Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century


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(Essay written Aug. '96 for a discussion group; revised Mar. '97)

Happiness is clearly fundamental in our lives. But we seem to spend most of our efforts pursuing it and all too little time actually experiencing it. And things seem to be getting worse in modern society. Apparently there is increasing scope for attaining happiness (or so the media would have us believe); possibly there is an increased demand and certainly there seems to be an increased expectancy. People are persuaded, again by the media, that they have a right to this or that material possession and the supposed happiness that will accompany it. Swami Chinmayananda says “The tragedy of human history is decreasing happiness in the midst of increasing comforts”. Modern technology has brought us so much to make life easier and more enjoyable, yet it would seem that, if anything, people are more dissatisfied than ever. Why is this? What is happiness? What makes us happy or unhappy?

This essay aims to look at the issues involved and provide some pointers to this topic, which is so close to our hearts and yet so seriously misunderstood. It is suggested that things are not so hopeless as Solon (“No one can be said to be happy until he is dead”) or The Hitopadesa (“Happiness hath he who renounces this cycle of being, which is utterly insubstantial and overwhelmed by the pains of birth, death, old age and disease”) would have us believe. Furthermore, I suggest that we can learn something about the subject and perhaps thereby increase our supposed lot of happiness, in contradiction of the sentiment expressed by Anne Swetchine that “The best advice on the art of being happy is about as easy to follow as advice to be well when one is sick”.

Albert Schweizer suggested that “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” and Socrates that “Happiness is unrepented pleasure.”? (But then what is ‘pleasure’?) William Lyon Phelps said that “The happiest people are those who think the most interesting thoughts. Those who decide to use leisure as a means of mental development, who love good music, good books, good pictures, good company, good conversation, are the happiest people in the world.” But don’t we all like ‘good books’? If we enjoy something, don’t we often call it ‘good’? And what if we are unable to obtain these things? Does our ‘loving of good things’ suffice to make us happy without the things themselves? I suggest not! Indeed, not getting the things we want is a frequently claimed cause for unhappiness. Good health may well be a reasonable justification for happiness but we tend not to appreciate such things until we lose them! Those who live life to the fullest and enjoy every moment are all too often those who have a limited life expectancy for whatever reason or who have realised their vulnerability through a narrow escape from death.

It seems we often indulge in activities which we think bring happiness but which, under scrutiny, we would have to concede are really only displacement activities, to avoid having to admit that the lack is still there and that we need to search in some more fruitful direction. Samuel Johnson quipped “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern.” and this is clearly as popular now as it has ever been. Arthur Miller suggested an updated equivalent “The main thing today is shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn't know what to do....he'd go to church, start a revolution - something. Today you're unhappy? Can't figure it out? .... Go shopping.” One might almost be led to conclude from the attitudes of these people that happiness is an escape from the existential vacuum of the Self in isolation; that if one is left to one’s own devices, with absolutely nothing to do, one comes face to face with the awful blankness of oneself and true unhappiness. It is amazing how often things are totally the reverse of the way they seem at first sight!

Much of the problem with our perception of happiness lies in our relating it to our imagined happiness of others. Montesquieu said “If one only wished to be happy, this could be easily accomplished; but we wish to be happier than other people, and this is always difficult, for we believe others to be happier than they are” and Confucius, he say “We take greater pains to persuade others that we are happy than in endeavouring to think so ourselves”. Bertrand Russell even cynically suggested that we are more interested in seeing others to be unhappy than in making ourselves happy: “If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have paradise in a few years”. This attitude is not so ridiculous either when one sees the time allocated on news programmes to show and tell us about the variety of misfortunes and tragedies throughout the world. Real life crime and hospital programmes are increasing in popularity. ‘There but for the grace of God....’?

Popular philosophical and religious views often relate happiness to the heart - an unselfish, outward love of others - giving and not taking. Here we already have a reversal of the attitudes expressed above - it is not what I can get which will make me happy but what I can give. No wonder Christianity has seen a decline in popularity in this century! It is hardly compatible with the capitalist ethos. Swami Chinmayananda expresses the sentiment tersely: “Happiness depends on what you can give, not on what you can get”; Emerson poetically: “Happiness is a perfume which you cannot pour on someone without getting some on yourself”.

An interesting first observation, which many will have experienced, is that happiness is elusive. We cannot just go out and find it, as C. P. Snow points out: “The pursuit of happiness is a most ridiculous phrase; if you pursue happiness you'll never find it”. It does not seem to be possible to have any certainty with respect to its experience. Just because a particular situation or experience has been a happy one in the past does not guarantee that its repetition will be equally so. If we find ourselves in happy circumstances, it is hardly surprising that we should wish this to continue. Of course it never does. Furthermore, it might have been noticed that any conscious attempt at the time to prolong the happiness is likely to have the immediate effect of causing it to go away! Goethe expressed this succinctly: “Happiness is a ball after which we run wherever it rolls, and we push it with our feet when it stops” and John Stuart Mill said “Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so”. It is as though it creeps up upon you unawares and, as soon as you notice it, it runs away again.

