“Go within, into a state which you may compare to a state of waking sleep, in which you are aware of yourself, but not of the world. In that state you will know, without the least trace of doubt, that at the root of your being you are free and happy.” – Nisargadatta Maharaj from “I Am That”
Let me cut to the chase. Happiness is our nature. It is the disposition of the infinite. It is the personality of God. Suffering is what we feel when we forget our true nature.
Suffering is a clear indicator that we have missed the mark. It is the canary in the coal mine. It is the hangover on the morning after. It is the idiot light on our dashboard that says, “You’re two quarts low, Jack!”
But, just like the cloud that obscures the sun but doesn’t affect it, suffering clouds happiness, but never touches it and certainly cannot eliminate it.
As Buddha pointed out 2,500 years ago, suffering has a cause. Happiness, on the other hand, does not. It is uncaused. It is the nature of being itself. The recognition of that is what gave rise to that iconic contented face that we all know as the Buddha.
So, it is futile to engage ourselves in the attempt to acquire happiness from any of the “things” that we believe possess this elusive quality. Every attempt to do so will only reinforce the already deeply entrenched idea that happiness is out there, somewhere.
As every saint and sage for all time has said over and over and over again, “It isn’t out there.” But that begs the question, “If it is my nature, why don’t I feel it?” And that is quickly followed by, “If it isn’t out there, where is it?” Very good questions, indeed. So, let’s look at what feelings in general, and the feeling that we call happiness in specific, actually are.
Feelings or emotions are reactive. They are always responding to circumstances and events. They are never self-generated. Some of those reactions are pleasant, some not so much. We could say that happiness is the emotion that happens in response to an event happening or a circumstance arising, that we like. Conversely, misery is the reaction to what we do not like. If then, the pursuit of happiness is confined to what is happening “out there” we will be forever engaged in trying to create circumstances to our liking. I think it is obviously a futile endeavor.
But notice, the feeling isn’t out there. The feeling is very much right here. It is the way I am reacting that determines happiness and misery and not the actual circumstance itself. I mean, if the circumstance were the cause, then everyone who found themselves in that circumstance would experience exactly the same happiness or misery. But we don’t. We all react totally differently.
So, the happiness or misery is not out there but completely in here. It is in how we have learned to react, not in what happens. This gives rise to a very different approach to living. We give up trying to control circumstances, which we learn very quickly is impossible. Instead, we start turning inward in an attempt to discover why we react the way we do. I can’t control it out there, but in here? That is a very different thing.
Now, rather than going into the psychology, conditioned responses, and energetic assumptions, let me once again cut to the chase and share a shortcut. Let’s bypass that whole discussion and analysis and see if we can’t detect something that is missed by all but a few.
Since the psychology, conditioned responses, belief systems, and ego formation all happened after we were already here, we can rightly ask, “What was I like, before all of that other stuff happened?” Or, to put it another way, “What is my essential nature that got covered up by the conditioning?” To take these questions seriously means, not only that we can stop looking to external circumstances for happiness but that we can also go beyond examining all the history and life events that determined the conditioned responses by which we have been reacting.
Who Were You Before the Conditioning?
Think of a perfectly still pond. It’s totally quiet, unmoving, completely at rest. Now drop a pebble into that stillness. For a moment, the reaction to the pebble will ripple out in all directions and will keep rippling until all the energy is used up. Then the pond returns to its default state of stillness. The stillness is essential in nature and the ripple is a temporary reaction to an event. The event comes and goes, its effect is just a momentary ripple. The stillness remains.
Think of that stillness or silence or space. When a sound happens, the silence isn’t gone. It is simply being obscured momentarily by the sound. Silence doesn’t come and go. Sound does. Silence doesn’t have to be sought. We don’t have to go looking for it like our lost keys. It remains when the temporary has passed by.
Space doesn’t move over to make room for some object. The object comes and goes. It is IN the space. It doesn’t displace it. Our nature is like that. True happiness is like that. Perhaps, instead of the word happiness, we could use the word stillness, peace, contentment, or equanimity. Whatever the word, it is that silent and still background against which all experiences play out. Both the reactions of happiness and misery play themselves out in the space of equanimity.
So, how then do we get more consistent access to the background of stillness?
It is all a matter of attention.
The more our attention is on the content of the moment, the events and circumstances, and the more engaged we are with the reactions and our struggle to get rid of misery and acquire happiness, the more unaware of the silent background we will be.
It’s like learning to turn our attention from the dancers on the stage to the stage itself or from the movie on the screen to the screen itself. We have missed the place of content stillness (happiness) through a simple lack of attention.
What is the nature of the stage? It is quiet, still, unmoving, and capable of allowing and supporting any dance that is moving on it. It remains as it is, no matter the form of movement gliding across it. So, the mistake is simply our unscrutinized habits of thought that continually direct attention to the external content of stillness instead of on the stillness itself.
Ponder this! What would your experience be, if all of the content of your life just stopped for a moment; all thought, all emotion, all sensation, all events, all reactions, all memories? It would be just pure being, nothing but you. It would be pure, self-aware stillness.