Happiness Cannot Be Pursued

“Be as simple as you can be; you will be astonished to see how uncomplicated and happy your life can become.” ~Paramahansa Yogananda

Here for This

For over 200 years “the pursuit of happiness” has been thought of as a self-evident truth and human right. But what if happiness cannot be pursued? What if happiness is actually much easier to find once we stop chasing after it?

Buddhist psychology teaches that peace, love and happiness are mind states, that appear spontaneously when fears and desires dissolve, when we open our hearts (and minds) to the present moment- right here and now. 

As the Dalai Lama put it, “happiness is determined more by one’s state of mind than by external events.” All the healthiest mind states and emotions arise naturally when we live in harmony with life, when we let go of wanting things to be different and instead appreciate the Universe just as it is.

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What Buddha realized, over 2,500 years ago, is that our psychological states are a result of our interpretations of reality. Believing we need to acquire possessions, achieve something or change things (the world, ourselves, others) in order to “attain” happiness is a false belief that actually creates anxiety, fear, worry, distress and suffering.

Unhappiness means our hearts and minds are not at ease. We are off balance, don’t feel safe, complete, worthy or whole. People with PTSD experience this to an extreme, but for millions (perhaps billions) of human beings modern life generates anxiety and fear as a norm. It’s what feeds the consumer culture of our present age, as well as wars, drug addiction, crime and most of the conditions of human suffering.

The truth which Buddha discovered (and modern psychology now provides support for) is that happiness, love and inner peace will arise naturally when we are generous, mindful, compassionate and appreciate the present moment.

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Being grateful for (and mindful of) what we are doing and already have (rather than anticipating getting what we want in the future) is the doorway to peace, joy and satisfaction.

When we believe there is nowhere else to be (but here), nothing in the Universe that we need to change (right now), our minds stop racing and calmness begins to rise naturally, by itself.

As we stop spinning thoughts and cravings its like removing heavy curtains that had blocked our senses, our soul’s windows to the world. By letting go of desires, fears and expectations our hearts and senses are able to shift attention to the beauty of the present moment, the magic of this Universe we belong to.

Many people meditate to cultivate serenity and calmness, but healthy mind states can also arise naturally during creative and physical activities such as dancing, playing music, cooking, reading, drawing, gardening, yoga, sports and playing with children. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes these moments as flow, where mindful concentration and creative engagement help us feel connected to the world and happy to be alive.

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When anchored in the present moment, we can more easily hear the sounds of birds, stop to smell the flowers, see leaves of trees waving with the wind, feel the life in the cells of our bodies, notice the smiles on children’s faces. As our senses open colors seem deeper, music sounds more clear and beautiful.

No longer pursuing some ideal future our hearts relax and we become aware of the sacred beauty of this moment, this place, this precious life we are living right NOW.

Experiencing the beauty and preciousness of life doesn’t mean we have to give up trying to change the world. War, poverty, racism, sexism, materialism all need to be dismantled, challenged and undone by the human family.

But if we don’t simultaneously understand how to be happy, peaceful and loving right now, we end up creating more suffering, fighting ignorance instead of transforming and healing the world with our wisdom, creativity, mindfulness and love.

The darkness won’t dissipate until we bring light to it. Realizing that happiness cannot be pursued provides the key to finding peace in our lives and sharing it. Understanding that life is about giving (not getting) we are better able to help others, setting a butterfly effect in motion, that can ripple out into the world.

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This understanding, of the beauty of the Universe we live in, is what the Buddha tried to communicate, what Zen and Taoism are all about. It’s what Einstein realized, what Walt Whitman shared in his poetry, what Mozart celebrated with his music, what Van Gogh attempted to capture with his paintings.

The great thing about positive mind states is they’re contagious, growing in size and power when we offer them freely. Unfortunately, the same is true with negative mind states! Which is why it’s so important for us to choose our thoughts wisely. The more peace, love and happiness you are able to cultivate in your life the more you will have to share with others.

By being the change we wish to see in the world, as Gandhi put it, the world is changed, beginning with each of us, as we awaken to the simple everyday beauty of our lives.

