Finding True Happiness is a Risky Business

The importance of taking risks and facing our own weaknesses to achieve true happiness from a Buddhist and psychological perspective as well as my own life experience.

When we became Buddhists in 1969, my wife and I were teenage hippies. On the day of her high school graduation, we took a huge risk and ran away from home seeking love, peace, happiness and, in my case, freedom from responsibility. After months of eating brown rice and lentils and living on a friend’s porch, we realized that we couldn’t just survive on our ideals. Buddhism seemed like the perfect solution. We were told that if we chanted, we could become happy and all our dreams would come true.

I rarely thought to ask what true happiness was. I figured anything would be better than the severe depression and anguish I had suffered as a child and teenager. Because of my intense desire to avoid depression, I developed an underlying belief that the true objective of my Buddhist practice was to be happy all the time. That the enlightenment Nichiren, the founder of Nichiren Buddhism, spoke about in 13th century Japan, was somehow wrapped up in an unshakable condition of happiness, a total absence of pain. “Look at me,” I would be able to proclaim. “Nothing can upset my positive, upbeat attitude.”

I was so frightened whenever I started to feel blue that I would do anything to get my smile back. My unhappiness, like a strong ocean undertow, was a constant impetus to chant more to strengthen my life. And, over time, I could make and carry out strong determinations, have a warm loving family, and build a successful business career. But, on a different level, I still needed to deal with the reality of my sadness. Soon, two traumatic occurrences pushed me right over the edge.

The first was the suicide of my good friend, Gordon, in the mid-nineties. He had been my business mentor and had recently retired. His family and friends thought they knew him well. A successful businessman, he was always cheerful and full of great advice. It frightened me that he could be harboring such overwhelming anguish that he saw no way to continue living. Obviously, he hadn’t dealt with some significant issues in his life. Considering my own traumatic childhood, I began to wonder if I was in danger of making the same mistake.

The second event was my wife being diagnosed in 1996 with multiple sclerosis. This was a challenging time that tested and then reinforced our commitment to each other and our continued spiritual practice. Eventually, Trude learned to walk again and some of the pressure we had been under was relieved. We had each gone through tremendous personal growth because of this experience. However, about a year later, Trude discovered me lying in the bathtub, unable to move. I had fallen into an extremely depressed state, the kind of loneliness and helplessness I had experienced as a child and teenager.

It was at this point in my life that I began to understand the kind of grief that must have driven Gordon to end his life. It woke me up to the need to get help. How sad and ironic that Gordon’s most significant gift to me ended up being his death. His suicide, like a persistent flashing red reminder, compelled me to find the courage to “do the work.”

Buddhism teaches that we should not shrink from the fact of death but squarely confront it.

Our contemporary culture has been described as one that seeks to avoid and deny the fundamental question of our mortality. It is the awareness of death, however, that compels us to examine our lives and to seek to live meaningfully. Death enables us to treasure life; it awakens us to the preciousness of each shared moment. In the struggle to navigate the sorrow of death, we can forge a radiant treasure of fortitude in the depths of our being. Through that struggle, we become more aware of the dignity of life and more readily able to empathize with the suffering of others.

With my chanting as a spiritual foundation and a terrific therapist, I was finally able to begin the painful but rewarding process of healing myself from the effects of my abusive childhood, so that I could truly devote myself to living in the present. In the same way Trude took medicine and went to a neurologist for her illness, I took medicine and went to a psychotherapist for mine.

This wasn’t and still isn’t an easy process. I’ve had to push myself through many tears and painful memories. I discovered that the messages I assimilated as a child from an angry father and a disinterested mother greatly influenced my opinion of myself. As an adult, many of the behaviors that had protected me in my early years were no longer necessary or desirable. Nor were they contributing to my true happiness.

As part of learning how to deal with childhood PTSD, I have also been learning to allow myself to feel joy without fear or guilt and to experience pain without panic. The essence of this is being able to live in the moment — something we are taught as Buddhists but that can be very difficult to achieve.

The ever-present heaviness that has plagued me for 68 years, has significantly diminished. There is no way to describe how wonderful this makes me feel. It is proof that it is never too late to change our lives. And, that many of life’s treasured gifts are buried in the most painful and risky places.

I am so grateful that I could turn Gordon’s death into such a meaningful gift. I’m a reminded of one of my favorite quotes by my mentor, Daisaku Ikeda:

“Happiness is being able to experience profound joy that comes from never being defeated by any problems in life. In fact, these challenges are a catalyst to deepen and expand our inner lives. Despite a culture of instant gratification that influences so much of modern living, happiness is not a quick fix attained overnight. Rather, it results from our daily efforts to manifest life’s highest potentials — wisdom, compassion, courage and vitality.”

While pursuing happiness, I also used to spend considerable energy trying to reach an elusive “there,” “there” meaning everything “good” — a better job, a more pleasant boss or just a little more money. It was almost impossible to enjoy life as it was, when I was so busy wishing I were somewhere else. This also is not true happiness!

The belief that our happiness depends on some event or situation happening in the future sets us up for unhappiness.

Especially when we consider that we are all bound by the cycle of birth, sickness, old age and death. If we wait for a trouble-free life, our happiness will continue to elude us. Rather, the question is how do we respond when confronted with the problems we will inevitably face? Eventually I came to realize that true happiness is when I strive to do my human revolution — those efforts I make to overcome myself and to help others.

