“We need one more thing to make us happy. One thing leads to the next, perpetuated by our desire to have final satisfaction. But the next experience feels uneasy, and we still need one more thing… The desire to feel satisfied is a continual process that drives our lives, and the end result is suffering… it’s just what ends up happening when we are driven by negative emotions.” – Sakyong Mipham (Turning the Mind into an Ally)
What do we really need? That simple question could well be an important key to happiness and wisdom. And beyond the question of what do we really need is the more germane question: Why are our needs so endless? What are all these wants that, at a deep psychological level, become needs? Sakyong Mipham, the Tibetan/American meditation teacher gives a very good answer when he says, “it’s just what happens when we are driven by negative emotion.” – as we certainly are, either very blatantly or subtly, much of our waking lives.
We want things to be better; we want more for ourselves than life is giving. We have an emotional uneasiness as to whether we are enough, and so have a rather unlimited sense of needing more, and for our situation to be better. And when things are the way we want them to be, we want them to stay that way – but they don’t, they can’t. Everything changes, but what we want is unchanging happiness – without even knowing what that means. So, we experience anxiety, anger, jealousy, worry, sadness, despair – negative emotions that drive us.
There are many extrapolations of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths on the nature of suffering, but a very useful variation is that we suffer because, whether we express it as a need or a want, we often experience that we need things to be different from the way they are in order to control our negative emotions. Again, this can be on very blatant or subtle levels, and taking that extrapolation to the teaching’s resolution, the fourth of the Truths, we could say that the way out of negative emotional suffering is to not need for things to be different from the way they are in order for us to be OK.
“Well, of course,” you say. When this moment is the way I want it to be, I am fine, I am happy, and when it is not the way I want it to be, I am not fine and happy. Isn’t that the natural way of things? But herein lies our problem. Our well-being is then dependent on the circumstances of our lives as we interpret them in our minds. This is neither natural – meaning the way of Nature, nor is it an enlightened relationship to our unique human capacity to relate to life with abstracting intelligence.
Happiness is a mental state. It occurs in the mind. Nothing outside of ourselves is the source of our happiness, rather our mind deciding it is happy with what is happening is the source of our happiness. What is unfortunate is that we don’t realize that we have the capacity to cultivate the mental state of happiness (more accurately, well-being) as our natural state in a manner that can be largely independent of the circumstances of our lives. Ultimate happiness (non-suffering) is the result of our embrace of every moment just the way it is.
One of the great Zen lessons – a Koan from the 9th Century Chinese Zen master Rinzai – asks us, “This moment, what is lacking?” And when we are unhappy, we believe the answer to be that what is lacking is what we think we need to make the moment more fulfilling, satisfying, safe, or whatever qualifier we have in our mind. The truth is that when we are fully present in any moment in our natural mind, it is as contemporary Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “This moment is a perfect moment, this moment is my refuge.” Refuge from what? From the suffering, the unsatisfactoriness of having the moment being different than what in our minds we think we need it to be. We live in the subtle and not-so-subtle experience of believing our fulfillment is not in this moment just as it is, but in some next moment that will be exactly the way we need for it to be to experience perfect happiness.
Buddhism teaches of the thickness and multidimensionality of existence. Mostly, we live in the mind our society conditions into us, our egoic (what Buddhists call “little”) mind, trapped in needing for its fulfillment some fantasy idea of a perfect self – finding fantasy perfection in a fantasy world. This mind is extremely limited in its perceptive abilities, and tends to focus on what is lacking, rather than the totality and potentiality of what is present. This is the world of samsara, suffering.
However, Buddhism teaches that there is also the macro-world of the Big Mind, of our Being-self, in harmony with the Universe realizing that there is no separate self. There is always and only the Universe expressing itself in its fullness through this form we experience as our self-in-the-given-moment, all interconnected and perfect just as it is. Nothing is needed because to need is to be separate from the whole of what is, and there is no separation. This is the mind of enlightenment, and this is the mind into which Buddhist teaching and meditation can open us.
Imagine the total freedom, the total liberation when we realize that at an ultimate dimension always available to us, nothing more is needed, that this moment, exactly as it is, is perfect, exactly as it is. This is what in the Shambala tradition of Sakyong Mipham is called Shamatha – peaceful abiding. Within us all is the ability to abide peacefully in the present moment exactly as it is, not needing anything to be different to quell our negative emotions, not needing to get to the next moment to quiet the restless little mind of ego questing for fulfillment of its fantasy identity in a fantasy world. Right here. This moment, nothing lacking. This is enlightenment. This is the heart of Buddhism.
Does this mean to live passively? No – it means to do what needs to be done to support and protect our lives and all life. It also means to bring forth our efforts in the service of evolving an ever more conscious, compassionate and loving human society, but none of it from negative emotion. As Asian philosophy expert Alan Watts wrote: “Everything is as it can be.” And this moment is exactly as it can be as the platform for the next moment in the very big picture. When we embrace what is, we can become courageous co-authors with the Universe of what will be.
Nothing is fixed and permanent. Everything is both being and becoming. What is, is. And what will pass, will pass. And what will be, will be. And our fantasies do not have to be the impotent protests or the narcissistic desires of an individual driven by negative emotions from one perceived need to the next, but rather visions of what can be in an enlightened human society.
“The purpose of Buddhism is to study ourselves and to forget ourselves. When we forget ourselves, we actually are the true activity of the big existence, or reality itself. When we realize this fact, there is no problem whatsoever in this world, and we can enjoy our life.” – Shunryu Suzuki (1904-71)