“Tell me, what is happiness?”, asked my friend, breaking the long silence which had crept in while we walked on our way back to the hostel. The tone of the question was grave and suggested that he was suffering from an inner conflict. This was surprising for me as this was supposed to be one of the happier times for him. We had gone out to celebrate his selection to one of the leading universities in America. He had been working hard for almost a year on his applications, statements of purpose (SOPs), and other requirements. And now when everything was set: he was going to one of the finest universities in the world and that too with full scholarship; I had expected him to be happy.
“Anything wrong?”, I asked him. He told me that he felt nostalgic thinking of the fact that he would have to leave his friends and family to go to an unknown country. “But is it not what you had always wanted, to go abroad and study sustainable energy sources?”, I replied reminding him of the hard work he had put in to go there. He agreed that he desired to do his masters in the USA but now that he is actually going there, he was not very happy about it. And what was adding to his sadness was that he was not ready to accept that would have to be away for two years. I tried to make him feel better by calling it a nostalgia of leaving an old place.
This conversation forced me to think about happiness. What is it which makes us happy, or what makes us sad? Do we feel joyous when we get what we desire? If the answer is yes, then why was my friend sad? One may argue that in order to achieve one goal, he had to get away from his near and dear ones and this loss made him unhappy. But did not he know this throughout the application process that he would have to go away?
Human nature is such that it does not get satisfied after getting what it wants. It is said that “the more you get, the more you desire”. The desire to get more and more keeps coming in the mind as we keep on getting what we desire. Once we get something we want, we try to achieve something else which we think lacks in our lives. Thus, we go on acquiring one thing after another but happiness keeps eluding us. This probably is the reason for people being unhappy even though they have a lot to cheer about.
We cannot control certain things or events in our lives. And the list of such things which are beyond our control is endless. At times, not topping an exam might make one sad, at others, not getting through another can evoke a similar reaction. Sometimes, losing something precious leads to sadness and at others, watching our dear ones in misery is the cause of our melancholy. The reasons might vary for this particular feeling of despair but no matter how different the causes are, there is one thing common to all. All these situations cause sadness in us and we want to get away from the anguish created by them. And this where the problem arises.
We fail to understand that we cannot escape these situations. These are the challenges which life has thrown and we have to live with them. We need to accept these with open arms instead of thinking about getting rid of them. And suddenly, life will be all beautiful, full of brightness and optimism. We waste a lot of time thinking about the future and put our present at stake to build a better future. What we fail to do and what is required to be done is accepting the circumstances, living with them and embracing them as integral part of our lives.
I had seen a painting in an art gallery sometime back. The painting depicted a lady flying in the air. Her right half was reddish-green while her left half was purple-blue. The same color scheme extended to her hair and her clothes. The area around her lips was dark as if it had suffered some serious burns. It looked like one of those mythical creatures who was suffering a spell for doing something bad. But one thing which baffled me was the smile of the lady, how could someone, who looked like an evil supernatural creature, be happy? I was left wondering for sometime about the intentions of the painter who demonstrated a lady with ugly looks and dark colors with a kind and gentle smile. And then I realized that it was probably the fact that she had accepted her predicament and this is what gave her inner peace.
At times, we start giving too much importance to our emotions. In the process of being driven by emotions and feelings, we forget these arise because we get too attached to something which we possessed or wish to possess. And in this process, we arrive at situations which further deepen our misery in present and cause unhappiness. Too much value to emotions and feelings does not allow us to look at the bigger picture of life. It makes us forget that with calmness and composure, we can sail through the largest problems of life.
It is difficult to detach oneself from many events of life. But once one starts looking at those events as mere happenings without interpreting them as good or bad, everything starts looking beautiful. Probably this is why the old man from the famous Buddhist tale ‘The Fortunes and Misfortunes of a Villager’ remains calm and composed after getting the news of his son falling of the horse and getting crippled. When villagers came to him with sad faces and conveyed their sympathies, he asked them not to jump to conclusions. He suggested them to “Just wait and see what happens. Say only that my son has broken his legs. That’s all.”
Anything which looks like a loss might turn into a reward while something which seems to be a jackpot might become a prick in the throat. So, the best way to keep away from these temporary feelings of joy and sorrow, which arise out of day-to-day events, is to accept them without trying to make a meaning out of them.
I have the habit of talking to auto-rickshaw drivers whenever I am riding an auto. Once I got a chance to talk to an old and feeble looking driver. In the course of conversation, I asked him why he was still working despite being so old. He replied that he had a son who died of some unknown disease and hence, there was no option left for him other than to earn for himself and his old wife. When I tried to sympathize with him, in a very calm and composed voice he said, “This is destiny. There is no point in thinking about it. Talking and thinking about it will just add to sorrow. And why should I say what happened was bad? There might be something good hidden in it. There might not be. But who am I to judge that?” The life would indeed seem to be full of beauty and devoid of worries for such a person.
At times what we think as a curse might turn out to be a blessing and what is assumed to be a blessing might turn otherwise. In the mythological story ‘Vishwamitra’ written by R K Narayan, Vishwamitra, who is mighty king, gets jealous of the divine cow possessed by sage Vasishta. He tries his best to persuade the saint to give him the cow. But when the sage refuses, he gets into a battle which he loses badly. Now, if one looks at the course of events only till this point of time, one might think of this event as unfortunate for the king. But this lost battle inspires Vishwamitra to go for long meditation. Finally, he acquires knowledge and is known to be one of the greatest saints of all times. Something which looked like a curse turned out to be a blessing for him. Similarly, something which looks like a blessing might turn out to be a curse for someone.
The Buddhist meditation practice of Vipassana suggest that one can attain nirvana (ultimate goal of existence) by becoming a true follower of the meditation practice. And the whole practice of vipassana is concentrated about living in the present moment and not giving any importance to any feeling of pain or happiness which the body or mind felt in the past. Like the Buddhist tale about the old man, it teaches us to become silent observers of what happens with us. It tells us not to feel overwhelmed or sad with the events which occur in daily life. Rather, one should maintain equanimity in all the situations. I do not know whether one can reach the ultimate goal through this or not but one thing is sure, living in the present frees the mind from a lot of worries. The mind is, otherwise, cluttered with a lot of information which not only cause worries and sufferings for us but take our concentration away from the work we are doing.
The difficulty, however, lies in practicing this detachment from people, events or things which make our life. It is not easy to maintain one’s composure remaining a silent observer when we fail to achieve something or when we lose someone important. But one can always try to look at the facts of life as they are without trying to find any meaning out of them.
Though it is too late to say this to my friend, but I think I will call him and tell him not to attach himself too much with his folks out here and accept life as it comes.
PS: I had written this piece in August 2012 but for some reason never posted it.