By Suma Varughese
The quest for happiness has taken mankind on many strange journeys. Many have arrived at destinations never imagined or sought. We lose our way frequently and end up with regrets and sorrow. Is there a sure way to find happiness?
‘Don’t worry, be happy,’ carols Bobby McFerrin.
‘And the prince and the princess lived happily ever after,’ say the fairy tales.
‘I only want your happiness,’ croons the lover.
‘Every man has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ says the American Constitution.
‘Happiness is buying the latest must-have,’ shout the advertisements.
No matter what the message, mankind is united in conviction that happiness is a very desirable state. Indeed, all of us, consciously or unconsciously, are motivated in all we do by our need for happiness. The housewife strives for a clean and orderly house and well-brought up children so she can be happy with herself. The husband aims to make more money so he can be happy. We chase money, health, growth, fame, power, property and relationships, not for their own sake but for the satisfaction they promise. The creation of empires and civilizations, the discovery of continents, the waging of wars, the whole ebb and flow of history is a graphic portrait of man’s ceaseless quest for happiness.
Yet, most of us will acknowledge that we don’t always feel happy. Oh, yes, winning that merit scholarship or the coveted promotion, buying a car or losing weight feels great for a while. But we find that our friends are jealous, or that the promotion means longer working hours or that the car guzzles petrol, and that our lives haven’t been transformed by losing weight. We are weighed down by a sense of lack. No matter how well life turns out, nothing seems quite enough. Others seem to have more, or desires keep arising. If nothing else, we fear for the future. What if something was to happen to our loved ones or to us?
Many of us are content to accept this mixed bag of happiness and sorrow as the human lot. Within this framework we attempt to maximize our joys and minimize our woes. We excel in whatever skills we have, spend less than we make, save for a house, take care of our health, get our children married and keep money aside for old age. At the end of our lives, we believe that we have lived to the best of our capacity. This is no mean task and deserves to be richly lauded.
But for a few, this unpredictable, fleeting happiness is not enough. They dare to ask if an irrefutable, permanent and absolute happiness is not possible. A happiness they can trust. Perhaps it is this question that moves man towards divinity. For he is attempting to transcend the very framework of the human condition.
Is such a state possible? Yes, say the scriptures and enlightened beings. ‘The highest happiness comes upon the yogi whose mind is calmed, in whom passion is appeased, who has become Brahman and is free from sin,’ says the Bhagavad Gita (Vl: 27).
The Upanishads add: ‘Take the happiness of a man who has everything: he is young, healthy, strong, good, and cultured, with all the wealth that earth can offer; let us take this as one measure of joy. One hundred times that joy is the joy of the gandharvas, but no less joy have those who are illumined.’
The Buddha’s entire teaching revolves around the question of how to overcome human suffering and attain happiness. The first words of the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s teachings, pinpoints the problem and its cause:
Mind precedes all phenomena,
Mind matters most, everything is mind-made.
If with an impure mind
You speak or act, then suffering follows you,
As the cartwheel follows the foot of the draft animal.
On the other hand, here is the Buddha’s recipe for happiness:
If with a pure mind You speak or act, Then happiness follows you As a shadow that never departs.
The very nature of life and our Selves, according to the Upanishads, is joy or bliss. Our true nature is sat (reality), chit(consciousness) and ananda (bliss). Bliss is part of who we are. Bliss is our birthright. ‘Vedanta says that happiness is you,’ explains Uday Acharya, a Vedanta teacher. But how on earth do we claim it?
Step l: Prioritize Happiness
Aiming for absolute happiness is serious business. It calls for steady, patient labor for years on end. This means absolute commitment to the goal, no matter what you may have to sacrifice. How does one achieve such a dogged attitude? Usually from plunging into the miseries of life. Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher based in Canada, whose book, The Power of Now, is a masterpiece of spiritual guidance, led a life, he says, of almost continual anxiety interspersed with bouts of suicidal depression. Then he had a spiritual experience that transformed his life forever. Not that he didn’t have to work at sustaining it. It just meant that he had something concrete to work towards, for he knew the state he was aiming at from inside.
