Unreasonable Happiness (written 2018)
In a Dhamma talk I listened to a few days ago, my teacher referred to equanimity as “unreasonable” happiness, a happiness not dependent on reasons, that is, external causes. I've been pondering this more or less relentlessly since. While we will accept strange flights of mood in ourselves, feeling despondent or euphoric without being able to point to a reason, mostly we see these states as fleeting and strange. A steady happiness, on the other hand, we believe should be founded on reasons. When we see photos of “happy” people living in awful circumstances (slum children playing joyously along a littered pipeline outside their cardboard homes) we are shaken. What “reasons” could they have to be happy? We probably put it down to the innocence and lack of experience of children and we are affirmed in this if we find any adults in the background looking grim or dull.
So what does equanimity as unreasonable happiness look like? I'm working to cultivate this. If I accept the world vision the media offers me, I will be one of those grim and dull faced adults, despite the fact that I live in an affluent first world country, in a small home by North American standards, but with running water, reliable indoor plumbing and electricity, and clean, open green spaces around me. Because I will be looking for reasons out there in the world, and the information I'm inundated with will convince me that things are looking bleak.
If I look at the circumstances of my own life, I will see aging and illness and loss ongoing. The outside reasons for happiness mostly seem to be twinkling stars in a clouded sky...only now and then apparent and then often briefly.
So unreasonable happiness must find its foundation somewhere else. In the heart. And in the investigation of the heart-mind. In noticing how my mind works to select from what life offers...and how it is possible for me to guide that selection in a more skillful way.
The slum children may indeed be too young yet to know their circumstances. The gift of childhood is that they select readily for joy. But the conditioning of their lives will lead them to continue to select outwardly as they grow up, and to become the grim faced adults in the background of future pictures. Their joy comes from the cool water of the broken pipe, the adrenalin of the chasing games, the warmth of a friend's hug or smile, curiosity about some treasure they've discovered on the streets. They are still plugged into the sensory world. This is fine. We all do this, and most of us retain this orientation as we age. In my world this might mean a wonderful piece of violin music, the scent of lilacs, the taste of a mango, the warmth of the summer sun, the view from the top a high hill after a vigorous climb. But this outward orientation is a whimsical and unreliable source of reasonable happiness.
Watching my mind, I learn about this natural inclination. But I also see that this inclination means I will taste the bitterness of medicine, see the devastation of forests, hear the cries of those in pain, smell garbage on the streets, feel the sharp stone that I step on. The senses let it all in. Mindfulness allows me to place my attention skillfully. It doesn't mean I don't know about the devastation of the forest or feel the pain of the stone, but that I can choose to be happy anyway. I can incline my mind toward peace. Step more carefully, do what I can to protect the environment, and not dwell on the pain nor suffer with worry.
It's a step by step, moment by moment process for this unenlightened being. Tears clog my throat when unskillful responses arise, but mindfulness means they do not gain momentum. I step toward them, taste them, understand that dwelling here means suffering. And I move onto what leads to more positive resultants...caring for someone, growing compassion, permitting myself rest when needed, remembering the truth of being human and not lamenting...for that way leads to a greater loss.