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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

happiness: how to

If we were to ask, "What is human life's chief concern?" one of the answers we should receive would be: "It is happiness." How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is for most men the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure. Even more in the religious life than in the moral life, happiness and unhappiness seem to be the poles round which the interest revolves.

Thus (compressed) opens lecture 4 of William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, entitled "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness", delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901.

James goes on to examine the spiritual strategy of seeing the world and everything in it as good. In some cases this positive, optimistic outlook is inborn in an individual; in others it is acquired as a worldview, as part of a system. Based on a conviction that creation must be good, one simply sees it that way. You look for the good, and wherever you look, you find it. When presented with suffering or evil, you quite possibly don't even see them. If you do see them, you refuse to acknowledge them as in any way negating or vitiating the basic good of creation; rather, they contribute to the greater perfection of the world.

As James points out, there is much to be said for this outlook. To name just one tangible benefit, many people have been cured of serious physical ailments simply by changing their attitude and refusing to succumb or even to acknowledge illness. Miraculous cures happen, but they happen only to the "healthy-minded". Modern experiments have shown that having a positive, optimistic attitude magnetizes good fortune: good luck comes to such people. They even find money lying on the ground that is missed by pessimistic people (I kid you not--read The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman). And, all things considered, what does negative thinking really have going for it anyway?

Still, although James is impressed with the achievements of the "religion of healthy-mindedness", he feels that these people have not really engaged with life as fully as those who find religious faith from a condition of having a "sick soul"--those who experience great suffering and evil. These, to him, are the spiritually "twice-born", whose faith is deeper because it is not in any way blinkered with regard to the dark side of life.

Happiness is a central concern of Buddhism. The behavior of all sentient beings, without exception, is seen as a ceaseless, restless, and futile striving for happiness. As a practitioner, you learn that your thirst for happiness is itself the cause of your suffering. This condition is given the technical name samsara, the best definition of which is: "wanting things to be other than they are."

One of the boldest statements about happiness that I've found is in The Practice of Tranquillity and Insight, a text on Buddhist meditation by Thrangu Rinpoche, abbot of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton. In fact, I read this while I was a monk at the Abbey. I was jolted when I read on page 6:

The attaining of day-to-day happiness is...the result of shamatha and vipashyana.

Shamatha and vipashyana are technical meditation terms: Sanskrit for "tranquility" and "insight". Tranquility is what most of us associate with meditation. The mind becomes calm and relaxed. In that state it becomes capable of insight, also known as "clear seeing": seeing things as they are. True clear seeing, true insight, is possible only with tranquility. You can have tranquility without insight, but you can't have insight without tranquility.

So there you have it. According to Thrangu Rinpoche, happiness is indeed attainable, and requires very little in the way of wealth or props. It really comes down to whether you believe him. Considering the radiant, genuine smile that seems to be his normal facial expression, I see no reason to doubt it.

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