Perhaps restlessness and an inner quest do motivate you. Eknath Easwaran, the late meditation teacher practicing in California and writer of many popular books on spirituality, reveals in his translation of the Upanishads that he was the quintessential man who had everything. Unsatisfied, he kept looking for that which he himself didn’t know until a chance reading of the Upanishads unfolded vistas of joy unimagined thus far. The statement: ‘There is no joy in the finite; there is joy only in the Infinite,’ became a lodestar to which he hitched his happiness wagon.
In other words, the quest for happiness comes from within. It arises only when we are ready to engage in the mammoth task of seeking. Which is to say, it is not entirely within our conscious control. Scott L. Peck uses the term ‘grace’ to explain the mysterious force that nudges us towards further growth: ‘The paradox that we both choose grace and are chosen by grace is the essence of the phenomenon of serendipity.’
You can also begin where you are right now. If by reading this you are inspired to want happiness, that too is a starting point. What matters is the intensity of your desire.
Prioritizing happiness means that you will let go of everything that is inimical to happiness.
In his book, A Dialogue with Death, Easwaran talks of the concepts of preya and shreya. Preya is what is pleasant; shreya, what is beneficial. Preya gives us instant happiness, the happiness of eating a good meal or buying an outfit, or getting a compliment. Shreya also gives us happiness, but in the long run, such as when we embark on a fitness program or kick the smoking habit. Preya and shreya are most often directly opposed to each other, such as when we spend the night carousing and wake up the next day with a heavy head and conscience. Preya’s seductive happiness, arising as it does from the satisfaction of the senses, almost inevitably leads to long-term unhappiness. So how do we choose shreya? Simply, by not choosing preya. Our refusal to settle for short-term happiness in itself guarantees long-term happiness.
Prioritizing happiness means a single-minded focus on shreya. Are your eating habits interfering with your health? Change them. Is your anger spewing unhappiness around? Let it go. Are you spending more money than you make? Get financially smart. Are your relationships in trouble? Work at them. Is your yen for fame or power coming in the way of your happiness goal? Off with their heads. Are these easy? Let’s face it, they’re well-nigh impossible when attempted from the outside. How do you access such superhuman will? This takes us to the next step.
Step ll: Know Thyself
All spiritual masters and texts are united in this one. The answer to the human condition lies in understanding our true Self.
According to Vedanta, our primary error is to mistake ourselves for our body, or even our minds or egos. Our real Self lies beyond these limited factors of identity, and is boundless, infinite, pure reality, consciousness and bliss.
Those who know they are neither body nor mind,
But the immortal Self,
the Divine Principle of existence,
find the source
Of all joy and live in abiding joy.
This knowledge, even if only an intellectual concept to begin with, will give us the perspective to progress further.
Vedanta graphically uses the concept of a chariot to convey the real nature of the Self. In the Katha Upanishad, Yama, lord of death, tells the young seeker Nachiketa,
Know the Self as lord of the chariot,
The body as the chariot itself,
The discriminating intellect as the
And the mind as reins.
The senses, say the wise, are the
Selfish desires are the roads they
When the Self is confused with the body, mind, and senses, they point out, he seems to enjoy pleasure and suffer sorrow. In other words, the reason why we choose preya rather than shreya is because our untrained senses gallop after a drink or espying a pretty girl, leaving our charioteer toppled on one side with the reins hanging loose. The Self, meanwhile, deep inside the carriage, can’t make itself heard. The nature of the senses is to run after objects of desire, and only a well-trained mind controlled by a discriminating intellect, which takes its guidance from the sequestered Self, can rein them in. This then is the task before us: to train the senses, discipline the mind, and strengthen the intellect to awaken the Self.
