Zen and Stumbling into Happiness
Recently I saw an advertisement for a therapist of some sort that promised complete transformation with one session. She promised that no longer would no longer need weeks or even years of psychotherapy. That for three thousand dollars, or something like that, you will no longer experience self-doubt, limiting beliefs, or unrealized success, and you will re-tune your mind for uncompromised success in every area of your life. Just like the world’s most successful and fulfilled people.
As a professional psychotherapist I often run into such claims by professionals and non-professionals alike. And I think it is safe to say that these claims have been around since the dawn of society. Back in the day, it might have been a special calf’s blood, or a particular snake venom that would change your lot in life.
I understand the seductiveness of these sorts of claims. We live in difficult times. Judging by my Facebook feed there’s lots to worry about. Even I find myself often imagining a fast track to another emotional state. Wondering, when will I be happy? When will we all be happy?
If I were to examine my own life, I have chased many types of contemporary snake oil in the effort to feel complete and happy. I have succumbed to ambition and desire and chased money, recognition, cars, and girls. I have climbed the ladder of career success only to discover, as Richard Rohr says, that the ladders I was climbing, were against the wrong walls.
All of this is textbook Four Noble truths. Over and over again we get caught in the web of desire and craving, thinking this or that object will be the path to happiness, and inevitably we experience disappointment and frustration as the chased after object doesn’t deliver what we thought if would.
And unfortunately, until we awaken to this truth, we are doomed to repeat it over and over again.
So, at this point you might be thinking, well what now? Is there no way that we might invite happiness into our lives? Am I doomed to a life of frustration and despair? Is this why that one guy called Buddhism Nihilist!
First, I should probably let you know that I don’t think happiness is something we can manufacture or make happen. My Zen practice has taught me that there is no quick fix, no slow fix, or even a fix. There’s a quote floating around attributed to Suzuki Roshi where he was reported to say, “you are perfect just the way you are. But you could use a little improvement.” No fixes needed! Well maybe a little.
So how does happiness happen?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who wrote the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Which is really, in my humble opinion, just a secular book about Zen and paying attention to your life. Had this to say about happiness:
“What I “discovered” was that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.
Yet we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it. “Ask yourself whether you are happy,” said J. S. Mill, “and you cease to be so.” It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.”
Sounds like a Zen teacher, right?
Happiness is a condition that must be prepared for. So how do we prepare?
Well, Zen Buddhism offers much in this effort. There’s Zazen, Koan introspection, Precepts that guide ethical living, and rich stories and teachings from many who have walked the path before us.
But since I’m currently reading Zen Teacher Norman Fischer’s new book The World Could be Otherwise, where he writes about the paramitas, or “six perfections,” and details how they can help us reconfigure the world we live in. I’m going to focus on these as one example in preparation and cultivation.
Fischer suggests the six paramitas, or perfections, as a way to improve our characters and develop as human beings functioning in the world as it is. To prepare and cultivate. The six perfections are:
The perfection of generosity: Are we opening our hearts to ourselves, to others, and to life.
The perfection of ethical conduct: How are moving through the world? Are we aware of what we do, does?
The perfection of patience: Are we letting life come to us? Or are we struggling to make things happen on our time?
The perfection of joyful effort: What attitude are we approaching this life with? Do we hold hope for those that might not have any at this time?
The perfection of meditation: Are we committed to a regular practice, in an effort to support the work of a bodhisattva?
The perfection of understanding: Do we understand the world is a mysterious place. Nothing is as it seems. Do we let go of our concepts that might be getting in the way of our helpfulness?
I’m also compelled to point to the Bodhisattva path. This path calls us to cultivate a life where compassion and service for others is primary. Norman Fischer calls Mahayana Bodhisattvas the Energizer Bunnies of Buddhism. Practicing, practicing, practicing, Helping, helping, helping.
Zen practice offers these and much more in the effort to prepare and cultivate for moments of joy and happiness. This practice asks us to pay attention to our lives as they are. And to expect surprise and mystery.
The most profound, or happiest, moments of my life have come in places I least expected. A night in a jail cell on the reservation in Arizona where a member of the Pima tribe shared with me a dream he had the previous night that woke him up to his alcoholism. In a homeless shelter where a man struggling with schizophrenia shared with me his broken heart and told me a story of a lost love. Finding myself in Kyoto Japan at a Shingon temple as the monks chanted the heart sutra inside, and the fall colors exploded outside. Holding my wife’s hand as we walked along the river Seine in Paris, at night.
These moments, and many others, couldn’t be manufactured on my own. These moments visited me because I was participating in life with an open, and I hope helpful, heart. When I approach the world in these ways, with an attitude of generosity, patience, and understanding. Something funny happens. Happiness visits me more often.