May 31, 2011
“Beyond Happiness” by Ezra Bayda
Ezra Bayda is a Zen teacher and former student of Charlotte Joko Beck. He has written four other books, including At Home in the Muddy Water: a Guide to Finding Peace within Everyday Chaos. With his wife, Elizabeth Hamilton, he runs the San Diego Zen Centre, which, as their web-site says, is not affiliated with any particular religious denomination. This is a book that doesn’t talk much about Buddhism and has only a handful of references to the Buddha and his teachings. So is it “secular Buddhism,” with a watered down yet more widely palatable message promising that happiness is easily within our grasp, or something more?
In the very first sentence Bayda tells us there is no quick fix to unhappiness, and his title, “beyond happiness,” suggests that his interest is not in soothing our neurosis and giving easy answers. In some ways his message — which I found deeply inspiring — goes strongly against the current of our “instant rewards” culture.
The book is divided into three main sections: “What blocks happiness?,” “The Roots of Happiness,” and finally “Cultivating Happiness.” In the introductory chapter, he makes a distinction between “personal happiness” — based on our individual disposition or “set point” for happiness and the pleasure we gain from externals, success, praise and things generally going well for us — and what he calls “genuine happiness.” Genuine happiness is not dependent on positive conditions such as good health, promotions at work or being in love but on “being fundamentally OK with life as it is,” however that is.
One of the few Buddhist teachings he refers to is an early sutta called The Sutta of Two Arrows. This teaching spells out our deeply ingrained tendency to demand that life give us what we want and that it never deal up what we don’t want. Both these tendencies cause us suffering (the first arrow). Our habit of complaint and protest about this first arrow causes the second arrow to strike — the pain of our refusal to accept things as they are.
Baydas’ first section details the ways in which we cause ourselves pain — through our sense of entitlement (that things should go the way we want them to) and how we get stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving. Our expectations, negative emotions, and judgements all prevent us from deeper happiness. Before we can be happy he says we have to see how we cause our own unhappiness. Not only that but we tend to have a distorted view of ourselves so we have to learn to see ourselves more clearly. The view in the mirror is not flattering but our work is to learn to look with kindly awareness.
The “Roots of Happiness” section encourages us to be curious and open to who it is we are. The quality of present moment awareness is the first chapter but its flavour permeates the whole book and gives a real beauty to the following chapters — which focus on generosity, loving-kindness and gratitude — helping create an attitude of freshness and tenderness towards experience, whatever it is. He gives us several tools, in the form of questions, meditations, reflections and stories from his own life and teaching career, to aid awareness and help cultivate genuine happiness. I particularly liked the suggestion to reflect every evening on what has happened during the day (increasing awareness) and noticing what we can feel appreciative of (increasing gratitude).
The section on meditation gives instruction in formless practice and developing loving-kindness, compassion and forgiveness. The loving-kindness practice may seem a little limited or lacking in guidance compared to the traditional practice, which explicitly includes cultivating friendliness to those we have no interest in or actively dislike. He uses the breath throughout various practices as an aid to breathe different people or qualities into the heart.
Bayda makes it clear that the spiritual life is not easy or cosy, at one point, talking about ‘the blue collar work of practice’. I was reminded of vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein who talks about “work days” (of which there are many) and “fruits of practice days” (of which there are few!). The most prized quality according to Bayda is the un-showy perseverance that keeps us steady through the unrewarding but vital ‘work days’.
The final section and last five chapters focus on how our growing self knowledge and sense of aliveness is expressed in the world through our work, relationships and the many ways we can express a “generosity of the heart.” Giving, or dana, he writes, confronts us with our own fears. This confrontation is necessary to for the heart to learn how to be free. Altruism is obviously strong in Bayda. Practice is not about increasing self-interest. Happiness, he says, ultimately comes from lessening our own grip on what we desire and doing whatever we can to benefit others.
This is a book about serious practice written in an accessible and engaging way. It would be easy to underestimate the value of it, due to the style and focusing as it does on the currently fashionable topic of happiness. To really put into practice what Bayda says, however, requires commitment, patience, faith and, yes, as he says, perseverance.