Sunday, January 12, 2020

What is Happiness?

Trick question: it is nothing, because it can't be an IS. I used to think otherwise, back in both my atheist and Vedanta days.

Let's start with atheism. Since the atheist denies transcendence, what is simply is, and there's not a thing we can do about it. Or, we can either accept what is, or pretend there is some escape. Therefore, happiness, such as it is, would come down to a stoic acceptance of -- or resignation to -- what is.

There's some truth in that, but it depends on what is is. For is there a difference between animal and human happiness? Can we even call an animal "happy," or is happiness a specifically human reality? I think the latter, or happiness would simply come down to being warm and well-fed. The temporary cessation of wants and needs can't be all there is to it.

However, we can't say that want and need have nothing to do with happiness. I suppose it comes down to what we "really" need and want.

We'll return to atheist man, but Vedanta man is in much the same boat, albeit in first class instead of in steerage with the other third class thinkers. Here's one straight from the Ganges' mouth, Patanjali. In his commentary, Swami Prabhavananda explains that the times we've been happy occurred when

we had temporarily ceased to feel anxious; when we lived -- as we so seldom do -- in the depths of the present moment, without regretting the past or worrying about the future.

Swami P distinguishes this state from the mere satisfaction of a desire, which not only lasts for short time, but inevitably "gives rise to another, and so the moment of happiness ends in further anxiety." True, of course, but is there something more to happiness than this entirely negative definition? In other words, is it only the absence of anxiety, or a positive presence?

The Swami points to the latter: one might suppose that "an absence of desire would merely produce a dull, neutral mood, equally joyless and sorrowless." But this isn't the case, at least for the sort of happiness he is describing, which comes down to the joy of the Atman which "is always within us." This prior condition

can be released at any time by breaking down the barriers of desire and fear which we have built around it. How otherwise could we be so happy without any apparent reason?

Here we're getting warmer, but with insufficient light. The light creates the warmth, not vice versa, and the Swami tosses out some shady concepts that will require some additional fleshing out. Literally, but we'll get to that later.

One of the central principles of Vedanta is that ultimate reality is bi-polar, so to speak, with a transcendent absolute (Brahman) at one end, and an immanent one (Atman) at the other. There is God-Beyond and God-Within, and these are ultimately not-two. They say Atman is Brahman, but this can be misconstrued.

It is analogous to what the early fathers mean when they say "God became man that man might become God." This doesn't imply that we become the creator of the universe, rather, that we share in his divine nature. We are "not-two." Only Jesus is literally one with the Creator, and our task is to get on board the ark of salvation and participate in his eternal and vertically circular trinitarian descent <---> ascent.

At the end of Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination there's a helpful Q & A with the master. To the question "What is happiness?," the one word answer is "detachment." From what? From the ego, or better, the ego-world complementarity (for the ego gives rise to a -- not THE -- world, or to a self-enclosed reality tunnel).

The ego has disappeared. I have realized my identity with Brahman and so all my desires have melted away. I have risen above my ignorance and my knowledge of this seeming universe. What is this joy I feel? Who shall measure it? I know nothing but joy, limitless, unbounded!

That sounds pretty, pretty, pretty good. Chalk one up for the East. But can we do better?

Wayback in my doctoral program I studied psychoanalysis. Long story short, while psychoanalysis started out with one school -- Freudian -- soon enough, like Protestantism, it ramified into dozens of competing versions with very different models of the psyche in both sickness and health. Therefore, you have to pick the "best" one. How do we do that? On what basis can we choose?

I can only speak for myself. I don't want to get sidetracked, but in retrospect, it seems to me that my mind -- or maybe my whole being -- called out for a model that was sufficient to contain its expanse: its height, width, and depth. Which means, for starters, that there is an interior reality and that the model is there to conform to this. All too often I saw the converse, that is, students and professors reducing the psyche to their model. Which means they were trying to squeeze the wider world of being into what could be seen via their model. This is to confuse one's reality tunnel for the reality, and charge people good money to live in your tunnel.

