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Is Happiness The Goal Of Religion, Or Of Life?

David Brooks' excellent piece in the NY Times reminded me of these thoughts I had written some time ago.

"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. It's frivolous because pleasure is a transient state, subject to change, and dependent on many conditions, internal and external. It's unrealistic because life is unpredictable and pain can come at anytime. The spate of books on happiness are particular 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 view as they can then happily (sic) 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, ironically, dzogchen, which means, literally, great completion. My experience in retreat 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 might exist apart from the experience itself. The notion of truth 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, their efforts just produce 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 us to 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 the development of the willingness, skills, and capacities to be able to be with whatever arises in this experience we call "life," nothing more, and nothing less. This way of experiencing life brings with it a sense of completeness, not spilling anything into the world because we can't experience it, and not suppressing anything, either.

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