Why does the search for happiness cause us more suffering?

 

My goal with paper is to show how trying to be happy by looking for happiness externally is a dead end. It can create expectations ordinary life cannot satisfy, and therefore often leaves us disappointed in a state of anxiety and unease, and therefore creates suffering.

 

My other goal is to discuss the increasingly enlightened contributions of modern psychology.

 

But most importantly I want to show the idea that if we really understand the mechanics of what causes suffering, it can challenge us to rethink what we value, and how we look at life itself at the deepest levels, moment to moment.

 

The paper is divided into seven parts:

1. The story of the seals

2. What is happiness?

3. How the search for happiness causes suffering

4.  Consumerism

5.   Modern psychology and ‘ethical’ personal development

6.   How to be positive: a different take

7.    Attachment causes suffering: the four noble truths of Buddhism

 

The story of the seals

 

I am going to recount a small anecdote. Its point is that we often can’t see things we’re looking for, right there in front of us, and we get  disappointed. Last Saturday I was sitting in campervan on a rocky beach next to a well known seal colony at Kaikoura in New Zealand.  This rocky point and its seal colony face the pacific ocean and is not too far from the town itself and is overlooked by a large carpark.

 

The seal colony is a major tourist attraction, so tourists, like seals, are abundant. Like my wife and I, many other tourists had come to this car park to see the seals in the wild as they lazed around on the rocks in the mild spring weather.

 

But there was just one small obstacle to seeing seals easily, seals look like rocks, and can be hard to see, even when they are close to you. Even so, one can usually see at least a handful of seals close to the carpark. But you need to let the eye and the mind adjust to a way of looking. It just takes time to find the right way to look for a seal.

 

As I was sitting in the van, I saw something amusing. New people arrived every few minutes, and stood near us. You could tell they were excited. Yet I saw nearly everyone give up after about 30 seconds, their faces fell, they just couldn’t see any seals and walked away disappointed. I remember one guy even shook his head in disgust and walked off in a huff with three seals right in front of him, and dozens on the rocks about 150 metres out.

 

After seeing this again and again, with the seals so obviously near, in the end I could not stand it and pointed out to young a couple and then a German tourist the seals were right in front of us, snoozing lazily on rocks. But for most tourists, they walked away disappointed, and so they kept moving to look for seals elsewhere.

 

This event proves there is nothing wrong with our eyes, but we will not see what we are looking for if we are in too much of a hurry and keen for quick result.

 

For the first main section of this paper lets look at what we think happiness is.

 

Happiness. Everybody wants it, and many promise it.

 

An absence of suffering is one way to describe it. My dictionary defines it as feeling or expressing joy, pleased. But is happiness endless laughter, being fabulously rich, having no cares in the world, being a king? Owning Apple? Being a supermodel? Owning an island and a plane and never having to work? Chalking up 500 Facebook friends? Being famous, like Mick Jagger or Richard Branson? Being Warren Buffet, the richest man in the world?

 

On reflection these possible definitions seem slightly ridiculous.

 

We spend a lot time thinking and looking for ways to be happier. We can’t simply just be. We tend to try to add happiness to the moment, like adding a layer of icing sugar to a cake that seems to have too little flavour to be eaten on its own. We are well trained to always add and to consume, under pressure all the time to show how well we are doing, but not to slow down and reflect and appreciate.

 

I believe we are easily confused about what will give us a lasting happiness, and we seem to be victims of our own entirely normal human drives and insecurities. So I think happiness is something few of us actually understand or have a workable, dependable definition we can rely on. The fact that we often think others are happier than we, without any real evidence, illustrates how fragile and misleading our definitions can be.

 

It is normal human nature to think of happiness as something we don’t have yet, or will have when we reach our next goal. When we achieve this next goal, whether it’s a purchase like a new pair of shoes or the latest digital camera, finding a better job or getting married, we usually tend to start thinking about our next goal just we achieve the goal. So the period of happiness as we expected to experience is really very short-lived.

