18 – Freedom From the Pursuit of Happiness

Why do we chase after happiness? What if we could be free from the pursuit of happiness? In this episode, I will explore the nature of human emotions. When we understand that all emotions, including happiness, sadness, etc…are impermanent, we can learn to stop chasing after these emotions. Pursuing happiness can be a lot like pursuing our shadow. It’s not something we can “catch”.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hey guys, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 18, I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about The Pursuit of Happiness. Maybe more specifically, liberation from the pursuit of happiness.

If you’re a first time listener, welcome to the podcast. If you’re a repeat listener, welcome back.

The Secular Buddhism Podcast is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist philosophical concepts and teachings presented for the secular minded audience. And every episode I like to remind my listeners of a quote by Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.”

If you enjoy this podcast, please feel free to share it with others, write a review or give it a rating on iTunes. And now let’s jump in at this week’s topic.

Why we chase after happiness? I think the short answer is: That it feels good to be happy, and it doesn’t feel good when we are not happy, it doesn’t feel good when we are angry or sad for too long at least. And it does feel good to be happy, to experience joy. So we end up in this position where we decide, I want more of that good stuff, happiness, and I want less of that bad stuff, sadness or anger. And then we got caught up in the pursuit of happiness. We’re continuously chasing after the things that make us happy, and continuously avoiding the things that will not make us happy. So that’s the topic I want to discuss today.

This has been on my mind for about a week now. Last Sunday, I was on my way down in the morning to meditation session, about an hour away from where I live. And on my way there I had punched in the address in the GPS on my phone, and I left with enough time to make sure I could be there early, because I don’t like being late.

So on my way down, I’m keeping track of the time, and thinking, “This is great, I’m going to be there right on time.” And as I pulled up to the location I knew this couldn’t possibly be the location, because I was in a residential area, and pulling up to a house. And I knew the group that I was going to visit met at a yoga studio. So I thought, “Well this can’t be the right place.” And sure enough after checking, it looked like google had messed up.

So I was kind of sad, but not too concerned, because like I said I left early. So I thought, “Well, maybe I should punch in the address, instead of google maps, I’ll try apple maps,” which I rarely use because usually apple maps leads me astray.

So I punched in the same address to apple maps, and it said I was 10 minutes away from the right location. So I sped off to the new location following apple maps direction now, and as I pulled up to the new location 10 minutes later, I though, “Uh! This still doesn’t seem right,” because it was a big empty field. At that point I didn’t even question it because I have been wrong many times with apple maps, I though, “Well, somehow this address just doesn’t point up on either system.”

So I googled the name of the studio that I knew they were meeting at, it was a yoga studio. And I punched in the name instead of the address into google. And that worked, it pulled up the name and on the map it showed that I was 10 minutes away. So I sped off, at this point realizing, “Now I’m going to be 10 minutes late.” Because by then, it was starting time and the map said I was 10 minutes away.

SO I raced off, and I started feeling frustrated because I really don’t like showing up late to places. Especially, imagine a big meditation room and thinking, “If they’ve already started, and it’s all quiet, then I come walking in late, it interrupts everything.” So I really didn’t want to have to do that, but I had already driven an hour to get there, so I wasn’t just going to give up and go home.

So I started following the new directions on google maps, and as I’m pulling in the new parking lot 10 minutes later, I realize, “This possible can’t be the location.” Because I had been there before, that was the old address. And I knew that about a month or so ago, they had switched to a new address. So I thought, “Why did it take me to the new address, maybe they didn’t update the right address on their website.

So I get on my phone and I start doing a little bit more research and find out there are actually two locations for the studio, for the specific yoga studio. And after checking on google maps again, I realized, “Oh! It did pull up to, I just happen to pick the first one which was the the wrong one, the second one is the right location and the address on that listing match the one that I was initially searching for.”

So I punched that one in on my GPS, and it says I’m 10 minutes away. At this point I’m frustrated because now I’m going to be 20 minutes late by the time I show up, and that’s assuming it takes me to the right place.

