Throughout my teen years and into young adulthood, I felt miserable about the state of the world. You probably wouldn’t have known it if you’d talked to me: I appeared fairly cheerful and well-adjusted because that’s a strong natural part of my character. Underneath, however, I carried an existential angst that threatened to pull me into neurosis and despair.
“How can I enjoy my good fortune,” I wondered, “while so much of the world is going to hell?” Was I supposed to distract myself with the pleasures of my own life while ignoring widespread starvation, oppression, injustice, extinctions, resource depletion, and environmental degradation? Contentment seemed like folly given the preposterous possibility we would destroy the entire planet with nuclear weapons within a day.
I was led to Buddhist practice by my pervasive sadness about the world and my sense of being powerless against the juggernauts of greed, hate, and delusion. Buddhism seemed to promise a way to gain peace of mind no matter how crazy the world was. I hoped to achieve an “enlightened” view of the world that would let me see how things like injustice, starvation, and mass extinction weren’t that big a deal. I hoped to gain a transcendent view of the world which would put all the misery into perspective and make sense of everything.
Fortunately, after many years of practice, I did learn to access a certain peace of mind no matter how crazy the world is. But I didn’t achieve it the way I expected, by somehow escaping the pain of empathy or the conundrum of responsibility.
Instead, I realized at some point that my real happiness would benefit the world.
What Real Happiness Is
At this point I need to clarify what real happiness is, by first explaining what it’s not. Real happiness does not result from the successful pursuit of self-interest, pleasure, power, material wealth, or stimulating experiences. Real happiness is not getting everything you want, although that’s very nice. That’s just conditional happiness, which doesn’t particularly benefit the world except that others don’t need to worry about taking care of you.
Real happiness is deciding to be appreciative and content in the midst of your life, just as it is – and in the midst of the world, just as it is. Real happiness is refusing to postpone the kind of satisfaction you usually associate with achieving all of your dreams. Real happiness is embodiment and direct experience, free from the filters of expectations and self-concern. When we embrace real happiness, we wake up to miracle of life.
In the Soto Zen scripture on the Buddhist precepts, the Kyojukaimon, it describes the treasure of sangha, or community, as “they who release their suffering and embrace all beings.” Isn’t this remarkable? It doesn’t say, “they who transcend their suffering,” or “they who manage to make their suffering disappear.” The sangha jewel is made up of people who quit holding on to their suffering – which of course implies that we are in charge of our suffering! This passage suggests we can learn how to let our suffering go, and thereby benefit others.
These Buddhist teachings about releasing suffering and attaining peace of mind can be easily misunderstood. It may sound like we’re saying, “Suffering isn’t real, so you can just put it out of your mind, achieve internal peace, and that’s good enough.” We’re not saying that at all. That’s actually an anti-Buddhist way of looking at spiritual practice. The Buddhist way is not selfish. It’s about direct experience… and when you actually let go of your suffering and embrace all beings, the result is not what you think.
How Real Happiness Benefits Others
When we practice real happiness, we wake up. We notice everything – and not just what we can see and hear in our immediate environment. We notice the state of the world, and the state of our heart. We recognize calls to respond, and then our best response naturally arises. We recognize what’s ours to do, and we’re free to do it because we’re not caught up in our own misery, or in pursuing conditional happiness.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh describes it this way, in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:
“Yes, there is tremendous suffering all over the world, but knowing this need not paralyze us. If we practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting, and working in mindfulness, we try our best to help, and we can have peace in our heart. Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse…
“We who have been fortunate enough to encounter the practice of mindfulness have a responsibility to bring peace and joy into our own lives, even though not everything in our body, mind, or environment is exactly as we would like. Without happiness we cannot be a refuge for others. Ask yourself, What am I waiting for to make me happy? Why am I not happy right now?”
It is not necessarily easy to be happy in this real way, at least not until you learn, for yourself, what it really means. Once you know, and once you build familiarity with the practice, all you have to do is bring together body, mind, and heart in once place and trust your awareness. The miraculous, inherently precious nature of our existence is immediately apparent if we just drop all of our concepts about the way life is or should be.
The ability to touch this way of real happiness does not in any way absolve us of responsibility to relieve suffering in the world. It also doesn’t cripple our empathy, or wrap us in a cocoon of cold detachment (things I used to be afraid would happen!). That’s because the way of real happiness is in touch with reality, and in reality, we’re not separate from any other beings, or from the universe itself. In reality we’re embodied human beings with thoughts and emotions. We have time and energy, and we inevitably have to make choices about how to spend them. We can fritter our time and energy away, dedicate ourselves to pursuing comfort or pleasure, or work to benefit self and other in a real way.
The Actual Practice of Real Happiness
I remember walking down the street one afternoon, in the early years of my Buddhist practice, and suddenly realizing my misery and guilt wasn’t doing anyone any good. I thought, “What if I dropped it?” Because of years of practice, I was actually capable of doing that – although it was only for a minute or two. When I “released my suffering,” my world instantly expanded. Instead of feeling like I was wearing blinders that kept me focused on the abstract issue of how I should respond to the sad state of the world, I noticed the trees, sidewalk, birds, flowers, and the crisp, cool air. I noticed my body, walking, breathing, and ready to get to work. I noticed people, and it occurred to me I was available to listen to them in a way I never had been before. I felt as if I had just woken up from a dream. Since that moment, I have understood that my real happiness actually benefits others.
You can recognize the benefit of real happiness from the other side, too – just think of the rare people you encounter who seem to be delighted to be just who they are, doing just what they’re doing. Even if they’re only stocking vegetables in the supermarket, you feel energized, strengthened, inspired, and encouraged when you encounter them. Your burdens feel a little lighter, and your aspirations awakened.
The fact that little daily encounters can let others benefit from your real happiness does not let you off the hook of the bodhisattva vow, of course. We vow to save all beings, end all delusions, enter all Dharma gates, and embody the Buddha way. Only you know if you’re doing your best at honoring those vows. However, don’t postpone your real happiness until you’ve achieved your ideal of bodhisattvahood. That would make sense if real happiness were a reward you have to earn, rather than a practice that’s accessible to you at any moment.