Opening Up to Happiness (Psychology Today Magazine)

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Mark Epstein, Psychology Today: Why happiness is unattainable for some people and why it’s a mistake to wipe out sources of displeasure.

“I’m sick of this,” a patient of mine remarked the other morning. “I can’t stand myself anymore. When am I going to be happy?” It’s not an uncommon question in therapy, yet aspirations for happiness can sound naive or even trivial. “How could she be asking for happiness?” I thought to myself. “Didn’t Freud say that the best that one could expect of therapy was a return to ‘common unhappiness?'” Yet, my patient’s yearning was heartfelt. How could I possibly address it without being misleading?

I approached her dilemma not just as a psychotherapist, but as a longtime Buddhist. Buddhism holds the promise of more than just common unhappiness in life; it sees the pursuit of happiness as our life goal and teaches techniques of mental development to achieve it. To the Dalai Lama, “the purpose of life is to be happy.” He wrote those very words in the foreword to my new book, Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy From a Buddhist Perspective (Basic Books, 1995).

“On its own,” he goes on to say, “no amount of technological development can lead to lasting happiness. What is almost always missing is a corresponding inner development.” By inner development, the Dalai Lama means something other than mastering the latest version of Microsoft Word. He is talking about cleaning up our mental environment so that real happiness can be both uncovered and sustained…

Americans have a peculiar relationship to happiness. On the one hand, we consider happiness a right, and we are eager for it—as the advertising world knows. We do everything in our power to try to possess it, most particularly in materialistic form.

On the other hand, we tend to denigrate the pursuit of happiness as something shallow or superficial, akin to taking up woodcarving or scuba diving. But, as the Dalai Lama always emphasizes, happiness is not a hobby, nor is it a trivial pursuit. It is a fundamental drive as basic as those of sex or aggression, but not often as legitimized in our cynical, postmodern culture. In fact, Americans are waking up to the Dalai Lama’s point: Materialistic comforts by themselves have not led to lasting happiness. Having reached that conclusion, however, we do not often see another way, and retreat into our comforts—barricading ourselves from what appears to be a hostile and threatening world. Acquiring and protecting, we continue to crave a happiness that seems both deserved and out of reach.

My experience as a psychiatrist trained in Western medicine and in the philosophy and practice of Buddhism has given me a unique perspective. I have come to see that our problem is that we don’t know what happiness is. We confuse it with a life uncluttered by feelings of anxiety, rage, doubt, and sadness. But happiness is something entirely different. It’s the ability to receive the pleasant without grasping and the unpleasant without condemning.

All the Wrong Places

Buddhism and psychoanalysis teach us that the very ways we seek happiness actually block us from finding it. Our first mistake is in trying to wipe out all sources of displeasure and search for a perennial state of well-being that, for most of us in our deepest fantasies, resembles nothing so much as a prolonged erotic reverie. One of my patients said it best with his adolescent fantasies of romantic love. He described his perfect woman as someone who would faithfully leave him with an erection every time she exited the house.

This approach to happiness is instinctual, deriving from our earliest experiences, when intense emotional states of pleasure and gratification inevitably are interrupted by absence and frustration, evoking equally intense states of rage or anxiety. Anyone’s first response would be to try to preserve the pleasurable states and eliminate the unpleasurable ones. Even as adults we rarely come to terms with the fact that good and bad are two sides of the same coin, that those who make pleasures possible are also the source of our misery. In Western society, with its extended family structure and rabid pursuit of individualism, people often find themselves with nowhere to turn for support in dealing with these feelings. In more traditional Eastern societies, there is a much greater social and familial support system that helps people contain their anguish.

However much we as adults think we have come to terms with the fact that no one can be all good or all bad, we are still intolerant of frustrations to our own pleasure. We continue to grasp at the very objects that have previously disappointed us. A wealthy patient of mine exemplifies this predicament. After a gourmet meal, he craves a cognac. After the cognac, a cigarette; after the cigarette he will want to make love; after making love, another cigarette. Soon, he begins to crave sleep, preferably without any disturbing dreams. His search for happiness through pleasures of the senses seemed to never have an end, and he was not happy. We think only of manipulating the external world; we never stop to examine ourselves.

Our search for perpetual gratification often plays out in intimate relationships. Take my friend who was very much in love with his new wife, but plagued by rage and bitterness over her sexual unavailability when she became pregnant. He could not help taking it personally. His happiness in her pregnancy was overwhelmed by his inability to tolerate his own sexual frustration, and he could not get past the feeling that if she really loved him she would be as interested in sex with him as he was with her. He was restricted by his tunnel vision; his own pleasure or displeasure was his only reference point.