 

This cycle of dissatisfaction-satisfaction, drives us to find happiness outside ourselves, because we are always waiting for changes that can only happen in the future, and usually outside of ourselves. After each ‘happiness point’ is reached, as my wife says, the happiness is fleeting, if it were not, we would not evolve. I think she has a point.

 

Here’s an example of how it works with events we look forward to. A young person going through the trials of adolescence says to themselves: “I will be happy when I finish year 12”, then soon after, “I will be happy when I finish my degree,” then “I will be happy when I get a good job,” then “I will be happy when I dump this lousy job for a better one,” then “I will be happy when I find my ideal partner,” then “I will be happy when I buy a good house,” then “I will be happy when I find a better partner”, then “I will be happy when I have children,” then “I will be happy when I have a bigger house,” then “I will be happy when I have a second house,” then “I will be happy when I have paid off my credit card,”, then “I will be happy when the children have left home,” then “I will be happy when I have saved enough to retire in comfort,” then “I will be happy when I retire”, then “I will be happy when I have ten grandchildren”. So “I will be happy when,” etc. is never ending because the ‘when’ can never arrive.

 

Even though this approach can help us achieve a great deal along the way, the risk is that, as you can see, is a formula for constant unease, constant discomfort, because it fuels a sense that the present can never offer us complete happiness, and that happiness is always around the next corner somewhere – which seems right – but at the same time it seems all wrong; because if you look at your life as a whole, the corner is a long way off and we never get around it. But this is how we are trained to think. Add to this that fact that our self esteem – is often left to the control of what others think of us – this means we feel that our happiness and identity depend on making sure our appearances or achievements do not slip below a certain level

 

So we feel we must always look to the future, less so on the present, so our focus is not here, our focus is on what is around the next corner. So, like the example of the well-camouflaged seals, we cannot see what is in front of us. We are always in a hurry to get around the corner, always under pressure to look good. One survey showed that no matter how much money people had, they all said they wanted more than they had to be ‘really’ happy. Millionaires included. However, they would also accept less to be happy if it meant they had more than others around them!

 

Here are five quotations on happiness from the Forbes Book of Business Quotations. These quotes focus on the elusive nature of looking for happiness directly or externally:

 

C P Snow: The pursuit of happiness is a ridiculous phrase. If you pursue happiness, you will never find it.

 

Andrew Carnegie: The secret of happiness is renunciation.

 

Edith Wharton: If only we would stop trying to be happy, we’d have a pretty good time.

 

 John Dewey, American philosopher and educator: External things and opportunities so abound in American life that, instead of nurturing the true source of happiness, we tend to make it a direct aim. Therefore, we end in looking for happiness in possessions of the external – in money, a good time, somebody to lean on for our ideas, and so on. We are impatient, hurried and fretful because we do not find happiness where we look for it.

 

Epictetus: There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the control of our will.

 

Sebastian Chamfort: It is with happiness as with watches, the less complicated, the less deranged.

 

So, this leads us to what I think the main causes of why the search for happiness causes suffering, which are:

 

         not being able to distinguish between a short-term hit of happiness and longer lasting authentic happiness.

 

         taking someone else’s word too quickly for what might bring happiness.

 

         faulty assumptions about how happy we should be. We tell ourselves: “I should be happy, I must be happy, others look happier than I do, I could be happier than I am”. There is today a strong happiness entitlement mindset, which I believe is bound to cause either lots of frustration. If we reduce expectations to the point where we expect things to wrong, we will be pleasantly surprised when they do not go wrong. Instead of spending a lot of time recovering from disappointment, we could spend more time rejoicing.

 

         looking for happiness in the wrong place, i.e. assuming that happiness is found outside ourselves allows others to define happiness for us, and so we lose control of our own thoughts and lives and even identities.

