The Search for Happiness

"I have a friend who went to India a while ago, and the day before he was going to fly we had a phone conversation. It turned out he was going with another friend who had made all of the travel arrangements, and this person hadn't realized that for just a little bit more money they could have flown business class instead of economy class, which of course on such a long flight would have been far more comfortable. We were speaking about whether they could manage to change their tickets, if there would be a penalty, and how much nicer it would be to go business class. If they could arrange for the upgrade, they reasoned, they would arrive rested instead of exhausted and unhappy. Right in the middle of this conversation about moving into business class, my friend said, 'I wonder how much it would cost to go first class?'

"I know that state of mind so well. As soon as you get into business class, you start thinking about first class. This is how we are conditioned — there is always something else to want, even before we take a moment to appreciate what we already have, or are about to have. The variety of opportunity and circumstance is infinite. We get into a mind state of looking for an upgrade, and another upgrade, and yet another; it can be endless. Living more consciously is about turning around the habit of always wanting more. It is about deconditioning, about getting out of such constricted mind states and discovering a radically different kind of happiness — one that is not so vulnerable, that does not lead to certain dissatisfaction. We need to loosen our grasping and our clinging, and we need to have the courage to step out of our conditioning.

"An essential question we might ask ourselves is, 'What do 1 really need right now, in this moment, to be happy?' The world offers us many answers to that question: You need a new car and a new house and a new relationship and . . . But do we really? 'What do I lack right now? Does anything need to change in order for me to be happy? What do I really need?' These are powerful questions.

"When I have gone on retreat in Southeast Asian countries there is generally no charge for staying at the monasteries or the retreat centers, where all of the food is donated. Often it is donated by groups or families who come to the center to make the offerings. I'm sure that all of these groups of people offer absolutely the best that they can afford, but each day what is provided can differ quite a lot depending on the circumstances of those who are donating. Sometimes it is a lavish, bountiful feast. Sometimes it is quite meager, because that is all that the family can provide.

"Time after time, I went into the dining room for a meal and looked at the faces of the people who had made the offering, since they commonly come to watch you receive it. They would look radiant, so happy that they'd had an opportunity to feed us, to offer something that would help sustain us. They seemed so happy that we were going to be meditating, exploring the truth, and purifying our minds and hearts on the strength of their offering. In that moment, when they were so genuinely grateful for the chance to give, I would ask myself, 'What do I really need right now in order to be happy?" I realized that I was getting fed a lot more by their joy and delight than I was by the actual food.

"The Dalai Lama has said, 'If you are going to be selfish, be wisely selfish.' In other words, if we carefully look at our lives we can see that we spend an awful lot of time looking for happiness in the wrong places and in the wrong ways. We yearn to be happy, and this is right. It is appropriate; all beings want to be happy. The problem is not in the urge, or yearning, but in our ignorance. So very often we don't know where happiness is to be found — that is, true and genuine happiness, abiding happiness — and so we flounder, and we suffer and cause suffering to others.

"As I go through all kinds of feelings and experiences in my journey through life — delight, surprise, chagrin, dismay — I hold this question as a guiding light: 'What do I really need right now to be happy?' What I come to over and over again is that only qualities as vast and deep as love, connection, and kindness will really make me happy in any sort of enduring way."