SO I start heading back to this new direction following my GPS, and I had 10 minutes to burn while I’m driving. So while I’m doing this, I decided to try to practice mindfulness thinking, “Okay, I can tell that I’m upset. I’m frustrated that I’m going to be late, let me work with that, I’ve got 10 minutes to go. I’m just going to think about that, what it is that makes me upset about that?”

And it was fun, almost comical to realize the irony of the situation. I had started out my day thinking, “I want peace and calm, so I’m going drive down and meditate, so I can start out with a nice, peaceful, calm day.” And that ended up being the very source of my frustration. Is that I couldn’t get to where I was trying to get, to get my peace. And I found that comical thinking, “If I didn’t want peace this morning, I could just stayed home and I’d be content and happy at home, because I didn’t want peace. But instead I wanted peace, so here I am frustrated that I can’t have it because I can’t get there on time, and I can’t even find the place.”

Just the irony of the situation, had me laughing. So I finally pull up to what should be the right location. At this point now, I’m 20 minutes late, and I look at the parking lot and think, “Okay, this looks like the right place.” And I look across the street and what do I see? The abandoned field, the empty field that apple took me to the second time I was trying to look for the address.

So at that point, I just started laughing out loud, thinking, “Uh! The irony of this thing is just too much.” Here I was at the right place, at the right time, but I didn’t see it, because I was on the wrong side of the road, and I just assumed, “I must be at the wrong place,” so I continued my wild chase to the right place, that only brought me back to where I was initially.

At this point, it’s just all comical to me. If I was late to some meeting, maybe I wouldn’t have made too much of it. But the fact again, the fact that I was going to meditate to start my day out with some peace and calm, is what made this just almost too funny.

So I showed up and yap, I walked in late and it was fine, I didn’t think much of it. And I’m glad I went even though I was late because it was a wonderful experience, and it accomplished what I was hoping to. It was a very uplifting day after that. The funny this is for days since this happened, because this is last Sunday, all week I’ve just been thinking of the irony of the situation, and how in life we do the same thing. It’s the thing that we want that becomes the very reason that we suffer.

We want something and we can’t have it, so we suffer. And then if you’re lucky and you find a spiritual path, so to speak, like Buddhism for example, that says, “Okay, the problem is in wanting, okay, then I want to not want.” And now the fact that I want to not want, and I can not want makes me frustrated, because now I want the thing that I can’t have, which is to not want, but I want to not want. So it’s the irony of the whole situation it’s comical.

And that’s the nature of reality, it the fact that we chase after happiness that guarantees that we’re never going to be happy, because we have a misunderstanding of what happiness actually is. We treat happiness like is this thing. A permanent thing, and if I can find it then I’m done, I’m solid, for the rest of my life I’ll just be happy.

It entails not just being happy but avoiding suffering. I’m not just going to be sad, I’m not going to be angry anymore, I’m just going to be this peaceful zen like person who’s only blissed-out. And the harder you chase after that, the more suffering you’ll experience because that’s not a scenario that’s real, that’s not real life.

This reminds me of a story I want to share with you, and this is told in several circles among Sufi poets, and the main one Attar of Nishapur and I think I’ve shared this before. He talks about a fable. In which a powerful king assembles all his wise men to create a ring that will make him happy when he’s sad. So he’s going through this period of his life where he’s sad, he doesn’t want to be sad, nobody does, right? He wants to be happy. So he tells his wise men, “Come up with something that’s going to make me happy.” And then again this is a metaphor, right?

After deliberations, the wise men get together and they come up with a ring, and they hand him the ring, and the ring has the inscription, “This too will pass.” And it has the desired effect. He realizes, “Ah! The sadness I’m experiencing is impermanent, this is wonderful and the understanding that it’s impermanent is enough to get him so start being happy, because sadness is not a permanent thing. So now he’s happy, however, he looks at the ring and realizes this message is also cursed. Because now whenever he’s happy he’s reminded that the happiness is impermanent and it’s going to pass.

