What is happiness? I’ve been contemplating this for weeks. It seems the notion of happiness can have so many meanings, across paradigms as well as within me. Patanjali spends a great deal of time talking about the nature of “bliss”, the ultimate happiness. But for him it is lifetimes of work to realize the stillness of being associated with it. Buddhism is similar. Happiness is possible only in the cessation of cravings or desire. And yet for other systems, desire is central to moving our human organism toward meeting our needs. For me, the pursuit of happiness exists on both levels. I know that I have a propensity toward endless cravings, believing the grass is greener elsewhere. Just as one need is met another one crops up. Just as I find fulfillment in one area of my life, emptiness shows itself in another area. But, neglecting the pursuit of simple pleasures day by day and fulfillment for the sole pursuit of “bliss” devoid of all egoic cravings is just unrealistic. We are after all human and divine. Can the pursuit of ultimate happiness, nirvana, run parallel to the everyday pursuit of simple happiness? I think it must. Pursuing nirvana without regard for the humanity in us is spiritual narcissism, pursuing human happiness without the intent of letting go of our over-attachment to human form is pleasure mongering.
Psychologist Martin Seligman characterises what makes for simple human happiness in the following five points:
- Pleasure (tasty foods, warm baths, etc.),
- Engagement (or flow, the absorption of an enjoyed yet challenging activity),
- Relationships (social ties have turned out to be extremely reliable indicator of happiness),
- Meaning (a perceived quest or belonging to something bigger), and
- Accomplishments (having realized tangible goals).
In contrast to this straightforward notion, Gurdjieff said that “in suffering you can have real happiness given by real love”. By this I think he meant that as we suffer the fragmentation between our head, heart and body we come to a new fortitude of self, an “I” sense, that opens the higher aspects of being – including the experience of profound joy. This I believe is similar to intense work required for Buddhist or yogic realization of happiness. It reminds us to be present to ourselves, our suffering and fragmentation in the midst of meeting the more simple forms of happiness that Seligman suggests. This parallel process allows us to have daily happiness without being blinded by it, and the pursuit of spiritual happiness without asceticism.
Perhaps my point would be to not suffer blindly in pursuit of the more lofty spiritual aspirations leading to Joy. We all need to get off the cross sometimes and dance circles around it, full of pleasure, full of flow. And at the same time, don’t stop at warm baths and accomplishments. We do have to pick up our crosses again sometimes and be crucified, so that we may also be resurrected into the realm of soul, the realm of a happiness that depends on nothing and is the free, natural state of our being.