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Mindfulness and the Promise of Happiness

February 8,2016

If you've tried mindful meditation for more than a few days you'll know that it can make you feel calmer, more at peace. It can make you feel happier. And you've certainly heard mention, sometimes in the same breath, of mindful meditation and Nirvana. Nirvana is sometimes defined as a state of perfect happiness. So it seems an obvious conclusion that if you meditate for a long time you can get to a state of perfect happiness.

Ironically, as most meditation teachers will tell you, striving toward a goal is a sure way to undercut the effectiveness of mindful meditation. But there's a deeper question here. What might perfect happiness be? And if we could get there, would it be what we want?

It is useful to refer to the old texts to seek answers to these questions. And so there is the story of a woman who was despondent after the loss of her son. She went to the Buddha in desperation. He didn't tell her to accept that life is impermanent and to just move on. Instead, he said he could help her but he needed a handful of mustard seed. The tricky part was that the mustard seed had to come from a household that had not known such loss. She went from house to house, explaining her need and… We know the rest. Unable to find such a household she returned to the Buddha in gratitude. She understood fully that such pain is universal. In her visits she had received the healing power of compassion.

Why didn't the Buddha use this as a moment to teach, emphasizing, that we suffer (the Sanskrit word is "Dukkha") when we allow ourselves to be attached to things as they are or things as we want them to be? From this perspective, the mother's suffering simply reflects her failure to fully accept the fundamental truth of impermanence. Clearly this woman was "attached" to her son. That was the problem. And yet the Buddha responded with compassion, not with a lecture. Why?

The Buddha distinguished in his teaching between monastics and everyday people. If you think about the monastic life, it is very focused on eliminating the kind of circumstances that lead to attachment. No spouses, no children, a bare minimum of worldly goods. This hit home for me when I read an interview with the Dalai Lama. The interviewer asked whether he'd ever had pets. He said he had in the past but no longer. Why not? In his words, "too much attachment."

By contrast, those of us who live in the everyday world have endless opportunities to become attached. Attached to things: a favorite pen, a shirt, a particular house or car; and attached to people: to lovers, spouses, parents, children. When life shifts, each of those attachments can cause a sense of loss or, in Buddhist terms, suffering. And so we face choices. Which attachments are worth the grieving that comes with loss?

Is it worth pain to become attached to a shirt? The answer for most of us is easy. And yet when I was a boy I loved this one shirt. I wore it all the time. And when Mom said it was too worn out to wear, I really did grieve. Slowly I learned that such attachments to physical possessions just aren't worth it. And yet when my car was stolen a few years ago… Even with objects it is easy to become attached. We have to remind ourselves constantly that they are temporary parts of my life.

When it comes to the people we love the challenge is far greater. Ultimately those of us living outside of the monastery must accept that in loving we are making a choice. It is worth asking: If this person were to suddenly be gone, would we want to feel indifferent. Would you want to say, "Well there's that impermanence for you," and move on?

In the end we can choose wisely to become attached, knowing that with that decision, we are also accepting the consequence. Things will change. They will be gone one day, and with that we will grieve.

Another way to think about this is to acknowledge that Dukkha is sometimes translated as "dissatisfaction." It is possible to grieve without wanting to suppress it or push it away. At this point our sorrow is part of our wisdom. If we accept our grief as something we chose when we chose to love, we can experience the sorrow fully, without dissatisfaction. We won't be "happy" but we won't be suffering either. We will be grieving fully, in its own time and place.

In the end, in a mindfully lived life we won't be happy all the time. But there is great joy to be found in a life containing great loves fully appreciated and, when they come to an end, fully grieved.