When we live our lives in an unselfish manner, we have more happiness
By Wei Tan
What is happiness? Is it the feeling we get when we get to see or do something we like? Many of us would like to drive an expensive car, be with our friends and have fun, or be with the ones we love. Others would like to relax and go on holiday, read books, or play games all day everyday. With so many people in the world, we all have a variation of likes and dislikes, some of which are similar and dissimilar to each other. Two people might like another person but dislike each other… So when we finally get to experience our likes, does that bring us happiness? It might do, and if it does, it probably wouldn’t last as long as we wished it would. After it ends, what are we left with? The feeling of ‘it didn’t last long enough, I want more’ starts to rise. With habituation, this feeling gets stronger and stronger until it translates into an action which can be experienced on a physical level. The need or want to do something we like stems from our desires; otherwise we wouldn’t want to do those things in the first place. This can be seen around us all of the time. We don’t need special powers to be aware of this. All we need is to look carefully.
?thgir esnes sekam ti ,sdrawkcab ti daer uoy won tub ,emit tsrif eht esnes ekam t’ndid tI
It didn’t make sense the first time, but now you read it backwards, it makes sense right?
Does that last bit make sense to you? Maybe not the first time you read it… Does it have any meaning? Maybe… Although it’s not like I’m adding stuff here for fun… Something so small and insignificant, like this one line, can also be seen in different ways depending on who reads it. There are a few things in there that look reasonable, but in general, it looks like one big mess to us. Similarly, even when we experience something, whether it’s reading things or listening to people, observing people and their behaviours, it’s like that line. Weird and incomprehensible at first but after a closer look, it makes sense and it’s not so hard to read anymore. Our preferences towards everything are so small, insignificant and sometimes, when someone acts so strange and backwards to you, it doesn’t make sense. We can impute the preference of the person being okay in certain ways but overall we simply cannot understand them. If we do not initially understand them, we can be patient with them, get to know them and eventually come to understand them. On the other hand we can also write them off as weirdoes, be impatient and move on without trying to get to know them. So in that way, we can perceive people like that too. Just because they don’t make sense to you, doesn’t mean they don’t make sense to somebody else. We can be just as strange to other people as they are to us. Therefore we should practice equanimity since we are, well most of us, are all equal in that respect. See in some cases, it might be us who are not clever enough to understand the ‘weirdo’.
In this way we all perceive things differently, from a different angle and react to those things differently. This is brings life to our likes and dislikes. We try to repeat the things we like and try to put a stop to the things we dislike. Why? Well, on a very basic level, we all want the happiness we experience from the things we like and we don’t want to experience the unhappiness of something we dislike. However since our likes and dislikes are different, we also find happiness and unhappiness in different things. If I like the piano but somebody else dislikes the piano, is the piano a like or a dislike? Well it’s neither and both, simultaneously. It’s only a like or a dislike if there is something to impute that preference onto it. If there was nobody to like and dislike it, then it would be just be simply a piano. Then what if I like how the piano looks but not how it sounds? What if I don’t like the room it’s in? What if I don’t like the furniture around it? Then my opinion of the piano suddenly changes from a like to dislike because of these other cons that outweigh the pro. How can a simple piano sprout so many questions and preferences? Well, does it really? The piano didn’t tell me to like or dislike it. I projected my opinion onto an inanimate object that has no sentient life to it. Therefore aren’t I the source of the preference, not the piano?
What if we apply this to the people around us? Yeah we can say that ‘people are way more complicated than a musical instrument so our many preferences on people can be justified’. Or is that perhaps just an excuse to remain unchanged and be attached to our preferences which helps us feel comfortable and secure, that we have identify and can categorise people as well as objects? Fundamentally if I were the only sentient being ever to exist, would we be liked or disliked? Could I be liked or disliked? If I could, then I have no idea how… If not, then surely even we, as sentient beings, do not inherently exist as a source of a like or dislike? Doesn’t that make us just like an inanimate piano?
Well, not quite. Unlike the piano, sentient beings have the capacity to impute their preferences onto other things they have experienced but only at that. A man who is blind, deaf and dumb couldn’t tell you whether he liked or disliked the colour blue because he hasn’t experienced that. In the same way, I couldn’t truly tell you whether I liked or disliked going to a Michael Jackson concert because I’ve never been to one. I would just be giving an estimation based on my likes and dislikes of what I’ve seen and heard about him and I also couldn’t have named an artist I’ve never heard of before. Therefore if our perception allows us to like and dislike things and our likes and dislikes give rise to the feeling of ‘happiness’ and ‘unhappiness’, then how come when we experience the things we have been taught to like, such as money and relationships, we still suffer in the end?
For example, people in relationships with their boyfriend or girlfriend will often seem happy in front of us and depending on their relationship; they will ‘feel happy’ most of the time. They can go out together, spend time together, do things together, have fun together and that’s all good in the short term, but what happens long term? Behind the scenes, the thought of their relationship will plague their minds constantly. Without telling anyone, not even their partners, they may begin to question their situation, ‘Is my partner happy with me? Am I worthy of my partner? Am I doing enough? Could I do more?’… This may lead to even more insecurities, ‘What if they aren’t happy with me? Are they doing things behind my back? Do they really want to be with me? Is it all just an act?’… What if they are the ones who don’t want to be in the relationship? ‘How should I end it?’ ‘Will they hate me if I end it?’ ‘I wish something would just break us apart’. Even if they console themselves, are consoled by their friends or even their partner, the insecurities never stop. They end up stressing non-stop over the relationship. If the relationship does break apart, what next? Find another relationship and go through that process again? Keep going through it until they find ‘The One’ and live out the rest of their lives together?
