Monday, August 30, 2010

happiness and completion

At the end of the last retreat, a student asked, "Why don't you talk much about happiness, as most Tibetan teachers do?"

Why, indeed? Doesn't everyone, in the end, seek happiness?

Perhaps. Perhaps it depends on what happiness means to you.

Happiness, I think, is usually associated with a feeling of pleasure and the absence of pain. As such, I think it is both frivolous and unrealistic: frivolous because pleasure is a transient state, subject to change, and dependent on many conditions, internal and external, and unrealistic because life is unpredictable and pain can arise at anytime. 

The spate of books on happiness are particularly troubling as they lead people to believe that this is a viable objective in life, and, worse, that one should be happy. Big pharma is no doubt delighted with this trend as they can now happily present themselves as fulfilling a cultural need by peddling drugs for SAD (social anxiety disorder), grief (see this article), and related conditions which are increasingly being regarded as medical and mental pathologies instead of part of the ups and downs of the human condition. 

Indeed, the quest for happiness is, in another way, the continuation of the traditional view of religion and spiritual practice, namely, a way of transcending the human condition. Valhalla, paradise, heaven, nirvana all hold out the promise of eternal life, bliss, purity, and union, four basic spiritual longings that are at the heart of all our suffering and struggle.

As Don Cupitt notes in his book The Great Questions of Life, we are at the beginning (possibly in the middle, but definitely not at the end) of a global shift in the concept of religion, a shift away from the view of religion as a way of transcending the human condition  and toward a view that religion is about embracing the human condition. He opens this talk with a description of how the use of the language of life has, over the past century, largely replaced the language of religion.

Thus, for me, spiritual practice is now not so much about happiness as about completion, a way of experiencing life that is as complete as possible in each and every moment. 

This approach to spiritual practice was not what I initially sought. Like most people, I sought some kind of transcendence, if not in God, then in various god surrogates such as mahamudra, pristine awareness, or dzogchen, though, somewhat ironically, dzogchen means "great completion". 

My experience in retreat training was not one of transcendence, but one of descent, a descent into prolonged physical and emotional challenges that left me no option but to experience exactly what was arising. Taking and sending (mahayana mind training) was often the only form of practice I could do, and it worked, not in the sense of easing the pain or finding some transcendent state, but in providing me with a way to be in my experience, not blocking it, nor being consumed by it.

One principle that I learned then, though one I've had to learn and relearn it again and again, is that when we see and accept what is actually happening, even if it is very difficult or painful, mind and body relax, and in that rest, there is an exquisite quality that comes through just experiencing what arises, completely, with no separation. 

Some might call it joy, but it is not a giddy or excited joy. Rather it is a deep and quiet joy, a joy that, in some sense is always there, waiting for us, but usually touched only when some challenge, pain, or tragedy leaves us with no other option.

Others might call it truth, but this is a loaded and misleading word, carrying with it the notion of something that exists apart from experience itself. The notion of truth also sets up an opposition, with what is held to be false, and such duality necessarily leads to hierarchy, authority, and institutional thinking and its associated forms of mind killing.

Again, in the three-year retreat, one of the daily prayers contained the line "Though beings want to be happy, they just create suffering." At first, it seemed to me that these lines referred to a lack of skill, that is, if beings understood and applied the principles of karma, then they would not suffer as much. Better, if they experienced the "true nature of things", then they wouldn't suffer at all. But as time passed and I went through my own struggles, I came to understand these lines in a different way: the desire for happiness itself is a form of suffering as it leads to a struggle with experience, e.g., in the context of relationships, the desire for continual happiness undermines emotional connection.

Thus, for me, the purpose of practice is now to be with whatever arises in this experience we call "life", nothing more, and nothing less. Everything we do in practice is aimed at the development of the willingness, skills, and capacities needed to experience life this way. 

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very good, Ken. Thank you.

Bill Butler

Anonymous said...

Contentment.

Edith said...

Thank you Ken for this wonderfully clear account of 'happiness' and especially for your timely reminder that the normal ups and downs of day-to-day living are not patholgical conditions requiring BFC's!

cem3 said...

"Thus, for me, the purpose of practice is now to be with whatever arises in this experience we call "life", nothing more, and nothing less."

I am confused. How does acceptant immersion bridge to action?

Roger said...

"Thus, for me, the purpose of practice is now to be with whatever arises in this experience we call "life", nothing more, and nothing less. Everything we do in practice is aimed at the development of the willingness, skills, and capacities needed to experience life this way."