And that’s where this expression, “This too shall pass,” comes from this story. This is a story I think has a profound teaching in it. And it’s the understanding that emotions like all things in life are impermanent. So to chase after happiness, to pursue happiness is like pursing your shadow. You can chase it your whole life but it’s something that isn’t a permanent thing, its not a thing that you catch it’s not a thing that you can grasp.

Happiness is very similar, when we look at other emotions, sadness, anger, fear, they are emotions that arise, they linger and then they disappear. They are in a constant state of changing, because that’s the nature of emotions. We happen to fix it on happiness because it’s the one we like. We like how we feel when we’re happy, and we realize we don’t typically like how we feel when we’re sad, or when we’re mad. So we lurch on to the concept of happiness and chase it, like we would our shadow.

And then there we are, we spend our whole lives chasing after something that is never meant to had as a permanent thing. It’s never meant to be something that you can actually get and then, “Boom! There you go, now you’re happy, you’ll never experience the other emotions.” Because they’re fleeting emotion, they’re impermanent. So if we can understand the nature of happiness as something impermanent, then we have a new sense of freedom.

So one way to think about this, is like we would think about the shadow. When the conditions are right, the shadow appears, and when the conditions are not right, when the conditions are not met, and there’s no source of light, and object to cast a shadow, then there is no shadow. So when the conditions are right, happiness is there, we experience happiness under the right conditions, and when those conditions are not there, we don’t experience happiness. And when the conditions are right, we experience anger, and when the conditions are right, we experience sadness. That’s the nature of human emotions.

So what’s powerful in this is realizing, “Okay, the point isn’t to obtain happiness, and to avoid sadness, or avoid anger, or avoid all the other emotions.” What we’ll learn and what we’ll see a wise way os approaching this experience of life is to think, “Okay, all of these are natural normal emotions.” And at some point I’ll feel one, and at some point I’ll feel another, and they’re all impermanent.

Imagine you have that ring, with the message etched, “This too will pass.” And next time you’re experiencing an emotion, whether it’s a positive emotion or a negative emotion, remind yourself that this too will pass. And then we don’t have to lurch on to so tightly to these emotions, they’re just impermanent emotions, it’s the nature of being human that we’re going to experience all the range of emotions that human’s experience. And not one of these is a permanent emotion. You can’t catch it and say, “Okay, that’s it. From here on now, I will only experience this one.” And so much of our suffering comes from the misunderstanding of the impermanence of our emotions.

When we’re experiencing anger for example, you can get angry at the fact that you’re angry, because now you’re caught up in this conceptual idea of, “Anger is bad, I’m not supposed supposed to be angry, I’m just supposed to just be happy or grateful.” I speak out of experience on this, I used to genuinely believe that there is no legitimate reason to ever be ungrateful, or to be angry, or to be sad. In my mind it was always compared to, “Well, think of so and so who has it so much worse, or think of the starving kids in Africa, or some scenario like that.” And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t compare completely, but what I’m saying is everyone’s circumstances are unique.

So it’s unfair for me to say, “I lost my job,” but I shouldn’t be mad because somewhere else someone is starving. There may be some truth to that from a perspective sense, but the natural way of human emotions they don’t work that way. Everyone would never experience any emotiona if they could just simply compare themselves to someone else, now it may help a little bit but you’re still going to … The point here is no matter what type of life you have, you’re still going to experience the full range of human emotions. This is why you have people in third world countries who live in poverty who can be happy, and you have someone living in a first world country who has fame and power and wealth and they can be unhappy, they can be experiencing suffering and anguish.

Because that’s, it’s the natural way of being human, is that it doesn’t matter what your circumstances are, you’re going to experience the full range of emotions no matter what.

SO there’s freedom in this … Buddhism is also often referred to as the path of liberation. So if we’re applying that thinking to the concepts of human emotions, what is the sense of liberation that we get? Well it’s actually a pretty incredible one, when you don’t have to be happy now you’re free to be content. It’s like the expression, “Now that I don’t have to be perfect, I can be good.” Well this is similar, now that I don’t have to chase after happiness as if that’s the only emotion that counts, I can just be content with whatever emotion am experiencing. And when I’m experiencing it I can just be with it.

