Family Dharma: Barbie, Ken and Ordinary Happiness

The Buddha taught, “There is no greater happiness than peace.” He described inner peace, or peace of mind as “genuine happiness" and contrasted this with the more “ordinary happiness” that can be gained from sensory pleasures, material possessions, money, fame, good health or good fortune. I have reflected often on this profound teaching, and as with all spiritual truths, my understanding of it continues to evolve over time.

When I teach Buddhism and meditation to others, and when talking with my children about happiness, I find that significant explanation is needed. I repeatedly emphasize that there is nothing inherently wrong with sensory pleasure, material possessions, accumulation of wealth, good health, a good reputation, or good fortune. In fact, all of these things can be sources of great enjoyment. The problem is that we so easily confuse pleasure or enjoyment with happiness. We then expend our time and energy seeking certain experiences and acquiring many possessions, and even when we get what we want, find ourselves somehow dissatisfied. We may experience the temporary satisfaction of getting what we want, but a more authentic happiness continues to elude us.

The Buddha urged us to look closer, to pay attention to our actual experience. Upon closer examination, we discover that all sensory pleasures will end, all material possessions will eventually get old, break, or get stolen, and until they do we will feel some degree of anxiety about them getting old, broken or stolen. Although money can buy many desired objects, it can never buy inner peace. Good health cannot last forever, and one’s reputation and luck are always subject to change. And even when we agree intellectually that none of these things can possibly create lasting happiness, we are often propelled by the strong force of habit to continue seeking, and we hold onto the hope that by doing so we will eventually gain the deeper happiness that has escaped us.

Inherent in the Buddha’s definition of happiness is the fact that inner peace can never be a limited commodity. There will always be enough to go around, and one person having more of it does not require that others have less. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The more I experience inner peace, the more peace and happiness I am contributing to the people around me and to the world.

As a parent in a consumer society where greed, envy, and confusion abound, one of my many formidable challenges is to help my children understand what happiness is and what actions are most likely to create happiness. Daily life provides endless opportunities for such reflection, and occasionally the timing is right for our discussion to result in a rich “Ahah” moment for my son or my daughter. One such experience occurred a few summers ago when I was vacationing with my children at a beach house on Long Island.

One afternoon I found an old Barbie doll in a dusty paper bag in the attic. A perfectly proportioned original from the 1960’s, she was pink-skinned and rubbery, clothed in a slightly frayed dress, her bare feet permanently poised on tiptoes to accommodate high-heeled shoes. The only problem with this Barbie was that she didn’t have a head. To my knowledge, this was the closest that my then four- year-old daughter Claudia had ever been to a Barbie doll. I immediately wished I hadn’t pulled it out of the bag in front of her, but thought that because it didn’t have a head, Claudia might not recognize it as a Barbie. Wrong. “A Barbie doll!” she shouted, joyfully grabbing the headless Barbie with both hands. To my amazement, she was so excited to be playing with a Barbie that she hardly seemed to notice it was missing it’s head. She located a few more outfits for Barbie in the attic and spent the next few days intoxicated with this new possession. She carried it with her from room to room, sat it next to her at meals, positioned it on the edge of the tub at bath time, and managed to interest her brother Emilio, then 8, in much of this play. She also insisted on bringing it with her every time we left the house.

My friend Kate who was vacationing with us was initially quite entertained by all this. However, she became concerned when we were strolling around town or heading to the beach with Claudia on her tricycle, headless Barbie seated comfortably in the little basket on the handlebars. Kate thought this was too pathetic, and decided that if Claudia was to have a Barbie, she deserved a modern version complete with a head. Kate called her husband who was coming to join us at the beach house the next day. She explained the situation, and asked him to please go to Toys R Us in Connecticut and buy Claudia a new Barbie doll. Because both my children are brown-skinned and adopted from Bolivia, Kate requested that her husband look for a brown-skinned Barbie.

Mark arrived the next afternoon with a special package from Toys R Us. Claudia was thrilled with her brand new, brown-skinned Barbie doll. It was the Hawaiian model with waist length thick black hair. I assumed that once she had a new, anatomically normal Barbie she would discard the headless one. Wrong again. Claudia and Emilio now had two Barbie dolls. They continued to play with both of them non-stop, changing their outfits, inventing different adventures, and creating rich dialogues to resolve the dolls’ various personal problems. The fact that the old Barbie did not have a head seemed entirely irrelevant to them.

By the time we returned to Connecticut, the infatuation was still going strong. Emilio decided that since Claudia had gotten a new doll out of this, he wanted one too. Within a day or so we were visiting our local Toys R Us, where he carefully examined the entire stock of Ken dolls. He chose the only one that met both his criteria: brown skin and civilian clothing. He was so excited about this purchase that he couldn’t get to the cash register fast enough. Leaving the store, he frantically pulled his new possession out of the shopping bag, and once seated in the car, quickly released Ken from imprisonment in layers of packaging. Although Emilio was a generally happy child, I couldn’t remember when I’d last seen him in such a state of frenzied excitement.

Once Emilio had Ken firmly in his hands, I said to my son, “Wow, I can see you’re really excited to have this new Ken doll. After days of playing with Claudia’s Barbies, now you have one of your own.” As he proceeded to examine Ken more closely, I continued. “I’m glad we were able to find the doll you wanted. I’m wondering how long this new doll will keep you happy. What do you think?”

With a puzzled look Emilio asked, “What do you mean?” I explained further. “When we get something we want, we feel excited for a few minutes. We look forward to having our new possession. But after a while it’s not so exciting. We may still like it, but soon we’re thinking about something else that we don’t have, thinking we’ll be happier when we have some other thing. It can be hard for us to see that getting the things we want isn’t the same as feeling peaceful and happy. Hasn’t this happened to you?”

Emilio agreed that although he had quickly tired of new games and toys in the past, he thought things with Ken would be different. I asked him, “How long do you think you’ll feel this excited about Ken?” While Emilio more closely examined Ken’s clothing and the range of motion of his extremities, he thoughtfully considered my question. “Three days,” he said. “I think I’ll be very happy playing with Ken for three days.” This was a more realistic estimate than I’d expected. Then he asked me, “How long do you think Ken will keep me happy?”

For a brief moment I froze, wishing he hadn’t asked me this question, and that I’d never initiated the conversation. Although I have complete trust in the Buddha’s teaching on happiness, and I have repeatedly verified the truth of this teaching in my own experience, I suddenly doubted the wisdom, or perhaps the fairness, of bringing it up to my son in a gleeful moment with a brand new possession. But since he was searching my face for my answer I said, “I’d guess about four hours.”

End of conversation. It was a normal trip home from the store, middle-class Mom chauffeuring the mini-van as her two young children delighted in the new toy in the back seat. By the time we arrived home my mind was onto other things and my children were busy at play.

The next morning Emilio announced, “You were close!” It took me a moment to realize he was talking about our estimates of the previous day. “I was happy with my new Ken doll for about three hours. Then the thrill wore off. I still like him, but he’s really just something that’s fun. The Buddha was right. Real happiness comes from inside me, not from outside!”

 

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