However in the end, when they die, they don’t want to be apart from their lovers so they grasp onto their relationship so much, even until their last breath, they don’t want to leave or don’t want their partner to leave. If they are the ones being left behind, then what? Find another relationship? They might do if they were that desperate to be loved by somebody even after that… If not? What if they couldn’t recover from the trauma of losing somebody that close? If it happens when they are ‘young’? They might even think that if they had never been in that relationship in the first place, their partner would still be around. What if they had a child and their child was the one to pass away before them? That happens in real life too. Many loving parents can’t recover from that level of emotional trauma. Even if they somehow manage to reduce it, the wonderful and joyful memories of their child also trigger their loss as their child is no longer around. Those feelings of loss, sadness and melancholy will be relentlessly barraging their minds, even if they don’t want it to.
Is that the happiness we seek in relationships? Maybe… Maybe not… That’s what happens though. Things end. People pour everything they have into getting and maintaining relationships, something so impermanent even a child can comprehend. You don’t see 5 year olds looking for lovers. How about when we get older? Try blaming it on biology? Well you don’t see every human looking for lovers, so it can’t be something so unchangeable, that it’s etched into our genes. Besides, that would just imply that humans, as a species, lack the capacity for self-control. Although I guess it’s a necessary thing that people still make babies… otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this and we wouldn’t have any teachings. Having a baby and even the time leading up to having a baby just seems so physically and mentally taxing. Using time, money, energy, and in some cases, people betray themselves to please their partner. Is it really worth it? Everybody has their own opinions but I don’t think so. Yet, many people are so attached to the idea of getting into a relationship…
Similarly, a rich person can experience the joys of financial prosperity on a physical level. They can buy what they want without a care, they can buy people’s actions and they can invest in anything they want. They never need to worry whether they can eat hearty during their next meal. Looks like happiness has been found right? That is, until their ‘wants’ exceed their finances. At that point, they become ‘poor’. When they can no longer afford something they want, they become dissatisfied and irritated, in some cases, even depressed. Someone who has an appetite for everything in the world will be the one who is the hungriest. Why? They want so much yet can only get a fraction of what it is they want. Their stomachs are always empty. However someone content with what they have isn’t hungry as they don’t seek to gain more and more. Even when someone has a lot of money, they might not want to give it away, they want to keep it but yet the fear of being targeted for their money becomes a heavy burden. Whether it’s being robbed, cheated or used, when paranoia seeps in to these cracks of insecurity, it is not very pleasant. It is a very unsettling feeling to be unable to trust anybody because of our fears. In the same way, eating too much, being too full and being on the verge of throwing up is also not a very pleasant feeling. For me anyway, and I’ve never heard of any weirdoes who enjoy that sensation…
I’m not saying being ambitious is bad. It is only bad when we overestimate ourselves and refuse to acknowledge our limits. That kind of attitude leads to frustration and eventually anger. Until we decrease our desires or increase our limits, this anger of living an unfulfilled life will dig a deeper hole, making it much harder to get out of that mentality. On the other side of the coin, there are never a shortage charities and organisations that need donations in order to function and grow. Be generous, give not only in money, but also in time and effort, unconditionally. Why? We attract what we reflect. If we reflect the image of somebody unpleasant, then nobody will want to be around us for who we are since we are internally ugly, only what we have on the outside. Even through an ocean of money, if and when what we have runs out, those people will run off and hover around other people with that same image. Since money can buy people and their loyalty, it only lasts for as long as we have the money but since everything physical is impermanent… It won’t last. If that’s what you want, go ahead but you’ll just end up lonely and that will make you unhappy because it’s what you tried to avoid in the first place. To me, the only worthwhile wealth can only be achieved in a state of mind. All the physical riches in the universe will never be enough to satisfying someone who does not feel mentally wealthy.
Furthermore, it’s not the same type of people and loyalty we attract compared to when we reflect a pleasant image. When we are generous and we do virtuous actions, we make ourselves reflect a beautiful image that people around us wish they could become like. Sure there are some people who are really envious and work to ruin our image but they can only succeed if we let them affect our virtuous actions since it is our actions that reflect the image. In such a case there are no winners, only losers. The loyalty we gain from our virtuous actions is not from something physical, they don’t disappear in the absence of physical matter. Since the virtuous actions create the loyalty and we control our own actions, we are the source of the loyalty as long as we keep doing virtuous things, unlike when we have loyalty that sprouts from having lots of money. No matter what type of person we are, everybody wants to able to trust somebody. However, who we can trust is ultimately down to us. What image do you want to reflect to others? Would you rather be a vulture in a sea of bloody carcasses or a beautiful swan on a clear blue lake?
In conclusion, there is the type of ‘happiness’ that comes from feeding our own selfish wants and desires and there is the type of happiness that comes from being kind and compassionate to others. Selfish happiness is short term and always ends due to the impermanent nature of all physical things in the universe. Compassionate happiness is long term as we find happiness, not in physical gains but through spiritual gains. Spirituality and compassion can help us change our perspective. Then when our minds are so focused on helping others and we work for the sake of others everyday, nothing can stop us from doing our virtuous actions. It’ll be like bouncing on clouds with sunshine and rainbows. Otherwise life is like a never ending minefield that’s looking to blow you up every step of the way. Even if you survive one step, a few steps, time pushes you forward whether you like it or not. There’s no happiness in a minefield…
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