We identify with the feelings of violation, rejection, or injury and we long for a happiness in which no such feelings could arise. Yet as Freud pointed out, even intense erotic pleasures are tinged with unhappiness since they all must come to an end, in the form of a relaxation of tension. Post-orgasmic depression is a well-known phenomenon. We long for this not to be so, but it is physiologically impossible.
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The Buddha’s point about happiness is very similar. As long as we continue trying to eliminate all displeasure and preserve only pleasure for a prolonged sense of well-being, no lasting happiness is possible. Rage, envy, and the desire for revenge will always interfere. Real life and its complications inevitably trickle in. There is a well-known story in the Buddhist tradition, that of Kisagotami, that illustrates how important it is to give up that approach to happiness.

Kisagotami was a young woman whose first child died suddenly somewhere around his first birthday. Desperate in her love for the child, Kisagotami went from house to house in her village, clasping the dead child to her breast and asking for medicine to revive her son. Most of her neighbors shrank from the sight of her and called her mad, but one man, seeing her inability to accept the reality of her son’s death, directed her to the Buddha by promising her that only he had the medicine she sought. Kisagotami went to the Buddha and pleaded with him for medicine. “I know of some,” he promised. “But I will need a handful of mustard seed from a house where no child, husband, parent, or servant has died.”

Slowly, Kisagotami came to see that hers was not a unique predicament. She put the body of her child down in the forest and returned to the Buddha. “I have not brought the mustard seed,” she told him. “The people of the village told me, ‘The living are few, but the dead are many.”‘ The Buddha replied, “You thought that you alone had lost a son; the law of death is that among all living creatures there is no permanence.”

Kisagotami’s story resonates, not just because of our sympathy for the horror of losing a child or because of our fear of a world in which such tragedy is possible, but because we all, like her, feel that our situation is unique and that our emotional pain requires relief. In the privacy of our own minds, we are aggrieved and single-mindedly self-centered. We still seek absolute gratification that is intolerant of frustration.

But the most difficult part of Kisagotami’s story for me comes when she lays her child down in the forest. Even though he has been dead for a long time, I still feel slightly aghast at the idea of her leaving him there. Yet this is precisely what the Buddha is asking us to do. He did not teach a method of recovering primal emotions or embracing some sort of injured child that lies buried within. The Buddha helped Kisagotami find happiness not by bringing her dead child back to life, but by changing her view of herself. The inner development he alludes to is a development beyond the private childish perspective of “me first” that we all secretly harbor.
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Happiness a la Buddha

The root cause of our unhappiness is our inability to observe ourselves properly. We are caught in our own perspective, unable to appreciate the many perspectives of those around us. And we are unaware of how insistently this way of perceiving drives us. Only through the uprooting of our own self-centeredness can we find the key to happiness. Buddhist meditation practice is one way to catch hold of this “me-first” perspective and begin to examine it. But it can happen in incidental ways. A teacher of mine, for example, remembers standing in line for food at a silent meditation retreat when someone suddenly spilled the large serving bowl of soup. “It wasn’t me,” he remembers himself thinking spontaneously. “It’s not my fault.”

Immersed in the quiet of the meditation retreat, he was all too aware that his reaction was patently absurd. Yet this is the kind of response we all have much of the time without being aware of it. Buddhist meditation is a way of coaxing the mind to deal with frustration in a new way, experiencing it as an interested observer instead of an aggrieved victim. Rather than responding to the inevitable frustrations of life with “Why me?,” the successful practitioner of meditation can begin to see how conditioned our everyday sense of self has been by the insulted response to disappointment.

Our True Nature

The first step to inner development is to find and hold the sense of a single, one-point perspective. This is the feeling that we all have that we are really the most important person in the room at any given moment, that no matter what happens the crucial thing is how it will impact me. You know the feeling; it’s the same one you have when you are cut off suddenly in traffic or are standing in line at the cash machine while the person in front of you makes one transaction after another. The visceral response is always, “Why are you doing that to me?” Similarly, when someone comes to therapy because they have been spurned by a would-be lover, there is always the feeling of “what is wrong with me?” In Buddhist meditation we seek out that feeling; we bring it into self-awareness rather than let it run our lives. When a person is able to do that successfully, there is often a sense of freedom.