 

         faulty assumptions about how we can control our life and therefore our happiness. We cannot control life. Sickness is inevitable, death is inevitable, relationships that go wrong are inevitable. Traffic jams are inevitable, and taxes are inevitable. Life entails a huge amount of suffering, and once we accept that, then life becomes easier to bear when things get rough or don’t go our way. As the Buddhist saying goes “Oh joy, there is no happiness in the world”. 

(What seems a rather dark way of looking at life can be a useful tool. What it implies is that to simply be alive means we will suffer. Once we accept this, life gets easier. The logic behind the idea is that to merely function day to day, to make sense of daily experience, we must draw comparisons, e.g., between good and bad experiences, emotions and things, and that we are very attached to seeing and processing the world in this way. As we constantly make judgements, comparisons, we will therefore inevitably always move from happiness to suffering, and back again, and until we let go of the attachment to this way of looking.)

 

Each of these causes above, I think, can contribute to further suffering in ourselves, because they stop us finding a lasting, deeper happiness based on a realistic view or a deeper understanding. So, to make it easier to illustrate where we go wrong — and where we can go right as well — in this paper I’ve decided to cover three commonly used methods or schools of finding happiness. Of course there are more.   

 

To make the main ideas in the paper easier to understand, we can use the idea that each of the three ways of achieving happiness is a step on a small step ladder. For our purposes today, consumerism is on the bottom step, modern psychology and ‘ethical’ personal development are on the second step and Buddhism is on the top step. The closer to the top of the ladder, the less emphasis we see on finding happiness externally.

 

I think it is important (and to be honest and fair to ourselves) to acknowledge that we probably all blend approaches from each step into our lives in varying amounts, person to person.

 

So we start off on our journey up the three rungs of this ladder with the unspoken mores and values of consumerism. If we want to be accepted members of our society, look the part, look like we are doing well, this is the credo for the citizen of every developed nation.

 

You’ll have to pardon my brutal view of consumerism, but this view is fuelled by what I see as its excesses: the manipulations of the mass media, marketers and advertisers who happily work on our insecurities to make a profit, but take no responsibility for the unease they cause us, or the extra pressure they add to our ecological systems.

 

Unbridled consumerism I think is the largest cause of unhappiness and suffering today because it based on several clever deceptions and illusions about how life really works, and what makes us really happy. It plays on the very normal drives of human nature to want more, the need to control, to have something different from others, and yet to be accepted and perhaps even revered by the tribe.

 

Our self esteem often seems in the control of what others think of us, so we feel as though we need to make sure our appearance, possessions or achievements never slip below a certain level. Some of our fellow members of society, perhaps the more insecure, can take advantage of this frailty and sometimes unwittingly or intentionally make themselves feel more powerful by making the less well-off among us feel insecure about ourselves.We see this in some ‘elite’ schools, suburbs and even how we make it plain to others the brand of clothing or accessory being worn. Creating a sense of envy in other’s possessions has now become a popular tool in advertising, the advertisers now feel it is OK to use the word explicitly.

 

Sadly, out of control consumerism usually only ends in our working harder, feeling under more pressure to keep up, to spend, to look the part, and makes us constantly feel insecure and I think, makes us lose our sense of ease and contentment. Does a baby really care what brand of pram it lies in? For whatever reason, somebody out there wants you to feel that it does matter! The unease, depression and ennui all this competitive pressure causes in us is now a widespread affliction of developed nations, with its own name, ‘affluenza’, and is well documented in two books sharing the same title, Affluenza by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denis, and also Affluenza, by Oliver James.

 

Consumerism offers feels like an easy fix to our unhappiness, that’s why it is so successful, and more so when easy credit is available. It works by first creating an insecurity in our minds about ourselves (a wrinkle, a pimple, last-year’s car or last season’s clothes), then offers the fix, which requires no effort on our part, except handing over money, no change of mental approach, and usually delivers a short-term sense of security and comfort.