The Buddha said the same thing when he observed that attachment created suffering. Attachment arises out of our reactions of like and dislike, which are a result of the contact of the senses and the mind with the world. These, in turn, are part of universal mind and matter, which arise out of undifferentiated consciousness. The Buddhist approach to ultimate happiness is the abolishment of the entire structure of consciousness by focusing on reaction. The cessation of reaction would cause the cessation of like and dislike, which would cause the cessation of contact between the senses and the world, eventually leading to the collapse of consciousness. While Vedanta moves you towards a positive identity, Buddhism unshackles the construct of all identity. Each, however, forces us to confront the very depth of our nature.
In her book, Spiritual Intelligence, Danah Zohar draws upon the latest discoveries in quantum physics to substantiate her claim that we are made of the same stuff as God. Says she: ‘The quantum vacuum is the still silent ‘ocean’ on which existence appears as ‘waves’. The first thing to emerge from the vacuum is an energy field known as the Higgs Field. This is filled with very fast, coherent energy oscillations that are the origin of all fields and fundamental particles in the universe. If proto-consciousness is a fundamental property, then there is proto-consciousness in the Higgs Field. And the quantum vacuum becomes very like what mystics have called the ‘immanent God’. In that case, the 40 H2 neural oscillation that result in our human consciousness and our spiritual intelligence have their root in nothing less than ‘God’. ‘God’ is the true center of the self. And meaning has its origin in the ultimate meaning of all existence.’
There we have it. Even science acknowledges that we are divine stuff, children of immortality, amrutasya putraha, to quote the Upanishads.
Identifying with the body or the mind traps us within the sensory world. Preya becomes our only concept of pleasure so that happiness becomes purely a question of how much money we have, how beautiful we are, how many houses and cars we own and whether we belong to the A list of socialites. Says Eckhart Tolle: ‘Identification with your mind creates an opaque screen of concepts, labels, images, words, judgments and definitions that block true relationship. It comes between you and yourself, between you and your fellow man and woman, between you and nature, between you and God. It is this screen of thought that creates the illusion of separateness, the illusion that there is you and a totally separate ‘other’.’
So how do we start the process of de-identification? Move to the next step.
Step lll: Enhance Your Self-Esteem
Before we get to the actual task of discarding our false self, we need to take certain preparatory steps. We are about to embark on a long and arduous journey (which the Upanishads call walking the razor’s edge) and we must have enough rations to see us through. The most crucial of these is robust self-esteem. The task of confronting yourself and coming to terms with every aspect of you, essential aspects of de-identification, can only commence if you are capable of containing and accepting the less than flattering truth. Renouncing the ego can only be successfully accomplished by those who have a healthy one to begin with.
Nathaniel Brandon, virtually the guru of self-esteem, defines it thus: “To trust one’s mind and to know that one is worthy of happiness is the essence of self-esteem.” He stipulates six pillars that comprise self-esteem. These are:
• Living consciously: The ability to be active rather than passive, to be in the moment, and to have a commitment for growth.
• Self-acceptance: The ability to be on one’s side, to accept all feelings, thoughts and acts and to be compassionate with oneself.
• Self-responsibility: To take responsibility for the achievement of desires, one’s behavior with others, and for one’s happiness.
• Self-assertive: To know that we have the right to be who we are and that we do not have to live up to others’ expectations.
• Purposeful living: To use our internal power for the attainment of our goals, including happiness, by taking responsibility for it, identifying the actions necessary to achieve it, monitoring our behavior to check if it is in alignment and so on.
• Personal integrity: When our behavior is congruent with our professed values, and ideals and practice match.
Brandon’s prescription to enhance self-esteem is through sentence completion. Sit down every day, morning and evening, and give five different completions to the following sentence stem: “When I reflect on how I would feel if I lived more consciously…”
At the end of the week, go through all that you have written and give six different endings to this sentence: “If any of what I wrote this week is true, it would be helpful if I…”
Do this with the other pillars too and you will find that the very fact of thinking and writing about these will help you move towards these states of mind. In her book, The 12 Secrets of Health and Happiness, Louise Samways suggests that a good way of achieving self-acceptance is not to surrender to labels about ourselves created by others or us. Stick to facts, she says. Thus, when you botch up a presentation, you say to yourself, “I didn’t do this well’, rather than: “I’m a lousy salesperson.” Says she: “Self-acceptance allows you to be comfortable with all aspects of yourself, good and bad. You feel confident that you can change if you want. You can be yourself; you don’t need to hide behind a role.”
