The Ancient Masters’ View of Happiness
What Makes Us Happy? Part 1 — The View of Two Entrepreneurs
Over a period of just a few hours during the course of my normal business day last week, I had two interactions that…
In part one of this exploration of what makes us happy I examined the approaches taken by two very successful people. In the first case, happiness and meaning in life were to be found in achievement, hard work, and success. The second person thought that investing in relationships was the way to achieve lasting peace. To me, neither of these approaches is satisfactory because, for the reasons I laid out in that first article, they won’t achieve the stated goal.
In this article, I ask whether there is a better way? Is there a method to have a happier, more sustainably peaceful and loving day to day experience of life? I have been studying this question for several decades now and I can tell you that the great masters believed that, in fact, such a method exists. Let’s look at what these old sages had to say.
In the sacred Hadith of Islam it is written that God spoke of himself as “a hidden treasure” that “wanted to be known.” He created the world so “that My treasure of loving kindness and generosity might be known.” That sounds crazy, right? Most of us look at the world and we see unbelievable suffering and injustice. Or we look at our own life and it doesn’t seem to be overflowing with this treasure chest of loving kindness. So, what can god have possibly meant by this statement supposedly said by him?
It would be easy to dismiss these kinds of quotes out of hand but some seriously smart and visionary people came up with this stuff. And some of the most intelligent and enlightened human beings to have lived since have examined these insights very carefully. So let’s take them at their word for a moment and see what we find.
We can turn, for example, to one of the greatest Muslim scholars of all time, Ibn Al’Arabi, for elucidation. Arabi was a 12th century Islamic mystic known as the Shaykh Al Akbar, the Master of Masters, because he was such a supremely accomplished spiritual master. He seems like the right guy to ask for some kind of an explanation. Where did he think all the loving kindness was in this painful world we live in? What did he have to say about why there is so much injustice?
Ibn Arabi articulated a vision of life’s purpose as a journey of understanding each human’s oneness with their creator. So, at least according to Arabi, it isn’t about conquering the next goal or spending better time with our loved ones. Rather, a human could experience continual peace and love and compassion by seeing the face of god reflected back at him everywhere he looks, even in the apparently most horrible of situations. The key, as cheesy as it sounds to the modern ear, is to truly understand that we are all one with each other and one with god. He writes in “The Bezels of Wisdom” that it is “only our illusory perception and experience of otherness that is our pain, death and damnation.” In other words, when we don’t see the face of god reflected back at us everywhere then we are not in the space where we realize the truth that we are one with god and perfection and that unlimited peace and joy. And so is everyone else. When we don’t realize this and experience it as the truth of our existence, then we will perceive ourselves as separate from god and others. According to Arabi, if that is our belief and our perception, then our experience of life will be filled with ‘pain, death and damnation.’
So, in a sense my friend and the Harvard study he speaks of are correct. The root of our suffering is in the fact that each of us feels separate and longs for connection. So healthy and warm relationships with others will help. But rather than seeking a mere salve for this feeling of being alone or separate by investing in the company of others, the only way to truly and sustainably relieve suffering is to recognize that this experience of being separate individuals is an illusion. As we saw with the quote from the Hadith, according to Islam, god wants to be known. Indeed, if you believe what is written in the Sacred Hadith (which is meant to be the words of god himself), we were created for the very reason that he might be known. Our longing for connection with others and our feeling of pleasure when we do spend good times with others is the evidence for this fact. We were created for the very purpose of having this longing. Being connected with others feels so good because it is a cousin, albeit a distant one, of that connection that is available if we immerse ourselves in our inherent connection to god.
Realizing that we won’t find true and sustained contentment in other people (or for that matter activities or anything else outside ourselves), and coming to understand that our freedom from suffering is a choice, is the secret to uncovering the “hidden treasure.” It’s not that there is anything wrong with being with other people in itself. Asceticism and seclusion are not necessary or even recommended. Rather, it’s just that our relationships with other people isn’t where we are going to find lasting or true peace and happiness. Relationships change, people die, almost no one is perfectly reliable and faithful. And even if you have the most faithful and loving relationship imaginable, you are still going to feel sad, fearful or angry from time to time. Or maybe quite a lot. Even a perfect relationship isn’t going to change your personality or deliver freedom from suffering. According to the Mohammadean spiritual tradtion at least, there is the possibility of being liberated from suffering through a different method, a method of uncovering your oneness with god. This is one of the reasons you see the practice of praying so many times a day so prevalent in Islam — it serves as a sort of enforced reminder of where happiness lies and ritualized submission to this oneness.
How about the Christian tradition? What did Jesus have to say on this point? He talked a lot about this concept that has unfortunately come down to us in English as something called ‘Heaven’ or the ‘Kingdom of God.’ Sadly, most Christians understand this to be some place up in the clouds that good people go when they die. The problem with this concept is that that isn’t what Jesus likely ever said. Although there is a huge problem with knowing what he actually said (see Bart Ehrman’s wonderful books on this topic), there is enough evidence from enough disparate sources that we can have some confidence that his view of the nature of “the Kingdom” is not this common notion of a life in the white clouds beyond the pearly gates. For example, in the Gospel of Luke, while being questioned by the Pharisees about when this so-called Kingdom of God he kept talking about was coming, [Jesus] answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.””
