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Fun and Happiness

"If you make up  your mind not to be happy there's no reason why you shouldn't have  a fairly good time." - Edith Wharton

I'm not exactly sure what Edith Wharton meant by "comfortable" or "a fairly good time," but I like the part about not running around after happiness very much. Obviously, at some level, we do this or any kind of spiritual or therapeutic practice because we want to be "happy," but just what that word "happy" means may have to undergo a radical transformation before we can come close to achieving it. I would guess that almost everybody who participated in our all day sittings was happy that did so, but that doesn't mean that those intensives were in any way fun - they're hard and often painful, physically and emotionally. To do an intensive sitting like that is one way we transform our picture of what it means to be "happy." It's analogous to the paradox in Socrates' statement on the eve of being put to death, that "A good man can't be harmed." What does that mean, what "harm" can there be worse than death? Socrates meant that a good man takes everything that happens to him in life as an opportunity be good, and that can never be taken away from him - even death is an opportunity to be faced and faced well.

There's a nice story near the end of Uchiyama Roshi's book, Refining Your Life," in which one of his students, when they're sitting around relaxing and having tea together at the end of a sesshin, asks him, "Roshi, what do you do for fun?" And the roshi is at first rather taken aback by the question, and explains that his life isn't exactly on  in which there's time for much fun - he is the administrator of a temple, he has to lead week long sesshins every month, both in his own temple and sometimes with other groups on top of that, he has to deal with his students, guests, tourists... A very busy often difficult life. But it's a life of great satisfaction, because it's a life he wholeheartedly lives, one that he completely gives himself over to. This is one of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism - that our life and our self are essentially one and the same - and when we no longer set up artificial barriers between the two in the form of like and dislikes (our idiosyncratic notions of how we want our life to go, what we think is going to make us "happy") - then true happiness is possible.

But the Roshi, after thinking a while, also comes up with this answer - after a long day, because he's getting old and the circulation in his feet is very poor and they are cold all the time, at night before he goes to bed, he lines up three shot glasses of whiskey and drinks them off one after another, to warm up his feet for bed! You see there's no problem for him in having a simple pleasure like that, and practice is not a matter of extirpating every single desire in order to be "selfless." His whiskey is his "fun" and his fun occupies a regular, non-intrusive part of his life, not what he lives for or looks forward to, but something that he enjoys in its place.

Much of what we're trying to do here is untangle our own notions of happiness and fun. I've often said that psychoanalysis is learning to give up the pursuit of happiness, and that to do so, one must learn to distrust one's deepest feelings. Because our deepest feelings are often these very old, very idiosyncratic pictures of who we think we are, what we feel entitled to from life, what we expect or fear from other people, and so on. And analysis is the long unravelling of those pre-conceptions - over and over we try to ask, "Where did I get THAT idea?"