I believe that what most people desire is true happiness. In today's world, most people are apt to think of happiness as a fleeting pleasurable experience. But I am now certain that it is an enduring quality not dependent on fleeting pleasures. This kind of contentment, this happiness, is what all beings really want. And, all of us, in our many and various ways, seek it.
Our desire for happiness is natural, but there's a big problem with the way we try to satisfy that yearning. Because we lack wisdom, we fail to see the world as it is, and we inevitably go about the pursuit of happiness in the very ways that sabotage its fulfillment. Without waking up to the true nature of reality, without certain insight into who we really are, we seek enduring contentment in all the wrong places and through the wrong means. And, because we can never find it, our hunger for satisfaction intensifies and worsens. It's like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
Most of us seek happiness in two basic ways: The first is by acquisition, which is the preferred method of our modern world. And, the second is by aversion, which is trying to avoid unpleasant situations. Both techniques are based on what Freud called "the pleasure principle," grasping for things we enjoy and evading the things that we don't.
The quest for contentment through acquisition usually leads us to try to enhance our lives by surrounding ourselves with things, we believe, will give us pleasure. Homes, cars, clothing, trophies, etc. Acquisitiveness, however, need not focus on material items. One can seek happiness by having unique and interesting experiences, including spiritual experiences. Or, by holding the right religious or political beliefs or affiliating with an organization or a cause.
One can look for lasting contentment in gaining knowledge or performing deeds. One can seek it through the love of other beings both human and Divine. There is no end to the ways we can pursue contentment by means of getting and having.
If we fail to get what we want, of course, we usually suffer. Because we have made acquisition of a particular thing the condition for our contentment, not getting it leaves us feeling sad, disappointed, frustrated and perhaps angry, thinking we missed the very thing that would have made us happy.
A lot of our remembrance from the past is a reflection on the times we didn't get what we wanted and felt entitled to. I still feel a stab of discomfort in my chest when I recall not getting first place for a beautiful painting I worked so hard on in the 7th grade. Tragedy one.
Tragedy two appears when we actually get what we want. We marry our sweetheart, buy our dream home, get the promotion, win the marathon, and finally take that Mediterranean cruise. Now we are happy, right? Perhaps for a while. Getting what we want, may indeed bring us great pleasure, but the pleasurable feelings won't last. Back at the dream house, the air conditioner breaks and the stove is on the fritz. What's left of the cruise is fading memories and photographs. The new job brings a bigger salary to be sure, but now we have more anxiety and less time to spend with family. When the initial pleasure subsides, disappointment sets in. Disappointment comes in exact proportion to how much happiness we expected our acquisition to provide.
Perhaps one of the greatest disappointments was divorcing my child's father. It took a lot of soul searching to realize marriage to him was, at the time, my ego's trump card (and, although I cannot speak for him, I suspect it was the same for him for different reasons). Ever since I was a little girl, I identified with the fairytale, Cinderella, when the Prince swept the poor girl off her feet and whisked her away into his castle to live happily ever after. He had all the qualities I loved, and, when he popped the question, I was elated. Not only was I going to have my happily ever after, it was also a way to gain acceptance and recognition from my family...to marry a man who, on paper, was quite a stand-up guy and quite a catch for a girl like me. I got what I wanted. I got my dream home, I had a very nice car, I got to travel to wonderful destinations. Surely I had died and gone to heaven! But, for reasons I cannot explain here, the rose colored glasses were ripped off as reality set in shortly after our child was born. I became quite depressed. As the years rolled on, they became darker and darker, the harder I worked trying to make things work, until I had to make the decision to leave with the faith and reassurance that everything was going to be OK.
Expectations can be a killer. It took me a while but I came to realize that I thought my marriage would radically, somehow, transform my life and provide a sense of security. But it didn't. I just wore better shoes and lived in a nicer home. The satisfaction just didn't last because it, unconsciously, was built on a crumbling foundation. I had burdened that single goal with so much expectation that nothing could have possibly satisfied me. A hard pill to swallow, for sure.
Desires, where they are fulfilled or frustrated, only beget more desires. There is no end to our wants. When we think that fulfilling our wishes is the way to happiness, it's like that old kids trick, "what would you wish for if you could only be granted one wish? Why, I would wish for a million more!"
Alongside acquisition, we also seek satisfaction by avoiding unpleasant situations or things or people. Aversion is actually just the flip side of acquisition. Both are manifestations of desire. As with acquisition, the problem with trying to find happiness through avoidance, is the nature of reality. Reality simply does not allow us to evade unwanted experiences. Sure, we might be able to escape a few, like dodging the class bully, or using that website that keeps telemarketers at bay. But the evasive life often comes at a cost like having to live your life in fear. Even if we can ward off some terrifying experiences, we cannot avert them all, particularly the most unpleasant ones like sickness, old age and death.
If our strategy has been to flee from unpleasant circumstances when they come to meet us, as they surely will, our suffering will be great indeed.
Insight lets us see that the whole approach to contentment through acquisition or aversion is fundamentally misguided. Rather than bringing the satisfaction we so deeply want, acquisition and aversion only serve to frustrate us and increase our anguish and disappointment. It is a matrix where we become trapped until we wake up. Instead of questioning these methods themselves, in our mindless state, we foolishly think we simply haven't acquired or averted the right thing - or enough things. Which is not reality.
Several years ago, my daughter and I were shopping and she was about 4 years old. She began bitterly crying and frantically running down the aisles of Target screaming, "I need something! I need something!" When I finally caught up with her, I could get no more out of her than what she said. She needed something. Yet she had no idea what that was. I knew just how she felt. We all think we need something and we are frantically running up and down the aisle looking for it, believing that when we get it we will be happy and the tears will stop.
Consider doing this exercise: Schedule an appointment with disappointment. Determine to spend an entire day trying o be mindful of all your disappointments and frustrations, now matter how small. If you find this approach too demanding, try to do this at the end of your day for reaction. Whichever approach you choose, be very attentive to your experiences and disappointments. You'll probably ned to be more sensitive than usual because we often condition ourselves to ignore many of our disappointments.
As you prepare for the day, or reflect back on it, consider the sources of routine disappointment. For many of us, the day begins when the alarm goes off. How does that make you feel? Then we go into the bathroom and look in the mirror. Are you pleased with what you see? If you leave the house for the day, what's the process for getting ready like? Is it as smooth and as uncomplicated that you want? When you're on the road, how's the traffic? How do you feel when you realize you're late to work and the gas tank is empty? When you get to where you're going, be attentive with your interactions with others. Does someone say something to hurt your feelings? Or, slight you in some way? How do you feel when a colleague receives lavish praise? Does the sandwich you have for lunch taste as good as you anticipated? What's it like standing in the long line at Starbucks to get your afternoon caffeine fix? You get the idea.
After you've tallied up your disappointing experiences reflect on how you reacted to them. Small, minor irritations may not warrant a great response. But how do you handle a day's worth of little frustrations? As you go about your life, try to remain as attentive as you can to these moments of discontentments.
With continued observation, our suffering becomes clearer and we begin to gain insight into its source and its cure. Eventually, we realize that suffering is the result of one thing, the fact that the world does not always conform to our expectations and desires. The world is not to blame, of course. Reality just is what it is. The problem is with our desires and expectations. We simply expect too much from the world.
In love and truth,
Author Lori Lines
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