Robert Wright, a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author, most recently, of The Evolution of God, writes from time to time about his meditation practice, especially when he’s going on retreat, for example here and (most recently) here.
Wright has found, as many people have, that meditation improves his life. He talks of the “sharp, even cold, clarity” he gains from sitting, as well as the “warm and fuzzy” feelings that arise from that clarity.
Surprisingly, to my mind, Wright finds himself in the position of having to “defend” finding that meditation makes him happier. One commenter said, for example:
Well, if you’re talking about Buddhist meditation, I’m sorry to say that you’re missing the whole point. Whether you feel “good” or “bad” or “bored” or “fuzzy” or “ecstatic” or anything else in particular has nothing to do with the whole point of the thing.
“Well, I wouldn’t say that how you feel has nothing to do with “the whole point of the thing.” According to the Buddha himself, the whole point of the thing is to find the causes of human suffering and eliminate them–and, though I have no first-hand experience with the complete elimination of suffering, I’m guessing it would feel pretty good.”
He’s absolutely right that the Buddha taught meditation as a way of eliminating suffering from our lives. If we meditate, then we will suffer less and experience more happiness. The goal of Buddhist practice, however, isn’t really happiness — it’s something more like peace. We naturally think of happiness as being the opposite of suffering, but that’s not really the case. Happiness is made more likely by meditation practice, but happiness will inevitably tend to come and go. The state of enlightenment would seem to be a kind of equanimity that allows this coming and going without getting worked up about happiness’s arrival or departure. I suspect that’s what Wright’s commenter had in mind.
And yet it has to be said that meditation will, on the whole, make you happier.
Furthermore, happiness is a goal in meditation, or at least part of the goal. The traditional description of Buddhist meditation states includes a series of experiences of pleasure and joy that can be rather intense. Again, ultimately, we pass through these pleasurable and joyful states and emerge into a state of cool equanimity that’s much more satisfying on a deep level than any experience of pleasure or happiness we can have. And yet, pleasure and happiness are part of the meditative path.
So meditation ought, in our lives and during our meditation practice itself, to make us happier. This of course isn’t linear or mechanical. Our lives are complex and there are many factors affecting our sense of well-being. So there will be ups and downs. But if your meditation practice is not, on the whole, helping you to be happier, then there’s something wrong.
My personal measure of happiness has always been the degree of contentment (or peace) in my life. This has led to some frustrating experiences because some people measure happiness by how much a person smiles. According to some people’s standards, I do not smile enough. This causes me to believe that the measure of happiness is greatly affected by individual, social, and cultural perspectives or “world views.”
The predominantly commercial environment of the U.S. enables media advertising to set “expectations” (the bar) quite high. Unfortunately, the higher our expectations, the less likely we are to be content with what we have. No matter what we acquire or achieve, there is always the “next level” to attain to. In other words, “expectation” obscures “gratitude.”
I am not a Buddhist, and I have only touched the surface of Buddhist teachings. I try to practice mindfulness for what seems to be obvious advantages, but I am a poor student by any measure. Nevertheless, it seems obvious to me that eliminating suffering should produce happiness to some degree, and the measure of that degree will be subject to our expectations. I also suspect that the correlation between “happiness” and “expectation” is inversely proportional: the greater our expectation, the less our happiness.
If my superficial understanding of Buddhism is correct, “expectation” must be a source of suffering because we never seem satisfied with what we have. I find myself now confronting what seems like the seed of avarice, a.k.a. greed. It appears to be a consuming fire that can only be quenched by… gratitude? Is it an aberration of my mind that makes “gratitude” appear to be the obvious antithesis to “greed?”
While my understanding of the Buddha’s teachings may lack the depth of your understanding, the concept of happiness being derived from the elimination of suffering seems elementary. I too am surprised that Robert Wright had to defend this position. However, when I consider the harassment of people who have judged me “unhappy” because I did not smile or talk enough, I suppose it really isn’t all that unusual. I now find myself quite happy to ignore them.