Sunday, July 17, 2016

Some thoughts on happiness, part I

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok
Photograph by the author

Yesterday, I was engaged in various discussions about the nature of happiness with a friend of mine.
First, he cheerily sent me some material from The New Yorker

Now, one of my personal "favorite" articles on the subject— an article about Buddhism—was called "Not For Happiness,” published in Shambala Sun in January 2013. 

Alas. My friend (we'll call him R.) was not at all amused by this fine old article. He found it too grim and unhappy ...might I, ahem, point out he should have been prepared for that, given the title? As is in the way of such things, R. counter-quoted Vivekananda:

"The first sign that you are becoming religious is that you are becoming cheerful.  When a man is gloomy that may be dyspepsia, but it is not religion. To the Yogi, everything is bliss, every human face that he sees brings cheerfulness to him.   That is the sign of a virtuous man.   

What business have you with clouded faces?   It is terrible.   If you have a clouded face, do not go out that day, shut yourself up in your room.   What right have you to carry this disease out into the world?

Anyway, R. and I are both opinionated older white males — already a poisonous combination — and have been engaged in spiritual work for quite some time, so no one should believe any damn thing we think or say. Furthermore, it's very easy for people like us to just slam quotes around. 

Bah humbug, I say.

Instead of further quoting, I thought I'd share some of my own thoughts on the subject with readers.

 Happiness as we generally understand it is a temporary emotional condition. All conditions are, of course, temporary; but I think it's important for us to recognize how ephemeral and connected to material things happiness is. There is nothing wrong with attempting to get it or to have it; but the whole question does not take the nature of spiritual work into account.

 There's a great difference between being materially happy and spiritually happy. I've known many very wealthy people over the course of my life, and I can say with reasonable certainty that not one of them has been even materially happy. It turns out, you see, that no matter how much you have, it doesn't actually make you happy. Not in terms of the soul and spirit, where it truly matters. Happiness related to the left-hand side of the enneagram, that is, higher energy and the inner work of the Spirit, is quite different than material happiness. If one has never experienced spiritual elevation of a legitimate kind, one will consistently mistake material and earthly happiness as being something along the lines of spiritual happiness; but this is not the case. They are very nearly opposite to one another, and as different as night and day. 

 Gurdjieff said (on more than one occasion) that “pleasure is shit.” It belongs to the material world. He consistently pointed us to a much deeper world of the spirit in which we take on a portion of God's sorrow; and this was considered, in his eyes, to be the highest work that we can engage in. Yet without a real taste of this — which is an actual material substance of the spiritual world (yes, I know that's confusing, but there you have it) — one can't understand why sorrow would make one happy.

Nor can one understand why one's aim ought to be to participate in the sorrow of God.

I'll discuss this more in the next post.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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