What is abiding or genuine happiness? Is it really possible to attain it?
I’ve argued elsewhere that the popular notion is muddled. If so, permit me here to clarify it using some suggestions by Eckhart Tolle.
Our topic is not the temporary feeling of being pleased; rather, it is the abiding joy, serenity, or peacefulness characteristic of living well or flourishing. It is the result of successfully mastering life.
Sadly, we are often so focused on just getting by that we fail to develop a clear vision of how, ideally, we would like our lives to be.
When looking into the heavens on a clear, dark night, what do you see? You may see the moon and some planets, but mostly you see stars, right? Those points of light are mostly distant galaxies. What else do you see?
When I asked a group of people that question recently, nobody attempted to answer it. It was obvious they were all puzzled.
So, what else do you see?
Try this: if there were no space between the stars, how many stars would you see? If there were no distances among them, the points of light would all coalesce.
So, there aren’t just stars in the night sky, there is also space itself, which we tend not to notice. Without the space, though, there’d be no multitude of stars.
We may think of the stars as the “content” of the visual field and space as their “context.” In general, we tend to focus only on content and to ignore context.
Similarly, what do we typically see when we enter a room? What, really, is a room? What is the essence of a room?
What we typically see are the contents of a room, its furniture and furnishings. They are not the room itself.
What is the room itself? It is not its walls, floor, and ceiling because they are only the boundaries of a room.
A room is space! Space (void, emptiness) is the essence of a room. Rooms are for containing objects and, without space, rooms could contain nothing.
It’s possible [and, I think, plausible—see Substance] to extend this analysis to individuals, which are clusters of qualities. Typically, we notice the qualities of an individual but not its essence, which is no-thing, emptiness.
Let’s use the content/context distinction to explain the form/formless distinction. A “form” is anything it’s possible to single out for our attention. It makes no difference whether or not it exists or is taken to exist. Thoughts (including dream objects) are forms. Perceptual objects such as trees, lakes, and clouds are forms. Emotions are forms. Every distinct thing or object is a form.
What isn’t a form? Formlessness. We don’t have a set word for it, but I do give a partial list of words that have been used to refer to it in another post (see Being). It’s traditionally called “space” or “emptiness” or “void.”
For example, in the oldest Zen document we have, Sengcan, the third Zen ancestor in China, writes that “deep truth” is “perfect like vast space, / where there’s no lack and no excess.”
How is this relevant to understanding genuine happiness?
I’m using the adjective “genuine” to distinguish our topic from ordinary happiness, which is transient. Unlike the ordinary state, genuine happiness does not come and go. It abides. In fact, it’s not temporal at all; it’s eternal.
Genuine happiness comes from Being rather than from Becoming. Even if that’s so, we may pay attention to it or not. In other words, while it is always (timelessly) available, we may not always be available because we who are absorbed in Becoming may forget or ignore it.
Ordinary happiness is of Becoming, whereas genuine happiness is of Being.
Here is a critical point: since all forms are Becoming, no form or arrangement of forms abides. All forms are in incessant flux.
This is why ordinary happiness does not abide: its causes are always fleeting.
Sadly, most of us spend most of our lives trying to get forms just the way that we want them to be in order to sustain our happiness.
This ordinary way of life must fail. Why?
Even if we could get all forms exactly the way that we want them, that particular arrangement would quickly disintegrate.
This is why the way of gaining or achieving is hopeless. This does not entail that it’s foolish to seek or enjoy some forms, some gains or achievements. It only means that gaining or achieving cannot lead to abiding happiness.
When we focus exclusively on content, we condemn ourselves to suffering. Because this way of focusing is unnecessary, suffering is unnecessary. [As usual, I’m assuming the important distinction between pain and suffering.] Avoiding suffering requires greater balance in focusing.
When abiding happiness is the goal, context and content are both important. Abiding happiness requires paying attention to both form and formlessness, to Being as well as to Becoming.
What does this mean?
After all, it’s easy to understand what it is to focus on forms, to think about forms. It’s to single them out by perceiving, conceiving, or imagining them. What, though, is it to think about formlessness or Being?
There’s the rub! It is impossible to think about Being. Being is unitary. Being is simple. There’s nothing to understand or conceptualize!
Please do not jump to the conclusion that, because it is impossible to think about Being, it is impossible to apprehend it. It’s not. It must, however, be apprehended nonconceptually. This is why Sengcan says that to seek it “with thinking mind / is certainly a grave mistake.”
Abiding happiness requires the direct, nonconceptual awareness of Being. It requires that we abstain from ceaselessly focusing on forms, on Becoming. Genuine happiness requires a balance between Being and Becoming.
How can we directly apprehend Being? Sengcan’s advice: “just let those fond opinions go.”
Opinions (beliefs, judgments) are nothing but thought forms. To let them go is to stop thinking. It’s that simple.
Genuine happiness requires learning how to stop thinking.
Notice that you cannot think space itself. What is it? What is void, emptiness, nothingness? Forms are singleoutable, but formlessness is not singleoutable.
Genuine happiness requires that we stop thinking (judging, conceptualizing), that we let go of all forms. Genuine happiness requires (nonconceptual) awareness of formlessness (Being).
Though simple, letting go of our obsession with forms is difficult.
Genuine happiness requires focusing on the space between stars or, in a room, on the space between pieces of furniture. This initially feels quite unnatural!
It is only if we are willing to let go of incessantly focusing on forms that we are able to apprehend formlessness, which is required for genuine happiness.
That letting go is not only necessary for genuine happiness, it is sufficient for a glimpse of genuine happiness.
An initial breakthrough into Being can, and should, be expanded and deepened. As that occurs, genuine happiness increases. Ask any sage.
I mention this so that you don’t make the mistake of just focusing on an initial breakthrough. The goal is not a few minutes or hours of genuine happiness, it’s to abide joyfully for the rest of your life.
Sages (successful philosophers) experience Becoming (forms) from Being (formlessness). Genuine happiness occurs when total absorption in Becoming becomes balanced with the direct apprehension of Being. No balance, no wisdom.
Genuine happiness changes nothing — and everything!
SUGGESTED RESOURCES: “Imbalance about Happiness” in my 5 Ways to Diminish Failure Almost Instantly. Eckhart Tolle’s “Realizing the Power of Now” (6 CD set). There are related posts in the spiritual well-being section of this website.
Please forward this to any friends and other loved ones who might benefit from it.