 

Consumerism also assumes there is no end to the happiness we can enjoy if we keep consuming, and that we are entitled to consume as much as we need to be happy, simply because we are worth it, not because we have earned it. Anything less seems unacceptable. For the following article to appear in a major daily Australian newspaper, even the mainstream is acknowledging something might not be working too well with the accepted wisdom of how much we need to consume to be happy:

 

The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Jan 2010:

 

Despite the rosy economic undertones, the data collectively paint a worrying picture of a community of conspicuous consumers, eagerly buying lots of “stuff” on tick that we don’t need or even use, stashing it away in McMansions that gorge energy to heat and cool, and giving the families that live there the carbon footprint of a small African country.

 

Part of this credit-fuelled consumerism is aspirational. We all want to be better off than our parents, and we want our children to be better off than us. Our houses and material goods – furniture, home entertainment systems, second cars, boats, and all the little luxuries that add up on our credit card statements – tell the world that we add up to something. Understandably, property developers and retailers play this to the hilt in their marketing.

 

But if the house and its contents are funded by dangerously high consumer debt, a McMansion is a house built on quicksand. Once in the debt trap, it’s very hard to get out intact. Families struggling to meet their debts face highly destructive stresses, hurting not only themselves but the friends, loved ones, workmates and the wider community who help pick up the pieces.

 

Perhaps the time has come for public policy to signal that consumption for consumption’s sake isn’t always good.

 

Yet, we have worked so hard at being happy, but it seems we have not made a lot of headway. In the last 50 years our prosperity has doubled, but in Australia our levels of happiness have stayed about the same. There also seems to be a lot of hidden personal suffering going in the pursuit of this idea that happiness can be bought, is external to us. For example, the four most used prescription drugs around the world are now anti-depressants, tranquillisers, hypertension and ulcer medications, and sleeping pills.

 

As we work harder at being happy, I think we can sometimes leave a wreckage behind us of loved ones neglected. In a Guardian Weekly article last week, British Children Caught in Consumerist Trap, much to the discomfort and surprise of the British people, Unicef ranked British children at the bottom of the league table for 21 industrialised countries for child wellbeing.

 

Part of the problem is the lack of time the parents spend with their children and families: these busy parents are working long hours, and they think the solution is to buy their neglected children off with expensive branded clothes, trainers and technology, which they feel under great pressure to purchase. The time poor parents obviously think they can increase the happiness of their children they sense is missing, by buying their children more stuff, but ignore the root problem.

 

By comparison, the Guardian article reported that the same consumer culture (solving unhappiness by buying things and ignoring important relationships) does not exist in Sweden or Spain where family time has a higher priority. One has to ask why in a prosperous nation such as in Britain, its parents must or felt they should work such long hours when other nearby nations do not.

 

Therefore pursuing happiness though consumerism in many developed industrial countries has become a quest, an industry in its own right. Yet it can go too far and eventually it becomes destructive to the point where we see a recent trend that happiness, produced by constant enjoyment and consumption, is a right, an entitlement, no matter how little effort we make to improve our own lives or the lives of others.

 

So in conclusion, consumerism promises us that more and more consumption is a way of making us feel free, happy and secure. The more we consume, the more pressure we can find ourselves under, and the more control we might be giving others, such as banks or employers.

 

So even if we obey the promptings of our consumer society it does not seem to always guarantee happiness, when this happiness is based on what others think of us and can only deliver a short term high. Even though deep down we know the judgement of others an unreliable guide to our own happiness.  So I think consumption for the sake of it is very much an external form of finding happiness and identity, is an unreliable way to obtain happiness, but a reliable way to increase stress.

 

Modern psychology and ‘ethical’ personal development

 

At the next level up on the ladder we have the what I would call the enlightened western philosophies of self help and motivational theory. These are usually put together by well-informed authors, social researchers, institutes and commentators. They offer us practical advice on how to find ‘true’ happiness, or the deeper reasons for our unhappiness and often the tools to change our thinking.