As will be discussed below, happiness cannot be sought and obtained or found in external objects and, indeed, does not seem to be related to material possessions at all. Anon puts this plainly: “Where ambition ends, happiness begins” and Roger L’Estrange said “It is not the place, nor the condition, but the mind alone that can make anyone happy or miserable”. Camus suggests “But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads”. Denis Waitley attempts to put it firmly on a spiritual rather than a material plane: “Happiness cannot be travelled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude”.
Having begun with a brief survey of some popular views on the subject, as expressed by quotations from those whom we might be persuaded to respect, let us now begin to analyse more closely some aspects of this thing called ‘happiness’.

An initial insight might be gained by noting how we relate happiness to desire and how the objects of desire change as we mature. As a child, happiness would seem to be easily won. We see a ball of paper, we want it, acquire it and, for a time are happy to screw it up, tear it and so on. Then we are introduced to toys and (eventually) come to see these as somehow containing something extra to give us more lasting happiness. But the novelty wears off and we begin looking elsewhere - bicycles, television, computer games. And we look to others as a source of providing happiness; initially our parents and family, then friends and eventually a special friend, a partner. It is not that we necessarily always drop the earlier sources completely but there is a sense of progression, a moving on to higher and more sophisticated things. (There is a clear analogy with Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs here, with basic requirements for food and shelter at the bottom of the ladder and self-actualisation, whatever that means, at the top.)

And unhappiness is not simply the lack of the particular desired object of the moment. If the attention is directed (or taken away) to other things, so that the supposed lack is temporarily forgotten, the unhappiness disappears.

Thus we come to see that lasting happiness is not to be found in objects or in relationships with others; nor in money or status - these are only means to the ends of objects or relationships. They do bring much apparent enjoyment but this is invariably superseded by its complement, misery or pain. Taken to its logical conclusion, it can be appreciated that there is, in fact, nothing outside which can bring us to this state, other than for a short while. And so this yearning for fulfilment persists, apparently doomed never to be satisfied, like a vacuum waiting to be filled.

But where is this happiness when it occurs anyway? Clearly it is not in any sense contained within the object or situation. What is a cause of happiness for one may be a source of pain for another. Each individual nature looks for its satisfaction in widely differing places. No, the happiness is perceived within, when the desired object is obtained or the hated object is removed.

[From this point onwards, there is a danger of confusing the issue so I would like to define a new term - ‘bliss’ - which will be used to denote a happiness which is unlimited, which depends on nothing else and which is unending. This, then, can be used to represent the sort of happiness for which we are ultimately striving. There could be no problem with differentiating between bliss and pleasure because we are familiar with the transient nature of the latter.]

We often naively equate happiness and pleasure and, for a hierarchy of pleasures, we might suggest that at the lowest level we have bodily pleasures, then emotional, intellectual and aesthetic and possibly culminating in a highest level which we consider to be spiritual. We don’t usually have any difficulty with talking about these levels and tend to identify ‘happiness’ as something higher on the scale and ‘pleasure’ as something ‘lower’. Thus, for example, we might say “I am enjoying this meal (i.e. it is giving me pleasure) but I am not really happy” or “This illness is not exactly pleasurable but essentially I am very happy”. It all depends on the extent to which higher needs are seen to be being satisfied. As long as they are, we can put up with pain or displeasure from the lower needs. This is not so the other way round.

The threshold at which people’s needs, when satisfied, bring a feeling of happiness varies according to individual natures. Thus, those who are very materially oriented may consider physical well-being and having lots of money as their ultimate aim in life. Whilst these are satisfied, they may consider themselves to be happy. (Indeed, they could be said to actually be happy, for who else’s definition can be used in this case? However they will not be blissful according to our definition because it is certain that the circumstances and their perception will change sooner or later to one of pain or unhappiness.) Other people will have spiritual aims, a belief or faith in something ‘more’ than this material life, a knowledge that their true nature is not limited by the petty trials of day to day existence, that they are somehow beyond all of this. For them, good health and money will be neither necessary nor sufficient for a feeling of happiness. They may need to feel they are pursuing some well defined path towards a fuller understanding of themselves and the universe. Whilst they believe themselves to be making progress in this direction, they may believe themselves to be happy even though in poor material circumstances. Even they, though, can never be blissful while still pursuing something believed to be in the future. Hence they will, at best, be ‘happy’, in perhaps essentially no different a state than that enjoyed by the materialist.