So, that's where O came from. O is the ultimate reality prior to our theorizing about it, and which no theory can contain.

Stop digressing. Back to the question: can we (in the Western Division) do better? I think so, because the principle of Incarnation includes a great deal that Samadhi (release from the ego and identification with Atman) excludes -- little things like the body, the universe, other people. Here's some more joy from the liberated fellow above:

Now, finally and clearly, I know that I am Atman, whose nature is eternal joy. I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing that is separate from me....

Nothing binds me to this world. I no longer identify myself with the physical body or the mind. I am one with the Atman, the undying. I am the Atman -- infinite, eternal, at peace forever.... My nature is pure consciousness.... I am the infinite Brahman, without a second. I am Reality, without beginning, without equal

Etc. Again, I don't knock it. But note what is left out: for example, no body, just pure consciousness. Let's say I have no prior religious commitment, but it's time to choose one. I'm going through the brochures. Here's Vedanta, which promises to liberate me from this slab of animal meat into pure consciousness-bliss. I like that. Don't recycle that one just yet.

Ooh. Check this one out -- it promises not escape from the world and body, but the divinization of them! And God does the hard part. We have only to participate in it. We don't have to lift ourselves by our own buddhastraps. Rather, there's this thing they call "grace" and a fellow they call the Holy Spirit that do the heavy lifting.

As usual, this whole post was provoked by a single sentence by Pieper. If you open your Piepers to page 116, in a chapter on the subject of happiness, he discusses the notion,

perhaps always present down through the ages, that happiness consists of existence itself. This is the hidden presupposition both for the utilitarian plans of totalitarianism and for the quasi-religious overvaluing of psychotherapy.

Yes. Both approaches work fine so long as man isn't for something -- something beyond man. Now, what is a man for? It seems to me that happiness must be bound up with this question. I'm reminded of a canine officer I recently evaluated. Somehow we got into the question of whether police dogs are happy in retirement, but he said they are miserable. Having a job to do gives them purpose, structure, stimulation. Remove these and they're a mess. He implied that putting them down is putting them out of their misery.

Hold that thought. Back to man:

First point: what do we really want? The very formulation of the question implies that there is something we only seem to want, or think we want, but don't really want (Pieper).

He brings in Socrates, who remarked that the tyrant may well be able to do whatever he pleases, but not necessarily what he wants. Socrates' partner in dialogue calls this claim absurd, insisting that happiness means doing as we please, and that's all there is to it. Nevertheless, Socrates digs in his sandals.

This post has gone on long enough. I have to accomplish some actual work. We'll get to our exciting conclusion on Tuesday.


julie said...

Here's Vedanta, which promises to liberate me from this slab of animal meat into pure consciousness-bliss. I like that. Don't recycle that one just yet.

On the one hand, it sounds very appealing; on the other, it also sounds like a death wish, which taken to its full conclusion results in something like the Japanese monks who try to mummify themselves alive.

julie said...

Now, what is a man for? It seems to me that happiness must be bound up with this question.

With this in mind, perhaps happiness then lies in knowing what we, personally, are for, and aligning ourselves with that. In such a state, we could be in the midst of great suffering and yet still be happy, if only in knowing that we are being what we are meant to be.

Anonymous said...

Hello All.

Great Post, well done.

Julie I would like to respond to your comments. Your concern about Vedanta leading to lack of involvement in life is a valid one. As Bob noted Vedanta has a lot going for it but there are a few weak spots therein. The spiritual seeker should not disengage from life unless directly instructed to do so by God in no uncertain terms. The propensity to withdraw is especially prominent in Eastern lines of thought, although in the West there was cloistering of monks and nuns which has a similar effect.

