Most – perhaps all – of what we human beings do, say and think is associated with our attempt to escape from dissatisfaction or suffering, or, to put it the other way around, to find satisfaction and happiness.
I can actually remember when and where I had this insight myself. It was a real eye-opener for me to realize that everyone just wants to be happy, and that everything they do is an attempt to find happiness. Even the cruel and selfish things that people do (that we do) are attempts to deal with dissatisfaction and to find happiness.
So the problems we have are with the strategies we employ to find happiness. Below those strategies are needs and desires that are entirely good.
The reason that this insight so struck me was that it allowed me to find a way past people’s behavior, or rather past my judgements of their behavior, so that I could find some compassion for them. If people are just trying to find happiness, but in a confused way that doesn’t actually work and ends up causing further suffering for themselves and others, then I no longer had to see them as “bad.” The badness was a superficial layer of ineffective strategies (their behaviors) overlying a deep yearning for wholeness and freedom from pain.
The Buddha called this yearning “tanha,” which literally means “thirst.” I think it’s significant that he chose a word that refers to a simple biological need, rather than a more loaded term like “craving.” (Although he obviously used that word too, I think it refers to something a bit different from this primal need for wholeness and freedom from suffering.)
I can’t say that this insight changed my life overnight. It wasn’t magic, and didn’t erase my impatience, my tendency to judge, my habit of being critical. But it did open a crack through which the light of compassion could shine. And the crack’s been getting wider.
At the end of a period of Dharma study, I like to spend a little time thinking about what was most relevant to my life, and what, specifically, I will work on in the coming week. And I write it down, otherwise I’ll get caught up in daily activities and forget about it. So for me, this week, I’m going to be working on remembering that all the people I deal with are simply trying to be happy. They’re often just not very good at it (although some are very skilled!). And I’m going to apply this to myself as well. When I find myself doing something I don’t think is me at my best (getting impatient with my kids, resisting meditating, eating something unhealthy) I’m going to remind myself that this is just me seeking happiness through strategies that simply don’t work very well. Already I have a sense that this is liberating. It frees me from self-judgement and allows me to have more compassion for myself. And there’s an implicit reminder that there are other ways to act.