We all, it seems, have a desire to be ‘happy’ – even if we can’t define what that is. We know it when we get it: or more properly, some time after we get it (when we wake up to it). Some people go to great lengths, to ‘find’ happiness – or go at it with an aggression that others find surprising. Some moan that they’ll never find it. There’s even serious scientific research on the topic, because being ‘unhappy’ causes a state of physical stress. Quite aside from suicide and substance abuse, you can die from being miserable.
Humans have struggled with the concept of happiness for thousands of years: maybe even tens of thousands. And other animals can also be happy or unhappy. It is, quite obviously, an emotional state; and emotions are the ‘meter readings’ of the orientation and distance of our current state towards our attachments. Does that mean that happiness equates to being close to – or at least moving closer to – the objects of our attachments? And if we lost our attachments, would we also lose happiness – become ’empty’?
Well, that statement about emotions is not quite the whole story. When we have attachments, many – if not most – of our emotions are indeed like ‘strain gauge’ readings from the emotional pull of those attachments. But that effect is not constant: we filter the perception of our emotions, so that even a usually ‘light’ attachment can suddenly seem important if the opportunity to satisfy it is right before us. Sugary food causes physical pleasure, and an attachment to that can be triggered if we see a display of our favourite types, whether that be patisserie, chocolate, ice-cream or doughnuts. The art of advertising [the evil science of advertising] is all about triggering those ‘lower need’ attachments: promoting animal pleasure.
In the context of attachments, happiness is the state of not seeing something that needs attention. We can be happy just by not seeing what normally makes us feel the need to act. Well then, of course, if you have no attachments it would seem logical that happiness is your ‘base’ state. But let’s be clear: that’s not ‘enlightenment’ – it’s only impartiality. A person who ‘floats life a leaf on the breeze of the world’ can be happy, as a result of detachment, without understanding anything that’s happening to them. They just need the knack, if you will, of putting disturbance out of their mind.
Of course, our ‘waking mind’ isn’t the whole of the story, either. Just because we aren’t paying attention to something, doesn’t mean it isn’t being processed. We have a whole load of stuff that’s going on outside the usually narrow field of our attention: what we call ‘consciousness’. It doesn’t stop when our waking consciousness sleeps, nor even when our physical body sleeps. Because of that, it’s possible to feel ‘happy but’. There’s nothing in our field of attention that needs action, ‘but …’ Something in the unconscious realm of our mind is gnawing away at a probable need. We might then be drawn to notice those nagging things, but we might also then dismiss them: like the feeling you get on the first day of a holiday, when you know it’s going to end – just not yet.
If you’re not going to work on being free from attachments, then at least try to work out what they are. If you know what ‘pulls you’ then you can also either get closer to it, or develop the ability to defer satisfaction. Most people do learn this – at least, for some attachments – but they may need help with those that have a bigger importance. Treating PTSD, for example, is about reducing the sense of importance within an attachment – an attachment to being ‘safe’, to being ‘supported’, or just to the world being predictable. It’s about seeing the world without the object of that attachment, and learning to be comfortable with putting the attachment into the background of the mind: not invisible but not needing action.
Seeking out what makes you unhappy may seem to be an odd direction in which to start or carry out a ‘pursuit of happiness’. But actually, happiness is the ’empty’ space that we find when we’re not unhappy. The unhappiness is the active element in our emotions – the thing that is driving action – and so it is perfectly logical to start there. If we can’t resolve the unhappiness, we can perhaps learn to defer it: to realise that it may and should take time.
So what about the ‘enlightened’? Well, many of the things to which we get attached achieve their importance because our scope of perception – not just of attention – is too narrow. We see – actually ‘see’ – very little of the real world, and we paper over the gaps with imagination. To become enlightened is to drop the scales of imagination and then expand the scope of perception to include everything in the cosmos (and beyond). This scope of perception (the real nature of ‘consciousness’) is totally lacking in ‘attention’. Attention, we learn, is only ‘directed cognition’ and it is, quite naturally, local to ‘I’.
With the widened perception, and the dropping of drawn or even controlled attention, emotions become a ‘difference detector’ between that which we think we know and that which we perceive to be. They are the ‘third eye’ that looks both inward and outward. That is, of course, how they always work – even with attachments – but the imagination that’s built into the attachments disguises or even replaces perception of being. They then act as a difference detector between what we’ve imagined as true and what we think we know. Doh! There’s nothing special, or superior about the enlightened: they just work (and have worked) on not imagining.
So if someone tells you, “Happiness comes when you stop trying to be happy, and just be,” they are exactly right.