Real happiness is unconditional, and is achieved by releasing our suffering. Even though things are rarely how we would like them to be – within, or in our personal lives, or in the greater world – we have the potential to let go of our resistance, grief, or anger, and feel more relaxed, at ease, grateful, and enthusiastic. In this sense, working towards real happiness is far from selfish; it makes us much more able to respond compassionately and skillfully, and therefore it benefits others.
Angst on Behalf of the World
Throughout my teen years and into young adulthood, I felt miserable about the state of the world. You probably wouldn’t have known it if you’d talked to me: I appeared fairly cheerful and well-adjusted because that’s a strong natural part of my character. Underneath, however, I carried an existential angst that threatened to pull me into neurosis and despair.
“How can I enjoy my good fortune,” I wondered, “while so much of the world is going to hell?” Was I supposed to distract myself with the pleasures of my own life while ignoring widespread starvation, oppression, injustice, extinctions, resource depletion, and environmental degradation? Contentment seemed like folly given the preposterous possibility we would destroy the entire planet with nuclear weapons in a single day.
I was led to Buddhist practice by my pervasive sadness about the world and my sense of being powerless against the juggernauts of greed, hate, and delusion. Buddhism seemed to promise a way to gain peace of mind no matter how crazy the world was. I hoped to achieve an “enlightened” view of the world that would let me see how things like injustice, starvation, and mass extinction weren’t that big a deal. I hoped to gain a transcendent view of the world which would put all the misery into perspective and make sense of everything.
Fortunately, after many years of practice, I did learn to access a certain peace of mind no matter how crazy the world is. But I didn’t achieve it the way I expected, by somehow escaping the pain of empathy or the conundrum of responsibility.
Instead, I realized at some point that my real happiness would benefit the world.
What Is Real Happiness?
At this point I need to clarify what real happiness is, by first explaining what it’s not. Real happiness is not conditional happiness. Conditional happiness results from the successful pursuit of self-interest, pleasure, power, status, fame, the admiration or affection of others, material wealth, or stimulating experiences. In short, conditional happiness is about getting what you want. There’s nothing inherently wrong with conditional happiness, but because it depends on things and situations that are subject to change, it’s always a bit fragile and unstable. Even when everything is going our way, we carry a subtle worry about what will happen to us when they aren’t. We tend to cling to the conditional sources of our happiness, or try to control situations so we minimize the risk of loss.
Real happiness may certainly coexist with conditional happiness, but it isn’t dependent on you getting what you want. Real happiness is deciding to be appreciative and content in the midst of your life, just as it is – and in the midst of the world, just as it is. Real happiness is refusing to postpone the kind of satisfaction you usually associate with achieving all of your dreams. It is embodiment and direct experience, free from the filters of expectations and self-concern. When we embrace real happiness, we wake up to the miracle of life.
What does it feel like to be completely happy? For me, complete happiness involves mental and physical relaxation balanced with alertness or enthusiasm. Like everything is okay at the moment – not in a static way, but in the sense that everything is in process, and I know I’m doing the best I can and will continue to do so. There is a sense of being part of a flow of causes and conditions, a sense of being connected to other beings, and sense of having a valued and vital role to play in life. When I’m completely happy in a real (unconditional) sense, I feel gratitude, openness, and curiosity. Real happiness is rarely feels ecstatic or giddy; it’s more stable, expansive, and perceptive.
The Results of Real Happiness
When we practice real happiness, we wake up. We notice everything – and not just what we can see and hear in our immediate environment. We notice the state of the world, and the state of our heart. We recognize calls to respond, and then our best response naturally arises. We recognize what’s ours to do, and we’re free to do it because we’re not caught up in our own misery, or in pursuing conditional happiness.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh describes it this way, in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:
“Yes, there is tremendous suffering all over the world, but knowing this need not paralyze us. If we practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting, and working in mindfulness, we try our best to help, and we can have peace in our heart. Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse…
“We who have been fortunate enough to encounter the practice of mindfulness have a responsibility to bring peace and joy into our own lives, even though not everything in our body, mind, or environment is exactly as we would like. Without happiness we cannot be a refuge for others. Ask yourself, What am I waiting for to make me happy? Why am I not happy right now?”