And your thoughts on knowing what you are living for I concur. I would add each person's mission is highly individualized; no one else can fulfill the mission entrusted to each of us. The mission also changes in real time and is somewhat fluid. Careful, careful focus, deliberation, and discernment have all to be used to proceed well.

Have a restful evening and exciting tommorow.

-Glistening Cheeks

Doug Saxum said...

"To the question "What is happiness?," the one word answer is "detachment." From what?"

For myself, all I can think of is loneliness.
I don't feel alone when I am.
It seems I can't get enough time alone to study and research.
And cross reference...

Anonymous said...

Hi Doug.

I second the motion on alone time being a good thing. However, you still can get too much of a good thing. A balance between alone time and social time is essential.

Loneliness causes significant pain. We've all had various sorts of pain. I will rate my protracted bout with loneliness on par with the heaviest of trials. It was bad. Luckily I've moved past it.

The pain of being overly busy is also significant. This is a current trial.

Happiness is not much of a goal. We are here to learn, experience, and share of ourselves. Our emotional tone will range all over the scale as we move over or around our obstacles. Happiness will come and go, and when it does make an appearance, that's nice. Move on. Happiness is not a significant player in this dust-up.

There's my two cents, and I'm very, very old. I have experience.

Gracias, Stephen Greybeard of the Institute.

ted said...

Happiness is a warm gun, but ever Mother Superior jumped the gun.

Doug Saxum said...

Ah yes, happiness is the journey not a destination.

Doug Saxum said...

Happiness can be found in the journey, and in the destination.

I'm going to be a Grandfather in the spring.
That makes me happy 😀

Byron Nightjoy said...

The body is the cause of much pain, misery and suffering. The very need to sustain it and keep it free from countless pressing needs has led to all manner of grief and moral turpitude. The universe too, with its endless calamities, diseases and natural disasters also contributes to our existential wretchedness. Surely any kind of spiritual aspiration must include the desire to (permanently) transcend old age, sickness and death. 'Divinizing' all this sounds well and good but it appears to make little difference to the terrible impact the corporeal world has on our bodies and minds. So let's not get too smug about the superiority of a Western view which, not only provides no teal relief from these afflictions, but fails to account for them in a way that is even remotely satisfactory. Partaking of the divine nature (theosis) in this life may be our only recourse in giving us the strength and wisdom to deal with this vale of tears but let's not kid ourselves that it addresses the problem at its root. The Incarnation, extraordinary as it was, does not render, for example, the slowly and painful death of a child from cancer any less of an outrage.

R. J. Neuhaus said...

"Atonement." It is a fine, solid, twelfth-century Middle English word, the kind of word one is inclined to trust. Think of at-one-ment. What was separated is now at one. But after such a separation there can be no easy reunion. Reconciliation must do justice to what went wrong. We could not bear to live in a world where wrong is taken lightly, where right and wrong finally make no difference. In such a world, we--what we do and what we are--would make no difference. Spare me a gospel of easy love that makes of my life a thing without consequence.

R. J. Neuhaus said...

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor and martyr under the tyranny of the Third reich, wrote against and lived against the "cheap grace" that devalues sin and forgiveness alike. Cheap grace is easy grace. Cheap grace does not reckon what went wrong; it requires no costly love.

We confess to hurting someone we love and she say, "Forget it. It's nothing. It doesn't matter." but she knows and we know that it is not nothing, it does matter and we will not forget it. Forgive and forget, they say, but that is surely wrong. What is forgotten need not, indeed cannot, be forgiven. Love does not say to the beloved that it does not matter, for the beloved matters. Spare me the sentimental love that tells me what I do and what I am does not matter.

Forgiveness costs. Forgiveness costs dearly.