While financial and material wealth is desirable, it is the nature of our attachment to it that can become problematic. In other words, does our attachment create value in our lives — does it contribute to our own and others’ absolute happiness or is it just a lessor relative happiness? Through my many years of Buddhist practice, I’ve come to realize it is spiritual wealth, the inner treasures of the heart, that really guide us to true happiness.

Daisaku Ikeda also said, “The gratification of desires is not happiness. Genuine happiness can only be achieved when we transform our way of life from the unthinking pursuit of pleasure to one committed to enriching our inner lives, when we focus on “being more rather than simply having more.”

In the sixth century, a Buddhist scholar in China, T’ien-t’ai, identified ten worlds — ten states or conditions of life that we experience within our lives, moving from one to another at any moment according to our interactions with our environment and those around us. These conditions, as listed in your program, are hell, hunger, animality, anger, tranquility, rapture, learning, realization, Bodhisattva and Buddhahood. Each of us possesses the potential to experience all ten, from the prison-like despair and self-hatred of Hell to the expansive joy and wisdom of Buddhahood. We each usually have one of these states that we revert to when faced with a stressful situation.

Any happiness or satisfaction to be gained in the lower six states depends totally on unique external circumstances and is therefore transient and subject to change. And, if we’re not careful, risks taken while in these conditions of life will not have a positive effect. This is not true happiness.

The seventh and eighth states, Learning and Realization, come about when we recognize that everything experienced in the six paths is impermanent, and we begin to seek some lasting truth. Seeking the truth implies going out of our comfort zone to experience personal growth. However, since these states are self-focused, there is a great potential for egotism.

The ninth state of Bodhisattva indicates those who aspire to achieve enlightenment and at the same time are equally determined to enable all other beings to do the same. Those in this state find their greatest satisfaction in altruistic behavior. The risk we take to help others results in the deepest personal happiness.

The state of Buddhahood or enlightenment, unlike in some popular Buddhist doctrines, represents an ordinary person awakened to the true nature of life — one who experiences absolute happiness and freedom, not separate from but within the realities of daily existence — in other words within the other nine conditions of life. It is characterized by wisdom, compassion, creativity and life force. So, the objective is to bring out the enlightened, positive aspects of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. This is, from a Buddhist perspective, true happiness.

In other words, the condition of Buddhahood does not exist separate from our daily life. We can experience joy in a hellish prison or transform our anger to engage in a risky but crucial fight against injustice. We don’t need to be a victim of our circumstances.

The revolutionary aspect of the Nichiren Buddhist practice is that it seeks to directly bring forth the energy of the enlightened nature of a Buddha to purify the other, more superficial layers of our five senses, our subconscious and our karma. It is how, in the words of Nichiren, “We become the master of our mind rather than letting our mind master us.”

Consistent with our Buddhist concept of relative and absolute happiness, psychological research has also found that people in their later years whose primary focus in life has been the attainment of external goals such a wealth, property, fame and status — tend to be less happy. In general, they are said to experience higher levels of anxiety, suffer more from illness, and have less of a sense of fulfillment. On the other hand, people who have paid attention to treasures of the heart — their spiritual well-being — report being much more satisfied with their lives.

In the Progress Paradox, Gregg Easterbrook draws upon three decades of wide-ranging research to make the assertion that while almost all material and physical aspects of Western life have vastly improved in the past century, most people feel less happy than in previous generations. So, while pursuing physical and material fulfillment, what is most important is to develop the ability to make wise decisions, the courage to never give up, respect for oneself and compassion for others. These are the attributes that give real meaning to our external endeavors and accomplishments.

In a fascinating paper in the 2017 International Journal of Wellbeing, psychologist Ashley Buchanan proposes bringing together two areas of research — a “being well” perspective from positive psychology and a socially and ecologically orientated “doing good” perspective.

He gives the example of benefit mindset as everyday leaders who seek to “be well” and “do good.” Wouldn’t that be refreshing? It is interesting to note that this is in complete accord with the teachings of Nichiren which emphasize the need to practice every day for the happiness of oneself and others.

In the July 2, 2013 Psychology Today, well-being researchers Robert Biswas-Diener and Todd Kashdan stated, “While we don’t deny the importance of happiness — we’ve also concluded that a well-lived life is more than just one in which you feel “up.” The good life is best construed as a matrix that includes happiness, occasional sadness, a sense of purpose, playfulness, and psychological flexibility, as well autonomy, mastery, and belonging.”

Personally, I believe true happiness is something close to the joy or sense of fulfillment and confidence that arises from our sense of mission to make the world a better place and from the ability to enjoy our life. Being happy is a sense of connectedness with everything around us. And, as Daisaku Ikeda has said, “Happiness is not found in a tranquil life free of storms and tempests. Real happiness is found in the struggles we undergo to realize our goals, in our efforts to move forward.”

Now I realize we don’t really believe that if people chant or meditate or pray they will always be smiling and cheerful. Lasting happiness comes from within and is a condition even or because we’re facing difficulties.

To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”

Even amidst the most trying times, happiness is not out of reach. By accepting small risks, we can move in the direction of our dreams and face our problems wisely and courageously. We can come to savor the greatest of all joys: the ability to live life with a deeper and stronger sense of confidence, appreciation and hope. We have the power to take charge of our own destiny and become a source of positive change in our family, local community and the entire world.

In today’s challenging times, it helps me to remember that hope, like happiness, is truly the state of my mind, not the state of the world. This truth gives me confidence that each of us can build a happy life and make a positive difference in the world.

I write, coach, play music & practice SGI Buddhism to give hope to myself and others. http://www.romancingthebuddha.com/michael-books