We’re all familiar with the happiness of getting what we want when we want it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of happiness. Enjoy that hot fudge sundae, job promotion or perfect sunset!
But also notice its fleeting nature. The sundae is an empty dish. The job promotion has introduced another set of problems. And the sunset has raised the ante on every other sunset we might see. So, while the fleeting nature of this kind of happiness can make us more appreciative of it in the moment, it can kick in other kinds of feelings that we don’t enjoy at all.
It is a Buddhist tradition to send loving-kindness to ourselves and others. When we do so, do we say, “May you have fleeting moments of happiness.”?
No, we say “May you be happy.” And even if we can’t explain it, there’s a deeper sense of happiness that we mean by that, isn’t there?
Fleeting happiness is the fulfillment of a desire. It’s like an itch that gets scratched to our satisfaction. If we keep scratching, it causes pain instead of pleasure. If we keep mindlessly eating something we enjoy, we eventually suffer. If the sunset stayed like that forever, we would eventually complain that we want more light or more darkness. The very things we credit with causing our happiness, if sustained, seem to cause us to suffer.
But wait, what about more lasting things, like a home? That’s not fleeting, right? Well, even if you live in that home for the rest of your life (which by the way is fleeting too, in the larger scheme of things), your ability to find constant happiness just because you live there is doubtful. You may justifiably feel grateful to have a home to live in when so many people do not, but are you happy in every moment because you live there? Has your home the capacity to protect you from all pain and sorrow? The nicest home in the world cannot do that. We are humans having a human experience, and that assuredly includes loss, illness, aging and death. Nothing can protect us from these facts of life.
Okay, so if the perfect home is not the answer to perfect happiness, how about the perfect relationship? Harmonious relationships make us happy, right? If we rely on them for our sense of happiness, we may put stress on the relationships, making the other person feel weighted down. We may be afraid all the time because inevitably relationships end, either through death or other factors that make the relationship no longer satisfactory to one or both people involved. So while it is deeply satisfying to build strong loving relationships, it is not skillful to believe them to be the source of our deepest happiness, even though they delight us.
Being able to pursue our interests, enjoy our work and our pastimes, makes us happy, right? Certainly anyone would be grateful to be able to live a full meaningful life when so many in the world are struggling just to stay alive. But if our happiness is dependent on being able to do certain things, and then, through changed circumstances in our abilities, resources or situation, we no longer can, we suffer greatly, recognize that this was the unreliable fleeting kind of happiness.
Most of us spend our lives chasing after this kind of happiness. Our culture assures us from an early age that our happiness is just a purchase away, so it’s not surprising that this is the case. So naturally if and when we find it, we cling to it. There is so much fear involved in this chase. First we fear not finding it, and if we find it we fear losing it. In that constant state of craving and clinging, and the aversion to anything that is not part of the dream, we are never really happy.
Fortunately, this fleeting happiness is not the kind the Buddha taught as one of the Seven Factors of Awakening. That’s great news! It means all that chasing after things to make ourselves happy is unnecessary.
Think of desire as a cruel driver with a whip on your back. What awakening to the true nature of happiness does is free you from that whip. It lets you see that you aren’t hitched to that heavy wagon full of wants, dreams, cravings and fears of failure. You’ve left the cruel driver in the dust!
You can find happiness exactly where you are right now, in this moment just as it is. And you can cultivate that inner joy so that it is here for you unconditionally.
Well, there is one condition. (I know, I know, there’s always a catch!) The condition is that you pay attention and befriend each moment as it is, letting go of the one before and not anticipating the one that follows. Since you (just like the rest of us) have spent your life believing yourself to be hitched to that wagon and at the mercy of that whip, it’s a big ask to transition into a different way of thinking.
For our whole lives we’ve been caught up in mental activity that takes us completely away from this moment. That is why we practice meditation regularly, hopefully daily. Is our practice chasing happiness? If we get caught up in desire, comparing mind and expectation, it can be. But if we simply sit, we make room for a joy that bubbles up as if long suppressed. It’s just been waiting to be freed.
Meditation is a very simple practice, but it isn’t necessarily easy. It is tempting to get caught up in unskillful effort, judging ourselves harshly, scolding ourselves for not being more fully present, not doing it right, not doing it often enough, etc. That’s why we focus on cultivating spacious compassion for ourselves and all beings. It makes room for all the patterns to wend their way through our awareness without entangling us in a bitter battle.
Cultivating awareness and compassion, using wise effort, doesn’t get in the way of doing other things. It actual brings about all the beneficial things that we once chased after. This steady cultivation is the perfect companion, making us truly present and appreciative of all that arises.
Truly happy people naturally create the very bounty that unhappy people chase, thinking those things will make them happy.
Is this true? See for yourself. Notice in your own life how when you are truly happy, life rises up to greet you, offering you joyful experiences, relationships, opportunities, etc. While there are those who are naturally happy, most of us need to retrain our minds to open to the possibility that what we think will make us happy won’t, and something as simple as sitting in silence on a regular basis very well might.
I have seen what happens when I forego regular meditation practice. Within a few weeks I notice that I begin to lose my creativity, my civility, my compassion, my gratitude, my sense of aliveness and my joy in living. No matter where I am, no matter what wonderful things I have, if I drop my practice, my sense of joy eventually follows. Knowing this makes it easy to keep my healthy habit in place.
Discerning between fulfillment of desire and true happiness takes noticing all the clues available. We can notice the words we use. For example, ‘If only…’ is a loud crack of the whip of desire. What other words do you notice yourself using that get you caught up in that painful pattern of wanting, believing fulfillment will bring lasting happiness?
Pause and consider this moment, just as it is.
You are reading, but so much more is going on. Notice all the sensations arising in this moment: the sounds, the feeling of pressure under your seat perhaps. Look around you. Notice the colors, patterns, light and shadow; notice temperature, texture, odor, and any sensations in the body. Just notice in a very open way, letting go of inner commentary: identification, association, judgment, etc. Let go of your knowledge base for a moment! Just rest in your senses.
Now notice any changes in sensations. A sound stops or alters, a feeling of discomfort doesn’t hurt, or a one arises. Notice your breath, your natural breath, just going on doing its job, breathing you into being alive in this body in this moment.
Notice any tension. See how the tension entangles the mind with fear and craving. Relax and release the tension, and see if the mind relaxes and releases as well.
Simply being present. What a gift is the moment when the whip of desire stops cracking, when our judgments take a break, when everything around us ceases to activate complex threads of mental activity and is simply there for us to notice in a way we may never have done before.
Because this is not our habit, this may be a difficult challenge. If we find ourselves craving something, daydreaming about something, wishing for something, can we have compassion for ourselves, understanding that it is challenging to see the true nature of things when we have always believed otherwise?
Through the regular practice of meditation, we begin to recognize that happiness is not the fleeting pleasure we chase after, cling to and cry over when it inevitably passes. Instead it is the joy that arises from being fully present in this life just as it is. True happiness is seeing clearly the impermanent nature of all things and finding the joy of being fully alive in this very moment.