“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence” Aristotle
Every living being in this world seeks happiness whether s/he is aware of it or not. It is the meaning and purpose of life as Aristotle had noted.
“Isn’t it obvious?” I hear you say. Yet is it really that obvious I dare ask again?
If it were that obvious why aren’t billion of dollars being spent in researching the ‘Science of Happiness’? Why aren’t political systems based on the pursuit, achievement and safeguarding of Happiness? Why aren’t there too many religions that instead of attaching themselves to Dogma and authority reorient their beliefs on the basic Human need of Happiness? Why isn’t Happiness a shared point of reference between political, ideological and International transactions?
Something is not that obviously straight forward to me.
A New Earth & Eckhart Tolle
The answers came from a book that I have read during the last year or so and which has profoundly influenced my perspective on life. The book is Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. Written by a real contemporary Spiritual Master, the book touches on many insightful and profound truths that seem to unknowingly spark off something inside the reader. There is that “A Ha! So that’s what it is!” kind of feeling in everyone who I know has read the book, including myself.
One of these insights is the fact that the human mind is by default dysfunctional since it is caught by the grips of the ego consciousness. The ego consciousness is that little Mr. Hyde in us that sabotages our every attempt to break free from our old patterns of behavior or self-destructive habits such as negative thinking, limiting and self-defeating thoughts, anger, greed & the incessant desire for having more than others and being better than others.
The Ego & its subconscious machinery
The ego-consciousness makes us self-absorbed and self-centered. It makes us blind and shortsighted. It makes us feel special and cut off from the rest.
There is always that ‘I and others’ or ‘’us and them’ kind of standpoint which breeds other negative repercussions such as prejudice, labeling, intolerance, hatred, etc. The ego consciousness is also a trickster. It comes up with apparently rational arguments in our ‘self-talking’ such as to justify our dysfunctional beliefs and subconscious irrational fears.
The Collective Ego
On a social level, the ego has its collective presence too. The world news is such a testimony to that. Everyday we hear about mass attacks on human lives from religious extremists with fundamentalist beliefs, violence spurred by racial or ethnic hatred and intolerance, political standoffs between countries due to a clash of ideologies and cultures.
This is the collective ego at work that makes us perceive the world through a self-centered orientation, making us narrow minded and blind to the needs and rights of others. We attach ourselves blindly to the shallowness of our own self-created and self-perpetuated system of beliefs & values in such a way that change and acceptance become the worst enemies for the ego because they threaten to uncover its covert trickery and end its reign.
The Transcendental Self
On the other end of Human nature there is what is often referred to as the Transcendental self. This is the nemesis of the ego. It is the part of us which transcends beyond the limited and self-centered vision of the ego and gains insights into the real nature of things without being obscured by the delusions of mind. It is free from attachment to thought.
The Transcendental self is not rooted in the conditioning of past habits or future worries but is rooted in the now, in the only moment which is ever real because everything happens in the now. Tying oneself to the past or future will only bring stress and anxiety while it forces us to live our lives on autopilot (which is the opposite of being awake).
The Transcendental self is not self-absorbed. Its vision is wider and feels and accepts that s/he is part of the universal being. S/he understands that all life is interconnected at some level and that all our actions have consequences which incur other consequences in an interdependent Universe of cause and effect.
A person who has transcended beyond his limiting ego-centric view on life is a person who is self-actualizing, takes his destiny in his own hands and co-creates his life rather than just reacting to it with worry, anger, guilt or attachment.
The Reactive vs. The Creative self
Two people can behave quite differently in a same situation. Imagine a situation whereby a man, Mr.A is driving along his way when some other guy thoughtlessly but abusively drives in the main road from a side street and almost makes Mr.A loose control of his car and send him into a possible life-threatening accident.
Mr.A, after getting out of his shock, hoots the horn at the other guy which promptly and cheekily replies with his middle finger. Mr.A gets wrathful to the point of foam in his mouth and steam coming out from his ears. He chases him, swears at him, hoots at him, swerves on him, calls him names, and after a long ride completely off route where he was going, finally decides to call off the chase.
But that’s not the end of it. On the remainder of his trip Mr.A drives with thoughts of revenge, anger, frustration, disbelief and then spends the rest of the day having a mental picture of the guy with all the things he could have said or done to him. Not to mention, the physiological stress and harm, Mr.A wasted his day by running a very vivid and negative documentary in his head.
Now imagine the same situation happening to Mr.B. Car comes out, Mr.B tries to avoid him, takes in a deep breath, makes sure he has full control of the car and himself, slows down then drives off just to forget about it as soon as he turns on the first corner.
Mr.A and Mr.B were victims of the same circumstances but while Mr.A held himself hostage of his own ego, Mr.B was free and made a choice not to hassle himself with the emotion arousing thoughts for the rest of his day.
The Unhappy Ego
The ego-driven self is locked into a powerless state of dysfunction and is very limited in finding happiness. It always wants the next best thing hence eternally dissatisfied with what it has. There is no appreciation of the present moment.
The ego loves a reaction as shown in the case of Mr.A. It feeds on it like a vampire feeds on blood. It is reactive rather than creative, hence its shallowness and shortsightedness.
It reacts as soon as it sees someone else being better than itself or to someone who said or did something that arouses a negative emotion. It will attempt its very best to react to the other person’s actions by trying to win over an argument with intellectual prowess, bitch back, pass on demeaning and insulting remarks, do or say something to show his/her superiority at something and so on down a very long list of silly and futile things the human mind can come up with. Worst thing is that we are not conscious that all this ever happening to us.
The Science of Happiness
Recent studies and Research in Cognitive Psychology and Positive Psychology are time after time discovering and verifying the age-old insights in mind, consciousness and happiness as outlined in brief above. Most of this ancient knowledge derives from Buddhist teachings but now is finding its way further into mainstream western thought and Science. I agree with his Holiness the Dalai Lama when he once was quoted in saying that Buddhism is after all a Science of Mind.
By slowly embracing a relatively more Holistic approach to Science, modern Cognitive Psychology is starting to recognize, through scientific tests, the validity of this ancient wisdom. (If you’re interested in this I recommend checking out the works of Jon Kabat-Zinn here)
Amongst some of the interesting findings, which throw light on the intersection between the old and modern understanding of the mind and happiness there is:
- Meditation has been shown to have many beneficial effects to mental health in general such as significantly reducing stress & anxiety, heart problem risks and depression. It also promotes general happiness and well being
- Attaching oneself to material objects, ideas or a narrow framework of thought causes a kind of black or white mode of seeing reality. Often this brings a loss of perspective and eventually anxiety or depression. The opposite is equally true. People who tend to see things in perspective without blowing up negative happenings tend to be more relaxed & happy.
- People who isolate themselves, are hostile to others or feel cut off and different from the rest have bigger chances of feeling jaded and unhappy. On the other hand, people who receive or give emotional support have a higher chance of being happy.
- Those people who introspect too much on negative things, are self-absorbed and self-centered have more chances of being depressed. Patients suffering chronic depression tend to use the ‘I’, ‘Me’ & ‘Mine’ a lot. Happy people tend to see life and goodness in others.
- Happy people also tend to be people who are not fatalists or who think in a disempowering way. Very often they recognize that they have the power (and the responsibility ) to make a positive change in their life.
Going back to the questions I put in the beginning, it is starting to become more and more clear to me how happiness is the realization and moving away from a rather ego-driven consciousness to a more transcendental one. The only problem is that this is not at all obvious and no one of us is born with a operating manual to mind and happiness.