Monday, October 19, 2009

Too Much Happiness

I cam across this interesting post by Marguerite of the blog Mind Deep. She write about how, in the midst of a day full of happiness, she longs for quiet, and for a chance to meditate. It's an interesting quandary, isn't it? People talk about wanting happiness and yet, when there's too much, or it's too intense, there's something off about it too.

Partly, what Marguerite describes is an externally-focused happiness. Great feeling produced by being with her family, celebrating life in a warm, comfortable house. Definitely wonderful, but still transient. Not the bedrock joy that exists and can be tapped into at all times if only we are awake to it.

However, I think Marguerite's post gets at one of the main problems of striving after constant happiness: it's not very balanced. Yesterday, I went out for coffee and cake with a couple of good friends. I rarely eat cake, and find that as I get older, the desire for sugar has weakened greatly. It just doesn't satisfy very much, and the side effects from too much aren't so pleasant.

Our longing for constant external happiness, when it actually manifests for a short time, is like eating an entire chocolate cake. In the beginning, there is euphoria. Life is absolutely wonderful, and the laughter and giddiness can drive you for hours. But eventually, the body has to process all that energy, and as it does, the mood shifts, turns heavy, hazy, and even sour. Then you go through withdrawal, wanting to push everyone and everything away. In some ways, it's a less dramatic version of drug addiction and withdrawal.

This is why I have grown suspicious of commentaries that suggest that Buddhism's goal is one of happiness. It seems like a big trap for people, especially in a country like the U.S., where the term "pursuit of happiness" was codified in our Declaration of Independence, and has an almost religious quality to it now. Along these lines, one of the few Buddhist books to reside on the Bestseller list for a significant period of time was the Dalai Lama's book The Art of Happiness, which has sold over 1.5 million copies in the past 11 years. Yes, it's accessible, and was written for the general public. But I'd argue that the title taps into that deep longing most Americans have to be happy, to have happiness. In fact, if you look at the original quote from John Locke, which was "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property," you can see how, even though Thomas Jefferson (in consultation with Ben Franklin) replaced "property" with "happiness" when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, there actually wasn't really any change. We want to own happiness, feel we have an absolute right to continual happiness, just as Locke felt people had a right to own property. And it's in this ownership aspiration that we really screw things up.

If you never question and dig deeply into the "ownership mind," liberation will always be far away. For those of us living in lands of abundance, where capitalism and material prosperity are commonplace, dismantling the ownership mind is one of our most important tasks. May we all be liberated from it's limits.


spldbch said...

I've been doing a little reading about the ownership mind lately. Something in particular I read strikes me as a wonderful illustration. When something we own breaks we become upset, disappointed, or angry. When that very same object belongs to someone else and it breaks we have no emotional reaction. We identify with whatever we label "mine."

Robyn said...

I like your idea about trying to "own" happiness. It makes a lot of sense. DId you read "Ending the Pursuit of Happiness" by Barry Magid? It wasn't earth shattering in its information but I do love the title...

Algernon said...

Reminds me of something I've always found funny. A lot of us will say, when we suddenly get an idea or understand something intellectually, "I've got it!" I've got it. Interesting expression.