I find I must disagree with you here Ken. When certain things arise, skillful means are required to negotiate the situation I find myself in.
I find that your instruction to "be with whatever arises in this experience we call life." can lead to increased suffering. I also find that a certain level of "happiness" or "peace" is required to be in my experience. I find your post somewhat provocative and misleading since you only briefly mention taking and sending, which is a practice that does not work for all, as an antidote.
Also, drugs can help people who are in deep suffering and they do. I feel that It would help me if you took more care here.
I feel this blog post may be veering slightly toward a 'cult of personality' direction in the sense that you could be seen as posing as the "gloom and doom" teacher. Nice pose, but not helpful in many cases.
I know from my experience in conversation with you that you feel strongly that certain experiences are damaging, and that there are many and varied techniques, many of which are not part of Buddhism, that can be used to move away from these experiences, including drugs, so that one can be "happy" enough to negotiate one's life.
I wonder why you don't mention that very important (to me) point here
Thank you for your interesting post.
(You did ask for feedback! My apologies if I speak from a place of great ignorance, but this is how it seems to me right now and I wanted to let you know.)
Roger

ed said...

People are attracted to Spiritual and Religious practices out of some
emotional need. It may often mask itself as intellectual curiosity.

Buddhist Traditions have a wealth of knowledge but this may not have immediate application.

Pain is a subjective event.
People define it as emptiness,
tightness in the chest etc.

Ridding ourselves of pain might be the most important step in any "Path". People in pain rarely have the ability to engage in deep philosophical investigation.

This is why i wonder if the practice of Jhana or Samadhi might not be a better first step in addressing the unsatisfactory aspect (Dukkha) of life.

Slim said...

You are always so helpful to my understanding of LIFE, Sir Kenneth.

Through your books, and talks, I have come to adopt a rather simple way to hit that "glidepath of coping" with an immediate transformation during rough moments.

Upon exhalation, I hear in my body and mind, "Right here...right now"; and "No Hope...No Fear."

Thinking constantly of the eight worldly concerns, my ego buries itself fairly quickly.

In this moment, OPEN PHENOMENA, ROLLING ALONG immediately happens. AND...I function. THAT'S IT! The closest mode for "happiness" for my "NOT-SELF".

Bernard (Rick) Mancuso

tracy said...

This is lovely. How we must constantly be reminded that it's not the end result, "happiness", but the it's about the journey. The journey in experiencing one moment at a time.
Thanks.

Shunyata Kharg said...

Ken,

This post of yours is as clear, smooth and refreshing as the water of a mountain lake. Thank you very much indeed.

Ken said...

Dear Roger,

You are quite right. Various skills are needed to negotiate different kinds of situations, and the skills don't necessarily emerge naturally through meditation.

And you are right about taking and sending. It doesn't work for everyone, and it isn't really an antidote (I think that terminology is misleading). It's more a way to change one's relationship with what is arising in experience. In my case, it was the method which "worked" for me, in the way I described.

If we don't have the capacity to stay in our present experience while allowing old hurts and wounds to be felt, then, yes, again, we run the risk of reinforcing the problems.

And, yes, in some cases, appropriate medication has given people the space they needed to form a different relationship with their experience.

There are many other points that come into play, here, including the role of compassion, but in these short blog posts, one can't cover everything. That's what books and articles are for!

Ken said...

Dear cem3,

Acceptance immersion, to use your term, does not necessarily lead to action on its own. It does, however, present the possibility of experiencing what is arising differently, and that shift may well lead to a different way of meeting the situation.

Ken

Ellen Fishman said...

"One principle that I learned then, though one I've had to learn and relearn it again and again, is that when we see and accept what is actually happening, even if it is very difficult or painful, mind and body relax, and in that rest, there is an exquisite quality that comes through just experiencing what arises, completely, with no separation."

When I read this part I experienced a sense of unease mixed with sadness. Not because I disagree with what you said rather it is because that quality has been known/experienced. Yet too often I veer from that no separation out of habit and fear.
When I recite the line "Let my heart turn to practice"
I can experience the same feeling because my heart know that such opening is what needs to be done, completely.

"Everything we do in practice is aimed at the development of the willingness, skills, and capacities needed to experience life this way."

You've changed the wording from know how to skills, that helps me understand better what I need to work on developing. I would add that the skills are often developed by using tools such as prayers or inviting your fear in for a cup of tea.

"One principle that I learned then, though one I've had to learn and relearn it again and again,"

Isn't that where self compassion comes in ?
You move forward in one moment, fall on your arse another, get up and start again.
Learned and being able to apply something in order to problem solve is different. Learning to add numbers doesn't mean you can use that rote learning and solve a word problem.

From the same prayer I’ve changed the lines- Let this path dissolve confusion, Let confusion become wisdom
to - May this path lead into confusion. May confusion dissolve into wisdom.

For me the confusion is that place where I am learning again and again and wisdom allows to one to rest, relax, accept no separation, and be at peace.

Peter Goble said...

This is a very lovely, tender and simple teaching. It tells me all I need to know. Thank you.

Patricia Ivan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ellen Fishman said...

