In this inspiring book, Lovingkindness, Sharon Salzberg, one of America’s leading spiritual teachers, shows us how the Buddhist path of lovingkindness can help us discover the radiant, joyful heart within each of us.
Where to find happiness
We can travel a long way and do many different things, but our deepest happiness is not born from accumulating new experiences. It is born from letting go of what is unnecessary, and knowing ourselves to be always at home. True happiness may not be at all far away, but it requires a radical change of view as to where to find it.
Sometimes we take quite a journey—physically or mentally or emotionally—when the very love and happiness we want so much can be found by just sitting down. We spend our lives searching for something we think we don’t have, something that will make us happy.
But the key to our deepest happiness lies in changing our vision of where to seek it. As the great Japanese poet and Zen master Hakuin said, “Not knowing how near the Truth is, people seek it far away. What a pity! They are like one who, in the midst of water, cries out in thirst so imploringly.”
Ordinary happiness comes from the experience of pleasure—the satisfaction, for a little while, of getting what we want. Such happiness is like the temporary appeasement of an unhappy, insatiable child. We reach out for the consolation of a momentary distraction, and then we are upset when it changes. I have a friend who is four years old. When he gets frustrated, or does not get what he wants, the hallways of his house echo with his cries: “Nobody loves me anymore!” We as adults often feel the same: when we do not get what we want—or when we get what we want, only to have it change—it seems as though all the love in the universe has been withdrawn from us. Happiness becomes an either/ or situation. Just like those of the four-year-old, our interpretations and judgments obstruct clear seeing. Life is just as it is, despite our protests. For all of us there is a constant succession of pleasurable and painful experiences. Once I was hiking with friends in Northern California. We had decided beforehand to follow a certain trail for the first three days, and then to retrace our steps for the next three. On the third day of this arduous hike, we found ourselves on a long, steady downhill slope. After several hours of this, one of my friends, suddenly realizing what all this walking downhill implied for the next day when we would be retracing our steps, turned to me and said glumly, “In a dualistic universe, downhill can mean only one thing.” The unrelenting flux of life’s changing conditions is inevitable, yet we labor to hold on to pleasure, and we labor equally hard to avoid pain. So many images from our world tell us that it is wrong to suffer; advertising, social mores, and cultural assumptions suggest that feeling pain or sadness is blameworthy, shameful, humiliating. Underlying these messages is an expectation that somehow we should be able to control pain or loss. When we experience mental or physical pain, we often feel a sense of isolation, a disconnection from humanity and life. Our shame sets us apart in our suffering at the very times when we need most to connect.
Everything in life changes
Conventional transitory happiness carries a subtle undercurrent not only of loneliness but also of fear. When things are going well, when we are experiencing pleasure and are getting what we want, we feel obliged to defend our happiness because it seems so fragile, unstable. As though our happiness needed constant protection, we deny the very possibility of suffering; we cut ourselves off from facing it in ourselves and in others because we fear that it will undermine or destroy our good fortune. Thus, in order to hold on to our pleasure, we refuse to recognize the humanity of a homeless person on the street. We decide that the suffering of others is not relevant to our own lives. We cut ourselves off from facing the world’s suffering because we fear it will undermine or destroy our own happiness. In that highly defended state, we withdraw into so terrible an aloneness that we cannot experience true joy. How strange our conditioning is: to feel so alone in our pain, and to feel so vulnerable and isolated in our happiness.
The path to true happiness is one of integrating and fully accepting all aspects of our experience.