Saturday, August 9, 2014

Finding Happiness

“How do I find happiness?” Because this question is of such interest, the philosophers have long sought to answer it. Many have recognized a connection between happiness (sometimes referred to as “eudaimonia”) and the virtuous life:

  • Plato argues that virtues are states of the soul, and that the just person is someone whose soul is ordered and harmonious, with all its parts functioning properly to the person’s benefit. In contrast, Plato argues that the unjust man’s soul, without the virtues, is chaotic and at war with itself, so that even if he were able to satisfy most of his desires, his lack of inner harmony and unity thwart any chance he has of achieving eudaimonia. Plato’s ethical theory is eudaimonistic because it maintains that eudaimonia depends on virtue. (Virtue is necessary for eudaimonia.) On Plato’s version of the relationship, virtue is depicted as the most crucial and the dominant constituent of eudaimonia. (Wikipedia)

Indeed, disharmony creates peace-depriving conflict. I think that this is one of the reasons that we obsess. Obsession is a healthy attempt to harmonize our thinking with the rest of our lives. When these are in disharmony, peace is replaced by an endless running of obsessive mental tapes, seeking a way out – a place of peace.

Gautama Buddha provided an eightfold strategy to avoid suffering and to restore peace known as the “middle way,” sandwiched between the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence:

  • "This is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is the Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration."

As with Plato, he recognized that peace – the avoidance of suffering – was a product of moral thinking and behaving. If we hurt another, feel guilty, and then try to rationalize away our behavior, we intensify the inner conflict. Our excuses are seldom sufficient to address what we know to be a wrong. Peace is then replaced by turbulence. What then is the right answer? Right thinking and living!

As the twelve-step programs teach, we have to stop excuse-making and take full responsibility for our wrongdoing, making restitution where we can, at least, apologizing for what we’ve done wrong.

This is right thinking and living! However, people from these programs have informed me that it’s not enough just to go through the motions. They really have to sincerely and thoughtfully embrace these principles.

To put it in Buddha’s language, right speech, action, and effort are not enough if not accompanied by right views, intentions, mindfulness, and concentration. The heart and mind have to support our efforts. Without this association, our actions are superficial and hypocritical. It’s like saying “I am sorry,” when you really aren’t sorry and are just performing an empty exercise.

Of course, we need to truly be sorry for our wrongs, but how can we truly be sorry if we don’t believe that we are truly responsible? What if instead we believe that we don’t have freewill or that we are merely the result of our genes and upbringing? Then, we will not regard ourselves as blameworthy.

Meanwhile, our feelings of guilt and shame tell us that we are blameworthy. Result – inner conflict! Instead, the ancient religions instruct us to go to the source of the problem – our own wrongdoing – and confess it.

However, this is very painful and sometimes even off of our radar, resulting from years of the suppression of our culpability. Consequently, our denial reassures us, “It’s the other person’s fault!” How then do we engage our culpability, which we have long ago repressed? How do we put the pieces of our lives in alignment to find peace? (I have now shifted the focus from happiness to peace. Happiness is far more elusive than peace – the absence of internal conflict.)

While the major religions and therapies might illuminate the problem, they offer little more than the assurances that “You have the answers within you.” However, after years of such assurances, we find that we don’t have the answers. Instead, we find that our failures continue to laugh in our face, that is, if we can even face our failures.

The Bible offers a radically different solution. It informs us that we cannot rise up to God through our efforts or moral rectitude. Instead, He must come down to us with assurances of His love and forgiveness. He informs us what we have always known, but hidden – that we are not okay, but instead guilty and worthy of condemnation. However, because of His great love, He has died for us, paying the price for our sins. And if we will simply embrace the gift that He wants to give us, we will have His life and forgiveness for all eternity.

For those of us who are skeptical:

  • Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me.  Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” (John 7:17)

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