It happens every so often. It was during a mentoring session. I was asked a truly profound question. It was just the other day. On a Skype call that spanned a couple thousand miles, came the following question:
“I understand that, in Buddhism, the idea is that happiness and grief are of the same type. Both are reactions to the current moment. I accept that the current moment is what is real and that both happiness and greed are manufactured responses to the direct experience of the moment. But then you seem to be talking about another kind of happiness. Apparently, the word has two meanings. Explain!”
This was one of those times when a true breakthrough is in the offing. Both of us understood that this was a truly fundamental question. The idea that came to front touched the very foundation of the nature of words and our relationship to them. I won’t repeat the entire conversation that resulted as I went on of close to an hour. But here are some of the high points.
This person, let’s call her Sally, was really asking about that relationship to words and our understanding of what they signify. She had, as most tend to, accepted that there was a direct relationship between a word and the thing it describes. The idea is that there is an equivalency between the thing and the word. Philosophers, particularly British philosophers, were fond of contending that the word was the thing and a thing was the word. But there is another way of looking at words and their meaning. And that other way opens the door to an amazing realization.
The first kind of happiness, and the one most of us experience daily, is a feeling in response to something which has happened in a past moment or something we hope to have gained in a future one. You won the lottery or maybe a new car. You got a better job or a raise. You overcame your adversary it some sporting event or won an argument. You feel that something really good is going to happen to you tomorrow. The anticipation of a meal stimulates your appetite and you imagine how good it is going to feel to enjoy it.
All of these are responses to events that have either occurred or are anticipated. They are generated in the same way. You have an experience in the current moment and you make up a story around that experience. That story becomes a kind of wall art. It is “out there” in the same way that a tree, car, dog or any other object is. And, because it is happiness, you prefer that it remains. Unlike grief, which you hope will depart quickly.
And why is this? It’s because Sally, and most of the rest of us, hope for the permanence of happiness and the impermanence of grief. We don’t understand that they are the same thing - a story that we make up.
But then there is the other kind of happiness. And here is a way to understand it. The foundation of Buddhism is the Four Noble Truths.
Following the path that Buddha blazed for us leads to a truly life-changing place. Sometimes it is described as being ‘awake’. At other its being ‘present in the moment’. It has many names. Enlightenment. Nirvana. A second birth. All of the names point in the same direction - the achievement of an understanding of yourself and a more intimate experience of being alive. And out of that come this second kind of happiness.
There are important differences. The first form of happiness a fleeting manufactured reality. It is a story which will eventually fade from memory. It is impermanent and our desire to have it stay generates a tension and dissatisfaction. But the other kind of happiness rests on a different kind of foundation. It involves a rite of passage to self-knowledge. The Four Noble Truths point the way. The message is unmistakable. There is a way to true happiness!
When you find this new kind of happiness, it will stay with you for as long as you live. It will refresh itself with every moment you are alive. It will put you in touch with the wellspring of your own existing. It will change the world for you by changing the way that you create your world. This kind of happiness is not a reaction to something which happened or might happen. It is the pure, unfiltered response to the joy of being alive.
And so, our call came to an end. I could feel the electricity crackling across the Internet. Sally had come to realize that what she had been calling happiness wasn’t happiness at all and that true happiness was right there in front of her during every moment she was alive. I recommend the experience. It is exhilarating.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD
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