
genuine form of happiness it’s within our reach, but it doesn’t
involve getting the bigger, better next best thing. It starts with
acting ethically, being kind to ourselves as well as others, and
recognizing that lasting happiness doesn’t come from something outside
of us and can’t simply be willed with positive thinking, no matter how
much we want it or how hard we try. It takes practice and a lot of
it. Reality is reality and our culture has kind of shifted the goal
posts a little; to sell more, and make more money. We need to be
willing to develop awareness of this reality; the reality of our
inter-dependence with all things, of life’s impermanence, and of our
habitual and instantaneous tendency to impute the causes of happiness
on things out there. From my understanding true, genuine happiness
requires a solid foundation. Not an illusion. And sadly, so much of
what we’re advised to seek out for our refuge, our protection, is
anything but solid. It’s here one minute, and gone the next. The
beer is great that night, and painful the next day. The dessert
tastes delicious but leads to calories and guilt. The TV program is
distracting but seldom enriches our lives. Going out with friends is
enlivening but if you did it every night you’d be exhausted. It’s not
that any of these things are bad, they’re not. It’s not they’re not
good fun, they are. But maybe there’s something else out there which
offers a little more consistent contentment and satisfaction, and
arises from within, not without. Maybe… and that’s why I’m out here
and that’s what I’m trying to figure out. Ps. If you’ve got this far
in the email, the chances are it’s a question you’re curious about