To return to the problems of ‘ordinary’ happiness, one of the problems which arises is that, when we do experience happiness, we very quickly start to interfere. We want to analyse it and understand what is happening in order that we can prolong the experience and subsequently repeat it. Desire is born and, this being inevitably thwarted, pain results. And that is a form of fear; we do not want to lose what we have and we are afraid that we will not be able to get the things we want. (Indeed fear is simply the obverse of desire - we desire ‘A’ or we fear ‘B’ i.e. desire ’not-B’). Happiness is in the moment and beyond thought. Thinking about it takes us away from the subjective knowledge that we are the happiness and objectifies it as something other than us, thus turning it into a mere pleasure.

Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between happiness and desire, because this is key to understanding the nature of happiness. The commonly held view is that we desire something and feel the lack of that desired object. When the desired is fulfilled, we experience happiness because, we suppose, we have got what we wanted. But perhaps the expression of ‘having satisfied the desire’ is not an accidental one. An alternative way of looking at the situation is to suppose that the desire obscures the happiness which is always naturally present. When the desire goes away, because it has been temporarily satisfied (like giving a bone to a nagging dog), the happiness is revealed.

WHO (Sri K. Lakshmana Sarma) explains this brilliantly in his exposition of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teaching:-

What we mean by happiness is something constant - something that will abide with us in all its freshness and purity so long as we ourselves exist (i.e. he is talking throughout this extract about what we have now called ‘bliss’). What the world has given us is not that, but something transient and variable, and its rightful name is pleasure. Happiness and pleasure are two entirely different things. But we assume that pleasures are the very texture of happiness; we assume that if we can provide for a constant stream of pleasures for all time we shall secure happiness.

But it is the very nature of pleasure to be inconstant; for pleasure is just our reaction to the impact of outside things. Certain things give us pleasure, and we seek to acquire and keep hold of them; but the same objects do not give equal pleasure at all times; sometimes they even give pain. Thus we are often cheated of the pleasure we bargained for, and find that we are in for pain at times; pleasure and pain are in fact inseparable companions.

The sage of Arunachala tells us that even pleasure is not from things. If the pleasure that we taste in life were really from things, then it must be more when one has more things, less when he has less, and none when he has none; but this is not the case. The rich, who have an abundance of things, are not exactly happy; nor are the poor, who have very little, exactly unhappy. And all alike, if and when they get sound, dreamless sleep, are supremely happy. To make sure of the undisturbed enjoyment of sleep we provide ourselves with every available artificial aid - soft beds and pillows, mosquito-curtains, warm blankets or cool breezes and so on. The loss of sleep is accounted a grievous evil; for its sake men are willing to poison the very source of life, the brain, with deadly drugs. All this shows how much we love sleep; and we love it, because in it we are happy.

We are thus justified in suspecting that true happiness is - as many wise men have told us - something belonging to our own inner nature. Sages have ever taught that pleasure has no independent existence; it does not reside in external objects at all; it appears to do so because of a mere coincidence; pleasure is due to a release of our own natural happiness, imprisoned in the inner depth of our beings; this release occurs just when, after a rather painful quest, a desired object is won, or when a hated one is removed. As a hungry street-dog, munching a bare bone, and tasting its own blood, might think the taste is in the bone, so do we assume that the pleasures that we enjoy are in the things that we seek and get hold of. It may be said that desire is the cause of our being exiled from the happiness that is within us, and its momentary cessation just allows us to taste a little of that happiness for the time being.

Because we are most of the time desiring to get hold of something, or to get rid of something, we are most of the time unhappy. The desire to get rid of something is due to fear. So desire and fear are the two enemies of happiness. And so long as we are content to remain subject to them, we shall never be really happy. To be subject to desire or fear is itself unhappiness; and the more intense the desire or fear, the keener is the unhappiness.

Desire tells us, each time, “Now get thou this, and then you shall be happy”. We believe it implicitly and set about getting it. We are unhappy for wanting it, but we forget the unhappiness in the effort. If we do not get it, we have to suffer. Neither are we happy if we get it; for desire then finds something else for us to strive for, and we fail to see how desire is fooling us all the time. The fact is desire is like a bottomless pit which one can never fill up, or like the all-consuming fire which burns the fiercer, the more we feed it.

As desire is without end, so is fear; for the things that fear tells us to avoid are without end.

Thus we come to this conclusion; so long as desire and fear have sway over us, we shall never reach happiness. If we be content to remain in bondage to them, we must as rational beings, renounce all hope of happiness. (1)

An ominous judgement indeed, since ultimately our only goal in life is bliss - ‘everlasting’ happiness - while desire and fear seem inevitable concomitants of life in today’s society. Our society’s concern for money is, after all, only a means to that end. Whether a new house or car, constant exposure to music and art, or freedom to devote one’s time to philosophy or scientific research, it is our personal happiness which is the real motivator. Yet all that is needed is a reversal in the way we look at this. If we can come to appreciate that happiness is not to be found outside but is in reality an aspect of our own nature, completely unaffected by external situations, what a revelation that would be. “It is difficult to find happiness in oneself” says Schopenhauer, “but it is impossible to find it anywhere else.”

