Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness

Yesterday I was going through a pretty severe sense of "desolation" (to use the language of St. Ignatius.) Most people would describe it as being "depressed" or "blue", but I like to use the Jesuit language because it is rooted in a psychological system that suggests that a great deal of our "blue states" are spiritually significant.

More to the point, the Ignatian system gives people a set of suggestions or "rules of thumb" to help you get over the blues. What I've gotten from this is the idea that I should look into myself whenever I have the blues (or, am in a period of "desolation") and try to figure out if my subconscious is working itself through some sort of issue or problem. To be specific, I think last night I was trying to come to terms with the idea that I may have to sell my house and move on in a few years because the woman who owns the other half isn't terribly happy living in this neighbourhood. When I realized this and thought about it, it eventually came to me that I am too attached to my home. As a result of some of the comments that Jim added to my last post, I realized that I haven't really learned very well to "renounce" my attachment to household stability.

I once read a zen story about a teacher who was sitting in meditation all by himself after the other monks had fled because of the Mongol invasion of China. A Mongol high officer burst into the Zendo and confronted the monk who was seated in meditation. When the monk didn't get up or even acknowledge his presence, the officer bellowed "Don't you understand that the man before you could kill you without blinking an eye!". The response by the monk was classic Zen: "And don't you understand that you could kill the man before you and he would not blink an eye?" Since the officer valued bravery, he laughed and left the monk unmolested.

Here was a model worth emulation, yet I cower in fear because of the uncertainty that comes from thinking about having to sell my home and move on---something that most people nowadays do several times in their lives.

We are such funny creatures!

I've also been thinking about a statement in the Nei-Yeh that has stuck in my mind and won't seem to leave. Chapter Three states:

All the forms of the mind
Are naturally infused and filled with it [the vital essence],
Are naturally generated and developed [because of] it.
It is lost
Inevitably because of sorrow, happiness, joy, anger, desire, and profit-seeking.
If you are able to cast off sorrow, happiness, joy, anger, desire and profit-seeking,
Your mind will just revert to equanimity.
The true condition of the mind
Is that it finds calmness beneficial and, by it, attains repose.
Do not disturb it, do not disrupt it
And harmony will naturally develop.

Many people would be happy to toss out their "anger, desire and profit-seeking" because they can see how these things lead us astray. But how many are willing to get rid of their "happiness" and "joy" too? I hadn't really thought about how truly alien this Daoist spiritual practice must be to most people.

Indeed, the American Declaration of Independence itself states that people "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." On July 4th the most powerful nation on Earth celebrates the founding of a nation that states that God himself has given everyone the right to pursue their own happiness---and I just quoted a religious text that suggests that happiness is a bad thing because it sucks the life energy out of you!

The only way that I can make sense of this is that the author of the Nei-Yeh didn't value "joy" or "happiness" the way we do. What he thought was more important was the state of calmness or equanimity. Indeed, I think that this state was valued by almost all ancient societies in ways that people nowadays cannot fathom.

Perhaps this comes about because we are so much richer, healthier and secure than the wildest dreams for our ancestors. Travel used to be incredibly dangerous even up until the 19th century. For example, when I read Henry David Thoreau's Cape Cod, which describes a walking tour of the area, I was struck by his description of seeing the locals with hay wagons going down the beach to pick up the drowned sailors and passengers from ships that had foundered in a recent storm. This was not some sort of terrible catastrophe so much as a normal part of living on the sea shore.

Another example came to me when I read Harriet Beacher Stowe's classic Uncle Tom's Cabin. There is a scene in it where a mother is helping an escaping slave mother and child, and she gathers up some clothing for the youngster that once belonged to a child of her own who has recently died. In an aside Stowe says something to the effect that it is a rarely fortune mother who has not similarly had to face the death of one of her little ones. (She lost a son to cholera when he was 18 months old, another drowned at age twenty and yet another was lost at sea as an adult.)

As I think about it, though, it strikes me that people may have just as much reason to be unhappy now as at any time in human history. It certainly seems to me that many of the people I know seem to be pretty unhappy a lot of the time. I've known a few with very significant mental health issues. I know others who have had to really struggle with internal demons that keep them from thriving in relationships and at work. Others simply to have had bad luck. Just about everyone I know has concerns about how they are going to get along in life----will they have enough savings when they retire? will they eventually end up in agony tied to machines keeping them artificially alive?