The other way of accessing self-esteem is through the knowledge of who we are. If we are divine, an aspect of God, then surely that is reason for self-esteem? Self-esteem is innate; an aspect of our true nature and what stops us from experiencing it is our ignorance and conditioning.
Count down slowly from 20 to 0 until you find yourself feeling peaceful inside. Tell yourself with as much intensity and conviction as you can manage: “I am whole, perfect and complete.” Soon, depending on the strength of your conditioning, this knowledge will manifest within you not as an intellectual concept, but as a part of you.
Why does this work? We’ll discuss this in the next step.
Step lV: Go Within
You don’t need to have perfect self-esteem before entering into this step. It is enough that you started working on it and have reached a basic level of inner stability. It is time now to go within. This is the key to the whole enterprise. If you can direct your mind inwards with unshakable commitment and steady application until you have seen through it, you are home and dry. What you must do is direct your attention to the uncharted inner regions: the zones of thoughts, feelings, reactions and actions. You are going to take the measure of your mind. Remember what the Buddha said, that we live in a mind-made world? That our thoughts create our reality? Are these thoughts supportive of happiness or not? Let us explore.
The first thing we learn is that we have very little control over our mind. And that we are never in the present. Thoughts zoom in and invade our mind. We zigzag between the past and the future in a medley of regrets, despair, anger, worry, fear and so on. Our past failures haunt us and fill us with apprehension for the future. We have certain ideas of the world and people based on our past and we view the whole of life through that prism.
We also become aware of how much we are controlled by circumstances and other people. Any stranger on the street can abuse us and spoil our day. We live in fear of what our boss will do or say, and we base our life goals on making our parents proud of us. From stepping into a muddy puddle to being rejected by our ‘true’ love, our reactions are based on external events. And we have very little control over ourselves. We decide that we are going to concentrate on a project and the next thing we know we have awoken from a daydream about a holiday in Mauritius. We vow to lose weight, but when a colleague passes chocolates around, we can’t resist it. We try to curb our temper, but each time there’s a provocation, we lose it. In other words, not only do others and circumstances control us but we have no control over ourselves. We are enslaved to our feelings, thoughts, actions and reactions.
Why is this? Vedanta and Buddhism have a word for these conditioned thoughts, words and deeds: samskaras.
create the personality. It is in understanding the process that creates it that we can become free and transform ourselves. Our mind is composed of two parts, the conscious and the subconscious. The subconscious is at the root of many of our thoughts and behavior. We cannot control these consciously, which explains why we have difficulty losing weight or kicking the cigarette habit, but we can learn to master them if we understand how they come into being.
The subconscious is fully influenced by our thoughts. If we think repeatedly that we are good, worthwhile and likable, the subconscious gets the message and automatically operates from that assumption, giving rise to behavior that is open, spontaneous and non-manipulative. This in turn makes other people like us, transmit messages to say that we are good and worthwhile, to further entrench our original impression. This is how we create our personality, from beliefs and assumptions about ourselves, much of it arising from our infancy. A thought repeated a thousand times gives rise to words repeated a thousand times leading to deeds repeated thousands of times.
In The 12 Secrets of Health and Happiness, Samways talks of the chain linking speech, feelings and actions. According to her, our perceptions of events in our lives, such as being scolded by parents, lead to beliefs that create the thoughts we have about ourselves (self-talk), which give rise to feelings and finally to behavior or deeds. Each link in the chain reinforces the others so that the chain becomes increasingly stronger.
