Spiritual Practice Is Not About Happiness

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In my experience it is a mistake to equate one’s spiritual path with the pursuit of happiness, as it were. Climbing the mountain of spirit is about becoming increasingly conscious rather than resting in eternal bliss. Mark Vernon writes about this topic in today’s Guardian.

Equating Buddhism with happiness, to stay with that particular association, will dumb it down.

I couldn’t agree more. Equating any authentic path with happiness does the same thing.

Take the Buddhist writer Matthieu Ricard’s book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. This French monk, who has spent years living in Nepal, has also written a sophisticated tome on philosophy and a penetrating volume on the interface between science and religion. But his happiness book is a huge disappointment. It trades in the more or less obvious, and seems mostly concerned to align Buddhism with positive psychology, presumably so as to gain from the good PR of the so-called science of happiness.

The concern is that Ricard knows better. Right at the end of his book he explains why the science of happiness actually won’t do. However commendable and altruistic its goals, he explains, it bases its analyses “on a rather fuzzy assessment of the nature of happiness, lumping together superficial pleasures and deep-felt happiness.”

Could it be that happiness is a temporary state that arises spontaneously out of the trait of the ever deepening awareness brought on by meditation? Happiness ebbs and flows, in other words, while consciousness has the potential to perpetually increase.

Contrast Ricard’s book with Stephen Batchelor’s introductory classic, Buddhism Without Beliefs. Batchelor was a monk for many years too. He speaks Tibetan and reads Pali. He is also heavily engaged in bringing Buddhism into the west. So what does his book have to say about happiness? Precisely nothing. The word itself appears exactly once in his text, and then only to dismiss it.

This is a great point. But this isn’t to say that happiness isn’t a byproduct of an authentic spiritual practice. And what is an authentic spiritual practice? It’s a body and mind that are both committed to meeting stillness, over and over again. Results are best when this practice is coupled with a guide who knows the terraign, a map of the terraign, and a group interested in walking the terraign together.

Living in this way, however, is not necessarily, as Vernon asserts, a “pick’n’mix approach” or a “search for the tastiest bits” of Buddhism or other traditional practice. In fact, while often problematic for seekers, traditions can be helpful in familiarizing us with the terraign of practice as much as it can be a hindrance. Furthermore, cherry-picking from traditions as a way of offering tastes of happiness will always keep awakening to the Truth beyond name and form at bay. But there are many valid approaches to deepening our consciousness that have nothing to do with either dumbing down tradition or selling bits and pieces of happiness.

For those interested in enlightenment, their spiritual work can not be about simply seeking happiness. Rather, it must be about seeing what’s true… even if it hurts. Even if the truth isn’t pretty, even if the mess of it all is overwhelming, the serious practitioner knows that facing his or her life with their full attention, without flinching, is the work. Once this process integrates itself with any serious student, they will find that happiness comes and goes while awareness only intensifies. This intensity brings with it something deeper than happiness; something we might call peace. And that peace has the potential to inform all things with the quiet joy that is always present in every moment.

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