August 4, 2013
A four-year-old, strawberry blond hopped over to three Hispanic boys. His mother followed close behind. The three older boys were playing video games on their little devices in the Dallas airport waiting area. They spoke no English. He spoke no Spanish. She spoke both and translated their introductions. Soon they were beyond the need for words as they played gentle games of poke and chase around the benches.
I felt vaguely uncomfortable as I watched the pleasant scene. I was heading home from a fifteen-day meditation. The details of the retreat fade quickly as I return to normal life. So during airport layovers I liked to record the nuances while they were fresh. But this afternoon, no words came: my mind was quiet. I was content to simply watch the boys being boys. And it was frustrating.
Finally mental juices flowed enough to write six or seven pages. Then inspiration faded back into serenity. I put my writing away and got up to stretch my legs.
Walking into the airport mall, I felt the relief of finally having made a few notes. I smiled and thought, “Ah, conditional happiness: good feeling based on modest accomplishment.” It felt familiar.
For years I’ve carried around to-do lists in my mind, on index cards, on my cell phone, and in my computer. I had lists of things to do and lists of people to talk to. Ministering to a large congregation provided an ample parade of items to populate my lists. It was satisfying work, to be sure. But the pleasure depended on getting something done, making progress, helping someone, delivering a good sermon. Outwardly I was Mr. Spiritual. Inwardly I was a to-do list junkie looking for the next hit of relief from checking something off my lists.
Walking the polished marble floors in the airport promenade, I saw this dynamic starkly: not just relief from progress (which felt good) but the underlying compulsive tendency (which felt dense and yucky). I saw this so clearly that the tightness in the compulsion released. It was gone. This felt so wonderful that I almost burst out laughing. Almost. I stopped myself – didn’t want those folks in the Texas airport to think I was high on something illegal. But my grin was truly expansive.
“Ah,” I thought, “unconditional happiness: wellbeing not dependent on doing, fixing, avoiding, getting, or getting rid of anything.”
Unconditional happiness begins by clearly and objectively seeing what’s going on inside. Nature wires us to focus externally on the job to be done, the irritating person, the anticipated bad news, or other object of discomfort “out there” rather than focus on the discomfort “in here.”
The trick is to recognize the inner states, let them be what they are, and relax all at the same time. The relief I felt from getting the notes done was not from the notes. It was from no longer obsessing about them.
This is the essence of the Buddha’s second and third Noble Truths: the source of our experience of dissatisfaction is this instinctual tightening and it is possible to release it and know ease in any circumstance.
With practice and a sense of humor, it’s easier and easier to recognize and release the tautness of desire and aversion. Perhaps we’re edgy because we’re late for a meeting. We realize, “Wow, I’m really uptight and this does absolutely nothing to get me there any quicker. Far out.” Or we’re upset because it’s raining on the day we wanted to hike and realize, “Wow. This upset doesn’t change the weather at all but it rattles me. How interesting.” Or in the middle of a fight we see, “I am really furious. Far out.”
We’re still late, the rain is still falling, we still disagree with the person. But the gripping inside lessens and our mood lightens. This is a taste of unconditioned happiness. It doesn’t feel like repressing feelings, transcending concerns, or pushing anything away. Quite the opposite: it feels like relaxing into the event, softening with what’s happening, or letting down into things as they are.
With this, dispassion grows. When we fight reality, we always lose. Life really doesn’t care about our opinions. Life is what it is. We see the futility – indeed the silliness – of wanting what we don’t have or disliking what we do have. Dispassion doesn’t mean we have no preferences or become indifferent to life. We may engage to help where we can. But outcomes affect us less and less. We remain soft, open, and at peace even in difficult circumstances.
This wellbeing it not the bright joy of a party, the exultation of an athlete, or the giggles of four little boys playing poke and chase. That joy is energetic; so it doesn’t last. The joy wanes because it depended on transient thrill.
Unconditioned joy is quieter, broader, more spacious, and less energetic. It’s called “all pervasive” because it’s more stable: it requires less and is less conditioned.
As equanimity and dispassion deepen, it takes up a more or less permanent residence in us. Peace has always been here. It’s just shy about speaking over the tumult. It’s a natural part of our existence when we truly relax into what is.
Yet, I wonder if dispassion will ever be wildly popular. How many are willing to give up excitement for peace, thrill for contentment, accomplishment for ease?