 

The more useful of these help us to find practical achievable ways we can reframe our daily experience to see the world in a more positive light, and be more mindful of our values, actions and thoughts, and contribute positively to society. They ask us to work on ourselves to be happy, a healthier approach, I think, than consumerism. We don’t buy an identity, we refine the one we have.

Forty or fifty years ago, I think their field was limited to books like How to Win Friends and Influence People. While they had great value in explaining the dynamics of human relationships, in many cases I think in some ways the thinking was just a variation on the consumer model, as their main aim seemed to be help us obtain more of something. Their view was that enlightened selfishness is good. I guess that’s no surprise as our expectations for personal happiness back then were increasing with our new found prosperity.

 

The field has matured. It now promotes leading a balanced life in line with our values. Personal values now play an important role in our self development and underpin happiness. Thus the field has entered what I would call an era of well-reasoned and seasoned enlightenment.

 

They have also refined the tools they offer, so that if we want to, we can change the way we think and how we react to circumstances, we can for example, improve the destructive thinking habits of a lifetime if we have them. Cognitive behavioural therapy is one well-known example, a far cry from the simplistic don’t worry, be happy nostrums which I think sometimes if overdone sound a little too like emotional suppression to be useful or healthy in the long run.

 

Their suggestions can be summarised easily enough, even though their work is so well established that it seems to be getting a little repetitive, but regardless of this, I think their advice and insights into living happily are generally truly useful guides to living.

 

Here’s a summary of what they recommend we do to find lasting happiness:

 

         follow your true vocation, your bliss

         be true to yourself

         have a positive self image 

         don’t waste energy judging others

         be kind to ourselves

         understand the law of attraction

         contribute something positive to the world in line with your values

         work hard

         visualise success

         make and keep strong family relationships,

         have a clear conscience

         have a satisfying career suitable for your temperament and interest

         earn enough money to pay for a roof over your head, feed your family and take a holiday once in a while

         have enough control in your life

         understand and manage your stress 

         live in the present

         using positive affirmations, think positive

         be a person of integrity

         be single minded of purpose

         learn from your mistakes, don’t revisit the past endlessly

         don’t sweat the small stuff

         stop worrying and start living

         take personal responsibility for your actions

         understand the things that drive us

         be assertive in a healthy way

         have positive self esteem

         nourish your creative self

         have time to reflect on your life

         be self sufficient

         have enough friends

         ignore what others might think of you

         meditate.

 

They do not take the negative view of some religions that humans are inherently evil or need punishment. Their intent is to help, and not control, and in this they succeed where some religions fail ordinary human experience.

 

If we had to summarise: slow down, be true to yourself, be more forgiving, get your priorities right, live in accordance with your values. I think they are saying the same things as many religions and philosophies.

 

Do they cause suffering if we try follow their advice? Well, again, perhaps in some of the more extreme versions, the versions that create in us too much attachment to results or unrealistic expectations, such as “you can be happy all the time” or “when you jump out of bed on Monday morning you must barely be able contain your excitement because you are going to work”.

 

These extreme versions still encourage us to think we can always live a dream life if we would only think positive enough, visualise clearly enough, often enough. Or, that there is no limit to the success we can achieve if we only put our minds to it a recipe I think for disappointment, exhaustion and even marital breakdown simply because life has it limits. I have a friend who was,  and is, still a fan of the positive thinking school, who eventually realised that while it works, there are these limits and it was going to have to be either his family or his dreams, and I think he realised this just in time.

 

So in trying to sell us what I would describe as a consumerism of the mind (that more is always best), some still have the potential to cause us suffering, as we are still dependent on results, must labour under the illusion that everything is still somehow under our control. As we know, life can be unpredictable, oftentimes difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible. There is nothing we can do to control what looks like life’s crazy nature or can we divine with our very limited perception what complex karmic reasons night be going on around us. We can only control how we react to life, have faith that karma is working things out for the best. All that is difficult enough.

