The Search for Happiness

This post is a piece I wrote in my journal several months ago, and I thought it would be useful for reflection here.

Here’s an excerpt of an email from my brother. With his permission I post it here, because I’m thinking along the same lines.

Me: I swear, I get so exasperated with my own dissatisfaction.

Bro: I know what you mean. We are all very used to defining ourselves in terms of what we want or think we want (and often characterize as “need”). Then we get attached to those wants as who we are. Our fundamental mode of operation seems to be in terms of “I am X” — which in the process of distinguishing creates separation, distance — instead of simply “I am” or “It is.” Separation then creates desire, craving, anxiety.

More and more, I think “I” is pretty much a fiction, a story we tell ourselves and others. Given that our whole system of society and law is grounded in individual rights and values, I’m not sure what the consequences are.

Seems like half of psychotherapy is directed towards getting people in touch with what they truly want/feel, and the other half is directed towards recognizing the illusion of the constructed/conditioned self (including the part that wants/feels).

(I’ve been reading Krishnamurti lately…)

Note to self: Pull the copy of Krishnamurti’s On Freedom off the shelf and start reading.

What my brother is alluding to in the last paragraph reminds me of an interview of Thomas Keating I just read, in which he talks about centering prayer as therapy. He has said that this type of prayer (contemplative) brings one face-to-face with the “false self,” and he defines that as “an image developed to cope iwth the emotional traumas of early childhood which seeks happiness in satisfying the instinctual needs of survival and security, affection and esteem, power and control.”

Keating holds forth that the human spiritual journey is to “evolve toward self-identity and full self-consciousness.” As this evolution occurs, if it is done without the “inner experience of a divine presence,” the false self develops, because one lacks the experience of true security, love, and freedom which the divine, or God, can provide. Keating goes on to talk about the word “repent,” which is about changing where one seeks happiness.

He has a definition of conversion that resonates with me, and it’s so good I’ll just re-print it here:

By the gift of grace we have the means to be converted, if you want to use that word. To be converted means to change from looking for happiness in symbols of our emotional programs in the culture — it can’t be found there and will lead to human misery — and to begin to look for happiness where it really is: in our relationship with God, in our service of others, in our respect for nature, and in our sense of belonging to the universe. In other words, the spiritual journey is the journey to the true self that never developed, because this false self came in as a necessary means of dealing with the immediate problems of life for a fragile little being who is just a bundle of emotional needs and who had no reasoning faculty available to moderate the desperate way it clung to those apparent possibilities for happiness.

The human being is geared for happiness. It’s not a choice. Even the worst things that we do have at their core a desire for happiness. If we are not in contact with God in some way and experiencing that presence, then we begin to produce substitutes for God. This is what the Old Testament means by idols. Someone who has wealth as his or her idea of happiness is worshiping a false God. Someone who has fame as the object is worshiping a false God. Someone who is looking for worldly symbols of security in our culture is not going to find it. Because that’s not where it’s at.

One of the great advantages of Centering Prayer is that it’s like taking a vacation from the false self for twenty minutes twice a day. As the prayer continues in which we let go of thoughts for twenty minutes, we begin to experience a deep rest on the spiritual level which even reaches down, when it gets habitual and profound, the body. The body then begins to feel free to evacuate the emotional junk of a lifetime that has been stored in the body.

The original interview was published in Trinity News: the Magazine of Trinity Church in the City of New York, 1995 Vol. 42, 4, p 8 – 11, and was re-printed at the Centering Prayer website.

I want to be happy. Is the wanting part of the problem? Why am I not simply happy? What is preventing me from being thus? (By happiness I mean more than an upbeat mood.)

This is at the crux of my difficulty with myself. It’s time to try what I’ve been avoiding, make a commitment to renewing relationship with God. That is such a basic, charged, meaning-laden word for the ineffable nature of divinity. But for the sake of convenience, it’s the word I choose. I haven’t been certain I believe in God, having been more curious about Buddhism of late. But you know what? I think that much of my neediness and insatiability arises from no longer acknowledging that Being with whom I once talked. It’s comforting to communicate with God; whether or not God exists, there is an aspect of self-soothing in doing this which must have beneficial effects, if only as a placebo. So where’s the downside of that?

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2 Comments on “The Search for Happiness”

  1. andy Says:

    If that was originally written several months ago Kathryn, where has the search led you since?

  2. Kathryn Says:

    An excellent question, Andy. I will write about that. 🙂