Perfect happiness is the absence of striving for happiness. Chuang Tzu (370 BC)
“I painted my life from a palette of arrogance, anger, frustration and greed. When really, the colours I should have been using were loneliness, folly and need.”
My twenty two year old self wrote these words. I had just graduated and I had been accepted on a post-grad course at the new Oxford Institute of Legal Practice – set up and governed by the University of Oxford. If I passed this (and indeed I went on to do so) I would officially be a “post-graduate” as defined by the Examination Schools and Examination Board of that famous old institution. This would entitle me to such privileges as being able to apply to do a Masters at All Souls College, Oxford – a fiercely exclusive post-grad only college that lets Oxbridge alma maters adorn the lawns of its hallowed quad and no one else. Yet as you may have detected, this meant absolutely nothing to me. For I was not happy. Something didn’t add up.
Looking back, I can remember not having Zen with me. On some level, the idea of change or re-birth as an innate human quality always made sense. At least intellectually. Yet that didn’t help. It was never enough. I identified the seed. I didn’t nurture it. I suffered. Zen was just a cool concept or something for others. A hope devoid of personal meaning.
The idea that my core state – my happiness – was never in any way related to my circumstances – began to unfold as life became proof of that. Money didn’t give me real security. Nor academic success esteem. Worldly success didn’t electrify me with a positive charge, I noticed.
When relationships ended. When my career stalled. When I couldn’t get what I felt I needed, I hurt. I experienced deep sadness. When we cling on to things, we suffer. This was my life. I was trapped on a merry-go-round of desire and futile accumulation. Could I get off the ride and live better ?
Soon I had a high paying job that I enjoyed in central London with all the trappings. I bought a house in the suburbs. I rarely smiled with my eyes. Just the forced type of smile. You know, the one where you smile with your mouth.
I loved food yet I was overweight and lacked confidence for it. I drank alcohol to soothe the pain and it worked. Boy did it work! As close friends moved abroad and loved ones died, I lost my support network and I sulked. I was angry and lost. I resisted the very fact of these changes. I blamed my problems on the world. My resistance fed anger and frustration. That anger would blind me entirely. I would seethe in its bubble, wholly contained therein.
Zen unfolded, for me, insightfully. A new level of awakening. A letting go.
Who am I ? I am not my body. I am not my job or my possessions. I am not my mind. I am something constant, still – behind all of that. Detached from all of that.
How can I get to my haven ? Beyond all the noise and stresses of modern life, surely I am the stillness in the background – the intelligent energy over which all the idiocy passes – rather like the deeply seated polished rocks of the riverbed over which all the chaos and calamity of the waters flow.
I moved from London down onto the south coast where, from my open bay windows, I could hear the tide of the English Channel washing in and the liberating cry of the seagulls. I observed a whole new way of living. Happy, healthy people in a calmer environ. More in tune with nature and clean living. I understood this had to be my destination. My path was set. I had to somehow get from me to them. But how ?
Finally, two decades after leaving home, I moved back up north and found myself working as a consultant for a big company that, unusually, had built the principles of Zen Buddhism into its core. A place to work hard and give my best but with a lake to sit by, a quiet room in which to feel peace. Caring, gentle, thoughtful people. Good food. Some of it free. An act of kindness, that. A place to meditate should I choose to do so. Where high quality hard work could be joyful and fused with the good life, not counter to it. The opportunity to exercise autonomy, mastery and purpose. Sure, we had to turn a profit to survive but that needn’t conflict with the mission. Some of my colleagues didn’t attune to that. But it was here if I wanted it. Not pushed upon me. But for me, a sign, surely ?
Life is suffering. The source of suffering is attachment. Cessation of suffering is possible. The path to cessation is suffering. The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha.
Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving, said Einstein.
I sought counsel. Somehow I picked up the phone book and found a psycho-analyst. I figured I had the courage to be analysed if I had nothing else. One therapist also ran the leading Zen Buddhist centre here in Manchester. The word “Zen” jumping off the page at me. I called her. We met and soon after we began a weekly “fifty minute hour” for a six month period. Buddha and Einstein ringing in my ears. That course grew into a full year of weekly sessions with the loving support of my employer who intuited my journey and encouraged me to stick at it.
Like a school of fish in the harbour, a gaggle of geese down on the jetty or a pack of horses in its paddock, I effortlessly began to see us, the human race, as a natural collection of a species all trying to make sense of our situation on this one small, spinning planet. Legion yet lonely. Gifted yet lost. Scared and dangerous yet benevolent and graceful. Temporal. Equal. Unified both in our glorious situation and in our illusion of separation.
I wasn’t alone in my loneliness. I began to understand there is nothing to lose. And I let go.
I am the world that I create. My perception of life is life. All feelings are temporary and will die.
This is one moment. But know that another shall pierce you with a sudden, painful joy. T.S. Eliot. Murder in the Cathedral.
Nobody else ever made me angry. I did. Nobody else ever caused me stress. I did. OK, people may act in ways which present me with situations. Yet how I choose to interpret and experience these situations is my call. It is always my call.
By the same token, nobody else is making me happy. I am. My feelings of love are not originating from other people – even though that can be a nice story and a deeply romantic one. My love is coming from me. The glimmer in my lover’s eyes is my love, reflected. The earth’s blue skies are but the hope in my blue eyes with new meaning, for me, injected. All I can be, I realise now, is me.
This is the very essence of personal responsibility and the very start of the joy of life.
If I dedicate myself to the truth. If I delay gratification. If I accept responsibility. If I realise the nature of thought and detach myself from it, this is what is left.
The solving emptiness that lies just under all we do.* Vast in its potential and boundless in its opportunity. The glorious and affirming timeless infinity of un-produced space. The no-thing.
My natural history of happiness.
Thanks for reading.
We are one
- *This line – the solving emptiness – is taken from a beautiful poem called Ambulances by Philip Larkin
- The Four Noble Truths: The Way of Zen Buddhism