 

In total, I like that what has evolved in modern psychology and motivation studies to become an all-encompassing approach of self-management and behaviour, with a new ethical dimension and a subtle and increasingly spiritual element.

 

But before we move on, I would like offer an alternative approach on how to how to be a positive thinker. It will help us uncover the positive aspect of our nature without us trying. As a method it sits in contrast to the positive thinking techniques we all know of. It is a simple way to reach an inner appreciation of this moment and ourselves.

 

Ajahn Brahm, a Buddhist monk in the Serpentine Valley in Western Australia says there is a lot talk about how to be positive, but no real useful information on how to go about it just be positive. But how useful is that he asks? He says it is possible to be in a positive state of mind, simply by slowing down, and described how he came to realise this.

 

One day instead of being driven along the long dirt road to the monastery he decided to walk. He realised he had driven up this road many, many times, but always too quickly to really process or absorb any of the things he saw on the way. He says that we live so fast now, that we do not even look at things long enough. Our attention is so focused on the next thing, that we no longer even appreciate the colours in front of us if any more we do not even allow them time for colour to properly soak into our retinas. (His story is on YouTube, titled How to be Positive.)

 

In slowing ourselves down, e.g. by doing one thing at a time, we see several benefits. I can say this technique works, as I have tried it out.

 

First we start to appreciate our surroundings more deeply and with more reverence. The next stage is that we start to appreciate ourselves even more, and the next stage is that we start to appreciate other people more. We cannot help feeling naturally positive. We see colours properly again, we hear sounds we had tuned out again. We enjoy life more, we are in the present moment fully, simply because we have slowed down.

 

It is simple, and yet so very effective at helping us to feel positive without trying, or forcing ourselves. I think it represents a very easy, subtle but effective meditation practice. But we can go much further and deeper if we want to, we can delve into more profound reasons of why we suffer in our search for happiness if we wish. Others have trodden the path before us to find out what lies there.

 

Attachment causes suffering: the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism

 

Happiness is a lack of suffering, and it is normal for us to avoid suffering, and to try to be happy. But in the human psyche, the mind, our perception and the emotions, what is the relationship between happiness and suffering? How does the human constitution operate? Is the way we are designed to make sense of the world and simply live day to day mean we will always look for happiness but will nevertheless suffer at the same time?

 

Let’s start from the basics. To help explain how we look for happiness in an everyday sense, why we feel we must be happy, I am going to quote from Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay’s recently published book What Makes Us Tick, the Ten Desires that Drive Us. He explains our behaviour is propelled by a set of 10 drives or desires, which when met, make us feel happy.

 

I’ve quoted from his book because I think we can all relate to the items in the list. He says the 10 drives propel our behaviours like an undercurrent we are not aware of. More than one drive or desire can be driving us at a time. When we cannot meet or satisfy these ten desires, we feel as though we suffer. Of the 10 desires that drive us, one is not more important than another.

 

Here they are:

 

1.      The desire to be taken seriously

2.      The desire for my place

3.      The desire for something to believe in

4.      The desire to connect

5.      The desire to be useful

6.      The desire to belong 

7.      The desire for more

8.      The desire for control

9.      The desire for something to happen

10. The desire for love

 

But what, deeper down in the human constitution drive these desires? Where do they come from?

 

Theosophy and Buddhism are invaluable in shining a light on how things work behind the scenes. To help us understand, I will quote from a lovely explanation I found in Quest magazine, a theosophical publication:

 

A powerful component of the emotional field is kama, loosely translated as “desire.” Essentially, kama is our emotional nature. It includes, but is not limited to, craving and desire of any kind. We may crave physical sensation, food, drink, companionship, prestige, power, or a soul mate. We may even crave fine art and music. Craving is not the same as appreciation. To appreciate fine art and music is not the same as craving them. The problem is the attachment to the objects of craving–the “I-can’t-live-without-it” feeling. These attachments will inevitably cause us pain. The indisputable fact is that everything changes, both in the physical and in the psychological world. “This, too, shall pass” has no exceptions, not even in the subjective realm of the psyche. If we are attached to or identified with anything, psychological pain is inevitable when the object of our desire changes. How easy it is to see this, and yet how extraordinarily difficult it is to accept it.

