When it comes to happiness, it is important to recognize that feelings are not to be trusted. And on this topic, the Buddhist position is particularly interesting. Buddhism has given the question of happiness more importance than most any other human philosophy. For more than 2,500 years, Buddhists have systematically studied the essence and causes of happiness, which is perhaps why there is such a growing interest among the scientific community both in their philosophy and their meditation and mindfulness practices. Basically Buddhism shares the insights of the biological approach, namely that happiness is the result of a process within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world. However, starting from the same insight, Buddhism reaches very different conclusions. According to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with pleasant feelings, while identifying suffering with unpleasant feelings. People therefore subsequently assign enormous importance to what they feel, and always craving to experience more pleasures, while off course trying to avoid pain.
Whatever we do throughout our lives, whether stretching our legs, scratching a mosquito bite, changing our position in bed while sleeping, or fighting world wars, we are just trying to get pleasant feelings. The problem with this, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. If ten minutes ago I felt joyful, now these feelings are gone, and I might well feel sad or irritated. So, if I want to experience pleasant feelings, I have to constantly chase them, while blocking the unpleasant feelings. Even if I succeed, I instantly have to start all over again, without ever getting any lasting reward for my troubles.
What is so important about obtaining such short-lived prizes? Why struggle so hard to achieve something that disappears almost as soon as it arises? Well, according to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of fleeting feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension and dissatisfaction. Due to this chase, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and deepen. People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving and chasing them.
This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices. Letting go to be free. “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything–anger, anxiety, or possessions, we cannot be free,” Thich Nhat Hanh warns us. In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realize how pointless it is to pursue them. As Shunryu Suzuki eloquently put’s it: “In your practice you should accept everything as it is, leave your front door and your back door open. Let thoughts and feelings come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.” In other words, don’t engage with your feelings, pleasant or unpleasant. Leave them alone, so they can freely come and go, as they would in any case. Then when the chase stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. Exactly what Nisargadatta Maharaj meant by: “When the mind is kept away from its preoccupation, it becomes quiet.”
You live in the present moment instead of thinking about what might have been. The resulting peacefulness is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frantic chase of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it. “It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please,” explains the historian, Yuval Noah Harari.
This idea is so strange to modern liberal culture that when at first Western New Age movements encountered Buddhist insights, they interpreted it into liberal terms, thereby misreading it. New Age cults commonly argue that ‘Happiness Begins Within.’ This is what biologist also argue, but the opposite of what Buddha tried to teach. His profound insight was that although true happiness does start within, it is independent of our inner feelings. Because, the more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer. Buddha’s teaching therefore, was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings. To stop identifying the pursuit of happiness with chasing particular emotional states. In contrast, for Buddha, the key to happiness was to know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are. Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes. When they feel sad, they think, ‘I am sad. This is my sadness.’ They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others. They never understand that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless quest of particular feelings just traps them in misery. So, whether people’s expectations are fulfilled or whether they enjoy pleasant feelings doesn’t really matter in the end. The main question is whether people know the truth about themselves. This then, is the little secret to happiness.