I Want to be Happy (written 2016)
Sometimes people get confused about the Buddha's teachings and think that it is somehow “wrong” to want anything. They see desire as a problem. But this is missing a subtlety ...the distinction between the desire , the wanting, and the clinging to that wanting. Though you may want good weather for the parade you plan to attend on the weekend, you'll likely have an alternate plan in mind in case it rains. That is, you'll either get out your umbrella, find shelter in a store front alcove, or decide just not to go this year. If you spend the day moping, and won't entertain any suggestions about how to accommodate the weather, or what other activities might be possible for the day, instead opting for complaining and ranting, well then, that's clinging. It's the formula that says “I can't be happy unless....” And, oddly enough, you prove it to yourself by being unhappy for at least the whole day of the parade.
Intentions are entirely different. In the Eight Fold Path, Right Intention is the second factor. We set our gaze in a certain direction, make our efforts with a certain aspiration in mind. Ultimately, on the Buddha's practice path, this aspiration is freedom, liberation, nibbana. This is lasting happiness, where we are released from the suffering we cause ourselves because of our misguided notions of what is true. Because of greed, hatred and delusion, we flounder about and cause our own suffering, while believing we are pursuing happiness. As we begin to see clearly what happens, we're able to steer our mind and our life in a different direction.
Giving a talk within the “Awakening Joy” course offered by Spirit Rock, personal change coach and author, M.J. Ryan, makes an interesting and helpful distinction. Consider, she says, the difference between “I want to be happy”, and “I intend to be happy.” While the first statement is passive, waiting for “happiness” to materialize in my life, the second is active, indicating a wish I mean to carry out. When we form such intention, we acknowledge our own role in whether or not happiness is experienced. Notice though that desire kicks things off. A desire to be happy, wanting to be happy, precedes the intention to bring it about. We have to be clear here about what happiness feels like. How do we define and measure our own happiness? Through honest and persistent observation. Through daily, ongoing mindfulness.
Coming back to the Buddha's teachings, we discover the role of observing our own mind and our own experience, discerning in this way the difference between skillful and unskillful actions in moving toward “happiness”. If I mistakenly equate happiness with a particular thing, I may discover that sometimes, as in the case of the sunny parade day, I cannot make this happen. In the case of some other “things”, I may be able to make a plan and get that thing, only to find that happiness doesn't result. This runs counter, I soon notice, to the claims of advertising: this holiday, this car, this brand of clothing equals happiness. Careful observation of my own experience will teach me that this isn't so. Perhaps there will be momentary pleasure, but eventually the holiday ends, a new model of car is released that I like better, or the clothing doesn't look as great on me as it did on the ad model.
Ryan completes her formula with “persistence”. Keep the intention in mind and keep working at this, even through failures and disappointments. It takes courage to honestly look at and acknowledge thoughts and feelings, to assess what occurs in your mind and heart along the way, and what actions of your own, internal and external, lead to peace or to turmoil. Patient, persistent effort in watching our own experience teaches us where lasting happiness can be found. It isn't as simple as a car or a week on the beach. It's an attitude, an inclination of mind. “Don't lose your intention”, Ryan says. “It is more stable than the day to day flow of emotions and energy will move toward it.”