Maybe we do spend too much time trying to be happy and not enough seeking equanimity.

How does one do it? The Nei-Yeh (as well as other Daoist texts, like the Taiping Jing---or "Classic of Great Peace") suggests that the best way of gaining calmness is through "Holding onto the One". This is a somewhat vague term, but I think that it is a process of finding the centre of your consciousness and not letting momentary experiences divert you from it. Another way of saying this is to constantly remember that you exist so you never get "lost in the moment" or "get caught up in the voices that storm inside your head".

Someone who is able to "Hold onto the One" wouldn't find themselves talking to themselves out loud---or even within their own head. I don't think that they would end up losing their cool because someone else is being emotional with them.

I don't think that this state is something that someone achieves and then never has to worry about. Instead, I think it is an ideal that you have to work at as much as you can for the entirety of your life. The most one can hope for is to being to Hold onto the One when you remember to do so and embrace the moments of clarity that result. Maybe these momentary glimpses of realization will prove more and more frequent as you become more used to doing so---.

And I think that if you are able to Hold onto the One when you are tempted to be very happy, you just might find it much easier to do so when you are tempted to be very unhappy, or scared, or sad. So maybe the reason why we have so many really unhappy people is because they are trying so hard to be happy. Maybe if they sought equanimity instead they might be a little better off.


baroness radon said...

" But how many are willing to get rid of their "happiness" and "joy" too? I hadn't really thought about how truly alien this Daoist spiritual practice must be to most people."

Really! I was just thinking about this ery thing this morning. What is "happiness?"

My company has been very preoccupied lately with the revelation that the employees, according to a survey, are not "satisfied." (i.e., happy).

I am far from happy in the environment, but it is encouraging to me personally to think that "happiness" has nothing to do with the problem the company is trying to solve. Why should anyone be happy/satisfied anyway?

Anonymous said...

I agree. Equanimity arises precisely when we stop grasping after things that cannot be grasped, "happiness" among them.

The hard part is learning how to do this, or more accurately un-learning all of the accumulated tendencies toward grasping that are instilled in us. Luckily for us there are still some signposts for those who know how to read them...

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Yes, of course the issue does revolve around what exactly "happiness" is. Is "equinimity" happiness? I suspect that happiness begins when you start to label the mental state, whereas equinimity begins and ends with "just being".


I think you have it with the "grasping", but perhaps it is more than just "grasping", but perhaps in the "labelling" too---

Jim714 said...

Dear CLO:

During the Classical Roman period there was a spiritual tradition that emphasized equanimity above all other virtues. This was the Stoic tradition. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is centered on the cultivation of equanimity.

I have thought for some years now that what has been lost in the U.S., culturally, is a sense of Stoic toughness. This has been replaced by a sense of entitlement. There are many reasons for this, but I see it all around me.

In the Buddhist tradition there is a meditation program known as the "Four Immeasurables" or, sometimes the "Four Brahmaviharas"; Brahmavihara means "above of the Gods." The four immeasurables are love, compassion, sympathy, and equanimity. Equanimity is the last one and in general is usually the most difficult of the four to stabilize. After many years of practice I came to realize that equanimity is the greatest of the four; that without equanimity the other three do not really come to fruition.

Thanks for the excellent post,


The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Thanks for mentioning the Stoics. I remember reading somewhere that when a Roman general was given a "triumph" (basically, a victory parade), a slave stood next to the general on his chariot. His job was to hold a golden wreathe over the general's head and whisper over and over again in his ear "Remember that you are going to die" or "Remember that you are only a man."

This strikes me as a very Stoic custom---one that I think would make sense in the world today.

tulae101 said...

hmh. there are all these things that seem so obvious when you think about them, but it seems that others are dead set on not seeing them. my question is how do you help a brother out? so to speak.

also, my thoughts on on "holding onto the one" are as follows. that although your mind is soft and malleable, and open to new perspectives as they arise, you are also firm in your convictions about the nature of the universe and all that is.

tanner j

Anonymous said...

You are right about the labeling. I think the labeling and the grasping reinforce each other --- grasping cannot occur labeling something, and labeling it as an object to be grasped. This, I suspect, is one reason why "naming" is given such emphasis in the Tao Te Ching...