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Some Thoughts on Happiness & Suffering

December 24, 2009
Dennis Lewis

Dennis Lewis

The purpose of our lives, according to the Dalai Lama,  “is to seek happiness.”* Although, most of us will agree that what we want most from our lives is happiness, we seldom think and feel and sense deeply about all that this involves.

In most dictionaries, happiness is defined as having to do with luck and good fortune, pleasure and satisfaction. And most of us, most of the time, define our happiness using these sorts of terms in relation to our images of health, family, money, friends, security, jobs, possessions, and so on.

There are moments, however, when we know in our heart of hearts that another, deeper form of happiness exists—the happiness that we feel when we let go of all of our conceptions about who we are and are able to experience the miraculous nature of what we call “ordinary life.” That we exist at all, that we have the opportunity to participate in the extraordinary mystery of life, is the greatest “good fortune” imaginable. Yet, for most of us, the miracle that lies at the heart of our own existence is the one fact that always seems to elude us, the one fact that we always seem to forget.

It does not take much observation of our daily lives to see why we so easily forget. Almost everything in our media-driven culture is designed to suggest that we are lacking something and to entice us to purchase something, to believe something, to be something, or to do something that will “bring happiness.” Society conditions us to a negative self-image, in which whatever we have is never enough. And we identify with these suggestions and influences, as well as with our reactions to them, imagining that our happiness is somehow bound up with them. But, of course, the problem isn’t just the result of our identification with what influences us. The problem is also, and perhaps more centrally, the result of our identification with the images we have of ourselves that allow these influences to shape and define us so deeply. It is these images, many of them negative, that fuel our suggestibility, our assumption that this object, that person, this job, that success, that politician, this spiritual experience, that pursuit will somehow improve our lives, make us better people, and bring us happiness.

And so, we suffer. I am not here talking about the inevitable suffering of war, pain, disease, trauma, and loss. No, I am talking about the unnecessary suffering that we bring on ourselves through chronic negativity. The Dalai Lama points out that it is our negative emotions, especially our anger and hatred, that undermine our physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being and promote conflict and destruction in the world. (Just listen to discussions on FOX News or CNN or talk radio, or better yet to yourself and others discussing the current problems facing us all.) The Dalai Lama also makes clear that “The only factor that can give you refuge or protection from the destructive effects of anger and hatred is your practice of tolerance and patience.”* But who, besides a very small minority of people, actually practice tolerance and patience?

Of course, a lot of our intolerance and impatience, and thus the negativity bound up with them, arises, first, because our self-definitions and expectations of ourselves and others are so often illusory and unrealizable, and second, because even when they are realizable they most often do not reflect who and what we really are, or the actual forces at work in society. Even more important, they do not reflect the miracle of being alive on this earth, and of our great opportunity to engage consciously now in this miracle.

To be alive, in the highest sense of this word, means to be filled with life, to be able to receive, contain, and transform whatever life brings us—until it brings us nothing more. To live life fully and freely means to experience all sides of life as they present themselves to us: joy and suffering, love and hate, pleasure and pain, insight and ignorance, unity and fragmentation, hope and disappointment, clarity and confusion, and so on. This is the only real freedom—the freedom, whether we like or dislike any particular experience, whether we accept it, fight it, or try to change it–is to remember and feel the mystery and miracle of what we have come to call “the ordinary.” For it is this re-membering of our wholeness, this conscious re-connection with and welcoming of all sides of ourselves and our lives, that brings the happiness that we truly wish for.

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*The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D. (Riverhead Books: New York, 1998), hardcover, 322 pages.

Copyright 2009 by Dennis Lewis

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Phil Buckley permalink
    December 28, 2009 1:22 am

    I have found your blog and many of your thoughts very insightful and helpful. You are clearly a person who I believe is following the path. There is one question I would ask you to address which might help me and others. You quote the Dalai Lama in relation to his views about suffering. Are you aware of the suffering he is alleged to be causing to his people in exile? I, like you, and I am sure many others who read your blog, am on the path. I would welcome your thoughts on this as your declared reconciliations may assist mine and those of others. If indeed the issues you find by Googling ‘The Dalai Lama in Court’ or the ‘Dorje Shugden controversy’ are meaningful to you, I feel they need to be addressed (by those such as yourself who clearly positively influence many people) as we may only be prolonging suffering by ignoring these very difficult issues.

    • October 9, 2010 12:20 pm

      Phil, I have read a bit about this and really do not know the full truth with regard to it.

      I will say, however, that no one is perfect, and it is time to begin looking not just at ourselves but also at the great teachers, including the Dalai Lama, with completely open eyes and ears. Making Gods out of one’s teachers, however wonderful they are, blinds us to what it is that they have to face inside and out. Thank you for this important reminder.

  2. December 28, 2009 4:10 pm

    Dennis,

    This is a well-written piece, with some excellent thoughts in it. My first reaction is that I’m in complete agreement.

    At the same time, I’m not sure the “complete awareness’ or “wholeness” you describe brings what one would call happiness.

    There is a question of polarity and duality here when we confront the issue of “happiness.” People frequently ask me about whether I am “happy” or “unhappy” about this or that. It’s true, there are emotional reactions called happiness and unhappiness in me. None of them, however, seem to address the real issue, that is, of directly taking in the honest impression of my life, which ultimately stands apart from my reactions, all of which are–let me be quite frank– an untrustworthy mess.

    I’m uncertain as to whether happiness, in other words, constitutes freedom. I’ve had some highly personal experiences that, I am quite sure, do constitute freedom within that specific context, but they left me with much larger questions about freedom, and how much it relies on bliss — if at all.

    The deepest freedom, for me, comes with an experience of sorrow which, while it might sound equally dualistic — and thus inevitably limited — contains a comprehensive range of emotional experience, that is, it encapsulates the whole stick, rather than one or the other end of it.

    I equate this, rightly or wrongly, with Gurdjieff’s “The Sorrow of his Endlessness”– which is a subject I do not hear touched on in other works.

  3. May 19, 2012 5:08 am

    Wonderful post. I agree with you completely. As humans, it is completely natural for us to experience both happiness and suffering. If we simply accept that suffering is inevitable we can more easily face the problems it brings and be free from them. I also agree with the Dalai Lama’s views about genuine compassion, “…genuine compassion is based on the rationale that all human beings have an innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering, just like myself….On the basis of the recognition of this equality and commonality, you develop a sense of affinity and closeness with others.” (From, “The Art of Happiness”) A genuine compassion for others is the key to connecting with others, to relieve suffering, and to maintain true inner peace and happiness. I am just beginning to uncover the teachings of the Dalai Lama, and thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts in this post. Thank you.

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