~Christopher Chase~

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“See simplicity in the complicated, Seek greatness in small things. In the Universe, the difficult things are done as if they were easy.” ~Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching

“If you see yourself in the correct way, you are all as much extraordinary phenomena of nature as trees, clouds, the patterns in running water, the flickering of fire, the arrangement of the stars, and the form of a galaxy. You are all just like that.” ~Alan Watts

“People normally cut reality into compartments, and so are unable to see the interdependence of all phenomena. To see one in all and all in one is to break through the great barrier which narrows one’s perception of reality.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

“You are not IN the universe, you ARE the universe, an intrinsic part of it. Ultimately you are not a person, but a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself. What an amazing miracle.” ~Eckhart Tolle

“Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.” –Lao Tsu

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Related:

Glimpses of a Creative Universe  * Paradigms are Made for Shifting * Yūgen (幽玄) – Deep Awareness of the Universe *  Poetry Surrounds Us – Vincent Van Gogh * Children of the Cosmic Dance  * Awakening from a Case of Mistaken Identity *    * How Einstein Saw the World  *  * How We Participate in the Creative Life of the Universe  * How Wisdom Grows – Educating Hearts & Minds  * Surrendering to the Paradigm of Love *  The Creative Matrix: Awakening to Find Ourselves Home *

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About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
This entry was posted in Creative Systems Thinking, Life's Purpose, zen and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Happiness Cannot Be Pursued

  1. Zen says:

    “Our psychological states are a result of our interpretations of reality. Believing we need to achieve something or change things (the world, ourselves, others) in order to “attain” happiness is what creates anxiety, fear, anger, distress and suffering.”

    What about accidents, loss, poverty, illness, life and death situations, war, trauma, homelessness, bullying, rape, murder? I challenge anyone to not experience anger, distress, suffering after any of the above.

    I’m so exhausted reading this same phrase ‘it’s how you interpret reality’, again and again, it’s everywhere.. It’s become so accepted and I rarely see it properly justified or challenged and it’s condescending to the large percentages of the population that have trauma they should be encouraged to acknowledge and face, instead of being told they need to ‘change the way they look at things.’

    • Tao says:

      I don’t think that the author is saying that you will attain some sort of eternal joy and have no care in the world if someone attacks or mistreats you. You are using a strawman argument there my friend. These are all normal experiences in one’s life and the emotions evoked by those feelings are also normal. Just because a person realizes “enlightenment” does not mean that they won’t cry at the loss of a loved one, experience fear when something jumps at them in the dark, or become ill and die at some point. The difference is that this person will not embrace the victim mentality which will prolong that suffering.

    • Suffering is a terrible thing, but this is what the Buddha discovered and shared with the world. People die, there is rape, war, horrible things happen. But we also live on a beautiful planet, with trees, rivers, flowers and mountains. We are capable of loving each other and finding peace. Buddha offered a way to heal our pain and suffering. He didn’t deny it, just said to transform suffering there is a path. Cultivating mind states of peace, compassion, metta, mudita (unselfish joy) is how we heal our lives and help each other. This is the path of bodhisattvas.

  2. Zen says:

    Not quite sure it’s a strawman argument, I was rather reflecting there is an absence of addressing an important part of people’s experience.. which is not quite the same thing. I’m talking in general too, not just here. I do get the whole premise which I agree, I just see a need to expand the reflection, because a great many people seeking guidance in articles like these are in fact deeply wounded, traumatised individuals. Some, but not everyone needs to avoid ‘victim mentality’, many many people are the opposite, they are in denial, they blame no one but themselves and they need to realise that in their life they have been victimised by others and face up to the pain of that and understand that dynamic first, stop blaming themselves, before then moving on. Where people are coming from is as important as where they are going, or trying to go. Anyway it was just something I wanted to add. I agree Christopher that the cultivation of the mind states you mention are the path to healing and thanks for your writing, lots of nice thoughts there.
    Thankyou both. 🙂

    • Thank you, and I pretty much agree. Buddhism does not deny suffering, in fact it asks us to face it and explore closely. But also to become aware of how our minds amplify suffering, and distort our awareness. The antidotes to suffering require we face it, but also let go of our thoughts and feelings that perpetuate the pain. Cultivating instead mind states and emotions that will assist with our healing.

  3. Zen says:

    Thank you for your reply Christopher. A question, does Buddhism give any guidance on the specific area of facing pain? In today’s society most people have no idea how to do that and society in general discourages people from doing so.

    Facing pain is a difficult process. When it is a case of extreme pain, the mind instead of amplifying, generally tends to minimise the pain, or goes into complete denial when the experience has been severely traumatic, to avoid psychosis. I wonder does Buddhism deal with the aspect of the mind that in certain cases minimises or denies pain, as well as the aspect of the mind that amplifies in other cases? Are there Buddhist writings to help people who need to ‘discover’ their pain? Thanks in advance.

  4. colletteom says:

    Happiness, joy, love are natural emanations of consciousness. It’s a matter of allowing rather than pursuing. Great article Christopher. Namaste.

  5. Michael Dunkley says:

    It’s not about what triggers rage, pain or desire, it’s how and how much you’re triggered. Training the mind in equanimity helps prepare so when suffering strikes you can better retain balance. It’s not about transcending pain, but minimising it by not making it worse by identifying too strongly with it.
    Pain passes, like joy and we can learn to accept them both in peace.
    The important thing is to train when feeling good, to ground. This will promote resilience, an anchor and refuge when winds of change blow hard.

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