A patient of mine, for example, recounted to me how he picked his girlfriend up at the airport recently and reached out to carry her bag for her after retrieving it from the baggage claim. She took the bag from him and carried it herself. Rather than take her action as a sign of self-sufficiency, he felt immediately rejected, as if she were not glad to see him. Once he learned to make that knee-jerk reaction of his the object of his meditative self-observation, he was freed from his obsessive scrutiny of his girlfriend’s mood. He then became more self-reliant, she felt more supported, and both were happier with each other.
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As the tendency to view the world self-referentially loses its hold, we begin to appreciate the Einsteinian world in which all realities are relative and all points of view subjective. Then, a happiness that has more to do with acceptance than gratification becomes available to us.

One particular meditation technique prepares the mind for a new, broadened perspective, that of naked–or bare–attention. The technique requires you to attend only to the bare facts, an exact registering, allowing things to speak for themselves as if seen for the very first time and distinguishing emotional reactions from the core event. So instead of experiencing a spouse’s suggestion as criticism or their withdrawal as abandonment, as so often happens within couples, one would be able to simply bear the experience in and of itself, recognizing any concomitant feelings of rejection as separate and of one’s own making.

As bare attention is practiced, many of the self concepts or feelings of self we harbor are revealed to be reactions that, on closer inspection, lose their solidity. My patient who overreacted at the airport was astonished at what he discovered upon closely examining his core sense of self. “This is it?” he asked. “This little feeling is determining so many of my actions? Am I really so narcissistic as that?” The answer, for most of us, is a resounding yes. Our sense of self, we soon find, is a house of cards.

A common misbelief people hold about meditation is that, in attacking reactive emotional tendencies, it encourages a stoic acceptance of unhappiness. Yet stoicism is not the goal. The point is not to become impervious but open, able to savor the good with the bad.

We cannot have pleasure without displeasure, and trying to split them off from each other only mires us more deeply in our own dissatisfaction. A recent incident involving an old friend of mine may illustrate the point. After breaking up his 10-year marriage, he sought psychotherapy at a local mental health clinic. His only wish, he told his new therapist in their first meeting, was to feel good again. He implored her to rid him of his unwanted emotions.

His therapist, however, had just left a three-year stint in a Zen community. When my friend approached her with his pain, she urged him to stay with his feelings, no matter how unpleasant. When he complained of anxiety or loneliness she encouraged him only to feel them more intensely. While my friend didn’t feel any better, he was intrigued and began to practice meditation.

He describes one pivotal moment. Terribly uncomfortable with the burnings, pressures, and pains of meditation, he remembers watching an itch develop, crest, and disappear without scratching it. In so doing, he says, he realized what his therapist had meant when she counseled him to stay with his emotional state, and from that moment on his depression began to lift.

His feelings began to change only when he dropped the desire to change them. This is a major revelation that is often brought on through the physical pain of meditation, which requires stillness within a demanding posture. My friend’s discovery is similar to the sensation cancer patients feel after taking morphine for chronic pain. They say the pain is still there, but it no longer hurts. So the sensation remains, but without the oppressive quality. Likewise, my friend learned to recognize his emotional pain, but was not oppressed by it.


Like many others, my friend was looking for that pervasive feeling of well-being and hoped that meditation (or love, money, success, alcohol, or therapy) would provide it. But well-being, which is not sustainable, is not the same as happiness. Happiness is the ability to take all of the insults of life as a vehicle for awakening—to enter into what the pioneer of stress-reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has called the “full catastrophe” of our lives with an open mind and heart.

In pursuing a study of Buddhism and psychotherapy, I am convinced that a method of mental development exists that enables a person to hold feelings of injury without reacting destructively. Rather than immediately responding with rage or anxiety, a person can use feelings of injury to focus on the core sense of self that will prove illusive, nonexistent. If there is no self to protect, there is no need to react in rage or angst. Pleasure and displeasure can then be appreciated for the ways in which they are inextricably linked. Well-being becomes understood as an inseparable part of a larger whole that also encompasses catastrophe.

Happiness, then, is the confidence that pain and disappointment can be tolerated, that love will prove stronger than aggression. It is release from the attachment to pleasant feelings, and faith in the capacity of awareness to guide us through the inevitable insults to our own narcissism. It is the realization that we do not have to be so self-obsessed, that within our own minds lies the capacity for a kind of acceptance we had only dreamed of. This happiness rarely comes without effort to train mind.

To accomplish this we must first discover just how narrow our vision usually is. This is the function of meditation. Go ahead, close your eyes for five minutes and observe how self-obsessed your thoughts are. “When can I stop doing this?” you may think. None of us is very far from the eight-year-old child who can think only about who got the biggest piece of cake.

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