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Forget Happiness

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Forget happiness!

This is the title of an article in the current issue of Tricycle magazine. It consists of two verses and their commentaries from my book Reflections on Silver River. In publishing these excerpts, Tricycle is calling into question the current obsession with happiness that pervades American (Western?) society and much of what is written about Buddhism today (e.g., The Art of Happiness by H.H. The Dalai Lama, Zen and the Art of Happiness by Chris Prentiss, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg).

These are all solid books. However, even if you discount the commercial pressures that lead to such titles, they are still selling happiness as a goal of spiritual practice.

This is nothing new. The Tibetan tradition has long sought to persuade people to practice with the promise of great bliss. Other religious traditions seek to attract followers with the promise of bliss, universal selfhood (Atman, Brahma, cosmic consciousness, etc.), eternal life (heaven or paradise) or total purity. As I discussed in Chapter 7 of Wake Up to Your Life and in An Arrow to the Heart, all four of these goals are reactive patterns that seek to escape the messiness of life for an idealized life.

However, you cannot experience the fullness of life without experiencing the messiness of life. Mess is part of life, not something extra that can be done away with if you just manage to live the right way. (The mistaken belief behind the pursuit of happiness as a goal is that you can actually control your life and your experience of life.)

Because control is an illusion, the only question is how to meet what happens in your life. Tokmé Zongpo, in verses 12-19 of Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, provides frighteningly cogent instruction on just this point, relying on the practice of Mahayana mind training in general and taking and sending in particular. He isn't talking about how to be happy, at least not in any normal sense of that word, but how to be free and at peace in whatever life throws at you.

As I wrote in an a post on my own blog, when you start to practice, you don't necessarily start with this motivation:

You may begin to practice with the idea that it will help you in your life, but as time goes on, you realize that you have become more interested in what you can accomplish through the practice (awakening, presence, whatever you want to call it). But as still more time goes by, you come to appreciate that any kind of goal, any kind of objective, prevents you from being present in your experience and, increasingly, the only thing to do is experience whatever is arising as completely as possible.

From this perspective, you might think of spiritual practice as akin to artistic expression, be it dance, poetry, painting, or music. You can take up art because you enjoy it, because it helps you in some way, but when it is your life, it requires a different level of commitment.

Take renunciation, for instance. Many artists endure years of poverty, hardship, obscurity, disdain before their work is recognized or appreciated. What is important to them is the art. Muddy Waters, one of the greatest blues masters of the mid 20th century, only began to win Grammy awards very late in his career. Other artists are recognized or appreciated only after their death. Many artists (and we don't know how many) are never recognized, but pursue their art against all odds and challenges because that is their life.

Like artists, spiritual practitioners have to put in years of study and training to develop the needed skills and abilities. Like artists, spiritual practitioners search for teachers or guides who can help them give expression to the small stammering voice that is asking questions or seeking a relationship with life that can be experienced but not described. Like artists, spiritual practitioners are questioned for leading unconventional lives that make no sense to most people or behaving in ways that call into question the norms of society. Like artists, spiritual practitioners are denounced for not following the established orthodoxies as they follow the directions that their questions take them.

Thus, when you consider your own path of practice, forget about happiness. Take to heart the teachings on letting go of conventional notions of success and failure. Even if you are tremendously talented spiritually (and there is spiritual talent just as there is artistic, athletic or business talent), find a teacher. Expect to put in many hours on the cushion and just as many hours in other ways to develop the skills and abilities you need to recognize and follow your path. And don't be concerned about whether anyone else recognizes or appreciates what you are doing. Again, like art, spiritual practice doesn't produce anything that is tangibly useful, yet it is one of the most important, the most meaningful, aspects of life.