"Thus, for me, the purpose of practice is now to be with whatever arises in this experience we call "life", nothing more, and nothing less. Everything we do in practice is aimed at the development of the willingness, skills, and capacities needed to experience life this way. "

"the purpose of practice is now to be with whatever arises in this experience we call "life","

Stephen/Ondrea Levine state in Who Dies, " When there is anger, or guilt or fear now, do you open to it and give it space ? Or do you contract, creating more of the same, increasing the deep imprinting which colors each perception in the future: another investment in Karma Savings and Loan ."

Ah, to be soft, to open, to be. Over and over again I have heard you say : It is a different way of life. Like a watercolor painting where the colors fade
sometimes, flow into each other and lack the sharpness of other mediums this way of life includes space for impermanence, others and love.

Thanks,
Ellen

Philippe said...

Finally someone has to courage to debunk the "pursuit of Happiness", which is in itself most often a contributing factor of pain. All those Buddhist teachers preaching Happiness to everyone, should get back reading Buddha 101 and start sitting again.
It is disappointing to see so many specially "Tibetan teachers" peddling all type of heavens and peaceful paradises. I had my debate on that once with with your old teacher Ken, oh about 20 some years ago, he had just woken up from his nap...I remember him chuckling and smiling back to me :)...Keep up the good work!!

Kris said...

"when we see and accept what is actually happening..."

Is that seeing and accepting an unknowing, a moment before labeling our lives to give them form? A pivot point, the edge of the abyss, the top of the ten foot pole. To label it as painful or difficult misses it, doesn't it?

"there is an exquisite quality that comes through... Some might call it joy... not a giddy or excited joy... a deep and quiet joy... always there, waiting for us..."

How about "poignant", that happy/sad, all inclusive feeling. Or poignant curiosity? We desire the exquisite state that you dangle out there with your words, and consequently we suffer.

To say something is always there, waiting for us, is to cut the worm in two, create two worlds. There is "something" that is always there apart from us now. Really? Why do teachers always say stuff like this?

I see no answers— just this incessant circling of words. Really, I think there's nothing left but to get out there in the world and live it to the max, the good, the bad and the ugly all inclusive. This is it!

Linda D. said...

Its not 'happiness' that's the problem, its our understanding of the word.
Buddhist terminology uses words differently than what we understand them to be in conventional English and this can be very confusing.

And depending upon the level of teaching, things are expressed differently. For instance when Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the Sadhana of Mahamudra writes, "Hey-ho, the happy yogi!" He goes on to qualify that, "Every movement of the mind becomes bliss and emptiness; all polarity disappears." This is hardly a conventional understanding of happiness.

Let's not lay blame on our teachers, but ask questions of our teachers for a clearer understanding. That's why we have teachers. I used to think that the path was a very slippery slope; now I understand that my mind is a very slippery slope walking on a very profound path.

Spiritual Realaw said...

Wow. Fantastic Mr Mcleod. I would very much like for this global shift to continue and pick up its pace.The theme of escapism has been an important one in my own dealings with students recently, so to find you express the heart of the issue and how it relates to the desire for transcendental experience and the specific desire to get away from our immediate experience somehow was timely and heartening.

Matt Basil said...

"Thank you Ken for this wonderfully clear account of 'happiness' and especially for your timely reminder that the normal ups and downs of day-to-day living are not patholgical conditions requiring BFC's!"..lol


7 chakras Meditation

Line Dezainde said...

This text conveys very well what is that the heart of my practice. I will use your text for moments when friends ask me about happiness and Buddhism. It’s a difficult concept to address without sounding “disconnected” and I always find myself explaining about the ego, which is also quite the challenging topic! This text will help. Thank you Ken.

Anonymous said...

THANKS, Ken. Sharp as always.

Romans and Greeks had such good vocabulary for this argument. Too bad certain religions paved it over. Philosophers endlessly debated over whether the best aim for spiritual practice was 1) "eudaimonia"--well-being, inner peace and psychological health, found by making virtue its own reward-- 2) "ataraxia"--literally "imperturbability", the ability to be unshaken from attention when basically the Eight Worldly Concerns show up; or 3) "apatheia"--not apathy, till critics made it a dirty word, but literally "no suffering"--pretty literally the absence of craving and aversion. 4) Then there were the Skeptics, who thought you could get to ataraxia-imperturbability by learning to be free from beliefs and suspend the judging mind (Madhyamika-style). 5) Oh, then there were the Plato-types, who used pointing-out instructions, insight practice and the slow winnowing of desire into the craving for nothing but wisdom. Their payoff was "seeing the form of the Good" or "Henosis"--seeing the nature of reality.

Note that NONE OF THESE ARE ABOUT MAXIMIZING PLEASURE. I figure if nobody in the entire Western world thought spiritual practice was about self-gratification, and no traditional Buddhist text ever did, and no classic Taoist or Confucian ever did, and no Hindu text I've ever read, nor the Abrahamic spiritual traditions, and even the Epicureans didn't think so, maybe trying to maximize pleasure is not what life is about...