This is also the essence of karma, which implies that everything we think, say and do has a consequence. The consequence not only occurs in the outside world, but also within, by shaping our personality. All this is fine, as long as the samskaras are positive and life-enhancing. But when they cramp our style, limit our potential and make us unhappy, they create problems. Says Samways: “An optimistic style of self-talk has been found to be the single most important predictor of who is successful in life.”
Samskaras then are a process, created by our thoughts, words, and deeds. This has two implications, both vital to our pursuit of happiness. The first is that what we have made we can unmake. The second is that we can also create fresh positive conditioning. In Step III you were advised to repeat the words that you were whole and perfect. You were, in effect, reconditioning yourself positively. All spiritual and mind improvement techniques focus on these two processes, undoing negative conditioning and feeding in positive ones.
How Do You Undo?
There are many methods, the most popular being meditation. Whether through chanting, watching your breath and sensations as in vipassana, your mind is automatically drawn to its own wayward movement. By patiently bringing it back to the subject on hand and allowing our thoughts to be, we finally begin to move towards stillness and inner balance. The momentum of thoughts declines, and we experience a modicum of choice. There are those like J. Krishnamurti, who advocate tackling the mind directly, by a choice-less awareness of all that arises. The task consists of being ruthlessly aware of the content of our consciousness; the presence of jealousy when it exists, of indifference or hate-without resisting or rationalizing it, in other words, nonjudgmental acceptance helps transform it. Awareness and acceptance by themselves can transform us.
Eckhart echoes Krishnamurti in suggesting that we watch the thinker. If we can watch the thoughts without identifying with them or reacting to them, then there is a gap between the thought and us. This is the beginning of going beyond the mind. He also suggests being in the now, what the Buddhists call mindful living. Here, we buttress ourselves in the moment with all the intensity at our command. We experience the process of walking, breathing, talking, eating, sitting, standing, as thoroughly as we can by being present to every nuance.
Easwaran suggests using the power inherent in desire to go against the conditioned might of the samskaras. We can tap into the flow of prana to take us towards happiness if we just redirect our desire for sensory objects. Jaya Row, a teacher of Vedanta, agrees when she says that the trick is to shift our focus from the lower desires to higher desires, such as the quest for happiness and self-realization.
How do we do this? By strengthening the will. Says Easwaran: “The power of desire is the power of will. Every desire carries with it the will to bring that desire to fruition.” How do we strengthen our will? By going against all conditioned self-centered desire. If you feel like sleeping when you still have not completed your homework, resist it. When your fingers itch to grab that last gulab jamun, stick your hands into your pockets instead.
Easwaran says: “If the will is unified from top to bottom, the moment anger surfaces you can transform it into compassion. The moment disloyalty arises you can transform it into love. Every negative samskara can be transformed in this manner, which means that personality can be remade completely in the image of your highest ideal.”
How easy is this? Not too difficult, provided you have one crucial attribute-discipline. Says psychiatrist Scott L. Peck, in his book, The Road Less Traveled: “Discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems. Without discipline we can solve nothing. With only some discipline, we can only save some problems. With total discipline, we can solve all problems.” According to Peck, there are four aspects to discipline-delaying gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing. The ability to delay gratification arises from a sense of self-worth and security, which is to say, self-esteem. Says Samway: One of the strongest predictors of who feels happy is the degree to which an individual feels in personal control of their life.” She adds: “Happy people also take control of their time. They make manageable plans and commitments. They are busy, purposeful and punctual.” She says: “It is very important to remember that as a human being you have been designed to cope with a great many unhappy and sad things-‘the roughage of life’-as well as the good things of life.”
When we incorporate discipline within us, we will have begun to live masterfully, using all problems as challenges and opportunities for our growth. The will becomes powerful, and desires have no power to move us from the goal of happiness. We learn to go beyond our natural human selfishness that instinctively serves the cause of survival. We choose the burnt toast and let others have the well done ones. We endure inconvenience in order to do others a favor. We surrender our bus seat to a senior citizen. Gradually, we are learning not to put ourselves first, a feat the Buddha called as difficult and unnatural as water going upstream. Says Easwaran: “The surest mark of grace is marvelous, almost unimaginable: the desire to go against all selfish desires. Until this begins to happen, you cannot believe it is possible…If only we knew what daring is required to face and conquer a selfish desire! Every cell in the body stands for an ovation.”