Another example can be found in the Gospel of Thomas where Jesus says, if you think the Kingdom is in the sky “then the birds of the sky” will get there first. And he says that if you think it is somewhere in the ocean, then the fish will get there before you. The fish and birds are clearly not enlightened or living in the Kingdom already so he’s trying make the point, in other words, that if you think it is a physical place somewhere out there, you are sorely mistaken. Jesus says”the Kingdom is within you and it is outside of you.”
Different religion, same message. The “Kingdom,” is code for union with god or a sustained place of happiness and peace and love, and it is right here, right now, inside and outside of us, available to anyone, anywhere. It is not some place we need to die to get to or that we need to find through spending time with other people or acquiring money or status or fame or power. St. Paul expresses it beautifully in the following passage:
Christ has set us free to enjoy our freedom. … Don’t let the chains of slavery hold you again… My brothers and sisters, you were chosen to be free. But don’t use your freedom as an excuse to live under the power of sin. Instead, serve one another in love… So I say, live by the Holy Spirit’s power…. the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness. (Galatians 5:1)
According to St. Paul, we are already free! That is what Christ did by coming among us. We have the freedom to ignore our inherent connection to god and live a life of pain and suffering (aka a life of “sin” — see my blog post on the topic of how this word is misunderstood) but we also have the freedom to choose love, to choose to awaken to this truth of our union with our higher self, the Highest Self, in the form of the Holy Spirit. This is just like the Islamic concept discussed above of our unseen but true oneness with the Highest Self, aka god. And if we do that, what will life be like? Well, he tells us: “….the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.” Sounds great!
This insight into the nature of happiness is not confined to Islam or Christianity, which admittedly are part of the same Judeo-Christian tradition (they are all People of the Book, to use the phrase from the Koran). Hindu tradition, for example, is permeated with a similar message. Mirabai, perhaps the most famous woman in the Hindu mystical tradition, was a sixteenth century poet and Krishna devotee. In an extraordinary act of self-empowerment and spiritual renunciation that continues to inspire artists, authors, academics and even Bollywood movies to this day, she left the wealth, status and power of her royal North Indian family in order to spend her life in a continual ecstatic embrace of her Lord Krishna. In one of her most famous poems, Mira (as she is often called) writes (in Robert Bly’s translation):
The colors of [Krishna’s] body have penetrated Mira’s
body; all the other colors washed out
Making love with the Dark One [Krishna] and eating little,
those are my pearls and my carnelians.
Meditation beads and the forehead streak,
these are my scarves and my rings.
That’s enough feminine wiles for me.
My teacher taught me this.
Approve me or disapprove me: I praise
the Mountain Energy [Krishna] night and day.
I take the path that ecstatic human beings
have taken for centuries.
I don’t steal money, I don’t hit anyone.
What will you charge me with?
I have felt the swaying of the elephant’s shoulders;
and now you want me to climb
on a jackass? Try to be serious.
(‘Why Mira Can’t Come Back to Her Old House’)
So again, we are back to this idea of oneness with ‘god’ as the secret to happiness and peace (imaged in this poem by a penetration or merging of Krishna’s dark blue skin color with Mira’s body). Even being a princess, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful King, the very pinnacle of the human life available in her time, didn’t remotely compare to her experience of union with Krishna. That life of luxury and power is like riding a jackass compared with the shoulders of an elephant that a life of union with Krishna represents.
We could go on with other similar sentiments from Ancient Egypt, China, Indigenous American and Polynesian traditions or Judaism, for example, but let’s do just one more. Let’s look at what Buddha has to say.
Perhaps his most famous teaching is on the Four Noble Truths which teach us that this experience we call suffering can end. There is a method which will bring a human being peace and happiness. It includes following the Noble Eightfold Path, restraining one’s self, cultivating discipline, and practicing mindfulness and meditation. Many secular people today are attracted to this doctrine because it delivers the same promise that we saw from Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, but minus the idea of god. So with Buddhism you can be safely atheist or agnostic but still benefit from the truth that these old masters bore witness too.
What is the promise of a good life, sometimes called Nirvana, that Buddha is talking about? In the Diamond Sutra he tries to give us an inkling of what the life of bliss that flows from his teachings might be like. He says that if we understand his teachings about the nature of reality, the foundation for heavenly bliss or Nirvana will be set and our merit will be enormous. “Merit” is an old word in the Buddhist tradition that suggests “a beneficial and protective force which accumulates as a result of good deeds, acts, or thoughts.” (Wikipedia). So how good will our merit be? How great is the value of the teaching?
Buddha says “we can summarize the matter by saying that the full value of this discourse [the Diamond Sutra, is so great that it] can be neither conceived nor estimated, nor can any limit be set to it…” Those are pretty extreme words. In case you might think he is exaggerating, he continues by saying that whoever can truly understand his teaching “will achieve a perfection of merit beyond measurement or calculation — a perfection of merit unlimited and inconceivable.” Wow. If we can only understand what he is saying about the true nature of our self and our freedom, the force protecting us from sadness and harm and ill-fortune will express itself in an unlimitedly positive way in our experience of life.
But for some, even Buddhism is too religious-y and claims like this can seem simply preposterous. Fortunately, science is beginning to shed light on the insights from these ancient masters and, tantalizingly, the evidence is building to support these extraordinary claims. I’ll take a look at these scientific results in the next article.