Happy For No reason!
March 30, 2009 § Leave a comment
When Buddha professed, “Life is suffering”, he was likely referring not to a gloomy picture of our lives of sadness and suffering but to the constant inner struggle we have with our thoughts and emotions. Thoughts are ceaselessly traveling to the past or to the future – what I did well, what could have been better for me, what I would love to happen and so on. These thoughts are not an occasional occurrence but are a human preoccupation. A human mind typically has over fifty thousand thoughts in a day – and, all these thoughts are accompanied by corresponding emotions. Thoughts of things going are accompanied by feelings of satisfaction and happiness; thoughts of things potentially going wrong lead to emotions of fear and anxiety. As a result, our moods and state of happiness is always at the mercy of our thoughts and emotions. Is there an alternate to this existence? Can one have greater equanimity, irrespective of the direction of thoughts? Can these thoughts be minimized?
As we attempt to answer these questions, we need to first recognize what causes these thoughts in the first place. It’s our ego. It’s the notions of ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘mine’ that we grow up with, which develop a deep sense of independent personality and separateness of our identity. We then begin working towards our own survival and growth and can end up leading an entire life focused on pursuit of personal pleasures. This sense of duality (I am different from others) is the genesis of our thoughts. As long as we see ourselves disjointed from the whole, we will continue to feel incomplete and have thoughts driven by our craving for more (money, success, knowledge, happiness etc.) or fear of losing something that we already possess (money, power, reputation, happiness…).
While there are numerous methods out there to deal with this unending train of thoughts, one powerful approach is related to connecting with ‘awareness’ or ‘consciousness’. Awareness is not the mind, or our thoughts; it’s the consciousness which allows us to observe our mind, thoughts, and emotions. If we close our eyes and just focus on the thoughts that arise in our mind, it’s the awareness which allows us to notice these thought patterns and we can notice the observer as distinct from the thinker. We can then train to recognize that this awareness is like a mirror – it only reflects what the mind is going through, without any projections of its own. The mirror has no worries, fears, anger or cravings – its pure awareness, pure consciousness. All the thoughts and accompanying emotions arise in the mind, even though we experience them only through this awareness. As we begin to connect with this inner awareness, we start to realize that this awareness is who we really are. In our normal life, we are so busy with external stimulus that we lose connection with our true inner selves. We can simultaneously learn to comprehend that this awareness is omnipresent, and governs everything; all of us are made of it and that we are all connected and part of the same whole – the awareness continuum. Just observing ourselves, without paying attention to our circumstances or potential outcomes, can be a great way towards liberating ourselves of many of our inner struggles.
Being such a witness makes us realize we have no independent identity, which in turn reduces our ego and our overarching sense of separateness and duality. Instead, it initiates us into greater equanimity – that can assist us in reducing our continuous thoughts of craving and clinging, and of judging everything as good or bad. Cultivating equanimity can help us better normalize what the Buddhist teachings identify as the eight variations of our tendency to continually hope and fear – pleasure and pain, praise and blame, gain and loss, fame and disgrace. Practicing mindfulness (by staying connected with our awareness) and an attitude of equanimity can open us up to all types of experiences (pleasant or otherwise) with equal acceptance. In fact, if handled well, suffering can then become another opportunity for further learning and personal growth. Suffering can teach us greater compassion by helping us better appreciate the difficulty of others in similar situation.
Of course, one can argue against all these ideas with a “so what, who cares?” attitude. It is so possible to continue living without bothering to analyze these aspects in our daily existence. There’s also the question around, when and where do I begin, if at all? I reckon there are various perspectives to that. I believe we are all at different stages in the circle of life (not ahead of or behind any other) and spirituality works for those who need it at their stage for personal growth. Further, it makes eminent sense to start from wherever we are – we can never be too early for it or too late; our own time is the right one for us. Having said that, once we do become conscious of these aspects, it can be hard to ignore them any further. As Socrates said, “A life not examined is not worth living.” Socrates, who lived at a time not very different from Buddha’s, believed that each person is born with full knowledge of the ultimate truth and we need only be spurned to conscious reflection to become aware of it. Socrates went a step further, to also differentiate between this quest and other self-help processes. Like the contemporary self-improvement trend, there were the Sophists in ancient Greek, who Socrates felt were more driven by imparting worldly knowledge that could be used to further one’s own interests and not really interested in searching for the truth. Like many other philosophers and sages, he believed searching for the truth to be the deepest purpose of human life.
As Patanjali, the great Indian sage, said, “The Self is pure, free from decay and death, free from hunger and thirst and free from sorrow. This is the Spirit in man. The only thing this Spirit desires is truth. This is the Spirit that we seek and know: we must each find our own Self. When we have found our Self and gotten to know about it, we have reached the ultimate, and there is nothing more to desire.” In that context, any baby steps we can patiently take towards learning mindfulness, connecting with awareness, gaining equanimity, or striving towards the journey of truth, can greatly help us experience inner joy and peace. With that, more of our actions also tend to arise from pure motivation rather than from desires of gain and loss. We then also no longer need a reason to be happy!