Finding happiness is mostly a matter of perspective.
I remember one afternoon as I was sitting on the steps of our monastery in Nepal. The monsoon storms had turned the courtyard into an expanse of muddy water, and we had set out a path of bricks to serve as stepping-stones. A friend of mine came to the edge of the water, surveyed the scene with a look of disgust, and complained about every single brick as she made her way across. When she got to me, she rolled her eyes and said, “Yuck! What if I’d fallen into that filthy muck? Everything’s so dirty in this country!” Since I knew her well, I prudently nodded, hopping to offer her some comfort through my mute sympathy. A few minutes later, Raphaele, another friend of mind, came to the path through the swamp. “Hup, hup, hup!” she sang as she hopped, reaching dry land with the cry “What fun!” Her eyes sparkling with joy, she added: “The great thing about the monsoon is that there’s no dust.” Two people, two ways of looking at things; six billion human beings, six billion worlds.
On a more somber note, Raphaele once told me of a meeting she’d had on her first visit to Tibet, in 1986, with a man who’d had an appalling time during the Chinese invasion. “He invited me to sit down on a bench and served me some tea he kept in a large thermos. It was his first time talking to a Westerner. We laughed a lot; he was really adorable. Children kept coming by to stare at us in astonishment, and he showered me with questions. Then he told me how he’d been jailed for twelve years by the Chinese invaders and condemned to cut stone for a dam being built in the Drak Yerpa valley. The dam was completely useless, since the riverbed was almost always dry! All his friends dropped dead of hunger and exhaustion around him, one by one. Despite the horror of his story, there wasn’t the slightest trace of hatred in his words or the least bit of resentment in his eyes, which beamed with kindness. As I fell asleep that night, I wondered how a man who had suffered so much could seem so happy.”
Anyone who enjoys inner peace is no more broken by failure than he is inflated by success. He is able to fully live his experiences in the context of a vast and profound serenity, since he understands that experiences are ephemeral and that it is useless to cling to them. There will be no “hard fall” when things turn bad and he is confronted with adversity. He does not sink into depression, since his happiness rests on a solid foundation. One year before her death at Auschwitz, the remarkable Etty Hillesum, a young Dutchwoman, affirmed: “When you have an interior life, it certainly doesn’t matter what side of the prison you’re on. . . . I’ve already died a thousand times in a thousand concentration camps. I know everything. There is no new information to trouble me. One way or another, I already know everything, and yet, I find this life beautiful and rich in meaning. At every moment.”
Once at an open meeting in Hong Kong, a young man rose from the audience to ask me: “Can you give me one reason why I should go on living?” This book is a humble response to that question, for happiness is above all a love of life. To have lost all reason for living is to open up an abyss of suffering. As influential as external conditions may be, suffering, like well-being, is essentially an interior state. Understanding that is the key prerequisite to a life worth living. What mental conditions will sap our joie de vivre, and which will nourish it?
Changing the way we see the world does not imply a naive optimism or some artificial euphoria designed to counterbalance adversity. So long as we are slaves to the dissatisfaction and frustration that arise from the confusion that rules our minds, it will be just as futile to tell ourselves “I’m happy!” over and over again as it would be to repaint a wall in ruins. The search for happiness is not about looking at life through rose-colored glasses or blinding oneself to the pain and imperfections of the world. Nor is happiness a state of exaltation to be perpetuated at all costs; it is the purging of mental toxins such as hatred and obsession that literally poison the mind. It is also about learning how to put things in perspective and reduce the gap between appearances and reality. To that end we must acquire a better knowledge of how the mind works and a more accurate insight into the nature of things, for in its deepest sense, suffering is intimately linked to a misapprehension of the nature of reality.
From Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skills, 2003 NiL editions, Paris. Translation, 2006 by Jesse Browner. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. Inc., New York.
Image © Sasha Van Twist