The book Anna Kerenina begins with the statement “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In my observation, almost the opposite seems to be true. Happy people are each uniquely engaged in life whereas unhappy people, turned inwardly upon themselves, are thereby reduced to a kind of uniformity.

Unfortunately, the unhappy ones do seem to be in the majority, though there is a strong modern social convention that places an injunction upon people to put on a  cheerful face, whatever may be happening at a deeper level. The syndrome of critical mind in which a person cannot help finding fault is, consequently, extremely common, as the hidden shadow struggles to get out. Freud was probably right when he wrote that most people live lives of quiet desperation.

I am happier these days than I have been at any time in my life. I'd have to go back to infancy to find a parallel. Perhaps I'm in my second childhood. I do, therefore, ponder upon what happiness is. What is the anatomy of happiness? When I do so I see that there is what could be called a positive and a negative side to it and, in many respects, the negative side seems more causative, permitting the positive. I mean the term negative here is a purely technical sense. It makes me realise why the Buddha framed so many of his teachings and injunctions in negative form. He talks about non-self, non-hate, non-greed, non-delusion and so on and says that these are the keys to spiritual progress. I used to find this puzzling, but now it all makes sense.

This is also why Buddhism is liberation. When I ask myself how much has Buddhism contributed to my happiness I can see that the answer is that it has contributed a lot and it has contributed it in this negative fashion. Buddhism in general has largely taken away my greed and hate - my acquisitive possessiveness and my resentments and animosities. Pureland has then taken away my anxiety. These removals have made a lot of space which then gets naturally filled by all the beauty and fascination of life and of the things around me that I would have missed had I been more inwardly preoccupied.

When I look back on my younger life I can see that I was anxious much of the time and sometimes it was paralysing. I used to be particularly anxious when things were going well. At such times a dark cloud always hovered, with a sense of impending doom. Good fortune could never last. In bad times one at least knew what was bad whereas in good ones anything could be just about to happen. All that seems to have gone. I no longer experience anxiety as a day to day companion as I used to.

It is often said that happiness comes from within and involves ceasing to be engaged with outward things, and I can see what people mean when they say such things, but it is not literally true. Happiness is found in engagement with outward things in the right way and that right way only comes naturally when a lot of the inward junk has been junked.

Of course, even the greed, hate and anxiety do have some place in the scheme of things. There are times when it is the right course to pitch oneself against something. There are times when it is to hang onto and preserve something. There are times when it is quite appropriate to remain in a high adrenaline state because difficulties are looming that are going to require a more than normal response. Probably there is nothing in us that does not have some natural usefulness. Things are only “pathological” when they go on and on independently of any corresponding genuine provocation - when we are, in a sense, addicted to them and they are inside us rather than spontaneous responses to corresponding stimuli in the real world.

So it all makes a lot of sense that Buddhism talks of the ultimate state as one of emptiness. The emptiness is a basically happy space that can welcome everything that comes along. To fall into that space, however, involves a kind of faith or willingness and does not seem to be something that one can do just by following a recipe.

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I loved this take on emptiness, have been coming to it in my mind the past two days. The sense of our unhappiness being far more predictable than our joy means a great deal to me.

A phrase that this left we with was 'the persuasive power of happiness'. Or perhaps, its infectious quality: our own sense of ease, our innate delight in life recognising itself, rising up to meet its authentic presence in others wherever we find it.

Then I was thinking about the phrase 'Happy Clappy', and wondered if the tone of mocking derision that this  phrase implies is best understood in terms of that same instinct for unaffected, unconfected joy - in the sense that sometimes, louder declarations of happiness seem to have a lot of unspoken anxiety in the mix, somehow? Clark Strand usefully refers to this state of restless anxiety as 'half-belief'.

I think there's far more to it than that, and am anyway often more in sympathy with those described as happy clappy than I am with those who might take that superior, ironic tone - even when doing so myself, bombu that I am.

Namo Amida bu

Yes, unhappiness has an element of deadness about it - marana, in Buddhist language - whereas happiness is alive and in fact aliveness is probably a better goal than happiness because aliveness encompasses the whole range of emotions yet does so in a vital manner. The terms happy and unhappy have a diversity of usages that are not altogether consistent.

"Happy clappy" is interesting. In the Pratyutpanna samadhi Sutra it says that people who have real faith in Buddha are so overjoyed that they "dance on tip toe". Perhaps that is the Buddhist version.

'aliveness is probably a better goal than happiness because aliveness encompasses the whole range of emotions yet does so in a vital manner'

This is helpful, thank you. I think I recall - perhaps in Questions in the Sand - you discussing happiness as a positive side effect of an engaged spiritual life rather than its goal. Aliveness does seem a fuller and more inclusive notion than happiness, but perhaps, like happiness, it's best viewed as a consequence or side-effect of a certain approach to living?

There's much aliveness-enhancing wisdom on offer  in our region of the UK, in the form of workshops, talks, books, public events. Much of its very good, and I'm grateful for it. Am thinking, particularly, of a certain thread of eco-centric or green spirituality that makes much of indigenous knowledges, and tends to see our present ills - if not samsaric delusion itself - as an effect of our social and cultural systems and stories, rather than as intrinsic to sentient or human nature, per se. But I've been noticing  lately how it seems that such events feel able to go only so far in addressing the gap or wound they would speak to, if they don't hold out some sort of grounding in community. To the extent that aliveness is being sold as something to simply take away with you (from the event, the talk, the book), it can end up feeling like so much eco-enhanced consumerism.

This, of course, from someone who's consistently hovered on the margins of most communities he's been graced to come into contact with :-)

Thanks, Mat... for that view from the inside :-)



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