Someone wise once said that the source of all our unhappiness is the tension between the way the world IS and the way we want it to BE. As human beings, we seem to be forever caught in this feedback loop that generates untold pain and suffering; yet instead of seeing the problem for what it is, we are forever increasing the stakes in the same vain hope shared by every drug addict that the next, bigger hit will bring me the lasting peace and happiness I crave.
Let me explain: A child is walking quite happily along the seafront on a warm summers day, holding her mother’s hand. Then she spies the ice-cream stall and she imagines how wonderful the feeling would be of cool, sweet ice-cream would be in her mouth. So she asks the inevitable question, “May I have an ice cream please, mommy?” Lunch is only thirty minutes away, and so her request is met with a postponement until after she has eaten her lunch; but now all she can now think of is the ice-cream and the happiness she perceives she will experience when it is in her hand. In actual fact, she is now quite miserable. As soon as she linked her happiness with a desire yet unfulfilled she lost all enjoyment of the present moment and stamps her feet, with tears in her eyes, her soul in abject misery. The present moment is utterly reined because the happiness she craved in the future has birthed suffering in the present.
As we grow older, the cycle is repeated ad-infinitum, each time reinforcing this same conditioning with the only change being the cost of the item that will bring supposed happiness. Again and again, desire is born within us, not now for an ice cream, but perhaps for an iPhone, a car, a wife, a better job, or a holiday. Again and again, like a drug addict, we suffer ever more convoluted and extended agonies in order to attain the object of our desires, only to discover that the happiness they provide is fleeting, never meets our expectations and is NEVER equal to the trauma we put ourselves through in order to acquire the thing. You see, the equations are not balanced. Ever. The deposit that must be paid to the bank of gratification ALWAYS outweighs the ultimate value of any withdrawal that may be made – it seems like the system demands a high level of interest. Worse still, any gratification experienced inevitably evaporates like the morning dew as soon as the object is within our grasp, and thus the game is on again.
If we are to find a true and lasting happiness, if we are to finally escape this dualistic game of suffering followed by momentary pleasure followed by renewed suffering, we must find a source of happiness that lies outside the ‘system’ altogether. Whenever we push our happiness into the future and make it contingent on certain conditions being met, like the little girl with the ice cream, we give birth to suffering in the present until such time as the object of our desire is acquired. How many times must we go through this insanity before we recognise that lasting happiness and contentment simply cannot be found this way. In actual fact, were you to be rich or clever enough to be able to acquire anything you wished for in the world without paying the commensurate deposit of suffering necessary to get there, the amount of pleasure gained in acquisition would shrink in precise proportion with the decreased suffering involved to acquire it!
To escape the trap, we must do two things. Firstly, we must discover a source of happiness that is unconditioned; one that is not contingent on any conditions for it to be experienced. It must be a happiness that can be experienced regardless of how the world IS. If the source of our suffering is the tension between the way the world IS and the way we want it to BE, then the first step must be to alter our expectations so we desire the world to be exactly as it is and for life to be no more and no less than what it is as it comes to us moment by moment. The second factor in lasting happiness is that we must relentlessly acquire our happiness from the ‘now’, from the precise moment that we are inhabiting; for as soon as we move it one moment into the future, we give birth to suffering in the gap between conception of the desire and its fulfilment. In other words, I must desire what I have right now and find contentment in what the present moment presents to me. As someone once said, the past cannot be changed, the future may not happen, but the ‘now’ is a gift – which is why it is called the present. Like the little girl, I take pleasure in the sunny day, in the closeness of mother, in the blue of the sky and the breath in my lungs. And it is enough. And because whatever I have been freely given by grace for this present moment is enough, I am happy. As I will be in the next moment. As I will be tomorrow, ice cream or no ice cream!
Close your eyes. Breathe a few deep, cleansing breaths. Give thanks for all the conditions of happiness you have right now. You may be able to breathe without pain. You may have eaten today. You may be able to hear a bird singing. You may feel the gentle breeze. And you are happy – and nothing can take it away from you because you did nothing to earn it in the first place.