What contributes to happiness?
Recently I came across a fun but insightful quote from former Beatle John Lennon: “When I was five years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘Happy!’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.” At some point in his life he said that all he ever really wanted was to play in a rock band. I imagine though that he underwent a transformation of his dreams by the time he fell in love with Yoko Ono and wrote his signature song Imagine.
I find if I ask people if they are happy there is a pause. The word “happy” sounds somehow too much. Usually they will say that the word “content” feels like a better fit. “Happy” seems like a description for the next life. Indeed sacred literature would suggest that they are right. In Buddhism the first of The Four Noble Truths is the Truth of Suffering. This means both that we suffer and that we need to acknowledge that we are suffering. In the Christian Gospel Jesus says “It is through much suffering that we enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Both Buddhism and Christianity offer a path out of suffering which is first to distinguish between pain and suffering. We cannot escape pain but suffering is how we react to pain and that we can escape. The “escape” for Christianity comes through renunciation of worldly values and then dedicating oneself to the imitation of Christ whom Scripture tells us “did not consider even his own divinity as something to be clung to but emptied himself taking on the role of a servant”; in Buddhism it comes through non-grasping ( same as non-clinging, i.e., “clung to” in the line above) followed by diligent spiritual practice. (Jesus says “Come aside and rest awhile”) and then by living according to the Eight-Fold Path of Right Living which is virtually identical to how your life would look when conformed to the imitation of Christ.
One of the leading American Buddhist teachers is Sharon Salzberg. Writing in the March 2016 issue of Lion’s Roar : Buddhist Wisdom for Your Life (formerly Shambala Sun), she states, “When I say all beings want to be happy, what I actually think I mean is we all want some sense of belonging.” (It bears mentioning that her particular form of suffering that she carried from childhood was an acute sense of not belonging). Her spiritual quest led her to value “awareness”, i.e, to be conscious of what is going on in one’s mind, also known as the practice of mindfulness. Add to awareness, faith in oneself and one’s true capacities and you have her recipe for freedom from suffering.
As for myself, there was considerable suffering in my own childhood. Digging out from under this has contributed greatly to my happiness.or let’s say to my freedom from suffering (remember we don’t get free from pain). Other huge helps in my “pursuit of happiness” have been the consciousness-expanding experiences I had when on long silent retreats, the shedding of the snakeskin of my cultural conditioning in midlife when I left the Jesuits, the joy of falling in love with Linda and living in the embrace of a happy marriage, and the sense of purpose I have in pursuing what I view as my destiny which is nurturing the expansion of consciousness, my own and others.
“You may say that I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one.” John Lennon
(Bill O’Brien is a Consciousness Coach (formerly known as a spiritual mentor) email@example.com