No one wakes up in the morning thinking, "I wish I could suffer all day, and if possible my whole life." We all strive, consciously or unconsciously, competently or clumsily, to be happier and to suffer less. Nevertheless, we often confuse genuine happiness with merely seeking enjoyable feelings. Happiness is a state of inner fulfillment, not the gratification of inexhaustible desires for outward things. The universe is not a mail-order catalogue for our desires and fancies.
Happiness is often equated with a maximization of pleasure, and some imagine that true happiness would consist of an interrupted succession of pleasurable experiences. This sounds more like a recipe for exhaustion than for genuine happiness. There is no reason to deprive ourselves of the enjoyment of a magnificent landscape, of swimming in the sea or of the scent of a rose, but we must understand that the experience of pleasure is dependent upon circumstance, on a specific location or moment in time. It is unstable by nature, and the sensation it evokes can soon become neutral or even unpleasant.
Unlike pleasure, genuine happiness may be influenced by circumstance, but it isn't dependent on it. It actually gives us the inner resources to deal better with those circumstances.
Thus, happiness is rather an optimal way of being, an exceptionally healthy state of mind that underlies and suffuses all emotional states, that embraces all the joys and sorrows that come one's way. This way of being comes together with a cluster of human qualities, such as altruistic love, compassion, inner peace, inner strength, and wisdom, which can be cultivated. Happiness is a skill that requires effort and time.
It is the mind that translates good and bad circumstances into happiness or misery. So happiness comes with the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred, compulsive desire, arrogance and jealousy, which literally poison the mind. It also requires that one cease to distort reality and that one cultivate wisdom.
Moreover, we can never be truly happy if we dissociate ourselves from the happiness of others. The pursuit of selfish happiness is bound to fail. It is a lose-lose situation in which we make ourselves miserable and create misery around us. This in no way requires us to neglect our own happiness. Our desire for happiness is as legitimate as anyone else's. We must realize that in the deepest part of ourselves, we fear suffering and aspire to happiness. We should then realize that all sentient beings want to avoid suffering just as much as we do. This should lead to the strong aspiration to do whatever we can to ease other's suffering and contribute to their lasting well-being.
Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk who went from a scientific career as a molecular biologist in France to the study of Buddhism in the Himalayas 40 years ago. He has been the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama since 1989. Matthieu donates all proceeds from his work and much of his time to 30 humanitarian projects in Asia through Karuna-Shechen. You may learn more about him on his website, MatthieuRicard.org.
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