For example anger, when I’m angry I can understand anger is natural and it’s okay. I can’t get rid of anger and that’s okay. You can’t get rid of sadness and that’s okay. You just learn to be with it while it’s there, with the understanding that this too shall pass. These emotions are all impermanent and when the conditions are right, they appear, and when the conditions are not met, these emotions aren’t there, and that’s it.

This reminds me of a teaching, a Zen teaching that I once heard, and I really enjoyed, and it’s about the journey. And the idea of the story is that there’s a man who’s on a journey and he’s trying to get from her and there, and there happens to be on the other side of the river. So as he’s traveling and comes up to the river and realizes that, “To leave here and get there, I have got to get across this river.” He can’t find a suitable place to cross because it’s dangerous. So he starts walking along the edge of the river looking for the right place and this goes for however long, hours, looking for the right place to cross.

And at one point he reaches a place where he can see someone where he can see somebody seating on the other side, happens to be a monk. And he sees this monk seating on the other side of the river, and he finally yells out to him and says, “Excuse me, excuse me,” the monk looks up and looks at him and says, “Can you please tell me how to get to the other side?”

And the monk kind of looks at him bewildered, looks up and down the river and then finally yells back, “You are on the other side.” And that’s the story, that’s the whole story, and I love this story. It makes me laugh when I hear it because “How do I get to the other side?” Well, from the perspective of the monk he says, “You are on the other side.”

And this is the nature of reality when it comes to perspective, wherever you are, for you is here, for someone else is there. Now there is no here and there, other than based on perspective, where I am is where I am. Where you are is just where you are. And with emotions it’s the same, I am happy, I’m happy, and when I’m mad, and when I’m sad, I’m sad. There’s no need to fight off a specific emotion as if I could guarantee that there’s something that will ensure I never experience that again, you can’t do that.

You can see this is real life by observing people who chase, who are caught up in the pursuit if happiness. Their thinking, it has to do with money, and when I can finally get enough money then I can be happy. And they chase after this their whole lives, and some of them do reach this point where they finally get a lot of money, and the first thing you’ll notice is that they’re no different than anyone else, they just happen to have more money. Happiness wise, they still have a set of difficulties that arise in life because that’s the nature of life, that difficulties arise, there is no guarantee against them.

And I do want to be clear to specify that there is a baseline. There’s a baseline where once your needs, your basic human needs are met, beyond that there is no change. Money, power, fame, non of it is going to guarantee more happiness. But if you’re under the baseline, then yes. If you don’t have proper shelter, you don’t have love or you don’t have, your basic human needs aren’t met, then yeah, that’s the first thing. Those need to be met to have that baseline of happiness.

But you’ll be shocked at how low that line is. This is why like I mentioned before there are people in third world countries who live very happy lives, while you have people in first world countries who have so much more, who live very unhappy lives. Because none of these things we typically associate with happiness guarantees of happiness. Because happiness is just an emotion, when the conditions are there we experience it, and when they are not there we don’t. Money is no guarantee of it, fame is no guarantee, power is no guarantee. And we tend to chase after those three specifically because somehow we live in a delusional society that thinks that those three things will have bearing and weight on how happy we are, and how we can minimize our suffering. And it’s just not just true, you can look at any study and you’ll find that it’s simply not true.

So leads us back to the initial question, why so we chase after happiness? Well, another answer will be, it’s just our human nature. It’s our human nature to experience something pleasant and say, “I want more of that,” to experience something unpleasant and say, “Uh! I don’t want to experience more of that.” And then we start chasing after those two thing, chasing the things that are pleasant and avoiding the things that are unpleasant. And that’s natural. But the misguided understanding of that, is that either one of those are permanent. There’s no guarantee of any formula that’s going to say, “That’s it, now you won’t experience suffering.”