There is no denying that we do seem to derive pleasure from external objects and we equate this with happiness, but there is no denying that this state never lasts. In many examples, this is self evident. No matter how Epicurean the food might be in a meal, you cannot sustain the pleasure by continuing to eat indefinitely. (* An interesting adjective, this, since Epicurus advocated the renunciation of transient pleasures in favour of more enduring ones.) The moment passes and only a memory remains. Furthermore, true happiness plainly exists only in the present; that associated with the past is only the bitter sweetness of nostalgia or even the unpleasant taste the morning after that wonderful meal.

This is the ultimate irony. We spend all our efforts looking outside of ourselves for that elusive object or situation which will finally give us lasting happiness. Yet it is that very act of looking which takes us away from happiness. Happiness is what remains when all the searching ceases and we are ‘left’ with our Self, which is perfect happiness. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj said ‘Only something as vast and deep as your real self can make you truly and lastingly happy.’

In order finally to explain the mechanism that is taking place, we need to look to the Chandogya Upanishad. Here there are two additional revelations about happiness. Firstly, it is suggested that happiness is, in a real sense, not the result of an action which attains a desired object but the cause of that action. The desire is experienced as a lack; this we are familiar with. This lack prevents us from experiencing the fullness of our own nature. Happiness then drives us to satisfy the desire in order that this perceived emptiness may be filled so that, in turn, the natural completeness of the Self may be re-experienced. i.e. it is effectively the Self seeking re-union with itself. It is the ironic and sad truth that we, who are already complete and are bliss itself, have to go through this process in order to achieve a brief taste of that essential nature in the transient satisfaction of some trifling desire. It is as if the wave were to expend all its energies trying to gain union with the ocean.

Strange though this concept might be, it does explain the perceived phenomena. Happiness cannot be in objects because the same things do not make everyone happy nor even one person at all times. Happiness cannot be in the mind or why would we have to look outside? The Chandogya Upanishad tells us that happiness is not finite; none of us, ultimately, would be satisfied with a limited amount of happiness. Thus it could not be contained in anything finite, neither objects nor the mind, nor a combination of these. Basically there is nothing in the universe that is not finite, limited both in space and in time. The logical conclusion is that happiness cannot be found there; not in anything that can be perceived by the senses or conceived by the mind. This would seem to bring us to an impasse as far as further explanation is concerned. We may begin to talk about that spiritual abstraction known variously as Absolute, Consciousness, supreme Spirit or God. This might be seen as the only ‘thing’ which could be complete in itself and therefore satisfy the requirements we have placed on happiness. Unfortunately, this is again a concept, separate from ourselves, merely an idea in mind. Being something ‘objectified’, it cannot be bliss. We have to acknowledge this as being beyond mind and intellect. Bliss is not in some ‘thing’ outside of ourselves. We ourselves are that bliss.

The reason, then, as to why objects appear to bring us happiness is that, when we contact them, we are, as it were, temporarily made complete. That desire, which obscured the knowledge that we are complete, is lost and the realisation is possible. The reason the object is able to do this is that it, itself, is just another name and form of that same completeness. The experience is only temporary because the mind eventually recognises that no ‘real’ union has taken place. Even in a sexual union, which perhaps can represent the pinnacle of apparent completeness, there is an immediate separation once again. Thus it would appear that true happiness is forever doomed as an impossibility. Doomed that is until we realise that this separation is only in our mind, that in truth we are already complete, the reality-consciousness-bliss of Advaita philosophy.

We need to learn to differentiate between the transient and the eternal, truth and falsehood. This is the function of the discriminating intellect which functions only in stillness and we need to strengthen it. To do this, we must follow an appropriate discipline. And we need to meditate, to journey inwards to quieten the mind and ego and find the peace of the Self. The paltry pleasures which we continually seek day after day, the thing which we call ‘happiness’, which is found and lost, seemingly beyond our control, is transient. The true nature of the Self within is everlasting bliss. When the mind is switched off, as in deep sleep, this state is temporarily experienced. Unfortunately it is not consciously realised and, upon awakening, we believe ourselves to be back in the illusion of our day to day lives where we feel at the mercy of the supposed events going on around us. When the ego is dissolved and the unity of the Self is recognised, it will be known that this bliss is our true nature, our permanent condition.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always--
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Dennis Waite 26th March 1997


* Note that no permission has been obtained to quote from these sources so that this article is not authorised for any sort of publication.

1. “Who”. ‘Maha Yoga of Bhagavan Sri Ramana’. India Press.

2. T. S. Eliot. ‘Little Gidding’ (Four Quartets). Faber and Faber.

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