Tricycle speaks with scholar B. Alan Wallace about the quintessential pursuit.
Shantideva said, “Those deciding to escape from suffering hasten right toward suffering. With the very desire for happiness, out of delusion they destroy their own happiness as if it were the enemy.” Why is this so? Why wouldn’t we adopt a life of virtue if it brings the genuine happiness we so want? It comes back to the idea that we’re clueless as to what would really bring us the happiness we seek. It may take us a very long time before we even notice what’s happening, because we’ve become so fixated on the symbol, the image, the ideal, the mental construct: “If I only had this type of spouse, this type of job, this amount of money; if only people respected me to this degree; if I only looked like this....” It’s delusion. We all know people who are in good health, have love and fame and wealth, and they’re miserable. Those people are some of our greatest teachers. They show us that you can win the lottery and lose the lottery of life, in terms of the pursuit of genuine happiness.
If one approaches the path of Buddhist practice with a strong emphasis on the via negativa and the idea that nirvana is just being free of stuff, then at first glance, nirvana can look pretty boring. But nirvana is not just getting up to neutral, or Freud’s “ordinary level of unhappiness.” It’s a lot more than that. And this is where we tap into this issue that our habitual state is dukkha, being dissatisfied, anxious. But the Buddhist premise, which is enormously inspiring, is that what’s truly “habitual” is your natural state of awareness, the ground state of awareness. This is a source of bliss and can be uncovered, beginning with the meditative practices like shamatha, the refinement of attention, and becoming aware of how things really are. The whole point of Buddha-dharma is that liberation comes not by believing in the right set of tenets or of dogmatic assertions, or even necessarily by behaving in the right way. It’s insight, it’s wisdom, it’s knowing the nature of reality. It is only truth that will make us free.
When you say “genuine happiness,” the implication is that there’s another kind. Yes. We mistake what Buddhists call the Eight Mundane Concerns for the true pursuit of happiness: acquisition of wealth and not losing it; acquisition of stimulus-driven pleasures and avoiding pain; praise and avoiding abuse or ridicule; and desire for a good reputation and fearing contempt or rejection. The point to mention is that there’s nothing wrong with the ones on the positive side. Take having: would you be a better person if you didn’t have that sweater you’re wearing? No. There’s nothing wrong with acquisitions, but there’s something wrong with thinking they’ll bring you happiness.
Genuine happiness is simply tapping into the true causes of happiness as opposed to things that may or may not catalyze it. And that’s basically the difference between pursing the dharma and pursuing the Eight Mundane Concerns. Some people actually meditate to serve the Eight Mundane Concerns—solely for the sake of acquiring the pleasure that they get in meditation. They’re taking meditation like a cup of coffee, or jogging, or massage. That’s not bad or wrong, but it’s very limited. Meditation can do something that a good massage can’t do. It can actually heal the mind.
In Genuine Happiness, you write, “When we’re experiencing dissatisfaction or depression without any clear external cause for it, no bad health, disintegrating marriage, or other personal crisis, could this be a symptom or message to us coming from a deeper level than biological survival? How should we respond? Antidepressants essentially tell such feelings, 'Shut up, I want to pretend you don’t exist.’ But what is the feeling telling us?” Can you comment? What we’re talking about here is dukkha—not as in “I feel miserable because I lost something that was dear to me, or I didn’t get something I passionately wanted,” but this deeper stratum of dukkha that is nonreferential and not stimulus-driven. There are times when, in the absence of unpleasant stimuli, you still have a sense of unease, of depression, of restlessness—something’s not right but you can’t quite identify what it is. This is one of the most valuable symptoms we have of the underlying dysfunction of our minds. Once you sense that you’re tapping into that, you may say, “I don’t like this feeling, and I’m going to cover it up. I’m going to get lost in work, entertainment, booze, drugs.” This society is the most ingenious in history in suppressing that basic sense of unease. We go into chemical overdrive. Here is a symptom of a life that is not working very well, of a mind that is prone to imbalances and afflictions, and instead of taking that as a welcome symptom, we basically shoot the messenger. The drug industry says that if you feel anxious, depressed, unhappy, or angry it’s because of a chemical imbalance in your brain. “Take our prescription drug, and this is going to make you happy.” The downside of these drugs is that many people think that bad experiences have primarily a material basis—that a chemical imbalance is the root cause. In other words, the Second Noble Truth, the cause of suffering, is chemical imbalance in the brain. And therefore the cessation of suffering means getting numbed out. What this is doing is veiling our engagement with reality rather than getting to the roots of depression and anxiety. What you’re experiencing is the First Noble Truth. And the Buddha says, “Don’t just make it shut up, but recognize it, understand it.” This is the beginning of the path to happiness.