Releasing Our Suffering
It can be very enlightening when you examine your internal experience and ask yourself the questions Thich Nhat Hanh recommends, “What am I waiting for to make me happy? Why am I not happy right now?” We know what happiness feels like, whether we’ve experienced it for conditional or unconditional reasons; as I mentioned earlier, we usually feel relaxed but alert and curious, content but open to future, and appreciative of interdependence. If you look within while trying to summon or recall a sense of pervasive happiness, you may notice certain areas in your body and mind that resist, or feel blocked or tense. You may be able to put words to your resistance, like, “Not yet.” Or, “Not when things are like this.” Or, “Not as long as I’m [fill in the blank here].” You may discover pockets of worry, grief, or anger that obstruct your real happiness.
In the Soto Zen scripture on the Buddhist precepts, the Kyojukaimon, it describes the treasure of sangha, or community, as “they who release their suffering and embrace all beings.” Isn’t this remarkable? It doesn’t say, “they who transcend their suffering,” or “they who manage to make their suffering disappear.” The sangha jewel is made up of people who quit holding on to their suffering – which of course implies that we are in charge of whether we continue to suffer or not! This passage suggests we can learn how to let our suffering go, and thereby benefit others.
I remember walking down the street one afternoon, in the early years of my Buddhist practice, and suddenly realizing my misery and guilt wasn’t doing anyone any good. Despite my angst on behalf of the world – or maybe because of it – I really wasn’t doing much of anything for anybody. I was really too preoccupied with my own pain and confusion to be of use to anyone. I thought, “What if I dropped my angst?” Because of years of practice, I was actually capable of doing that, although it was only for a minute or two. I took a few deep breaths and centered myself in my direct experience, momentarily letting go of my mental narrative about a world tormented by injustice, violence, and greed, and my inability to change it.
When I “released my suffering,” my world instantly expanded. Instead of feeling like I was wearing blinders that kept me focused on the abstract issue of how impossible it was to do anything about the sad state of the world, I noticed the trees, sidewalk, birds, flowers, and the crisp, cool air. I noticed my body: Walking, breathing, and ready to get to work. I noticed people – and it occurred to me I was available to see them and listen to them in a way I never had been before. I felt as if I had just woken up from a dream. Since that moment, I have understood that my real happiness actually benefits others.
Learning to Release Suffering
It’s not easy to be happy in a real, unconditional way, at least not until you learn, for yourself, how to release your suffering. We can’t make ourselves happy by sheer force of will, or everyone would be happy all the time! Our brains are wired to notice and dwell on things that potential sources of threat to our well-being, so without practice we’re likely to stay preoccupied with our fears, resentments, and complaints. How do we let go of that preoccupation and release our suffering, even if it’s just for a few moments at a time? And to be clear: letting go of suffering is an entirely different matter than distracting ourselves from it. Letting go involves facing our suffering squarely, fully acknowledging it, but then relaxing our grasp on it.
In order to build up enough trust in the practice to let go of suffering in this way, you have to learn, through experience, that letting go of your internal angst or resistance or outrage does not lead to the outcome you might think it does. Letting go does not lead to disaster. Giving up your hatred towards someone who has wronged you does not suddenly give them power over you or let them off the hook. Giving up your self-loathing does not result in your finally losing every last shred of self-discipline. Letting go of your grief and anger on behalf of suffering beings does not suddenly unleash the forces of greed, hate, and delusion in the world.
Strangely, we believe we’re holding threats at bay with our minds, but what we’re actually doing is carrying around conflict and suffering in our own body. What matters in the world is what we actually say and do, and once we release our suffering we’re much better able to speak and act in a skillful and beneficial way. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Worrying does not accomplish anything… Without happiness we cannot be a refuge for others.”
Once you’re willing to at least experiment with letting go of your suffering for a moment or two, it still may be difficult to do so. I honestly don’t think one person can effectively tell another person exactly how to do it. My first, dramatic experience with letting go of suffering was like suddenly discovering a toggle switch in some deserted, underused hallway of my mind. I saw the switch and thought, “Hmmm, I wonder what would happen if I flipped this?” And then, once I flipped the switch, I experienced a few moments of life free from the onerous burden of some particular brand of suffering I’d been carrying around.