You can work hard your whole life building up money, wealth and power, you finally get it, you think life is good, and then your loved one dies in a car accident, and now you experience suffering. Or you get sick and now you’re thinking, “I will give all the money I have to find a cure for this,” but there is no cure for it and now you’re experiencing suffering just like anyone else. Because the nature of reality is that difficulties arise, right? This is the first noble truth taught in Buddhism, as in life there is suffering, or that in life difficulties will arise.

So when we understand this, we become free, we become free from the chase of pursing happiness. Happiness you can think of, is part of the overall journey. So there can be happiness in the pursuit, but what is it you’re pursing? What is there to even pursue? If you understand the nature of the interdependence and the nature of impermanence, especially when applied to human emotions, then you’re free to just experience living. There’s not point, specific point other than the point is to live, so you get to just enjoy things for the sake of enjoying them.

This is the how I tend to live, the lifestyle that I have, I like to chase after experiences for the sake of the experiences, and I enjoy adventurous stuff. I love flying, I fly with a paramotor and paragliding. I love traveling, I love taking pictures and capturing my experiences, and I would have to say at one point initially, I was chasing after happiness. I thought the answer to happiness was doing this and avoiding that. And over the years that’s evolved. Because I found that no matter what I do, I still get anxious when then time of the month to pay bills comes around. I still get stressed when I’m thinking of a specific deal that fell through at work. None of that has ever changed. But somehow in the middle of all of it, I’m still content, I’m enjoying the experience of being alive. And that just doesn’t mean the good experiences, that also includes the bad ones. Or what we would perceive as bad.

After a particularly stressful day or a specific stressing event that happens at work, I often find myself thinking, “I’m glad I’ve experienced that, because when someone else is going through that, now I know what’s that like. I’ve been through that.” And it makes me grateful for the experienced that caused pain, tremendous pain in life to think, “I know what that’s like.” Because I’ve been there, allows me to have more compassion and kindness for others because I get to experience everything, I want to experience everything. I want to know what it’s like to hurt, I want to know what it is like to be sad, I want to know what it is like to be blissful and happy. Fortunately I have experienced a broad range of these emotions, and even more fortunately for me now, I understand that they’re all impermanent.

I feel what is expressed in the parable, that this too shall pass, this too will pass, has been a fantastic way of looking at life and understanding my personal pursuit of happiness. It’s no longer something I pursue, at least not in the sense I pursue and thinking, “I can actually catch it.” Now it something I can have fun with. When you understand that it’s impermanent and that it’s just the nature of life is to experience all of it, you can have fun with it. And when I’m experiencing happiness I love thinking, “Oh! Right now that conditions are there, I’m experiencing happiness this is great, all the while knowing this is impermanent, enjoy it because it is impermanent.

And then the same thing happens when I’m sad or when I’m angry, I’m just with it, I’m not trying to change it because I know it is impermanent. When the conditions go away, the emotion also goes away. And that’s the beauty of just living life in a way where you’re detached from the pursuit. I’m just enjoying it as I go because I don’t need to lurch on to the delusion that it’s actually something that I can have. That actually happiness is something I can obtain, I can pursue it, I can catch it, put it in a cage and it’s mine, that’s a delusion. I would be better off chasing my shadow for the rest of my life.

So that’s the topic I wanted to share in this podcast. Why do we chase after happiness? The concept of the pursuit of happiness. I want to hopefully give a sense of liberation, now you’re free to no longer pursue happiness because happiness is just something that will be there. When it’s there is there, when it’s not, it’s not. And try to think of happiness like you would in the other emotion. We don’t particularly chase after anger or chase after sadness, and yet no matter what you do you’re going to experience those as well.

So freedom from the pursuit of happiness and now that you don’t have to be happy you can be content. Now that you don’t have to chase after happiness, you can just enjoy life with a content attitude even when you’re experiencing positive emotions or negative emotions.

So that’s what I wanted to share with you guys, I look forward to another topic next week, and I hope you guys have a wonderful week. So take care, and until next time.