R. J. Neuhaus said...

Forgiveness is not forgetfulness, not counting their trespasses is not a kindly accountant winking at what is wrong; it is not a benign cooking of the books. In the world, in our own lives, something has gone dreadfully wrong, and it must be set right. Recall when you were a little child and somebody--maybe you--did something very bad. Maybe a lie was told, some money was stolen or the cookie jar lay shattered on the kitchen floor. The bad thing has been found out, and now something must happen, something must be done about it. The fear of punishment is terrible, but not as terrible as the thought that nothing will happen, that bad things don't matter. If bad things don't matter, then good things don't matter, and then nothing matters and the meaning of everything lies shattered like the cookie jar on the kitchen floor.

Trust that child's intuition.


This, then, is our circumstance. Something has gone dreadfully wrong with the world, and with us in the world. Things are out of whack, It is not all our fault, but it is our fault, too.

R. J. Neuhaus said...

If God is good and God is almighty, how did evil come about? If there is evil, how can an almighty God be good or a good God be almighty? In order to adjudicate these questions, we constituted ourselves the jury and the judge, and we put God in the dock. And soon enough we would constitute ourselves the executioner as well.

From every corner of the earth, from every scene of every crime, from north and south, from east and west, from the rich and from the poor, every mother's son and every father's daughter gathered. The jury deliberated and reached its verdict. The decision was unanimous. With one voice, poor deluded humanity pointed to the prisoner in the dock and declared, "God is guilty!"

R. J. Neuhaus said...

God must die. It is a lie so monstrous that to suggest it invites instant annihilation--except that God accepts the verdict. Those who konw the awful truth hear his voice. And Jesus said, "Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, for this purpose have I come to this hour. Father, glorify thy name."

But how, we must ask, is God glorified by the humiliation and death of God? This great reversal of everything we think we know is too much to bear. Dark is light and light is dark, right is wrong and wrong is right and a lie is recruited to the service of the truth. The order of things is shattered. Precisely so, our disorder is shattered so that things might be restored to order.

Doug Saxum said...

You might find this book interesting

I read it along time ago and it made me rethink what evil and good is.

julie said...

On the one hand, looks interesting, and probably contains a number of valuable insights. On the other, I have grave concerns about a book that claims to reduce evil to "A biological reality that may be terrifying but can be controlled."

Baked into the cake, certainly, but there is more to it than mere biology. Though it would certainly please Uncle Screwtape if most people believe that...

Anonymous said...

I would like to respond to Byron Nightjoy's comment.

First of all, thank you for your well-written and insightful comment. I agree the body is the locus for many of the anxieties and shocks delivered to each incarnated soul. The word "outrage" which you used is a very precise choice, and well selected.

It cannot be denied that God is responsible for all outrages. I say "responsible," not "guilty" of. We would like to think we are responsible, but that just isn't so. We were set up. You could hand a baby a straight razor and then blame the child for cutting herself....and that would be a good analogy.

But wait, all is not lost. Do we not have an eternal soul? Therefore Earthly life can be dreadful, but in the dreadfulness there is some transaction, some gain. Something is gained, something precious. Your experiences are the only thing you take with you when you die; not all are preserved but the essential essence of what we went through is eternal, and forever adds to the complexity, beauty, and luster of the soul as it moves through a chain of lives. This is vale of soul-making.

Life is a set-up designed to deliver unforgettable experiences, many of which are exceedingly painful, and this absolutely by design. One might even pray, "Lord, smite hard, strike." I feel a bit at risk for even writing that...but there is no taking it back, it was thought.

So I say unto all, be outraged. You have been selected to live. Happiness is doled out to make the journey bearable. And let's not forget the body and mind also deliver huge jolts of joyful delight and thrills. Our fellow pilgrims are a source of immense solace and comraderie. Things can be had on Earth which are unattainable in Heaven. Think about that.

-Dangerous Curves

Doug Saxum said...

Julie, it was an interesting read years ago, but now that I've grown older...I can't really remember it :•)

I thought the cover art was pretty cool though.

julie said...


Meant to say earlier, congratulations on the new grand baby!

Doug Saxum said...

Thank you Julie!
It's going to be my first.