My happiness does not depend on this: old teaching, new words
“My happiness does not depend on this.” The thought crossed my mind as I sat one day in a traffic jam under a grey sky, on my way to bring a computer for repair. What I did not realise at the time was that my mind had taken the old Buddhist idea of non-attachment and non-clinging and presented it to me in language I understood.
I did realise, though, that this thought could be very rewarding indeed in my daily life. I had been worrying about the response I would get from the repair people when I brought my computer back because their previous repair had caused the new problem – but once I realised that whatever their response, my happiness level a week later would probably be the same as it was today, the tension evaporated. I brought the computer back anyway and they fixed it.
After that I began to play with the concept. Now I remind myself every day that at least 95% of the time “my happiness does not depend on this” whatever “this” might happen to be. A stolen iPhone, snow in April, a new tax, a series of challenges to be met over the next week (and, of course, the week after and the week and the week after) – all demand attention and effort; some will bring satisfaction and some frustration but whatever happens my happiness does not depend on the outcome. Knowing this seems to free me up to get on with doing what needs to be done, accepting that it won’t be the end of the world if I don’t get precisely what I want.
I have tended to live my life making the assumption that each thing I do is essential to my happiness and that it will be very bad indeed if I don’t succeed in doing it. I don’t know where this assumption came from and most of the time it has operated outside my conscious awareness. But bringing it into awareness has helped me to realise, in practice, the sheer silliness of this way of looking at things.
It was only after using my “new” concept for a while that I came to realise that this phrase was my mind’s translation of so much I had read about non-clinging, non-attachment, non-grasping and so on.
This has been of help not only to me but also to my mindfulness students to whom I like to emphasise that mindfulness is not simply a set of techniques but that the practice supports a philosophy of living, an attitudinal approach to the world and to ourselves in the world.
But surely my happiness depends on something? Of course. One important aspect of the attitude that “my happiness does not depend on this” is that it allows recognition of those things on which my happiness does, indeed, depend – usually close relationships. Would a hard-core Buddhist argue that my happiness should not depend even on close relationships? Perhaps, but then I am not a hard-core Buddhist – I’m a person who finds Buddhist philosophy valuable in helping me to approach my life in the world: so I am quite willing to have those relatively few things on which my happiness does depend getting their full place at centre stage while life’s smaller desires and inconveniences are sent to the wings.
When I wrote in my Irish Times column about the idea that “my happiness does not depend on this” I got one of the best responses ever to a column in many years. Readers all the way from full-time mums to company directors emailed to say what a difference this idea had made to them.
What fascinates me about this is that these readers were encountering an old Buddhist idea and found it immediately valuable. They took to it, as we say in Ireland, “like ducks to water.” And I am tickled by the fact that a 2,600 year old or so precept can come like a revelation in an era when we have had decades of being bombarded with advice on psychology and on how to live our lives.