Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Mustard Seed of Happiness----

Most people nowadays suffer from the delusion that it is possible to find happiness in the externalities of life. It isn't surprising that this is the case, because our culture pretty much rams this idea down our throats from an early age. Not only is it enshrined in the US Constitution and constantly dinned into our ears through advertising, but I find that people increasingly police each other in order to ensure that each of us has a "positive attitude".

I was reminded of this the other day at work when a co-worker made a comment about my countenance. I had been reading a newspaper article about a researcher who was saying that a very high percentage of men leave their wives when they suffer significant health problems. I don't know if this is truly a problem or just some more hype created by the media. But I'm not sure that I ever want to be the sort of person who isn't visibly disturbed by reading this sort of thing.

Several days before I'd been listening to two of my co-workers talking about some issues that one of them had been facing. The one fellow had been off work for a couple months because he had had two major arteries in his heart almost totally block by plaque. He didn't have a heart attack, but it was almost a miracle he didn't. Thanks to the Canadian health care system, though, he had both blockages fixed and he is back at work now. But in the interim, it was discovered that his wife has breast cancer. So not only was this guy stuck at home and forced to do nothing in order to recuperate from the insertion of two stents, but now he had to watch his wife undergo surgery, help with her post-operation recovery, and, wait to see what the tests will say about the lump that was removed.

What was really interesting about this was the response of two of his co-workers. One said "I bet you're glad you got the plasma screen tv!" The other said "rent movies, lots of comedies". In effect, the solution of life's problems is to keep yourself distracted.

I'm not about to say that there is no sense in trying to cheer oneself up with entertainment. I myself have been a little "down" lately and last night I made my own attempts at distraction with a Patrick O'Brian novel and a glass of red wine. But I do think that our society is really misguided in its attempt to convince people that some sort of physical "happiness" can be the baseline without the odd tragic fluke intruding once in a while. When I look around me I see so much evidence of real tragedy that I cannot think that the odd person I know who really does seem to be immune from bad things is simply the result of my own ignorance of their true condition rather than some objective reality.

I've been contrasting our society's response to human tragedy with one that comes from the literature of Buddhism.

The Buddha was once taken to see a woman who had lost her mind in grief from the death of a small child. She would not even allow anyone to bury it, and she continued to carry the body around. The Buddha told her the following "I will make a magical elixir that will bring your child back to life. But in order to make it, I need you to give me an essential ingredient. Bring to me one mustard seed from a home where no one has ever died." The woman ran off and went from home to home looking for this seed. But everywhere she went she got the same reply "You cannot get it here, many people have died in this house." Eventually, this exposure to the reality of death wore away her grief and brought her back to her senses. She reconciled herself and allowed the child to be buried.

As I see it, the people of our civilization are like that woman running from house to house seeking a mustard seed that could return her child to life. But unlike her, most of us never really twig into the fact that there is no home where things are all sweet and rosy. I suspect that a big part of this comes from the fact that unlike the home-owners in the story, no one tells us "no, this too is a house with sorrow". And I think this gets back to what was happening at work. The co-worker who was trying to jolly me out of my pensive mood, and the others that were suggesting that the other fellow distract himself with movies, were suggesting that the way to deal with sorrow is through denial.

This isn't to say that the problem of suffering is answered simply by refusing to be in denial. In Buddhism the acknowledgement that death is universal is simply part of the first of the Four Noble Truths. And understanding those truths is not enlightenment itself, that only comes from following the Eightfold Path. But having said that, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step. And this step will never be taken until people admit that life is, on the whole, more of a veil of tears than a cornucopia of joy.


The Rambling Taoist said...

Or one could say that life just is.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Well, of course. I have friends who make a lot of hay out of reminding me how many times I say "That's just the way it is" when they get angry about things that are beyond anyone's ability to change.

Beyond that, I don't know what your comment is supposed to mean. Are you suggesting that I shut up and stop thinking about these things?

The Rambling Taoist said...

I'm not suggesting that in the least. I much appreciate your contemplations and ruminations. Almost every one of your posts makes me think of the topic in a way I may not have before.

I suppose what I was driving at is that life is neither a veil of tears nor a cornucopia of joy. Life is and those emotions simply are ways that we interpret our essence of being...if that makes any sense. ;)

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Oh now I see.

Of course your point is true, which is ultimately the point that the Buddha was trying to make. But in another sense, I disagree.

The Buddha maintained that the first step towards enlightenment is to accept that life is "Dukkha" (usually translated as "suffering", but more accurately it refers to friction.) Many people evade this conclusion and avoid making the significant lifestyle changes that the Buddha advocates.

There is a story about a person who went to a guru to study. The teacher rammed the potential student's head into the water and held him just up to the point where he would have drowned. Afterwards he said that the student wouldn't learn until he desired wisdom as much as he had just desired air.