One of the most challenging things about being a monk is the magnitude of suffering and sadness you get to see in the world. Perhaps it’s similar, if not the same, for doctors, psychologists, therapists and so on. Sometimes, when I meet people I can understand why Buddha declared that life is suffering (n) or why Guru Nanak proclaimed that the whole world is suffering (v).
From those who live hand to mouth to those who can buy a private island, I meet all sorts of people. Very few of them are actually happy with their lives. At the root of this suffering is our clinging to our beliefs and views. With the wealthy, no matter how much stress their businesses bring to them, they don’t want to let go of anything. You can’t blame them though, for, presumably, it’s more comforting to cry in a BMW than on a public bus.
Having said that, I think the root cause of sadness is the expectation that most of what we do should result in joy for us. We tend to look at others and feel that they are happy because of ‘what’ they have in their lives. The truth is, ‘what’ has never brought everlasting happiness to anyone’s life. It’s ‘who’ you are and ‘how’ you live that determines your happiness.
One definitive way to ruin your happiness is to compare yourself with others or covet their kinds of lives. The modern equivalent of this is checking the Facebook profiles of your friends (and of those you don’t even know, have never met and will never meet). You look at the smiling pics, happy families rejoicing, and you think, what a great life they have. At a very practical level, social media has made an enormous contribution to society’s overall sadness, I feel.
Of course, rarely is anyone going to put pictures of themselves crying on his or her profile. They will share when they went out and partied or vacationed and had a gala time. No one records videos of themselves bickering and fighting with their spouse and shares them online. When you constantly compare your lives with others, even with the simple act of prying into others people’s online lives, you are setting yourself up for misery.
A man lost his right hand in a freak accident. He quit his job and became really negative and bitter. Unable to put up with his attitude, his girlfriend broke up with him. This young man went into a deep depression and shunned everyone. For months, he didn’t meet with or talk to any of his friends. Just when his wounds were starting to heal, he went online to see what his ex was up to. He was shocked to find out that she had already married someone else.
He saw her pics. She was happy, laughing and partying in every one of them. He went and visited the Facebook pages of his other friends. Someone had gotten a promotion, someone else had had a child. Everyone seemed to be having fun.
“My life sucks,” he thought. “I’ve lost my right hand, my job, my love and my friends. No one wants me, no one needs me and no one is even bothered.” Negative thoughts began overpowering his mind so much so that he decided to end his life.
He went to the top of his high-rise building and looked down with the intention of jumping. Just then he saw the most amazing scene.
There he was, a pedestrian on the sidewalk dancing most joyously, as if no one was watching him. Not only that, he had no hands, not even arms and yet he was merrily dancing.
Giving up the idea of suicide, he rushed downstairs to know the secret of the pedestrian’s happiness.
“Sir,” the man said humbly, “I’m so inspired and touched by your positive outlook. I see you have no arms and yet you are dancing. What’s the secret of your happiness?”
“Happiness? Dancing?” he replied somewhat awkwardly, without stopping his dance. “Man, I’m just trying to scratch my bottom. It’s not easy I tell you.”
Now you know the secret of people’s happiness when you see them dancing or partying. Just itchy bums.
Happiness is your personal state, a private matter (though the more you spread it, the more you get to keep it). When you fail to see the good in your life (and everyone has an abundance of goodness if you choose the right perspective), there’ll be nothing good left to feel. Be simple, be grateful. An ostentatious or flamboyant lifestyle can bring you attention but not happiness. You are entitled to have your comforts, but extravagance is a disease.
Socrates lived a frugal life and he believed that only a wise person understands the beauty of frugality, of simplicity. It is said that he would not even wear shoes and yet every so often he spent hours and hours in the markets looking at the various goods on display.
“Why do you waste your time in the markets,” his friend asked him once, “when you never buy anything?”
“Because,” Socrates replied, “When I go to a market, I discover how many things I am perfectly happy without.”
I don’t think there’s any more to happiness than noble actions, gratitude and contentment. No doubt, happiness is not merely an emotion but a state of being. Above all though, happiness is an attitude. When you make it a point to live your life positively, to appreciate the goodness of your own life without measuring it against the lives of itchy bums, your world will light up with the radiance of a thousand suns.
“What do you think the weather’s gonna be like today?” Mulla Nasrudin’s friend asked him.
“Just the kind I like,” he foretold patting his donkey.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Knowing that I can’t always get what I like, I’ve learned to always like what I get,” Mulla said. “So, I’m certain we’re going to have awesome weather today.”
Since we are here, on this planet, with a certain lifespan at our disposal, we may as well live gracefully. Why not carve your own path of happiness based on all that you are blessed with?
Everything you have ever earned, everyone you’ve ever known will one day be separated from you. It is only prudent, therefore, to value what you have. For nothing is forever (diamonds come pretty close though). Let’s live and honor this life for what it is — a blessing.
On a different note, I’m pleased to announce that When All Is Not Well, my book on depression and sadness, is now available in India. Brought out by Harper Collins, you can order the paperback here. Readers tell me it’s a good book and cheaper than a dozen organic bananas. I agree. So, unless you are a monkey, there’s no reason to go for bananas over this book. Get your copy now.