 

(Abdill, Edward. “Desire and Spiritual Selfishness.” Quest  99. 1 (Winter 2011): 21-23, 39.)

 

I would like to add a little more to this explanation. For our consciousness to work, we have to make comparisons, judgments and we become attached to this way of thinking and our emotional attachments as well, and this is entirely normal. For example, I like apples and I do not like grapefruit, so I am attached to this definition of what I like. The only way I can make it is to compare the flavour of one fruit with the other. I also have the desire to enjoy eating the fruit. If I go into the fruit shop and do not get apples and feel I have to eat grapefruit, I suffer and produce negative emotions. I may get annoyed with the fruit shop owner because he has no apples, “Whoever heard of such a thing?” I might yell, and cause negative actions when I storm out. The fruit shop owner causes more negative emotions and karma when he curses me on my way out and throws a banana at me. So the wheel is kept rolling, and we create more causes, more karma we need to come back to work off in the future incarnations.

 

If we feel we need to get off this wheel so to speak, of suffering-happiness, suffering-happiness, we need some insight to help us go behind the scenes of our nature, right down to the basic nature of existence itself, understand it, and if we want to, then reframe the whole equation, our whole system of thinking. This is what the four noble truths are designed to help us to do. They are a way to see through and past our basic mental habits and our emotional nature.

 

The Four Noble Truths are explained in brief by Dr G De Purucker from The Fountain Source of Occultism, who I have paraphrased slightly:

 

First, the cause of the suffering and heartache in our lives arises from attachment or thirst trishna, second that this cause can be made to cease, third that the cessation of the causes that productive of human sorrow is brought about by living a life which will free the soul from its attachment to existence; and the fourth truth, leading to the extinction of the causes of suffering, is the Eightfold path: right belief, right resolve, right speech, right behaviour, right occupation right effort, right contemplation, right concentration.

 

The Dalai Lama in the book, Happiness in a Material World says being unable to get past our attachments is a form of ignorance. It is this ignorance that is our enemy and will cause us to reincarnate endlessly, as our attachments and the resulting negative actions force us to plant the seeds each lifetime for the next lifetime.

 

We all desire happiness and do not want suffering and this is a kind of innate quality that we have within us. But if we reflect carefully we see that even though we want happiness we always tend to engage in a way of life or of thinking that accumulates more negative activities that lead to suffering. And even though we do not want suffering we always tend to run after suffering. In other words we tend to do what should not be done. So we engage in a perverse way of life. If we reflect carefully on the causes of this we’ll be able find out that the causes of this negative way of life, engaging in wrong actions and thinking is ignorance. Of course when we talk about ignorance there could be countless levels and varieties of ignorance. But we’re talking here about fundamental ignorance or fundamental confusion, which actually is a is a mistaken state of consciousness which sees things as having independent or inherent existence. It’s because of this fundamental ignorance that we encounter all the negativities of life.

 

For example, it is the strong attachment or strong grasping within to our own interests he advises against, as it causes ‘afflictive’ emotions such as hatred for the others who do fall on the other side of the line of those closest to us, “these actions then cultivate further contaminated actions or negative karma. And in this way we wander aimless within cyclic existence”. (He also points out that we should not be too hard on ourselves.)

 

In closing, I started writing this paper thinking that looking for happiness in the wrong way causes suffering, but ended up discovering something unexpected, that at the very basic level of our nature, we will always seek happiness, and that suffering will always be present until we remove the causes by changing how we see what is in front of us.

 

 

The views expressed in this lecture are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Theosophical Society Pasadena.