“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
– American Declaration of Independence –
“The very purpose of life is happiness. …. Since mental experience is something very important, then it automatically brings up the subject whether we can train mental happiness… human beings through the centuries have developed certain kinds of techniques for shaping the mind… this we usually call meditation.” – The Dalai Lama
We Americans are a nation not only founded on the principle of pursuing happiness, we are obsessed with this pursuit, and we generally look to our circumstances and possessions to provide it. On the other hand, Buddhism could be described as a philosophy of life, a psychology, based in the principle of realizing happiness, not in possessions and circumstances, but rather as a state of mind itself.
Buddhism holds that, regardless of our circumstances or possessions, it is the very idea that we lack happiness and must pursue it outside ourselves that deprives us of happiness; that the whole pursuit of happiness concept is an error, a consequence of human civilization distancing us from our original nature. While it certainly is both right and noble that societies function so as to overcome social/material obstacles to happiness, to truly address the realization of happiness, we must look deeper. Therefore, it would seem that Buddhism might have something very important to say to us about happiness. The very radical proposition that Buddhism puts to us is that while circumstances are certainly influential towards a happy state of mind, perhaps we are very mistaken in believing them to be the source of our happiness, for after all, happiness actually is a state of mind.
Then, in an even more radical premise, Buddhism teaches us that happiness is our natural state of mind. There is nothing we have to do or have to experience it. However, having been thoroughly indoctrinated in the idea of pursuing happiness in outer circumstances to the degree that our minds are overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions about this idea, thus depriving us of happiness, we must do something. And what there is to do, what we can do, is train our minds so that we are not so obsessively caught up in the ideas of this pursuit. This then becomes the purview of meditation. It is, at a basic level, training in subduing this idea of living in ideas, any ideas, whether happy or miserable ideas, and then deepening us beyond the realm of ideas into deeper relationship with Life and with our fundamental being – that which precedes any doing, thinking or having – and we discover there – exactly what it is that we have been pursuing.
What does a human baby need to be happy beyond its basic and immediate need for physical comfort and emotional nurturance? That’s it. Very basic. That’s the realm of our being. And so it is every human’s basic and natural state. But something happens as a human baby matures and develops. Of course it increasingly has to take on responsibility for its own basic needs, but it also takes on a very complicated idea of itself. Society, beginning with parents and then in ever more complicated expanding circles of influence, tells the maturing human who it is and what it needs in order to be significant in the world, and makes happiness synonymous with personal and social significance.
A human ego develops that attaches identity to these ideas-in-society rather than in the basic and natural experience that is our being-in-the-natural-world. Our abstracting mind tells us that our well-being is to be pursued “out there” in the social environment. Happiness then is experienced not as a natural state of mind, but rather in the achievement of these pursuits. We forget how easy it was to be happy as a small child. Happiness becomes a very elusive target getting further and further away the more complicated and sophisticated our idea of our self-in-the-world becomes. We become neurotically anxious about happiness.
Meditation then, first of all, teaches us how to stop running the neurotic mental social programming, the thought stream of ideas of conditioned self, and then allows us to remember our basic natural-self-in-the-world. In the quiet mind of meditation we remember that this basic self needs very little to realize its natural happiness. An intuitive understanding is cultivated of identity in that most basic of mental experiences – awareness – that which was present from the very first as we entered this world – and has been with us, unwaveringly, every conscious moment of our lives. It is a remembering that who we are is not in what we do or have, but in the awareness within which all our doing and having occurs.
Instead of identity in our physical condition and possessions, in our streaming thoughts and emotions, or in our status in the world, our identity is remembered as the awareness that precedes and contains all those phenomena. And in that most basic of experiences, we discover that we are happy – we don’t achieve happiness – we are happiness. We discover that unhappiness comes from hanging our identity and our happiness on the unstable nature of all the things we think will make us happy.
We even discover in meditation that our human capacity for abstract intellectual understanding can take us deeper into that natural state of happiness than even a baby is capable of. We can understand that our lives are lived in moments and only in moments. We can understand/experience that in any given moment, even if we are experiencing difficult or threatening physical, social or emotional circumstances, in this moment, in the purity of awareness, we need nothing. We can touch the ground of existence with our minds.
Awareness itself is happiness, and since we now realize that who we are is awareness, we realize that happiness is natural to us and we can relax into it, no pursuit is needed. Happiness, along with life and liberty, as states of mind, are indeed “unalienable Rights” endowed by our Creator, and not by our society, our possessions, or status in society. We can now realize that anxiously looking to riches, accomplishments or status within society for our happiness is exactly what will deprive us of this unalienable right. We can now, somewhat miraculously, awaken into the realization of our fundamental nature – as a naturally happy person.
And now, having discovered the secret of happiness, we are certainly still free to pursue whatever we choose in the world of materialism and human society, but having realized the true source of happiness, it is probably less likely that we will pursue personal advantage and wealth at the expense of our fellow beings, mistaking these ego victories as sources of happiness. And it seems that with the discovery of true personal happiness, concern and compassion for the happiness of others also naturally arises. And with this, perhaps the realization of a happy human society might become a primary concern for us, an ideal that contains, but is even deeper than political independence. We are free to live complex lives filled with responsibility, but now, with the personal anxiety gone. And perhaps, this was what the Founders ultimately had in mind with their Declaration of Independence, an idea not so different from Buddhism’s declaration of independence from suffering known as “The Four Noble Truths.”