Fine, our human condition has been explored and the solution approached. But, what of the road ahead?
Step V: Transcend Happiness
When the will becomes powerful enough to take on desire, the discriminating intellect (the charioteer, remember?) awakens. Buddhi, as it is referred to in Vedanta, is the center of discrimination. It views the situation on the whole and helps us to arrive at balanced and wise decisions that benefit the larger good instead of our selfish purposes.
The intellect in turn helps us to move beyond duality. We become increasingly aware that our mind vacillates between likes and dislikes, pain and pleasure. For the Buddha, this was the root of the problem of suffering. The mind reacts to events either favorably or unfavorably, pushing away what we don’t like and holding on to what we do. Craving and aversion result, and through this we distort the very nature of life. Instead of accepting its essential impermanence, we strive to perpetuate the pleasant, and be rid of the unpleasant.
To transcend this duality, we need to let go of our need for happiness. We cannot afford to like something because we will dislike its opposite. Like cool, breezy days? Beware, you will dislike hot sultry days. Like mild-mannered, polite people? Whatever are you going to do when confronted with aggression or rudeness? To free ourselves from this entire edifice of reactions, we must destroy the whole structure. Yes, indeed, the secret of happiness is to let go of our need for it. When we do this, we trade the ephemeral satisfactions of the ego for the permanent peace of being. Established in equanimity, we become witnesses to the ebb and flow of events in our lives, resisting nothing, holding on to nothing.
Step Vl : Recognize the Other
Only when we have finally relinquished our ego-centered perspective based on likes and dislikes do we really become conscious of the other as existing in their own right and not as instruments of our need. Free of all need, we see them as they truly are for the first time. Says Easwaran: “We feel towards all the way we feel towards ourselves. No one likes to be snubbed or made fun of… You understand where people are coming from. You do not judge, romanticize or close your eyes.”
You do more. You actively begin to care for their welfare. Happy yourself, you seek to make the other happy. You acknowledge them, appreciate their good points and point out their potential. You empathize with their misery and strive to support them through it. Free of need, you become a selfless repository for others’ needs. And you discover that they are a potent source of happiness too. Participating in the joys of others fulfills us as much as our own joy. By focusing on their happiness we transcend all conflicts both within and without us. Nothing they say or do or even think can affect us any more. We live now for the universe and not merely for ourselves.
Bertrand Russel says in his book, The Conquest of Happiness: “A man who has once perceived, however temporarily and however briefly, what makes greatness of soul, can no longer be happy if he allows himself to be petty, self-seeking, troubled by trivial misfortunes, dreading what fate may have in store for him. The man capable of greatness of soul will open wide the windows of his mind, letting the winds blow freely upon it from every portion of the universe.”
You no longer require people to be polite, courteous, loving or unselfish. You can allow them the space to be themselves and take on the responsibility of the relationship on yourself. When this happens, you are cutting off all the cords that tied you to others and to circumstances. Awesomely enough, you are now free. The long journey you embarked upon is drawing to a close. You are your own master. No circumstance in life has the power to ruffle your equanimity, or your commitment to happiness.
Step Vll: Be in the Moment
When the content of our consciousness is emptied, when we have accepted every minuscule bit of ourselves, when we have freed ourselves of all conditioning, when the past and the future are closed chapters, then the present unfolds like an endless song. Still as a lake, our mind is poised in the moment, alert, joyous and free. With no identity to fetter us, no needs to tie us down, we surrender ourselves fully to life, experiencing, enjoying and letting go. We are home, free.
When all desires that surge in the heart
Are renounced, the mortal becomes immortal.
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