After years of explaining, this question still surprises me every time. One reason is that the answers are different depending on the person asking the question. ‘Enlightenment’ isn’t necessarily something my father, who has worked as an engineer for 40 years, can easily relate to…
My friend is quite young and open, so I thought I could try an approach that I had heard from many great meditation teachers over the years. Thinking that I was smart enough to emulate their discourse I started smugly: “Well, we all want to be happy, don’t we?” He looked at me in a friendly, interested way, thought about my (rhetorical) question for a moment and then replied “No, not really.”. Still full of confidence (he must have not understood properly) I reached out for the next, classic, argument: “But you surely must admit that you don’t want to suffer?”. After considering for a moment he replied calmly “Suffering is an important part of life. To accept life means to accept that suffering exists. There will always be good times and bad times. So I don’t think I should say that I don’t want to suffer.” I was stunned. My argument had been stopped before it even got off the ground. My smugness vanished immediately. I had been out-ed as an impostor!
How can someone not acknowledge their need for happiness? Why do we so easily accept suffering?
It’s all in the mind of course. Happiness and suffering are largely mental states. In a way the wish for happiness is also just a thought. But “With our thoughts we make the world” the Buddha had said in the Dhammapada. Is there a difference between a person who accepts suffering as something inevitable, giving up on his own happiness and someone who believes that happiness is possible?
Looking around us, anyone who denied suffering exists would be a called a fool. Samsara (or khorwa in Tibetan) stands for the never ending circle of perpetual suffering that is this life. Yet this circle can be broken. There is a choice and it starts with finding, nurturing and reinforcing a sense of our own fundamental goodness. If there is such a thing as fundamental goodness, then happiness should be our birth right. What keeps us from achieving it? If we stop exploring the possibilities of contentment, fulfilment and happiness then we settle for less.
This is where meditators are courageous: They don’t just accept that ‘life sucks’. Just like Buddha who vowed not get up until he would achieve ‘enlightenment’. In our daily lives we have become so detached from our basic needs and feelings, that the quest for happiness seems like a fairy tale to us. Disguising defeatism with humility we tell ourselves that we must not ask for too much. Yet the wish for happiness and the conviction that it can be achieved are at the heart of meditation practice. Whenever we forget why we started to practice meditation in the first place and it all just seems like a waste of time, we need to rediscover our wish to be happy and drive out the belief that suffering is inevitable.
When I started meditating I was looking for a way to improve my life without having much of an idea what that might be like. It was a hunch, but it lead me to find out something about myself that must have been there all the time: That ‘I’ was not the same as my neurotic thoughts, my desires, my cravings. Meditation taught me that all these things are accessories, that it is possible to drop them like a badly fitting coat. Whenever I experience peace and contentment, this is when I can see the potential for ‘happiness’. That I don’t always manage to rest peacefully is hardly surprising because, as my friend had remarked, distractions, emotions and pain are facts of life. However, accepting that this is who we really are and never giving happiness a chance is the definition of suffering for me.
The fondant au chocolat was delicious. Breaking through the crunchy outer crust of chocolate cake the warm, creamy chocolate heart flooded my mouth. I do want to be happy, although I know it is not all chocolate all the time.