Happiness has its own cottage industry these days with numerous books written on the subject and prestigious universities like Yale, Stanford and even Harvard Business School offering courses in it. From my examination the same few things crop up in the literature on the essentials of happiness: invest in personal relationships, do work that feels meaningful and don’t get hung up on power and money.
I agree with most all of the recommendations coming out of the happiness industry, but I feel like the Buddhists come closest to getting to the crux of living a contented life. We find this in the four noble truths, which serve as the foundation of Buddhism.
What are these four noble truths?
1) Life is suffering.
2) Suffering is caused by desire.
3) Eliminate the desire and you eliminate the suffering.
4) Follow the Eightfold Path to eliminate the desire.
The key is number three. There’s your key to happiness. Stop wanting so much.
It’s about fears, too
It’s important to note that it’s not just about curbing what you want — big house, success, plentiful sex, power, etc. It’s also about not wanting the bad things of life to happen — like losing our house because we can’t pay the mortgage or our girlfriend breaking up with us. These deal with our fears. The Buddhists consider both to be desires.
This concept is captured simply and beautifully in the first line of the Verses of the Faith Mind by the Third Zen Patriarch, Seng-T’san:
“The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.”
Quick digression to state the obvious here: Many thousands of pages have been written about desire, fear and happiness, and I don’t have the space or brain cells to add hundreds more. So I’ll be brief in my minor contribution to this vast spiritual and psychological arena.
The ego strikes again
First, it’s necessary to know that the source of our wants and fears is the egoic, conditioned mind. As kids and into adulthood, we mistakenly learned what we thought would make us happy and also what would make us unhappy. Most of us then spend the rest of our lives pursuing and avoiding these ill-conceived desires and fears.
The key then to not wanting and not fearing is, as Michael Singer teaches, to rid ourselves of all this accumulated egoic baggage. Once we do that, we’re fine with whatever the Universe presents to us.
Just living within our moments is enough to be happy. Scratch that. It’s enough for us to be super-ecstatically happy.
Second, there are two overall strategies for achieving happiness: adding and shedding. Adding would be things like working on relationships and expanding our spiritual knowledge by reading books and taking courses. Shedding would be focusing our work on eliminating that emotional baggage I just mentioned.
We already have everything we need
I’m a firm believer, as Mickey Singer is, that shedding is the way to go. Why? Because shedding presumes that we already have everything we need inside, something I believe wholeheartedly. We just need to clear away the garbage so that that loving, compassionate genius inside us can shine its beautiful light through us and into the world. We don’t need to add a single thing.
I’ve written many pieces that have examined how we go about ridding ourselves of this baggage. Mostly it’s just using our conscious will to become aware when our “stuff” has arisen, then relaxing and letting it go. Continually. Patiently. Persistently.
Which leads to the third and most consequential point of this piece: When we find ourselves wanting or fearing, what do we do? First is to train ourselves to become aware of it. We want and fear a lot most days so that is going to be a lot of “awaring” we’ll need to do.
Next is obvious — ask yourself if you really need this thing you want or if you need to fear this thing you don’t want. Just stop for a few moments and breathe with it. Then see if you can let it go.
What works for me
What I’ve found effective over the years, is when I find myself feeling overly anxious or uptight, I stop and ask myself, “What am I wanting too much right now? Or fearing right now?” The answer to why I’m feeling off is normally found in the answer to one of those two questions.
The point is we can approach this happiness quest from many different angles. We can do the “letting go of our stuff” thing. And we can also take the direct angle of, “there’s no need for me to want this or fear that.”
My simple, happy mom
My mom had very few wants and fears and led an absolutely fantastic life. God/the Universe shone on her more than anybody I know. Call it good karma. Good living. Call it whatever you want. Good things seem to happen to those with few preferences, as Seng-T’san so eloquently stated.
Unfortunately, this idea is difficult for many, especially Americans, to accept. What the heck is life worth living for if we don’t have wants? Do we just sit around on the couch all day staring at the wall?
No. When we curb our desires the Universe steps in and takes over the steering wheel of our lives. And the Universe is Richard Petty (legendary NASCAR driver) compared to the rest of us when it comes to skillful driving!
Bottom line: This is another arrow to put in our spiritual quiver. It’s about summoning our will to make a conscious effort to want less, and fear less.