However, even though I can’t tell you where the on/off switch for your particular form of suffering is, Buddhist practice is basically about wandering the hallways of your own mind until you get really familiar with all the nooks, crannies, and switches. You’re encouraged to open unused doors, turn on any strange machinery you find, and basically learn intimately how everything works. Eventually you’ll find the toggle switch for your suffering and be able to flip it to the “off” position now and again. Just doing that once forever transforms your relationship to your suffering, because you realize life is possible without it. You realize how much suffering you’re just creating in your own mind. Sure, things may not be how you want them to be, but you don’t have to be miserable as you go about trying to improve them.
Real Happiness Is Not Denial
Now, Buddhist teachings about releasing suffering and attaining peace of mind can be easily misunderstood. It may sound like we’re saying, “Suffering isn’t real, so you can just put it out of your mind, achieve internal peace, and that’s good enough.” In a certain sense maybe this is true, but thinking like this can easily lead to denial, or to repression of emotions we don’t want to feel.
How do we know whether we’ve really released our suffering, or whether we’re just pushing it away? Perhaps the easiest way to tell is in the results. If we’re willfully pushing away, denying, or repressing our negative or painful feelings and thoughts, it takes lots of effort (whether we realize it or not). We end up rather tense, rigid, and defensive because we don’t want anyone stirring up what we’ve so carefully excluded from our reality. We may end up very proud of our ability to be “above it all,” or self-identified with being so spiritual we’re not troubled by anything anymore. Chances are good we look down on those who suffer, and perhaps even pontificate to them about how suffering is all in your mind, so, basically, if you suffer it’s your own fault. And because the suffering of beings is all mind-made, we really have no responsibility to improve the state of the world.
When we’re actually just practicing willful denial or repression of our suffering, there’s a lot of ego involved. We have a sense that I have mastered my own mind, and overcome my suffering. If suffering comes back, it means we’ve lost control or failed, which only makes matters worse.
In contrast, releasing our suffering and embracing real happiness makes us feel grateful and humble. “Isn’t it amazing,” we think, “that I was lucky enough to have someone teach me how to practice, and then I found this toggle switch for suffering in my mind? Wow. Now, when some kind of suffering arises, I know I can find some way to gain some freedom from it, at least for a while.”
When we’re experiencing real happiness, we feel only empathy for others who are suffering. “Ouch,” we think, “I know what that’s like!” We recall the good fortune and luck that helped us gain some freedom from our suffering, and we also recall how long it took us to figure out how to do it. So, we’re patient with other people, and realize that it’s not going to help them much just to tell them their suffering is all in their own mind. In addition, we know that some level of conditional happiness helps put beings at ease, and better able to practice – so we don’t judge or begrudge anyone’s happiness – conditional or unconditional – as long as it didn’t involve harming others.
The ability to touch this way of real happiness does not in any way absolve us of responsibility to relieve suffering in the world. It also doesn’t cripple our empathy, or wrap us in a cocoon of cold detachment (things I used to be afraid would happen!). That’s because the way of real happiness is in touch with reality, and in reality, we’re not separate from any other beings, or from the universe itself. In reality we’re embodied human beings with thoughts and emotions. The suffering of others naturally causes us pain as well, as long as our hearts are open. Our empathy inspires us to respond in a helpful way. Strengthened by real, unconditional happiness, we’re more likely to spend our time, resources, and energy for the benefit of others, rather than frittering them away, or dedicating ourselves primarily to the pursuit of personal comfort, pleasure, or security.
You can recognize the benefit of real happiness from the other side, too – just think of the rare people you encounter who seem to be delighted to be just who they are, doing just what they’re doing. Even if they’re only stocking vegetables in the supermarket, you feel energized, strengthened, inspired, and encouraged when you encounter them. Your burdens feel a little lighter, and your aspirations awakened.
The fact that little daily encounters can let others benefit from your real happiness does not let you off the hook of the bodhisattva vow, of course. We vow to save all beings, end all delusions, enter all Dharma gates, and embody the Buddha way. Only you know if you’re doing your best at honoring those vows. However, don’t postpone your real happiness until you’ve achieved your ideal of bodhisattva-hood. That would make sense if real happiness were a reward you have to earn, rather than a practice that’s accessible to you at any moment.