The basic teaching underlying every religion and every spiritual path is that it’s possible to experience fundamental happiness, but that this happiness comes from the inside; it cannot depend on our external life circumstances. Nor can it depend on simply feeling good emotionally. Many things can result in pleasurable or positive feelings, which we normally equate with being happy. But this is personal happiness, not the deeper sense of well-being that is not dependent on whether or not we feel good in the normal sense. For example, many things make me feel personally happy, such as playing my conga drums, playing basketball, or riding the ocean waves on my boogie board. Sometimes when I’m in the ocean I feel positively exhilarated, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, nor can I deny that this form of happiness is real. Similarly, when I play my drums I sometimes get into that state known as the zone, where I’m totally absorbed in the activity, with no sense of “me” playing. This state of absorption is quite nice, and we may feel very happy when in it—but eventually, it will pass. My point is that absorption is not the same as the deeper sense of happiness that’s possible.
So, although absorption, or being in the zone, can often feel quite good, pursuing these experiences to find happiness is often a detour off the path toward true contentment. Whenever we seek special experiences to bring us happiness we are caught in striving, in the self-centered pursuit to feel a particular way. This is guaranteed to undermine any aspiration to realize our true nature, which is ultimately the source of the deeper equanimity of genuine happiness.
Put in different words: there is no single fixed path to happiness, nor does happiness have to look any particular way. There is, however, something in each of us that longs to connect with what is most real. We may easily get sidetracked from this quest with promises or quick formulas to bring us happiness—formulas that tell us we can be happy if we do this or that. But formulas for happiness can only give us superficial fixes; they don’t and can’t deal with the complexity of human emotion and behavior.
In short, happiness doesn’t come from making happiness the goal—it comes from being able to appreciate the journey, particularly the present-moment experience of our life. To “enjoy the ride” doesn’t mean we’re going to get somewhere, or get something, or become someone else; it means we’re curious about what our life is and able to appreciate it—even the most difficult, unpleasant, unwanted aspects of it. In this sense, we can say that true happiness is more about being present, being awake, being open, than it is about being happy in the Hollywood sense of being merry and cheerful.
Genuine happiness is not exhilaration; it’s not a rush of sensual pleasure or being cheerful all the time. These aspects can be included, but genuine happiness at its core boils down to the willingness to acknowledge the painful aspects of life right alongside all the parts we deem “good” or “happy.” In fact, an integral part of genuine happiness is the willingness to open to the feelings and experiences we would not normally associate with happiness. Sadness, for example, cannot be denied as a basic human experience. To try to prematurely let go of sadness denies us the possibility of surrendering to it, where we can learn to experience true equanimity even within the sadness.
It may be difficult to understand how it is possible to experience happiness in light of the undeniable and ongoing suffering in the world. For example, when we open our hearts and minds to what is actually going on, how do we respond to the fact that we’re not taking care of the planet or providing for the twenty-four thousand people who die every single day from hunger—three quarters of them being children under the age of five? How do we reconcile facts like these with living a happy life, with being able to appreciate the beauty of the mockingbird singing with abandon or the majesty and wonder of the ocean? This is the crux of the human dilemma—abiding in the paradox that includes both the bleakness and the wonder. Although it may at times be very difficult to find this balance, it is, in fact, possible. Moreover, the compassion and loving-kindness that develop from being able to face life’s pains can lead to an even greater sense of equanimity.
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