We often end up focusing on and chasing the conditions we think will make us happy instead of zeroing in happiness, or freedom, itself. What is happiness or love? Where is it? Is it in some future moment? In some more glamorous, accomplished, together person? Is it in a golden past before the fall from Eden, before the break up, the move, the death? Is it once you get the perfect relationship, job, once you are pregnant, once you get your dream house, have achieved financial security, get healthy and fit?
Our minds are wanting machines. Don’t expect them to change. Our brains evolved in the context of scarcity to want more, more, more.
Let’s say, just imagine, that all the ducks that will make you happy, they all lined up. Your health is fabulous, you feel beautiful and strong, you’re completely in love with the perfect mate who’s totally in love with you, your career or path is blossoming and fulfilling, everyone agrees you are awesome and loves you, you have the car, the house, the wealth, respect. How would you feel in that moment, admiring your neat little ducks? How long would you be happy for? Would you really be relaxed or would you be wondering how in the world you are going to keep everything the way it is? How will you make sure your partner sticks around, no one steals your beautiful belongings, your beauty is preserved forever, you keep pleasing and impressing everyone? How long would that last before you noticed something wasn’t quite right? How long before you have a fight about how to load the dishwasher, how long before the dog pukes on your priceless rug?
We are naturally uneasy with a happiness based on conditions because we know, deep down, everything changes. We are all to familiar with uncertainty and impermanence. Nevertheless we chase these things as though they will give us permanent security and happiness.
It’s not that you shouldn’t choose pleasant and supportive conditions in your life- choose wisely and be kind to yourself- but don’t kid yourself that you can somehow avoid the suffering that is part of life. That you alone will be exempt from sickness, old age, loss, death. If only you could figure out the right formula- if only you tried hard enough- if only you improved your messed up self. This is the lie we all tell ourselves: I’ll be happy if only __________.
Though I have achieved the desired conditions before- talked my way out of that speeding ticket, had my crush profess his love, got into the right school, got the best apartment- I have seen the storm of wanting abate, but only for a bit. Soon it is raining need again. And though I have seen this cycle and felt the emptiness of the quest, seen the hamster wheel for what it is I still chase. Again and again I find I have wandered from the path. I am determined that this or that condition will make me happy instead of wanting happiness itself (instead of being happy in the now!)*
It is not just any kind of happiness I want. When I sit still and ask, “What do I really want? What is my deepest intention?” I don’t just want the pleasures of the good life- the home, the delectables, the vacations. I want to be OK, to be at peace, no matter what. I want to be open-hearted and full of love in the moment I take my last breath, in the midst of great physical pain or personal loss, or blame or ill-repute. Just as I want to stay open, vividly present and alive in the midst of great love, staggering beauty, melting chocolate, awkward exits and brushing my teeth.
There is no need to demonize desires, to choose to be hungry and cold and friendless. Do make decisions that are kind to you and the earth and everyone else. Loving-Kindness is a cause of true happiness. Also, notice the cravings, the compulsions and, instead of automatically pursuing, pause and investigate. In The Red Thread of Desire, Adyashanti points out how all our desires are really the desire for freedom. Why do you need the promotion? Ultimately it is so you can be relaxed, at peace, open.** I would say investigate again but it might sound too cerebral- this is a different kind of knowing, before and beyond language- so I’ll say, feel into the root of desire, into its birthplace and find your own deepest longing for truth.
“Longing is the core of mystery. Longing itself brings the cure.” ~ Rumi (trans. Coleman Barks)
United with your true longing you have the momentum to break free of patterns, to let go of the distractions and busyness and victimhood and agenda, and engage passionately with what is. Not later today or next year, but in the only place you will ever find what you are looking for, in that shimmering, infinite now.
When you get lost, inquire into to your deepest intention, that compass that always points home. Keep coming back to that question, “What do I really want?” and find what authentically moves in you. Don’t come from the top down, imposing ideas about what you should want. Instead, get quiet, ask the question and listen. If it arises out of that vast silence within, you will trust it more than the wisest advice or teaching. As Sharon Salzberg says, faith is trusting your own deepest experience
* “Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.” – Guillaume Apollinaire
** I’m not saying we all want “enlightenment” because, to me, that word is confusing, laden with baggage and atop a towering and distant peak- not for mere messy mortals like myself. I prefer how Michael Singer puts it- we all just want to be OK.